It's been so long since I last complained about Teach for America, I apparently just couldn't go another day without. Now is a particularly conflicting time for me as some of the first students I taught are being accepted into Teach for America. In the last weeks, I've gotten more than a few Facebook messages from former students either telling me of their acceptance or asking my opinion.
I have no idea how to react. There's a part of me that wants to go on a tirade, wants to tell them everything I think about TFA. And there's another part of me that is so proud of their commitment to education, because I don't think I have any former students who are using TFA to get into law school or work in Congress.
It's just so frustrating to listen to those new to the profession preach about their commitment to educational equity without the necessary understanding of what really drives policy and inequity.
Alas, I should keep my mouth shut. I was no different six years ago. I did not have the background knowledge I have now, and I was downright ignorant of the way education policy works and what drives it. (Inequity is no accident.)
My frustration has me typing this blog post on TFA's cons (more for my own purposes than anyone else's - plenty of capable bloggers and journalists have done extensive work on reasons to be wary of TFA here, here, here, here, and here). In essence, I'm trying to figure out how to explain my worries about Teach for America to a soon-to-be college graduate without sounding like a crackpot. How can I tell them what I worry about without making them think I'm against their ambitions? Without being overly vitriolic?
Let's see what I can do....
Without boring the hell out of you, I think there are four main reasons I have such a problem with Teach for America.
1) It assumes that quality teaching is an effect of innate ability and
passion rather than experience. It uses this specious line of argument
to place woefully under-prepared 22-year-olds (the majority of whom do
not stay in classrooms long enough to learn from their errors) in front
of our most underprivileged students whose quality education demands so
much more. On top of this, it expects these poor recruits to be doing
graduate school work WHILE teaching. Perhaps more detrimental, TFA,
along with the media, have found a way to convince the public that this
(Side story: I was in a doctor's office in Manhattan last year getting
tests done to try to determine the origin of some weird chest pains when
the doctors asked what I did for a living. I told them, and they asked
if I was in Teach for America. My expression must have betrayed my
feelings because they asked what problems I had with the organization. I
just shook my head. "Who's going to teach those kids if not for TFA?"
they asked. "How about qualified professionals?" I said coldly. "I
wouldn't feel very good right now if you two were just out of undergrad
and about to go to med school, would I?")
2) Teach for America indoctrinates its recruits into a vision of quality
teaching that understands test scores as synonymous with student
achievement. (See here
on why this is something of a problem.) This is perhaps the point for which the negative effects take the longest to see clearly. You can go back in forth in your
head for years on how valuable standardized tests are, and to what
degree they should be used in judging educational quality. I have come
to the strong opinion that, the way they're currently being used, these tests do far more to harm than good.
3) TFA has transformed from an organization that used to talk about
putting itself out of business to a public relations behemoth. Every
year it scrounges more money from Congress and more money from districts
for placing its low-cost teachers in positions that demand the most
experienced (districts have to pay TFA for each recruit they accept). In
the disgusting world of hard-ball education politics, this allows
districts either strapped for cash or under the leadership of those who
believe the public sector should be starved of funds to point to TFA's
propaganda around closing the achievement gap as justification for
paying its teaching force significantly less money by forcing out
experienced teachers in favor of much cheaper TFA recruits (as happened
just recently, and so disgustingly, in Memphis.)
4) It was founded by a Princeton college senior who never had (and still never has) worked in a single school in her entire life, much less an underprivileged school. Listening to Wendy Kopp speak (or reading her book) is like doing a case study on narcissistic personality disorder. Self-righteous would be an understatement, which sort of explains the flaws noted above.
From my perspective, TFA is, at best, analogous to putting a band-aid on a brain hemorrhage. At worst, it is a racist, staggeringly arrogant organization that profits (both in money and fame) off the poor.
How was that for nicely communicating my feelings? Pretty crappy, huh?
It's not the TFA corps members I have problems with (although a good many of them personify the organization's arrogance and lack of respect for the teaching profession); it's the notion and push behind the endeavor itself. I have nothing but the utmost respect for people who join TFA out of a sincere desire to effect change and teach their hearts out. I just caution them to be prepared for a potential rude awakening. (See Gary Rubinstein's beautiful post on why he joined TFA, and why it's no longer needed.)
To the new TFA corps members for the coming year, I wish you all the best, but try to keep an open mind during the propaganda process, I mean, "Institute."