Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Dr. Mark Naison - Teach for America and Me: A Failed Courtship

UPDATED: Sat., June 26, 9AM
This June 23 post has reveived a lot of comment and interest as just about anything on TFA does. In addition to the comments below the post there have been a lot of comments on Mark Naison's listserve. I just posted a bunch of them in a follow-up.
So after reading this and the comments, check back in for lots more:

June 23

The following was sent by Mark Naison to his listserve and has sparked a number of comments which I will compile, post in another blog and keep adding to as the come in. I will post links to this piece and the follow-ups on the side panel.- Norm

   Every spring without fail, a Teach for America recruiter approaches me and asks if they can come to my classes and recruit students for TFA, and every year, without fail, I give them  the same answer:  “Sorry. Until  Teach for America changes its objective to training lifetime educators  and raises the time commitment to five years rather than two, I will not allow  TFA to recruit in my classes. The idea of sending talented students into schools in high poverty areas and then after two years, encouraging them to  pursue careers in finance, law, and business in the hope that they will then advocate for educational equity  rubs me the wrong way”

  It was not always thus. Ten years ago, when a Teach for America recruiter first approached me,  I was enthusiastic about the idea of recruiting my most idealistic and talented students for work in high poverty schools and allowed the TFA representative to make presentations in my classes, which are filled with Urban Studies and African American Studies majors. Several of my best  students applied, all of whom wanted to become teachers, and several of whom came from the kind of high poverty neighborhoods TFA proposed to send its recruits to teach in.

 Not one of them was accepted!   Enraged, I did a little research and found that TFA had accepted only four of the nearly 100 Fordham students who applied. I become even more enraged when I found out from the New York Times that TFA had accepted 44 out of a hundred applicants from Yale that year. Something was really wrong here if an organization who wanted to serve low income communities rejected every applicant from Fordham who came from those communities and accepted half of the applicants from an Ivy League school where very few of the students, even students of color, come from working class or poor families.

Since that time, the percentage of Fordham students accepted has marginally increased, but the organization has done little to win my confidence that it is seriously committed to recruiting people willing to make a lifetime commitment to teaching and administering schools in high poverty areas.
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, and encourage the brightest students  to make teaching their permanent career. Indeed, the organization does everything in its power to make joining Teach for America seem a like a great  pathway to success in other, higher paying  professions. Three years ago, the TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.” To me, 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 of 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

In saying these things, let me make it clear that my quarrel is not with the many talented young people who join Teach for America, some of whom decide to remain in the communities they work in and some of whom become lifetime educators. It is with the leaders of the organization who enjoy the favor with which TFA  is regarded with  captains of industry, members of Congress, the media, and the foundation world, and have used this access to move rapidly to positions as heads of local school systems, executives in Charter school companies,  and educational analysts in management consulting firms. The organization”s facile circumvention of the grinding, difficult but profoundly empowering work of teaching and administering schools has created the illusion that there are quick fixes , not only for failing schools, but for deeply entrenched patterns of poverty and inequality. No organization has been more complicit that TFA in the demonization of teachers and teachers unions, and no organization has provided more “shock troops” for Education Reform strategies which emphasize privatization and high stakes testing. Michelle Rhee, a TFA recruit, is the poster child for such policies, but she is hardly alone.

Her counterparts can be found in New Orleans ( where they led the movement toward a system dominated by charter school)  in New York ( where they play an important role in the Bloomberg Education bureaucracy) and in many other cities.

 And that  elusive goal of educational equity.   How well has it advanced in the years TFA has been operating? Not only has there been little progress, in the last fifteen years, in narrowing the test score gap by race and class, but income inequality has become greater, in those years, than any time in modern American history.   TFA has done nothing to promote income redistribution, reduce the size of the prison population, encourage social investment in high poverty neighborhoods, or revitalize arts and science and history in the nation’s schools. It’s main accomplishment has been to marginally increase the number of talented people entering the teaching profession, but only a small fraction of those remain in the schools to which they were originally sent.

