Politics & Current Events

THE WHITE GIRL’S BURDEN

teach for america

By AURORA ROJER
Educational equality is a hot topic right now. Schools are failing, and everyone from Bill Gates to Rahm Emanuel has an answer for how to fix them. I went to public school for my entire K through 12 career so, naturally, I too have opinions on the myriad issues in this complicated system. Yet, again and again, the conversation boils down to one thing: bad teachers. Just look at Time Magazine’s most recent cover story: “Rotten Apples: The War on Teacher Tenure.” Sure, I had a few duds in my day, but the number of dedicated, intelligent, hardworking and even life-changing teachers far outnumbered the “dead weight.” Indeed, I felt so inspired by some of the teachers who opened my mind, pushed me to work harder and filled me with a love for learning, that I realized somewhere along the line that I would like to do the same for others. As an aspiring teacher, I have of course been asked repeatedly whether I plan on applying to Teach for America. My answer is no, and this is my reason why.

First, Teach for America corps members attend a five-week training program as opposed to the 11 to 24 month masters and certification program typically required for traditional teachers. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford, explains that the TFA training is insufficient, as it provides no instruction in child development or learning theory and little hands-on teaching experience. She goes on to explain that “none of TFA’s recruits, including those hoping to teach elementary school, take courses before they enter the classroom in such things as how to teach reading.” I doubt that recent college grads can dive right in as a primary instructor for already-underprivileged students and teach a class of 32 of them how to read. We just don’t learn how to teach basic literacy skills in our Marxist-Feminist theory classes.tfa2

The training program for TFA was created by its founder, Wendy Kopp, just months after she received her own Ivy League diploma. She had never examined, much less attended, a teacher training program. However, she assured naysayers that these preparations are unnecessary since TFA would accept only the cream of the crop. Because the program is so competitive, according to Kopp and other TFA proponents, the recruits are already intellectually superior and thus needn’t be bothered with extensive training. Darling-Hammond, however, points out that as the best and the brightest, TFA recruits are natural learners, and that “people who learn effortlessly and have had no training in how to deliberately create learning strategies often find themselves at a loss as teachers. They can’t remember how they learned, so they cannot construct a process for teaching others.” Raw IQ scores do not translate into better teachers.

Even more important than training to be an effective classroom teacher is experience. Study after study has shown that teachers improve tremendously with experience, particularly in their first few years of teaching. But TFA only requires a two-year commitment — 50 percent of recruits leave after two years of service and 80 percent leave after three. This leaves little time for them to gain experience, and as soon as they do, they leave, ushering in new untrained and inexperienced recruits. As Bryn Proffitt, a high school teacher from Durham, North Carolina, explained in an article in The Herald Sun, the teaching profession is “not community service … It’s something that people learn how to do. It’s something that people get better at as they go forward and it’s something that people who make a long-term commitment to continually get better at over the course of their careers.” Teach for America is completely counter to the idea of teaching as a career; instead, the program encourages college grads put in some “community service” time before moving on to more lucrative endeavors.

Despite the lack of training and experience in their recruits, any TFA supporter will trot out a few studies showing that their teachers perform just as well, if not better, than other teachers (though nearly all of these studies show gains only in math and science). In fact, there are plenty of studies that show the opposite is true. However, because on both sides these studies are based entirely on standardized test scores, it’s debatable how much stake it is appropriate to place in them. Education is about more than just a number, and I find it easy to believe that teachers who have little training or experience fall back on simply teaching to the test. Indeed, if there is one thing that all those with rigorous enough transcripts to get into TFA have in common, it is that they know how to handle tests. That is not to say that all TFA teachers teach to the test, merely that any claim that the teachers are “just as good” simply because they get similar results on tests should be taken with a large grain of salt.

Questionable results for Teach for America teachers would perhaps be acceptable if these teachers were only used as an emergency stopgap measure to fill severe teacher shortages, as the program was initially created to do. However, TFA has long since moved past this intent. Since 2008, states and municipalities across the country have cut their budgets for education. As a result, around 500,000 teachers have been laid off. This indicates that there is no shortage of teachers, but rather of positions. Yet, in cities such as Newark, NJ and Chicago, IL, huge rounds of teacher layoffs have been immediately followed by expanded contracts with Teach for America.

As a result of One Newark, the complete overhaul of the Newark public school system written by State Superintendent Cami Anderson (TFA alum), one-third of the Newark teaching staff will be laid off in the next three years. It is important to note that these teachers are not being reviewed individually; schools that were shown to be underperforming (which translates into those serving poorer minority children) are being shut down and their entire staff is being fired, regardless of individual effectiveness, experience and training. Shortly after the announcement of One Newark, the Walton Foundation (that’s the Walmart fortune) announced on its website that it will be supporting the “recruitment, training and support of nearly 370 Newark area [Teach for America] teachers over the next two years.” Teach for America is no longer filling in desperate teacher shortages; it is replacing those who dedicated their careers to education.

And yet, Teach for America purports to be committed to putting an end to educational inequality, claiming that “poverty is not destiny” and that they are “committed to closing the achievement gap.” As noble as the goals sound, the theory behind it is upsetting. If displacing career teachers with minimally trained and inexperienced recruits is considered a step along the way to closing the achievement gap, then behind TFA rests the assumption that Teach for America corps members are somehow superior to traditional teachers, and that 20-somethings imported from ivory towers have a better idea of how to save poor inner-city children than the adults who have lived and worked in their neighborhoods for much longer. This is what Darling-Hammond calls a “frankly missionary program.” Privileged students from prestigious institutions are raised on the belief that they are the best at everything. Of course they can do better than someone who chose to teach for a living. And if this is not the case — if these fresh young recruits are taking the jobs of real teachers even though they are no more, or maybe even less, effective — then what are they doing, and why?

Perhaps TFA is just misguidedly paternalistic, hoping to solve a problem that runs far deeper than teacher quality anyway. And yet, there are signs that something more nefarious is at play. The non-profit is funded in large part by Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, the Walton Foundation (as previously mentioned), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli Broad Foundation and a sizeable number of billionaire hedge fund managers. TFA is adored by the rich and powerful. These are the same rich and powerful pushing for non-unionized charter schools, to which Teach for America supplies a steady stream of cheap and cheaper labor. And because these bright-eyed recruits never stick around for very long, there is little chance that they will try to organize and form a movement to protest the often-criticized working conditions of these schools. Further, TFA has a “first placement” policy which means that recruits must accept the first spot they are offered, giving them no choice “but to work for wages and benefits far below those negotiated by the local teachers union at traditional public schools in the same area,” as explained by Chad Sommer in an article for Salon. In taking these jobs, Sommer continues, “TFA is lowering wages, reducing benefits and worsening the working conditions of teachers.”

Teach for America as an idea is, I find, insulting to teachers; the idea that someone can do what you do (but better) without your training and experience simply because they have youthful vitality and missionary vigor. But more important than the insult is the actual damage it causes. Teachers’ unions are some of the last bastions of organized labor in this country, and the corporate class, those funding Teach for America, has much to gain by privatizing education and remaking the teaching profession into one that is temporary and low-paying. Teach for America enables this degradation, which in turn degrades public education as a whole. That is why when I teach, it will not be for TFA.

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