The Good Intentions Yet Harsh Reality of Teach For America

As I sit here writing up the alarming results of my latest research in education, I cannot help but reflect on an article I wrote nearly a year ago for Colorado College’s Catalyst Newspaper. After spending hours formulating a unique dataset with value-added scores from over 600 Florida teachers from across the state, I clicked one button in SPSS around 2AM last night, and the results further concretize the importance of teacher training and preparation in the United States. Although I would love to share my detailed, final results of this project, my brain can’t seem to process anymore information regarding this study until it’s fully written up. So I will just mention the biggest highlight- teachers with full certification maintain on average 38% higher value-added scores than do teachers who possess a non-renewable, temporary teaching license.

Teach For America recruits students from elite institutions across the country to become temporary teachers in disadvantaged schools. To prepare for this lofty task, these individuals enroll in a five week teaching boot camp that is suppose to prepare them to lead their own classrooms. The jury is still out on whether a majority of these teachers take the place of fully licensed teachers or whether they are filling vacant spots that otherwise would not be filled. Nevertheless, due to the fact that it is illegal to receive such poor preparation and become a licensed teacher, these individuals are granted a non-renewable license for two to three years while they fulfill the necessary coursework and instructional hours necessary for all other wanna-be teachers. Why the exception for these students? Historically, TFA has always pitched the idea to districts and states that the organization exclusively recruits the most elite of students, and so these students are more than capable of leading a classroom of 30+ without prior preparation.

I have many points of contention with not only TFA but with any organization that attempts to shortcut the pathway to teaching. A majority of my arguments can be backed with quantitative research and evidence, but after writing this article for The Catalyst, I have become even more appalled as I watch my former classmates in their stopgap before moving on to “better” things. Every week, I see at least one example of underrepresented students being used as tokens of service to the greater good, complete incompetence and the lack of respect for culture, and the unfortunate dichotomy of the privileged “giving back” to oppressed youth in this country. As I continue to follow my friends, I see many already looking for new options after fulfilling their TFA requirement. Law school. Policy. Peace Corps (are you serious?). Unfortunately, all of my former classmates fall into the harsh statistic that 80% of TFA Corps Members will leave teaching forever after three years, causing more turnover, more vacancies…and as it turns out, they weren’t doing a whole lot of good in the first place.

TFA and organizations like it are bandaids. They cover up the eyesore of our education system that policymakers don’t want to acknowledge. Let the wound bleed, maybe our nation will finally start paying attention.

Here is the original article I wrote, and thanks to a dear friend of mine who is still in TFA, I became aware that this article actually reached TFA’s headquarters, as they asked him to write a response. An extended thank you to you, my friend, for taking the time to understand and educate yourself on how to be culturally relevant and not oblivious to the nature of the work you do.

Originally published by The Catalyst, March 1, 2014

Several months ago, I received a complimentary email from a Teach For America recruiter, lauding my “great accomplishments” at Colorado College and my influence on campus. After deflating my head from the first paragraph of this ostentatious account of my work, I proceeded to read the rest of the email, which cited buzzwords, such as the problem of “educational inequity,” in an attempt to promote agency in me as a “highly skilled college student” to teach in a low-income community.

Teaching is a profession that many college students choose to do after they graduate, and here at Colorado College, there are two options for full licensure: enroll in the 14-month Master of Arts in Teaching program or complete a rigorous undergraduate licensure program. However, many CC students take a different route in exploring the teaching profession: Teach For America. Considering that TFA ranked Colorado College fourth in 2012 and 11th in 2013 for the number of students contributing to the program among all small colleges in the US, our institution could not be more proud. I, on the other hand, could not be more appalled. Though I cannot argue with the fact that Teach for America makes one appear altruistic and motivated on a résumé, I argue that our institution and its students are exacerbating the problems with educational inequity and are contributing to the deprofessionalization of teaching by joining and supporting TFA.

Teach For America aggressively recruits students from the top-300 colleges in the U.S. to teach in low-income communities. College students sign a two-year contract with TFA and gain a provisional teaching license after completing a five-week teaching boot camp at the organization’s headquarters in Phoenix. After the two years of “service” have elapsed, corps members who teach in a majority of states are forced to either enroll in a full licensure program or simply leave the teaching profession. The National Education Policy Center reports in January 2014 that over 50 percent of TFA teachers quit teaching after two years and 80 percent quit teaching after three years.

Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond explains in her research from 2005 that TFA teachers are less effective than teachers who possess certification and are more experienced, claiming that years of experience in teaching and preparation in teaching certification programs are the most influential factors that relate to K-12 student achievement. Considering that most TFA teachers leave after three years, there seems to be a contradiction in the model that Teach For America is attempting to provide.  Not only do corps members receive inadequate training in TFA’s summer institute, but they also are given little incentive to remain classroom teachers after their contracts with TFA expire. These are some of the most common criticisms of the TFA program, and CC students applying to TFA are made very aware of the drawbacks of the model by college professors.  However, these corps members don’t critique the roles they play in the whole process.

Colorado College students are privileged. As a college student whose education is primarily financed through grants and loans, I am well aware of the opportunity that I have that most people do not have: I attend a prestigious college, which over four years costs three times as much as the house in which I grew up.  This privilege is what begets the problem. The K-12 schools in which elite college students are placed through TFA host a demographic that is usually unfamiliar to them. Along with having no experience in teaching, corps members also are not aware of their students’ cultures, the school culture, or the community culture. If we are to be honest about the general recruits and targets of TFA, the organization recruits rich, white college students to teach poor minorities in failing schools. This model creates a dichotomy in which those who are privileged are put in a position of power and are rewarded with a feel-good résumé booster, while their students suffer from low academic achievement and a teacher who doesn’t understand their culture. TFA places little emphasis on culturally relevant teaching, because the five-week program is barely enough to cover basic teaching methods for those corps members who have no prior education coursework.  The responsibility is thus placed upon the TFA corps member to make up for this deficit during his/her term of service, and this is what truly makes TFA the hardest two years of many of its corps members’ lives.

Teaching is hard, and when we think about the best parts of our education, we often think about one or two teachers that truly made an impact through their tireless devotion and passion for the discipline. Education affects everyone at some point in his or her lives. However, how do we ever expect to start valuing teachers as much as we value doctors, lawyers, and other top-tiered career options when organizations like TFA are promoting this idea that just about anyone can teach? One would never suggest offering a Doctors For America program where the organization places recent college graduates (after five weeks of training, of course) into emergency rooms to operate on patients to test out the profession or simply gain experience. We wouldn’t want to let someone’s health fall through the cracks, but this type of model is okay for teaching? So much for no child left behind.

As an institution and as students, are we ready to say that we are comfortable replacing certified and trained teachers with a random selection of our recent graduates? Moreover, are we correct in making the statement that anyone can teach? For the sake of our education system, I hope not. Here’s my call to action for my fellow CC students: it’s time that we critically reflect on this notion that “service” is a temporary profession. Take an education course here at CC. Try managing a classroom of 30 students. Find non-TFA funded studies that challenge and/or support your view of the program. Teaching is so much more than just a stopgap option. It’s a respectable career.