Against Teach for America

I’ve never been a big fan of Teach for America, and in the last few years I’ve grown to downright hate the organization. And yet, I’ve never actually explicated about it on this, my more enduring venting platform. Now seems like the time, though, as a conference called Free Minds, Free People is organizing against TFA this summer. This is happening despite TFA’s broad popularity among education “reformers” and neoliberal bureaucrats that would love nothing more than to break teachers’ unions and privatize the education sector. Can you tell a rant is forming?

None of this is groundbreaking opinion if you’ve been paying attention to the education scene. Governments at all levels are tightening their purses when it comes to education, and public schools are doing what they can to continue teaching the students entrusted to them. And by doing what they can I mean by and large students are being funneled into giant classrooms where they’re being prepared for the next standardized test. Social studies took the brunt of the class size increases while English, math, and more recently science absorbed the standardized testing aspect. But right now the English classrooms and science labs are growing too, and there’s perennial talk of state-standardized social studies exams. And as this continues across the country, some states are working hard to shut down teachers’ unions and shuttering schools. Only now are we finally seeing resistance, but even this is a little defense against an onslaught of government and business efforts to radically alter education for the worse.

Enter Teach for America. Plucking college graduates from across the country, TFA throws them into a summer preparation course before placing them in some of the toughest communities in the country to serve students in dire need of a quality education. Instead, students on the margins are being taught by brand new, untested and unqualified teachers who have only committed to two years of teaching before they move on to graduate school in fields only tangentially related to education like administration, psychology, or business. The aim of the organization is to concentrate not on actually helping students in need but instead on providing top college graduates with experience before they move on to other fields.

Take, for example, a statistic my friend (a former TFA-er) told me: Teach for America has the same number of staff tasked with recruiting at Columbia University as it does tasked with organizing teacher placement for all of the New York City area. That number is two. You could also take this professor’s widely-shared reasoning for why he refuses to let TFA recruit in his classroom:

Never, in its recruiting literature, has Teach for America described teaching as the most valuable professional choice that an idealistic, socially-conscious person can make.  Nor do they encourage the brightest students to make teaching their permanent career; indeed, the organization goes out of its way to make joining TFA seem a like a great pathway to success in other, higher-paying professions.

Three years ago, a TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.”  The message of that flyer was “use teaching in high-poverty areas a stepping stone to a career in business.”  It was not only profoundly disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume-padding” for ambitious young people.

Treating youth in need as stepping stones to graduate school is but one of the major flaws with TFA. TFA’s woefully inadequate preparation for its teachers and tremendous lack of support for them is exacerbated by the fact that the two-year volunteers crowd out qualified teachers who are looking for work and create cracks in the fragile labor system that is teaching. I studied for four years and spent over 1000 hours teaching – including a semester in my own classroom – just to gain the experience and tools needed to be a good teacher, and even then I knew I had several years to go before I would be able to say that I excelled at the job. I’m desperate to get back in the classroom now solely because I want to continue that climb. But if I were to join TFA, I would be out the door and onto the next professional achievement outside the classroom before I could even get the hang of taking attendance. That is, of course, if I were accepted by TFA, which is notorious for rejecting people who want to be teachers and accepting future leaders in business and administration.

One former TFA-er reflected on the statistics of TFA teachers versus new, credentialed, trained teachers:

 Compare the performance of Teach For America corps members to another cohort: credentialed, non-TFA corps members. The same study indicates that novice TFA teachers actually perform significantly less well in reading and math than credentialed beginning teachers at the same schools. Keep in mind that to “perform significantly less well” as a teacher is quite literally to have a group of 10, 100, or even 200 students learn less than they would had you not been their teacher.

If you’re interested, you can read others’ thoughts on TFA here and here. While I think he gives a little too much credit to TFA, this former participanstill advocates for shuttering the program, citing the experience at his school:

The other problem is the wasted investment a school makes in a teacher who leaves after just a few years. Sadly, I’m a poster child for this. I remember my last day at my school in Colorado, as I made the rounds saying goodbye to veteran teachers, my friends and colleagues who had provided me such crucial support and mentorship. 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. (Indeed, my replacement apparently had a nervous breakdown and quit after a few months. She was replaced by a long-term substitute who one of my former colleagues must write lesson plans for.)

This teacher goes on to inspect the budget of TFA and it reflects what was mentioned above: 40% of TFA money doesn’t even show up in the classroom. Keep in mind that a number of school districts hire TFA teachers instead of experienced, certified teachers who want to be teachers. As cities like Chicago move towards mass closings of schools and cities like Philadelphia privatize their school districts, and teachers that remain employed in the schools that remain open find themselves saddled with excess work that stresses the system to its breaking point, TFA is breaking apart teachers – the only group still working to actually educate students. It’s efforts like this, aimed at keeping needy students in the margins in order to benefit elite future business and law school students while our school systems crumble, that tears me up. Teaching is my absolute passion, and I’m sitting here watching the whole education system torn down by TFA, by high-stakes testing, by No Child Left Behind, by Race to the Top, by reformers, by administrators, by governments. But these groups and objects have operated all as one. As Andrew Hartman explains, in a brilliant look at TFA:

TFA, suitably representative of the liberal education reform more generally, underwrites, intentionally or not, the conservative assumptions of the education reform movement: that teacher’s unions serve as barriers to quality education; that testing is the best way to assess quality education; that educating poor children is best done by institutionalizing them; that meritocracy is an end-in-itself; that social class is an unimportant variable in education reform; that education policy is best made by evading politics proper; and that faith in public school teachers is misplaced.

