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Inside the real world of Teach for America

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Is Teach for America (TFA) a neo-liberal disaster contributing to the utter destruction of U.S. public schools, or is it an innovative program providing new opportunities to children growing up in underprivileged communities? Can the students of the Internet age help fix education? It’s one of the most controversial education reform initiatives in the United States, with passionate advocates on both sides of this question. As the 2014-2015 school year approaches, TFA graduates are completing their training and getting into classrooms, and this debate is becoming even more acute.

Founded in 1990 by Wendy Kopp, TFA recruits graduates of elite universities for a two-year commitment teaching in schools serving primarily underprivileged communities. The organization’s mission statement claims that TFA is a “movement of leaders who work to ensure that kids growing up in poverty get an excellent education.” Yet, is that what the organization is really doing, and is its work improving the overall crisis in American education?

Educators, TFA alums, and those graduating from similar programs like the DC Teaching Fellows are arguing that TFA may in fact be actively harming not just the children in the classrooms of Corps members, but also the larger education system—by exploiting recent graduates with few other substantial job opportunities. Their arguments are compelling and troubling, and they speak to larger issues within the American education system, where a corporatist culture based on performance metrics rules, and individualized education appeals to be on the way out.

One of the core arguments against TFA involves the lack of preparedness for TFA Corps members. They get just five short weeks of training before classroom placement, as opposed to the years of training for professional teachers, including a term of up to one year working in the classroom under the supervision of an experienced teacher. This gives teachers an opportunity to learn not just about pedagogy, but classroom management and the fine art of establishing real connections with students.

Will Ehrenfeld, an educator in Brooklyn, told the Daily Dot:

I've been really lucky in how I came to teaching. I was able to spend the better part of a year observing and assisting a veteran teacher at my school, taking gradual control over more lesson planning and instruction. Before this, I spent a year as a community coordinator at the same school (where I still work), which meant that I had a good understanding of the student population and the environment I would be teaching in. This knowledge was invaluable. My experience has suggested that a rapport and relationships with students can overcome poor classroom management skills, but you need one or the other. TFA doesn't give corps members the opportunity to gain this broader understanding of how a school works and who attends it.

It’s not just the short period of training time that’s a concern, as alum Matt Barnum told the Washington Post:

At the Phoenix Institute, I taught for four weeks, one-hour each day, in front of an average of ten exceptionally well-behaved sixth graders. (The first week of Institute did not involve any teaching.) And did I mention that there was no summer school on Fridays? In sum, I taught for a total of sixteen hours, in a room that often had half as many adults as students. At my middle school in Colorado, I taught an average of eighteen eighth-graders per class for about six hours a day, where I was almost always the only adult present. And these students’ parents had not elected for them to attend summer school. In other words, my placement school had more students, more hours, more days of the week, fewer adults, and a different student population (not to mention a different age group, and, for many, a different subject).

Providing student teachers with an unrealistic training setting in no way prepares them for the stress of actual classroom conditions, and it doesn’t help when when it comes to serving their students effectively. Dealing with a large classroom full of students can be challenging, especially when many may have behavioral problems that teachers aren’t trained to deal with. This is a particular problem for students with disabilities, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, who are thrown in front of TFA Corps members who aren’t at all prepared to deal with the accommodations they need.

Words like “overwhelmed” and “traumatic” come up in discussions with TFA alums about their experiences in the classroom, where they were thrown into an environment they weren’t prepared for. Many were facing too many students and had no idea about how to manage them, let alone educate them. They also struggled with rigid, sometimes militaristic school environments and issues like school violence, which, similarly, they hadn’t been prepared for.

Sandra Korn, who wrote about why she turned down a TFA recruiter, noted:

It has become increasingly clear to anyone who thinks critically about teaching that there's something off with TFA's model. After all, TFA alumni repeatedly describe their stints in the American public education system as some of the hardest two years of their lives. Doesn't it bother you to imagine undertrained 22-year-olds standing in front of a crowded classroom and struggling through every class period?

This lack of preparation is an especially acute problem when so many TFA Corps members are white men coming from privileged backgrounds. In addition to being unprepared for the classroom, they’re also not culturally prepared for the communities they’re working in, giving TFA a whiff of the White Savior. Teachers who don’t understand the society and culture of the environment their students live in are going to struggle when it comes to serving their students effectively.