But the most objectionable aspect of Teach for America –other than its contempt for lifetime educators- is its willingness to create another pathway to wealth and power for those already privileged,  in the rapidly expanding Educational Industrial Complex, which offers numerous careers for the ambitious and well connected.  An organization which began by promoting idealism and educational equity has become, to all too many of its recruits, a vehicle for profiting from the misery of America’s poor.

Dr Mark Naison

Fordham University


Michael Fiorillo said...

Very, very well said.

calugg said...

This is a terrific essay. I've always seen TFA as a 21st century version of the "White Man's burden" with all of the odious classist and racist memes thrown in for good measure. If teaching isn't seen as a career, then TFA needs to be shut down. Teaching is NOT charity work, period.

zulma said...

Thank you, thank you Dr. Naison for bringing home the point that teaching is not meant to be a part-time job or using our students as stepping stones to move up the corporate ladder. Teaching has always been a career for life because we care for our children.

Ira Goldfine said...

Excellent analysis of TFA - you hit the nail right on the head.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Great piece!

B said...

Fantastic piece, Professor Naison, and I'm honored to have graduated from the same university you teach at (in Lincoln Center, but I took classes at Rose Hill).

Your piece speaks to me primarily because I was one of those students at Fordham who was interested in TfA who came from a low-income community, look like many of the students I teach, was also a student who previously received special education services, and graduated from Fordham with a 3.2 GPA, above the 3.0 required by the program. I have also had experience working with the same kind of children I work with currently.

I got rejected by TfA outright after the paper application.

On the paper application (and in the group interview for NYCTF), I never mentioned any aspirations beyond teaching. Though I learned enough to get to where I am today, I'm not fluent in the language of privilege and business is dreadfully boring to me (no offense to anyone who's in business). Heck, my physical appearance doesn't show the typical businessman look: I didn't wear a suit to my NYCTF interview and ties make me uncomfortable after a certain period of time. If TfA wanted a candidate they could persuade for a career in finance, law, and business, I was definitely not that candidate.

To this day, I am still perplexed by the rejection. Wouldn't programs like TfA want to foster a stronger social investment by students who lived in those communities to contribute positively through a consistent and powerful teaching presence, especially if they were qualified?

For full discourse, I ended up getting accepted by the NYC Teaching Fellows as a member of Cohort 18 that same year in a cohort with 90% career changers. I've been teaching in a good school in Washington Heights in a community that resembles the one my family and I grew up into. I was able to graduate with a 4.0 at City College with my Masters in my teaching concentration. I have no aspirations of leaving the profession, but only to continue to become a stronger teacher, a more informed citizen within the "de-form" movement, and a more-informed advocate for my students and the community I teach in as a special education teacher.

If TfA is to truly advocate for educational equity, it should recognize that its current model doesn't reflect on its motto by any means. The more experience a teacher becomes, the stronger that teacher is within all areas of what makes a teacher. Borrowing from TfA's website motto, to me, consistency and experience are both essential in order to, yes, "ensure true educational opportunity for all."

I am a teacher and, to me, a long-term commitment with a strong focus on teacher growth in all facets is necessary to foster true education growth in their students. Not a two-year stint that'll allow candidates to use the thousands of children they teach in high poverty areas as "a (metaphorical) stepping stone to a career in business.”

Thank you again, Dr. Naison.

- Brent, FCLC '09

Anonymous said...

As a TFA NYC 2010 corps member, I have thought about this a lot and I've come to a few different conclusions. I attended TFA institute last summer at St. John's and was thoroughly surprised at the level of commitment evident in my fellow corps members. TFA actually does a pretty good job of weeding out the people that just want to use their TFA affiliation as a resume builder. Vast majority of the corps members I encountered at institute were dedicated to children, and not to mention, all around nice, good people.
While at institute, it was repeatedly said that even though our commitment is only two years, we should stay for longer. We had numerous presentations on all the corps members in this city still teaching or in leadership positions at schools. Over the course of my first year teaching, my TFA program director has encouraged me multiple times to stay for a third year, if not longer.
Though I plan on staying in teaching forever, I do know that there will be many from my corps year that will end their time in teaching after two years. Is this ideal? No! But let's think about it from a different perspective.
Whether those people go off and become lawyers or doctors or policy makers or whatever else they choose to do, they enter their new career with AT LEAST two years teaching in mostly underfunded, under-resourced communities. Tell me that as an educator, you wouldn't perfer that lawyer had two years experience in a classroom and could understand, if only partially, the experience of teachers. And isn't it a good thing that future education policy makers have spent years in a classroom before they go around making decisions that will greatly impact both our teachers and our students?
I personally believe that even if you do leave after two years, teaching is something that changes you for the better. It is something that deeply impacts your perspective and I would LOVE it if people could relate to my struggles and successes inside the classroom when making decisions that impact MY future.

