For the Old Mole Variety Hour January 12, 2015 (audio here)
It has come to my attention that not everyone has heard the criticisms of Teach for America that have been raised in recent years. Since the end of this month marks one of their due dates for applications, I want to take this opportunity to advise those considering applying for the program, or considering writing recommendation letters for those who are applying, to think carefully about these critiques, which argue that the program is bad for those who teach in it, bad for the students they teach, and, most persuasively to my mind, bad for public education in the United States.
Founded twenty-five years ago with the stated aim of recruiting recent graduates of elite colleges to serve as "lightly trained" teachers in difficult districts that were, at the time, facing teacher shortages, Teach for America has received lots of positive press--and has worked hard to maintain its positive image, despite increasing criticism.
Much of the criticism comes from former TfA recruits. "Corps members," as they are called, are given too little training and too little support: "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."
Moreover, not only is the training brief, the limited classroom time included in that training is generally under very different circumstances than those they will face in the schools where they are placed--involving not only different student-teacher ratios but often different age groups and sometimes different subject areas. As one former TfA teacher put it, "Training was like leading us to the top of a cliff before we had to jump off into the reality of our own classrooms. . . . the mountain was high and the fall was hard."
In addition to the lack of adequate preparation, TfA participants have complained of lack of focused support, isolation, shame, guilt, and burnout. While nearly half of all teachers leave the classroom after five years, for folks in TfA the figure is over eighty percent. Even the Onion has recognized the burnout problem, back in 2005 running a story titled, "Teach For America Chews Up, Spits Out Another Ethnic-Studies Major."
The Daily Dot notes that many "TFA Corps members are white men coming from privileged backgrounds . . . giving TFA a whiff of the White Savior." This does seem to be one of the few criticisms the organization has taken on board, and more recent recruits are increasingly of diverse ethnicities. But as Jodi Melamed has argued, "neoliberal multiculturalism"
Or, in other words, having a Black president makes it that much easier to keep incarcerating inordinate numbers of poor, mostly black and brown people, and killing black, brown, and disabled bodies.
But the school-to-prison pipeline is a slightly different topic.
Anyway, Teach for America corps members have increasingly organized resistance--holding a summit at the 2013 Free Minds/Free People education conference, and starting the twitter hashtag #ResistTFA. There are movements organized by United Students Against Sweatshops and Students United for Public Education, as well as individual testimonies by TFA veterans, with titles like,Why I Did TFA and Why You [Should Not] ; and "How Interning for TFA convinced me of its injustice"; and McTeaching with Teach for America and This former TFA Corps Member Thinks you should join City Year Instead; and I Quit Teach for America; and so on.
Their recruitment has fallen off so much that they are closing their New York City training center.
On the other hand, if you're interested in resume-building and connections with the rich and powerful, TfA can be a useful stepping stone, offering prestige and access to elite patronage networks. TfA alumni include former Chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools Michelle Rhee, LAUSD Board member Steve Zimmer, and KIPP charter school founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. By 2011, there were 56 TFA alums in public office: on school boards, on school and neighborhood councils or other local boards, as well as two state senators, a constable, a judge, and a justice of the peace. By last year the number was over 70, including two assistants to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as well as education policy advisers and associates in the offices of Senators Harry Reid and Al Franken and Representative George Miller.
Whether those resume-building years were good for the students in their classes is a different question. (The Onion has covered that, too, with an opinion piece titled Can We Please, Just Once, Have A Real Teacher?) Research suggests that TFA participants do about as well as other comparably trained and experienced teachers. But that's a pretty low bar.
In fairness, those ratings seem to be at least partly based on value-added measures of student success on standardized tests, which are themselves a poor measure of real learning.
But, Julian Vasquez Heilig, co-author of two of the peer-reviewed studies of TFA, is convinced enough of the problems with the program that much of his own blog, Cloaking Inequity, is devoted to debunking the TfA brand; and he's described the program as a glorified temp agency.