Furthermore, as Barnum, who taught in 2010, points out,

As I talked of my plans for law school in Chicago, and they bade me best wishes, I felt an overwhelming wave of guilt. Their time and energy spent making me a better teacher—and I was massively better on that day compared to my first – was for naught. The previous summer I had spent a week of training, paid for by my school, to learn to teach pre–Advanced Placement classes. I taught the class for a year; presumably, I thought, someone else would have to receive the same training—or, worse, someone else would not receive the same training. All that work on classroom management and understanding of the curriculum, all the support in connecting with students and writing lesson—it would all have to begin again with a new teacher.

He speaks to a significant issue with TFA: the attrition rate. Not only do many teachers drop out before the end of their two year commitment, but few stay in education in the long term. “According to TFA’s data, 63 percent of its alumni stay in education, although roughly just 30 percent remain in the classroom—and the attrition increases significantly after the fifth year,” notes Alexandra Hootnick, a TFA alum, at The Hechinger Report.

Compare the roughly 70 percent of TFA Corps members who leave the classroom within five years to the 46 percent of conventional teachers who choose to leave (many of those are struggling in high needs schools). Even as schools invest in teacher development and Corps members develop teaching skills, the effort becomes wasted when teachers leave the Corps and move on to other careers.

This constant attrition also creates problems for students and schools. When schools are dealing with a constantly revolving door of teachers, they don’t have opportunities to implement meaningful reform, effective programs for helping students, and measures to help teachers dealing with stressful environments. The result is a school trapped in a failure spiral that never has an opportunity to pull itself out.

Is TFA a tool for educating underprivileged youth, or for building resumes and experiencing personal growth? That’s a concern being raised by many critics of the program, who worry that the focus may be in the wrong direction.

DC Teaching Fellows (a program similar to TFA) veteran Ashleigh Rhodes noted in a conversation with The Daily Dot that: “I did very little good, but it certainly adjusted my perspective. Which should not be the point of these programs. I walked away from teaching in DC knowing that I didn't know anything, and knowing how little I understood about race and poverty issues. So that has triggered wanting to learn more, which I have.”

TFA is also used as a springboard by many alums for getting into politics, law, and other fields, serving as little more than a resume-builder, a passing two years spent doing good to impressive potential employers and admissions committees. For some TFA Corps members, that experience turns into climbing the ladder within the education system itself, something that comes with its own set of problems.

Gary Rubenstein, another TFA alum, told NPR: “A prime example is Washington, D.C., where Teach for America alumni are sort of at all levels, including the very top, and they haven't succeeded there. They have a policy of shutting down schools, firing teachers, given bonuses based on what I consider to be inaccurate metrics. And they've sort of bought into the whole corporate reform movement.”

Rubenstein notes that this approach simply doesn’t work when it comes to education reform, because it positions education more like a business than a complicated process that involves actual human beings. Education can’t be based on standardized performance metrics like testing, simply because of the nature of pupils and educators alike. When standardized testing is used as the core tool for measuring performance, teachers get fired and pupils get shuffled around—and that doesn’t benefit anyone.

It’s also worth probing into who gets shuffled out to make way for TFA Corps members. While the program touts itself as a solution to a “teacher shortage” and claims that Corps members are replacing long-term subs, the situation on the ground is actually much more complex: Veteran teachers are being displaced in favor of TFA Corps members, who are much cheaper to hire, and who don’t benefit from the protections of a union.

“Looking at the broader educational landscape, it's clear to me that TFA is part of a movement seeking to defang public employee unions and public control over governmental institutions,” says Ehrenfeld. “New teachers are paid less than more experienced pedagogues; if the profession becomes more unbalanced, with far more inexperienced than veteran teachers, teaching as a whole is deprofessionalized.”

Barnum says that the trend of replacing veterans with TFA Corps members contributes to the constantly rotating door in underperforming schools, creating a situation where teachers are constantly in and out and students have no continuity. “A district has trouble filling all its teaching slots, so it hires many TFA corps members; inevitably, a large number of those teachers leave after two or three years; the district then fills those vacant slots with even more novice teachers. Wash, rinse, repeat.”