just sayin'

B said...

Anonymous, "Tell me that as an educator, you wouldn't perfer that lawyer had two years experience in a classroom and could understand, if only partially, the experience of teachers."

Sure... at the expense of what though? An experienced teacher will more likely than not achieve greater gains than a TfA teacher who have only learned to teach during 50 hours of training. That's research-based. Again, it's using those children to gain a stepping stone for a more career.

Sure, they will get that "experience". However, call me jaded, but where are these 2-year TfA lawyers and other policy makers who are trying to revolutionize education by not adhering to the NCLB/standardized testing status quo? If you can give me examples of major policy makers or lawyers who are anti status quo in their approach after their two years in TfA, then I will stand corrected. Until then though...


"And isn't it a good thing that future education policy makers have spent years in a classroom before they go around making decisions that will greatly impact both our teachers and our students?"

Sure, but how many years are we talking here? Rhee had 3, the two E4E founders had 2, Levin/Feinberg with KIPP had 2 as well. Heck, though not TfA, even Walcott had a year and a half. Are you really going to tell me that two years of teaching (while having your eye on a different price) is enough to have a real clear grasp of the issues that affect teachers, parents, and especially students? I've been teaching for two years and just now am I coming to grips with all those issues. Do I feel fit or knowledgeable enough to tell more experienced and knowledgeable educators what to do and how to teach? Come on here...

Unlike some in higher power who view it differently, TfA is not the end-all-to-be-all of solving our education problems. Consistency and experience are keys to really making a, yes, difference within a school and within a classroom. With more time and experience, Anonymous, you will grow as an educator and your students will greatly benefit from your experience and your personal growth. However, as you said, many of your TfA cohort members won't after these two years and, in this sense, with the turnover, TfA may possibly add to the problems our public schools face, not "solve" them in a major way.

Anonymous said...

B, I'll get back to the rest of your comments in a bit, but for starters, your position is really interesting coming from a Teaching Fellow... I feel that your rejection from TFA might be getting in the way of your perspective here. You are a part of a VERY SIMILAR program as TFA, and all the arguments that can be said for TFA can also be said for Teaching Fellows. Perhaps you might argue that they have more career changers and more people that wish to stay in teaching, but before you do that, show me the facts. My corps has a lot of career changers and a lot of already certified teachers that chose to join TFA for whatever reasons they felt were appropriate. You and I both joined an organization that only commits us to two years in the classroom. You and I both plan on staying for longer, if not forever. Without these organizations, the world of teaching would not have you and I on its side. I find that there is a great deal of worth in both TFA and Teaching Fellows and not once since my joining the corps have I ever been told by ANYONE in TFA that it is a panacea for the problems in education.
That being said, I also think that it is ignorant at best to think there is only one path to solving the issues with which our country is ripe in terms of eduction. Absolutely not. There is not one right belief to follow or one right decision to make. We need to open our eyes to the possibilities of something we haven't thought of yet, because what's going on right now, just isn't working. You may not agree with people like Rhee, Levin, and Feinberg, and I might not either, but it has to be said that they are thinkers and dreamers. Those types of minds are vital to our society and have the potential to be harnessed in a way with which you might also agree.
Oh and, yes perhaps you don't know of all the other jobs that TFA alumni currently serve, but it doesn't mean they don't exist. I'm really not going to spend my time looking them up for you either because that is something you can easily do yourself, but ignorance is always bliss, right? There have been thousands of corps members over the years that have now left the classroom. They are definitely not all on the sides of Rhee, Levin, and Feinberg, if sides is what you really want to call it. Just because you might be a TFA alumni doesn't mean you wear a sticker on your head with the letters.
And just because you go through a traditional pathway of certification does not make you an all-star in the classroom. Only certain people are cut out for this job and its demands. Not all TFAers are made for it and not all traditionally certified teachers are made for it. TFA provides some of those teachers who otherwise would not have ever set foot in a classroom. TFA teachers oftentimes think they're only going to stay for two years and wind up staying longer and becoming excellent teachers that we wouldn't have without the alternative certification that TFA provides.