[…]

Successful charter schools, [TFA founder Wendy] Kopp maintains, also stop at nothing to remove bad teachers from the classroom. This is why charter schools are the preferred mechanism for delivery of education reform: as defined by Kopp, charter schools are “public schools empowered with flexibility over decision making in exchange for accountability for results.” And yet, “results,” or rather, academic improvement, act more like a fig leaf, especially in light of numerous recent studies that show charter schools, taken on the whole, actually do a worse job of educating students than regular public schools. Rather, crushing teacher’s unions—the real meaning behind Kopp’s “flexibility” euphemism—has become the ultimate end of the education reform movement. This cannot be emphasized enough: the precipitous growth of charter schools and the TFA insurgency are part and parcel precisely because both cohere with the larger push to marginalize teacher’s unions.

[…]

From its origins, the TFA-led movement to improve the teacher force has aligned itself with efforts to expand the role of high-stakes standardized testing in education. TFA insurgents, including Kopp and Rhee, maintain that, even if imperfect, standardized tests are the best means by which to quantify accountability. Prior to the enactment of Bush’s bipartisan No Child Left Behind in 2001, high-stakes standardized testing was mostly limited to college-entrance exams such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). But since then, the high-stakes testing movement has blown up: with increasing frequency, student scores on standardized exams are tied to teacher, school, and district evaluations, upon which rewards and punishments are meted out. Obama’s “Race to the Top” policy—the brainchild of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the former “CEO” of Chicago Public Schools—further codifies high-stakes testing by allocating scarce federal resources to those states most aggressively implementing these so-called accountability measures. The multi-billion dollar testing industry—dominated by a few large corporations that specialize in the making and scoring of standardized tests—has become an entrenched interest, a powerful component of a growing education-industrial complex.

Teach for America. High-stakes testing. Charter schools. Union-busting. School-closing. It’s all part of the same, terrible effort to throw our education system in the trash, and I’m glad to see more people resisting. With the economy making its slow climb out of the recession, many states are gaining or expecting surpluses. Schools are right to demand that this money go into education and not into privatizing more of our public goods. Teachers are organizing, and hopefully it isn’t too little, too late. The fight’s just starting, but – with hope – we can save our schools.

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10 thoughts on “Against Teach for America

  1. Phew! This is really great, Scott. Thanks for the read. I had heard various criticisms of TFA from my friends, but none are as powerfully articulated as this. Do you mind if I pass it on?

  2. “Plucking college graduates from across the country, TFA throws them into a summer preparation course before placing them in some of the toughest communities in the country to serve students in dire need of a quality education. Instead, students on the margins are being taught by brand new, untested and unqualified teachers who have only committed to two years of teaching before they move on to graduate school in fields only tangentially related to education like administration, psychology, or business. The aim of the organization is to concentrate not on actually helping students in need but instead on providing top college graduates with experience before they move on to other fields.”

    Thoughts on Peace Corps?

    Great insight, Scott, and exactly the reasons I blew off the recruiters at my own university. My roommate in SD applied and got fast-tracked through the application process. Not sure how it turned out, though since she’s at a new full-time big-girl job at the moment. She dreams of being a teacher, though, so that’s apparently a mark against her.

    • Quick thoughts, as I’m away from the computer most of today:

      The Peace Corps is problematic in a lot of the same ways – inexperienced workers with brief training dropping in to help communities in need for two years without adequate support or resources before bailing. That said, in some instances PCVs are doing work that wouldn’t be done if they weren’t there (maybe, definitely in the past), which separates it from TFA, which is actually pushing out able teachers eager to work. That said, the Peace Corps should provide more resources to its volunteers, and a partnership with USAID would be greatly beneficial, I think.

      Lastly, a separate but huge problem with the Peace Corps is how it mistreats its own volunteers. See the sexual violence scandal from a year ago, in which administrators tried to cover up the dangers PCVs encountered instead of trying to prevent them, or see efforts to punish PCVs who are critical of the program, a la this: http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/march_april_2012/features/good_news_first_bad_news_never035758.php?page=all

  3. Thanks for this article. I always really enjoy your blog, and I’m very interested in the effectiveness of domestic volunteer and non-profit programs, which I don’t know much about. Your article confirms a lot of what I’ve thought about TFA in the past.

