Column: Teach for America Drives a Reform Agenda
For the past nine years, I’ve been an instructor, a Ph.D. student, adjunct professor and post-doctoral fellow in humanities departments at several different universities. During this time, many students have asked me to write recommendations for Teach for America. My students generally have little to no experience or training as teachers, but they are lured by TFA’s promises that they can help close the education gap for children in low-income communities. For humanities majors, TFA is a clear path to a job that both pays a living wage and provides a stepping stone to leadership positions in a cause of national importance.
I understand why my students find so much hope in TFA. I empathize with them. In fact, I’m a former Teach for America corps member myself. But unless they are education majors, and most of them aren’t, I no longer write Teach for America letters of recommendation for my students. I urge my higher-ed colleagues to do the same.
There is a movement rising in every city of this country that seeks true education reform, not the kind funded by billionaires, corporations and hedge funds and organized around their values. This movement consists of public school parents and students, veteran teachers and ex-TFA corps members. It also consists of a national network of college students, as those in Students United for Public Education, who talk about the damage TFA is inflicting on communities and public schools. These groups and others also acknowledge the relationship between the corporatization of higher education and the vast impact of corporate reform on our youngest and most needy children. It is these children who are harmed by the never-ending cycle of under-trained, uncertified, first- and second-year teachers that now populates disadvantaged schools, and by the data-obsessed approach to education that is enabled by these inexperienced teachers.
Every year, TFA installs thousands of unprepared 22-year-olds, the majority of whom are from economically and culturally privileged backgrounds, into disadvantaged public schools. They are given a class of their own after only five to six weeks of training and a scant number of hours co-teaching summer school (in a different city, frequently in a different subject, and with students in a different age group than the one they end up teaching in the fall). College and university faculty allow these well-meaning young people to become pawns in a massive game to deprofessionalize teaching. TFA may look good on their resumés and allow them to attain social capital for their bright futures in consulting firms, law schools and graduate schools. But in exchange for this social capital, our students have to take part in essentially privatizing public schools.
The simple fact is that students who apply to TFA are not trained to be teachers. So by refusing to write TFA letters of recommendation, we’re merely telling our students that we can’t recommend them for a job they’re not qualified for. An increasing amount of research shows that TFA recruits perform at best no better, and often worse, than their trained and certified counterparts. What’s more, they tend to leave after just a few years in the classroom. Would a biology professor write a recommendation to medical school for an English major who’s never taken any core science courses? That would be strange. It would be even stranger if the professor knew the English major was just going into medicine for a few years, as a way to boost his resume, before ultimately going on to a career in public relations.
So competence is one core issue here. Another one is race. Rooted in the corporate discourse around reform, charter schools, and “urban revitalization” is the hope that the (mostly white) elite class and free-market ideologies will combine to solve every social ill. Meanwhile, whole communities of African-American and Latino men and women are being warehoused in prisons, the racial income gap is widening, and urban communities of color are being gentrified out of their neighborhoods. TFA — and the charter schools that function as TFA’s biggest partners — perform a similar kind of gentrification by ridding cities of veteran teachers of color. Despite what you might hear, there is no teaching shortage. Schools and districts fire their unionized, more expensive professional staff in order to make slots for the cheaper, eternally revolving wheel of TFA and other nontraditionally certified recruits, who quickly burn out.
When I joined TFA in 1998, I was placed into a public high school in Oakland, Calif., with three other TFA teachers and dozens of veteran teachers. I quickly realized that I wasn’t even remotely prepared for my job. Luckily, the unionized “lifers” at my school swooped in to help me, and over the course of four years, they trained me to be a decent teacher. I also enrolled in education classes at a California state university where I got the guidance and mentorship that TFA didn’t provide.
Back then, the corporate reform movement wasn’t a whisper of what it is now, and the more TFA has become aligned with that movement, the more it has also become a union-busting organization. The unionized teachers at my school were the opposite of everything TFA told me they would be; they were profoundly skilled, committed to their students, deeply knowledgeable about and respectful to our school’s surrounding community, efficient, hard-working. The best teachers I knew left at 3:30 p.m. to take care of their own kids and families. But because they had deep experience and strong collaborative partnerships, they were able to plan classes and grade papers in ways that put the efforts of my own 70-hour workweeks to shame. Unlike me, they had practice.
Our results were not 100 percent determined by how hard or long we worked; there were also the conditions in which we worked. We had classes with 35-plus students. Some teachers didn’t have their own classrooms. We often didn’t have books. Our students faced every challenge imaginable. We needed smaller class sizes, money for books and materials, money to renovate the crumbling school building. We needed more professional development, more time to collaborate, more support staff. We needed our students to have safe communities, nice homes, and food on their tables. Our students’ parents needed jobs that paid a living wage. We needed the police to stop profiling and imprisoning the young men in our community. We needed the War on Drugs to come to an end. We needed all these problems addressed. Corporate reform of public schools, as Diane Ravitch has tirelessly pointed out, seeks to address exactly none of these problems.
In contrast to my TFA experience, more and more TFA recruits are now being placed in charter schools, where they are isolated from communities of experienced local teachers who can help train and ground them. “Veteran” teachers at charter schools administered by TFA alumni tend to have only three to four years of experience under their belts. The principals often have just a year’s or two years’ more experience than the teachers.
This summer in Chicago, where the closing of neighborhood schools in low-income communities of color inspired massive resistance, the public school movement suspected that the shuttered schools would soon be replaced by charters. They were correct in their suspicions: As Ravitch noted on her blog last month, Chicago has “plans for 52 new privately-managed charters that will open over the next five years,” to be “staffed by TFA’s young recruits, with five weeks of training.” Former TFA member Jay Saper, who taught in Philadelphia, recently wrote a blog post that may be a preview of the Chicago TFA experience: “They use a fresh batch of inexperienced, well-intentioned 22-year-old bodies to enact their recipe: close schools, ignore parents, lay off teachers, get rid of counselors, shut down libraries, break the union, and then hold a bake sale for school supplies.”
Instead of writing letters of recommendation for TFA, I encourage my students to apply to graduate programs in education. (For the rare education major who might ask for a recommendation, it is a different story, because at least I know that the student has the benefit of professional educators and mentors who go above and beyond TFA’s crash course. Still, I’d listen carefully to their reasons for wanting to apply before writing the letter, and I’d make sure to explain my objections to TFA.)
If TFA changes course and becomes a recruitment agency for talented, certified teachers who are committed to teaching as a career, it will become an entirely different and better organization. If they do as Diane Ravitch suggests and begin placing students as paid teachers’ aids instead of teachers of record, I would support them in this work. But for now, TFA exists to support the corporate education reform agenda, and that agenda is grounded not in creating better teachers but in the de-professionalization of teaching.
TFA applicants are among the most well-intentioned young people that I know. They tend to be deeply critical of social inequities and passionate about committing themselves to the struggle for social justice in this country. And I’m certainly not trying to argue that all TFA teachers are bad teachers. But TFA members do not work in service of public education. They work in service of a corporate reform agenda that rids communities of veteran teachers, privatizes public schools, and forces a corporatized, data-driven culture upon unique low-income communities with unique dynamics and unique challenges.