Monday, July 7, 2008

Teach for America: The One That Got Away

I've been attending a July 4th party out here in Rockaway for about 30 years. I've seen my friends' kids and all their friends grow up - from 10 years old to 40 today - yikes. Their son has kept in touch with many classmates as far back as kindergarten.

Some of the best conversations I've had over the past 15 years has been with Eric, who has taught at an elite Manhattan private school for the past 12 years.

"The year I graduated was the first year for Teach for America and I went to one of their presentations. I saw immediately the idea was not for me. Six weeks to become a teacher? Of the most needed kids? No way!"

Eric fit the TFA profile. Ivy League, accepted at medical school, but wanting to try his hand at teaching even though he had taken no ed prep in college. Coming from a family with 3rd world roots, he would have been an asset to TFA to pump up their poor statistics in recruiting people of color.

Eric chose another route: two years as an assistant teacher in early childhood classes in another city. The obligatory MA from Teachers College and a full-time teaching job in kindergarten at an elite Manhattan private school, which he has been at for 12 years. Even ended up marrying the woman who was his assistant teacher and she is teaching there too.

Top private schools insist that teachers do a year or two of apprenticeship before turning their kids over to them. Anything hinting at a TFA model would be laughed at.

"But you're comparing apples and oranges," you might say.

The point is that all the very people claiming that closing the achievement gap is a civil rights issue, promote a program that provides a very different educational experience to the kids most in need. We hear the term "quality teacher" bandied about all the time. Yet none of these people advocate a plan that would train teachers to the point where they would actually be ready to go in and teach effectively. They use the TQ issue to engage in witch hunts for supposed "bad" teachers - which in their parlance means failure to demonstrate high test scores – rather than try to come up with a permanent solution that might cost, say, a fraction of the money used for wars or corporate bailouts.

But that wouldn't fit the very different models the corporate supporters of TFA and other schemes have.

The wealthy and suburban kids get skilled teachers and a broad based curriculum that prepares them to take a leadership role in the workplace.

The urban poor kids of color, except for the top performers who are skimmed off, are handed over to people trained for 6 weeks. Teachers are deskilled and expected to teach a narrow, test-driven curriculum which will prepare those kids who manage to get through high school for a job in data entry - basically handling the cash register at the local drug store.

See Under Assault's excellent analysis of Wendy Kopp's "selling" of TFA.


  1. I love this last line:

    "Teachers are deskilled and expected to teach a narrow, test-driven curriculum which will prepare those kids who manage to get through high school for a job in data entry"

    This is exactly what is happening to what used to be the teaching profession. A narrow, test-driven curriculum eliminates the benefits of skill and experience. Teachers may as well be assembly line workers. A little bit of training and one person is as good as the next. The only good part is, if something goes wrong, the accountability must rest with those who designed the assembly line.

  2. Respectfully, I must ask what you think the answer is? Many TFA members work in rural areas in the South, where poverty is extreme, illiteracy rates well into the double digits, and teacher salaries so low that one cannot subsist for an extended duration.

    I am not an advocate for TFA, but I do think that education commentators fail to recognize the educational challenges of providing a teaching force to poor rural students. These are unique challenges, and are often dismissed when discussing teacher staffing initiatives.

  3. Is it educational challenges or financial challenges? Or political challenges?

    The easy answer is to spend what it would take - think how money "materialized" for the Iraq war or Bear Sterns bailouts.

    Now how to fight to get such serious money allocated is another story. And then how to get it spent as wisely as possible is another one.

    The failure of the main force that could lead such a fight - the UFT and unions in general - has left people with little to fight with as first a force has to be built from scratch.

    On TFA- again, why not try to work on keeping people instead of having them think in terms of short term service and out? But that doesn't seem to be their mantra. Are the kids better off with brand new teachers than say a local person without credentials but who knows the community real well and may be able to teach some stuff.

  4. i hesitate to even post this - I feel like I'm sending a defense of Obama to Roger Ailes - but I'm unsure where the "poor statistics in recruiting people of color" comes from.

    TFA says that 28% of their 2007 corps were people of color. That's certainly less white than the teaching profession as a whole. And while I don't know off-hand the graduation rates of the top-tier universities TFA stereotypically pulls from, I wouldn't expect their percentages of graduates of color to be any higher than that.

  5. Read the comment by a NYC Teaching Fellow:

  6. This posting about Teach For America hardly takes into consideration the studies of several foundation groups who have looked into the impact TFA has made in low-income schools across the country since its inception in the early 1990's.

    Your posting notes 2 main faults with TFA:

    1. Lack of training TFA corps members get prior to entering the classroom.

    2. The 2-year term they commit to.

    For your first objection, Mathamatica's study shows students of 1st year TFA corps members are more likely to meet their state's standards in ELA and math than students who are in the classroom of a traditionally trained 1st year. There is a negligable difference between the performance of TFAs in their first year than that of any other 1st year teacher; nor is their any evidence that students of TFA corps members are "worse off" than that of traditional teachers.

    Secondly, the 2-year term is meant to attract talented college graduates into the field of teaching. TFA is not a service that is meant to keep a sustaining force of life-time teachers. Rather, it is a movement to expose individuals to the realm of public education; so if they choose, they can stay in teaching, or go on to make systemic changes in public education through other career sectors. More than half of TFAs do return to the classroom for a 3rd year, and many TFA alums today (despite the organization still being very young) has already begun to change the face of public education around the country. Most noteable are the founders of the highly successful KIPP network of charter schools, as well as the current superintendant of Washington DC's public schools.

    Anyone who has taught in a low-income school (nevertheless those that got their start in teaching there) know how difficult of a job it can be; and how starved it is for getting committed, enthusiastic and talented individuals in the classroom for our highest-need kids.

    I would not take the advice of someone who went right off to work at an elite NYC private school to vouch for the needs of our poorest communities. Nor would I be quick to bash an organization which seeks to aid communities who have historically been plagued by the low expectations of poor education.

  7. To follow up, a link to Mathematica's study:

    Peer review of the Mathematica vs. Darling-Hammond study:

    and though not the most "scientific" review, a pretty unbiased article on TFA:

  8. pl visit and offer some tips about overseas education, THANKS


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