Is Teach For America A Program For The Poor Or For The Rich?

July 12, 2010, 1:24 pm

I’m going to start with full disclosure: I have never liked Teach for America. If that’s going to bug you, you might want to move on to the next blog.

Why do I dislike Teach For America? Because it has nothing to do with permanent investment in our schools, or thoughtful reform of education. Because it is one of many organizations that seem to exist more or less to give privileged young people the “life experience” that will qualify them to go on to their next advanced degree. Because it relies for its prestige on the idea that people who are middle or upper class naturally have something special and intangible to offer to the poor. Because it activates our not so thinly-veiled social contempt for people who chose the hard work of teaching public school as a career, often doing it for decades in places where they are forced to buy books and classroom supplies out of their own salaries.
I dislike TFA because public education does not exist to give graduates of elite colleges and universities a couple swing years so that they can later go on to great graduate schools and fabulously well paid careers. I dislike TFA because I am a teacher, and I am quite clear that you don’t learn to teach in five weeks, much less teach students who have a range of social, economic and developmental problems; who are often hungry, in pain, angry or frightened; and who come in unruly waves of 40-50 every 45 minutes. So thank you Michael Winerip for interviewing numerous elite college grads who are struggling with the “stigma” of having been rejected by this glitzy non-profit because there aren’t so many paralegal and entry-level Wall Street jobs this year; and thank you for using this as an opportunity to take a look at this popular NGO that makes a lot of claims for itself that are thinly documented.
As someone who is a career teacher, I am offended by the notion that anyone can step into a classroom and teach effectively, even though they are inexperienced and virtually untrained, because they are oh-so-smart and have successfully gotten into Harvard or Zenith. And teaching public secondary school is harder than teaching, or being a student in, college. Public school is open to the public, folks, and nobody does a sort for you to separate out the ones who are ready to learn, or who already speak English. Magnet and charter schools can be even harder to teach in, since in their initial years they are often the dumping ground for students who have been expelled from and flunked out of other schools.
But let’s be clear: mostly I dislike Teach for America because it is not school reform and it claims to be. It is a neo-liberal romance about the ways in which volunteerism by elites can replace a political and fiscal commitment to lifting Americans out of poverty by supporting, and investing in, the schools that poor people attend. Worse, TFA is a spiritual extension of those internship programs that these eager young things with BA’s larded their records with to get into elite colleges and universities in the first place. The logic is: if it looks good for me, then it must be good for “them.” As Winerip comments, “Teach for America has become an elite brand that will help build a résumé, whether or not the person stays in teaching. And in a bad economy, it’s a two-year job guarantee with a good paycheck; members earn a beginning teacher’s salary in the districts where they’re placed.”

And they don’t stay in teaching. Perhaps the worst aspect of TFA is that it views teaching as a kind of boot camp for entering the leadership class. TFA’s website claims that “corps members and alumni are creating fundamental change,” but what that change comprises, and what counts as change, is not clear. The website cites research “that Teach For America corps members’ impact on their students’ achievement is equal to or greater than that of other new teachers. Moreover, the most rigorous studies have shown that corps members’ impact exceeds that of experienced and certified teachers in the same schools.” But in fact, if you click on the link that supposedly leads you to that research, you find that “Studies of TFA teacher vary widely in both their findings and the strength of their methodologies.” Hmmm. And actually, although you can get citations for these studies, the documents themselves have not been uploaded to the website.
What the website doesn’t tell you is how many of those teachers quit in the first six months. As Winerip notes, according to one study, “by the fourth year, 85 percent of T.F.A. teachers had left” New York City schools.” That’s change for you. My guess is the rate of attrition is higher and faster in the Mississippi Delta, currently identified by TFA as a location in great need of amateur teachers. According to one of my former students who entered the program over five years ago and is still teaching in the troubled urban system he was assigned to, his cohort lost half its membership in the first year, and he is the only original member of his team still in teaching.
TFA has not helped to build a permanent corps of excellent teachers who will train other career teachers or use their classroom training to become effective principals. Hence, it has nothing to do with a program of fundamental, structural reform for our nation’s public schools. It has nothing to do with how schools, and school systems, might use their centrality to communities to address issues that are currently crippling education, such as unfunded testing mandates, the effects of poverty and unemployment, teaching critical thinking rather than rote memorization, or state budget cuts that eliminate books and raise class sizes. TFA does, however, seem to be a training ground for education bureaucrats, such as Chancellor Michelle Rhee of the District of Columbia, who continues to blame most of her system’s problems on undocumented teacher incompetence.
Rhee recently laid off over 250 teachers: how many of them will be replaced by TFA fly-by-nighters, whose salary is paid by a combination of private and federal dollars? I don’t know about other states, but because of drastically reduced property tax revenues, Connecticut is currently laying off young teachers who have actually committed to teaching as a career, not as a temporary stopgap before law school. Other states are waiting anxiously to hear whether Congress will pass a bill that would fund the Obama Administration’s new education initiative, and whether they will actually receive the millions of dollars they were promised for system-wide education initiatives. Will these funds be replaced by well-intentioned and untrained young people from elite schools who are here today and gone tomorrow?
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