    I actually wanted to respond to the comments about Peace Corps. I agree that it has innumerable problems, but I think it’s worth noting that Peace Corps is leaps and bounds ahead of other volunteer organizations. Peace Corps training usually lasts three months, and it’s pretty intensive in most countries. That certainly doesn’t make up for lacking relevant credentials or degrees (which too many volunteers lack), but it is much better than not having any training, like most other organizations.

    The two years that Peace Corps Volunteers usually stay (in fairness, the drop-out rate is pretty high in some countries) is also much longer than the one week, one semester, or at best gap-year that volunteers with other organizations stay. Unlike the case of educators in the U.S., the norm for international volunteers is a very short time period (and even for aid professionals, it’s often very short and usually not longer than a few years). I think short assignments, to the extent that two years is considered short, are more of a problem with the system than a problem with Peace Corps.

    I’ve criticized a lot of things about Peace Corps (job assignments, treatment of volunteers, in-country staff), and for some perhaps it’s similar to TFA in using poor people as resume-boosters (although where is the line between using people and becoming experienced?). But I do think it’s a bit unreasonable to criticize Peace Corps for “short” training and placements.

    • I think you’re right on all accounts. I didn’t really get a chance to expand my initial comments, but you’re absolutely right that other development projects are VERY short – I’m thinking of college summer internships and church mission groups here. Those projects are usually short and rely on Western volunteers to do things local workers could do like dig a well or build a home. PCVs – even when they lack support and resources – can do good work that includes local involvement and employment.

      The Peace Corps is surely a different matter from TFA, although they do have similar traits. Someone interested in padding their resume is more likely to work in the Bronx than a village in Karamoja, for one. My best friend is a PCV in Benin right now, and she pointed out that her role (teacher) is not just teaching students, but serving as a language mentor and role model for local teachers, along with the tremendous cultural exchange involved in Peace Corps. The only cultural exchange going on in TFA is some elite college graduates experiencing inner cities for the first time.

      Do you think there’s a place for PCVs in certain sectors to do something like work with USAID in development projects? Or would that alter the focus of Peace Corps too much?

  4. Thanks so much for your response! And good point about the “cultural exchange” in TFA, I wholeheartedly agree.

    It’s funny that you mention PCVs working on USAID projects – I was a PCV in Rwanda, and my assignment was to work with a local implementing partner on projects that were funded by USAID and administered by American NGOs. I think part of the original justification was that the NGOs would provide technical expertise and PCVs would provide cultural expertise, which certainly sounds like a nice partnership. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite pan out that way. There were a lot of issues particular to our projects that could potentially be dealt with, but even without them, I do that set-up goes against the focus of Peace Corps in general.

    I think one of its strengths is that PCVs live in the community that they work in. That perspective puts them in a better position to understand what the needs are there and how they could be effectively addressed. Volunteers invest time in building trust and relationships that make their projects more effective. In the case of PC Rwanda, working on these bigger projects meant constantly making day trips to dozens of villages that were part of the project. I was just another Westerner who came briefly and left without understanding anything. It also meant I wasn’t able to spend enough time in the town where I lived to develop of strong understanding of the dynamics there.

    Assigning PCVs to work with a pre-determined project also really undermines one of Peace Corps’ other strengths, which is that volunteers start by spending usually a few months just learning about the community and working with people there to determine needs, wants, strengths, project feasibility, etc. When a project has already been designed by people in Washington or some other capital and a volunteer is later attached to it, there’s no option to base a project on local understanding.

    Admittedly, what I’ve described as Peace Corps’ function is a bit idealized, but I think striving for that is a more useful role for volunteers than attaching them to a big project, at least based on PCVs’ experiences in Rwanda.

  5. I’m trying to decide whether I should accept a TNTP (like TFA but not TFA) position in Fort Worth to be a social studies teacher. What would you vote? Why are you against state-standardized social studies tests?

    • I don’t know much about TNTP, but if it’s anything like TFA, I’m probably not a fan. I think that, if you’re *really* interested in teaching, you should look into certification programs and then look for jobs. My dislike for TFA-type organizations is two-fold: many of the teachers aren’t well-trained and only stay for a short time period; these inexperienced teachers push trained, committed teachers out of work. Even if one has a teaching background and actually wants to become a teacher, one ends up being a part of the persisting second problem.

      Standardized testing is simply a terrible way to measure how students are learning. Many students don’t do well on tests, and no one test can encompass all of the important things one could learn in a full year in the classroom. Every class is not the same, and nor should it be. I happened to focus a lot on the New Deal when I taught. When I was in high school I had a teacher who spent a lot of time on the colonial era. Neither is wrong, but with standards you will quickly have teachers planning lessons to meet each and every qualification of the test rather than exploring the subject matter. I remember whole weeks of English being dedicated to prepping for the state exam, and I don’t wish that on any student or teacher.

  6. Pingback: Watching The West Wing: Teachers and Courts | Backslash Scott Thoughts

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