p.s. I'm sorry you're still hurt by the rejection, but instead of blaming TFA I would hope that with 2 years of teaching under your belt you would be reflective enough to wonder if your application really was that strong to start with. As a teacher, instead of ever blaming my students I have to realize that failures of whatever sort in the classroom are MY fault, not theirs. Perhaps the same can be said of you and TFA. just a thought.

B said...

Anonymous, the only reason why I mention the panacea argument is because of how many others view TfA with the heavy expansion of TfA across the country without any hard evidence that TfA teachers are more capable of achieving great results than teachers in the traditional route. About your NYCTF point, in retrospect, NYCTF has cut back on their cohorts significantly. My cohort was cut to 750 from 1500 two years ago and the cohort numbers (as well as the subjects the candidates teach) are continuing to be cut. Last year, the cohort was cut to 473. For my cohort, 90% of NYCTF are career changers, they only accept 10% college grads. Last year, it was 72% career changers in a significantly smaller cohort. Do you know the number breakdown from your particular corps? Also, how much support do you feel you get as a TfA member from your organization?

"Those types of minds are vital to our society and have the potential to be harnessed in a way with which you might also agree."

Are those ideas vital though? I mention them specifically because they all have a focus on continuing the "accountability" status quo starting from NCLB 11 years ago and perpetuated by the Duncans, Walkers, and Bloombergs of the world. I won't say much about KIPP because I don't know much about it, but one close look at Michelle Rhee's record with test accountability tells it all.

Of course, TfA members outside the classroom have other jobs (and there are members fighting against the corporate reform movement), but you misinterpreted my point. The loudest voices out of alumni from TfA have been the Michelle Rhee types, the types that get listened to by people of power because their viewpoints and goals are aligned similarly. If you can explain, why would an organization like Educators 4 Excellence (headed by two TfA alums) with an artificial number of members get press coverage, newspaper op-eds, conversations with the mayor, and money from the Gates Foundation while organizations like GEM with a strong foundation with members in education either by teachers, parents, or students get very little of any of that? They are considered by the higher-ups as the "teacher's voice", though they honestly don't sound like many of the teachers on "The Inconvenient Truth About Waiting for Superman" nor the many teachers I talk to every day and the teachers at the school I teach at.

Yes, the traditional route teachers aren't always all-stars, but according to a peer-reviewed 2010 study, in their first three years, they make better gains than TfA members in the classroom. However (and this is where my personal feelings come in), the gap between student progress is basically equal after three years with traditional and TfA teachers.* If this is the case, as I will quote from Rachel Levy's piece (see link below), "these findings imply that even with TFA’s “talented” achievers, it’s experience and preparation that matters, not talent." A summer training or only one or two years of teaching is just not enough.

* Citing from, reviewed by the Arizona State University’s Education Policy Research Unit and the University of Colorado’s Education and the Public Interest Center.

B said...

Lastly, on your last point, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter much if I got rejected or not since I'm where I'm supposed to be. TfA boasts of their focus on creating a more diverse corps ( with almost 1/3 of its members being non-white, but most of that is probably with the number of white students in Ivy League schools as opposed to non-white students. Just for comparison purposes, the NYCTF only has 54% of its members as white and I definitely saw that in my classes. My classes were filled with an motley crew of races, ages, and experiences. I'm just happy that, as a young Hispanic student who grew up in the same neighborhoods as my students today, I was able to be picked and work with many students who I see myself in. I hope you're happy and have those experiences as well. They are really beneficial.