Moreover, the pedagogical model favored by TFA, like that in KIPP schools, tends toward what one alumna describes as "chanting, rote, and in general the sort of bunch o’ facts education that none of its wealthy backers and cheerleaders would EVER accept for themselves or their children". Andrew Hartman in Jacobin describes it as a program of perpetual "surveillance" and "Taylorist institutionalization" designed to adjust "poor children to the regime otherwise known as the American meritocracy." What TFA calls its Academic Impact Model "leaves no space for whether some nights a student goes hungry, whether she’s experienced the trauma of a death in the family or a natural disaster."
And that helps to explain what all those TFA alumni are doing in public office. Like the organization's paid lobbyists, they are rationalizing inequality, arguing for privatizing public education, for increasing standardized testing, and for union busting.
The increasing emphasis on high-stakes testing has led to a number of cheating scandals:
Cheating has now been confirmed not only in Atlanta, but also in New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orlando, Dallas, Houston, Dayton, and Memphis, education reform cities all. Rhee’s DC “miracle” has also been clouded by suspicion: impossibly high wrong-to-right erasure rates indicate that several of Rhee’s “blue ribbon” schools might have cheated their way to higher test scores. Such accusations are nothing new to Rhee. The legend of how she transformed her Baltimore students — a fable resembling the Hollywood drama Stand and Deliver, based on East Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante’s work in helping several of his underprivileged students pass the Advanced Placement Calculus exam — has been called into question by investigative reports that suggest fraud.
United Students Against Sweatshops, in an open letter to TFA's leaders, argues that in many cities the recent "epidemic of school closings, teacher firings, and union busting"
The Daily Dot notes that TFA's lobbying crowds out funding for other groups, like
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.”
Teach For America recruits... replace experienced, mostly black teachers in inner city schools. Although TFA used to claim it sends its recruits to “underserved” schools where experienced teachers don't want to go, the facts are that underprepared TFA temps have replaced tens of thousands of experienced teachers in Newark, Chicago, St. Louis, and dozens of other cities around the country. Teach For America contends that inner-city public schools are NOT underfunded, that chronic poverty, joblessness, homelessness and short staffing are merely “excuses” used to protect the "bad teachers" which its mostly white temps are replacing. ...
Chicago just shut down 50 public schools, and Philly 40 public schools, nearly all in black neighborhoods. Many thousands of black people are in the streets in these and other cities fighting for the right to a quality public education, and the very survival of the communities around them.
After Hurricane Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board and the Louisiana Department of Education illegally fired 7,500, mostly black, teachers across Louisiana, a move which opened the floodgates to hundreds of TFA recruits, whose numbers quadrupled in the New Orleans region post-Katrina. After a TFA alum--veteran of only three years in the classroom--was appointed to head the New Orleans Recovery School District, he closed every single traditional public school, making it the nation’s first all-charter school district.
Similarly, the TfA alum superintending Newark, NJ schools has pushed to make the district 40 percent charter school, a plan that sparked controversy because it would disproportionately close schools in black neighborhoods and replace 700 veteran teachers with 370 TFA recruits, funded by the Walton Family Foundation.
Dixon describes TFA as a
nonprofit organization backed to the tune of hundreds of millions per year by Wal-Mart, the Broad Foundation, Monsanto and a long list of corporate villains and hedge fund predators intent upon dismantling, destroying and privatizing public education in black and brown neighborhoods, turning public education into a private profit center.
Students Against Sweatshops activists point out that with ties to Exxon Mobil and JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Walmart, companies that "gut wages and benefits for parents and destabilize communities," TFA is actually "adding to the impoverishment that contributes to students’ difficulties in the classroom."
I realize that in difficult economic times, joining TFA might look like a way to get a stable job. But even if that were true, I would encourage anyone considering that route to think as carefully about it as they would about that other apparent route to steady employment, joining the military.
Whatever good TFA might once have done, whatever good individual participants may still manage to do, the organization and its offshoots at this point are clearly part of the problem.
(More) Critiques of TFA:
At the Chalkface
Public School Shakedown (scroll down for more links)
Save Our Schools
Reconsidering Teach for America
In These Times
Larry Ferlazzo (compilation)
The Nation Magazine