Reporting on how TFA displaces veteran teachers for The Guardian, Amanda Holpuch says that: “Louisiana state officials laid off more than 7,000 employees and took over 102 of 117 city schools after Hurricane Katrina left the city's population scattered in 2005. When it was time to rehire teachers, the government overlooked the fired employees, who have since won a $1.5 billion class action lawsuit, which the school system is appealing. At the same time, Teach for America's New Orleans program thrived, creating tension in the city's educational community.”

TFA claims this decision had nothing to do with them, but that’s hard to believe, given the organization’s aggressive growth strategy, a problem cited by Hootnick. She points out that TFA’s supply is far outstripping demand, leading the organization to attempt to expand into higher-income schools, and increasing the amount of money the organization spends on lobbying.

Lobbying funds are used to pressure Congress into continuing to provide special treatment, including requirements TFA views as burdensome. Richard F. Stutman, President of the Boston Teachers Union, spoke out about this issue in 2009, when he accused the TFA of blatantly lying about its union-busting tactics and tendency to replace experienced teachers.

All that lobbying matters: While TFA benefits, groups like Grow Your Own Teachers, which encourage people of color to get involved in teaching and remain active in their communities as educators, suffer. Writing for The American Prospect, James Cersonsky highlights the differential treatment of TFA and Grow Your Own: “In Chicago, for example, TFA's multiyear contract is granted by the city's Non-Competitive Procurement Review Committee rather than through a request-for-proposal process.

By contrast, Grow Your Own Teachers, which helps parents of color become certified to teach in their communities, mobilizes in Springfield every year for state funds—which in 2013 were decreased 60 percent as part of $128 million in across-the-board higher-education cuts. Grow Your Own has also suffered because of TFA’s clout. In 2010, TFA—Chicago director Josh Anderson pushed Illinois’s P-20 Council, an advisory body on education policy, to raise the passing score for the state's teacher certification test; as a result, fewer blacks and Latinos, who make up most of Grow Your Own's constituency, have passed.”

Olivia Blanchard, who left TFA after one year, says that TFA’s marketing undermines traditionally-trained educators and the education system:

[Underneath the way TFA is sold to educators and the public] lies the unspoken logic that current, non-TFA teachers and schools are failing at the task of closing the achievement gap, through some combination of apathy or incompetence. Although TFA seminars and presentations never explicitly accuse educators of either, the implication is strong within the program's very structure: recruit high-achieving college students, train them over the summer, and send them into America's lowest-performing schools to make things right. The subtext is clear: Only you can fix what others have screwed up.

There’s another significant issue with TFA: Where the organization’s money goes. “TFA is now massive, with annual expenses (pdf) at $220 million in fiscal year 2011,” says Barnum.

According to the charity site Give Well, TFA’s budget 2009 budget came to a stunning $38,046 spent per corps member who started teaching; this was a more than twofold increase from 2005. (Corps member spending by TFA does not include corps members’ salaries, which are paid for by their respective school district. School districts also pay TFA a fee for each corps member hired.) Admittedly, a per-corps-member measurement is imperfect because it accounts for recruiting a new and ever-larger corps, as well as a ballooning alumni base. The question remains: if you have money to donate to education causes, is TFA your best investment?

That’s a substantial amount of money to be spending on education—and it’s not necessarily being spent in the right ways.

Valerie Strauss, who used to work as a TFA manager, is also greatly troubled by the way TFA responds to criticism, with its own public relations team poised to swing into action in the face of any criticism, valid or otherwise, of the organization. Instead of integrating criticism into future iterations of the program and benefiting from discussion about education, TFA is turning away from the discussion.

This inability and unwillingness to honestly address valid criticism made me start to see that Teach For America had turned into more of a public relations campaign than an organization truly committed to closing the achievement gap. Unfortunately, the organization seemed to care more about public perception of what the organization was doing than about what the organization was actually doing to improve education for low-income students throughout the United States.

With TFA pushing into high-income schools, it’s facing more and more criticism, which in and of itself is a stark comment on the state of American education. The fact that critics are more aggressive when the organization affects white, privileged students, while ignoring those from marginalized backgrounds, comes with the taint of racism and the very problems that compound the achievement gap in the United States. Every child in the U.S. deserves access to a high-quality education, and if this issue isn’t confronted, it leaves disadvantaged children in the dust.

Photo via keithellwood/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)