I understand there are many TfA members who are or will become great teachers like yourself. I think alternative teaching routes should be available with a longer commitment time as Dr. Naison proposed because, as research states, those teachers can make those gains through experience and preparation. Like Dr. Naison or Rachel Levy (see the link below), however, I just don't feel that TfA is truly meeting their stated mission of providing educational equity for all and, in some ways, is overstepping their boundaries and original purpose, which was to fill positions in high-poverty schools where there were teacher shortages.

I would definitely recommend to you Rachel Levy's fantastic piece about TfA and what the program is today:

In addition, check out Michael Wineirp's piece about TfA last year which touches on one of the biggest problems in high-poverty schools: teacher turnover and where does TfA members stand on it:

H. Dooley said...

"And isn't it a good thing that future education policy makers have spent years in a classroom before they go around making decisions that will greatly impact both our teachers and our students?"

Well, of course. That is why current or former teachers should be policy-makers on education. Current or former teachers who have invested more than two years in the classroom.

I've been teaching for a year and a half. I am a beneficiary of another quick-start teaching program, Teaching Fellows (The New Teacher Project), and I am not convinced my program is that different from Teach for America. One caveat: TNTP does advertise that they desire to recruit life-long teachers. There is no two-year contract and no stated expectation that recruits will go on to careers in other fields. That said, I do not believe my five-week training course (excellent and rigorous though it was) prepared me to walk into that classroom on day one. It's true, a four-year degree in education might not have done that, either. But after my experiences, I think that teacher recruitment should be done in a careful, deep, and systemic way, not through advertising a quick start. (I like the idea of apprenticeships / residencies, personally.)

After my year-and-a-half (and counting) in the classroom, I am not prepared to make policy. I doubt very much that I will be prepared to make policy after one more semester. Based on conversations with more experienced (and excellent) teachers, and based on my own reflections on my three semesters in a high-poverty urban high school, I expect that I might be a good teacher within the next... oh, three to five years or so. From there, I plan to work toward becoming a very good teacher, and then an outstanding teacher, and one day a great teacher. I have ideas and opinions about policy, but I'm not an expert yet -- I'm not prepared yet to fully consider the myriad factors that interweave to create conditions on the ground for teachers, students, administrators and parents -- and I can't become so through training alone. I will become an expert through practice.

The choice is not between having people with no teaching experience create policy or having those with two years of teaching experience create policy. We can do even better than that. Those who truly and diligently practice the profession should create policy, just as they do in every other profession.

Anonymous said...

I was a mid-1990s TFA corps member in Washington, DC. Although I couldn't agree more with the arguments everyone above made against TFA, I do want to let you know about a different type of alum. I am not into politics or have lofty career aspirations. I now work at a nonprofit in DC and am raising 2 kids in the city. I joined TFA for my love & respect for public education in America. Now, I am happy to say that I have my children in DC Public Schools and am working this time around as a parent to improve the system. I learned a lot about teaching from my time in TFA. I learned that I didn't want to be a teacher. I also wasn't sure how effective I was. But, when I left, I started teaching adult GED classes. I enjoyed working with adults more (sorry kids!). I also found that I obtained some teaching "skills" during my TFA years that made me a better GED instructor. I don't regret joining TFA. I just regret that the organization does seem to have a political agenda that doesn't settle well with me. For the record, I am a huge supporter of teacher's unions (was a member when I was in TFA), and I voted against the Fenty/Rhee ticket in DC. TFA alums are all over the place. I'm proud of those who commit to teaching as a career and see the craft of their work. I'm also proud of those who learn how hard teaching is and never forget that. Those who leave the teaching profession and then bash teachers as the problem with public schools are sorely misguided and dangerous. I hope that future corps members will discuss these issues and really learn from the arrogance of their predecessors.

Ifatyowa said...

Wow. I needed to hear that. I was rejected from TFA after the telephone interview. They are not interested in bridging the gap. They are interested in recruiting students who will turn their back on those Title 1 schools and never look back!