Why the Teach for America Revolution should slow down

In 1990, a senior undergraduate student attending Princeton University proposed her solution to closing the ‘achievement’ gap in America’s urban and rural schools. Wendy Kopp’s solution was simple enough. She believed that recent ivy-league college graduates, if given training during a month long summer institute in Los Angeles, would make the most effective educators for students in ‘low-income and high minority’ schools in New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, South Louisiana, and North Carolina. She succeeded in gaining a $500,000 grant from Ross Perot and hired a small staff to recruit 500 of these newly designated “highly qualified” teachers.
To find out more about the origins of Teach for America take a look ‘here
In mostly urban, student of color (SOC) populated, working class public school districts all over the United States, Teach for America (TFA) has made its presence known by placing (28,000) mostly young recent college graduates in schools that have been labeled as ‘turn-around’ or ‘struggling to meet standards.’ Some of these are the schools featured in Waiting for Superman and found at the center of the reformers movement.
However, before TFA is permitted to send recruits into these schools politicians from these districts and states sit down at the negotiating table behind closed doors with executives from the organization and determine by what means these politically expedient unions will occur. Politically expedient because school board members and state superintendents often find themselves being offered invitations to exclusive executive foundations where they rub elbows with many of the founders and donors of TFA. See here and here.
Additionally, districts that are targeted because they are struggling are expected to pay several thousand dollars to TFA on top of standard teaching salaries for the privilege, what TFA officials call administrative fees, of having recruits in cities. (See ongoing debate in WA state for details)
Now TFA recruits go through a 5 week summer preparation institute before entering a school that has traditionally been labelled as underperforming and ‘at risk.’ Officials from TFA insist that this training is both intensive and thorough in readying recruits to act as highly effective teachers in the classroom. In comparison, teachers that have been historically recognized as “highly qualified” by the 9th District Court (most West Coast states) after 18 to 36 months of in classroom training and graduate level schooling typically earning and entering the profession with a master’s degree. In order to maintain the “highly qualified” designation most districts require their teachers to continue their education through professional development hours and by attaining additional formal graduate degrees. Although many TFA recruits do go on to complete graduate level degrees after they have completed the program very few of these are within the discipline of education. Less than 30% of recruits continue working professionally in this field.
TFA has mostly gained popularity because of the perceived status it brings to a district that might otherwise be under high levels of scrutiny from state and federal governing agencies like the Department of Education (DOE). And in fact it does often serve as a foothold in the door for education reform leaders to bring in corporate funding and the establishment of charter legislation (see Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, and Chicago). However, these steps should not be taken with rash decision making and by individuals seeking personal notoriety at the national level. (See Michelle Rhee)
This year’s research at Stanford and Columbia demonstrates that charter schools have not outperformed public schools with equal funding and staffing support, and that Teach for America recruits do not work more effectively than their veteran peers who have several years experience either in the classroom or graduate school.
So let’s continue the conversation around effective models of education for our students in the United States. And let’s say we will not ignore real issues like poverty and racism that have historically segregated and continue to disadvantage young people in urban and rural schools just because it seems to be the trend. Stop teacher bashing and parent blaming. Start looking yourself in the mirror and reflecting making sure you’re actually in it for the students (not just your resume) and willing to give your all everyday, because that is what career teachers are doing in the classroom everyday.
Additional Information:

http://www.rethinkingschools.org/restrict.asp?path=archive/24_03/24_03_TFA.shtml

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