Teach For America is being criticized by teachers who allege its training is insufficient & destabilizing to school systems by threatening jobs. Are these concerns legitimate or are TFA's detractors worried about being squeezed out?
An Open Letter to New Teach for America Recruits
Dear New TFA Recruits,
It is summertime, which for those of you newly accepted into Teach for America, means you are enduring the long hard days of Institute. I congratulate you on being accepted into this prestigious program. You clearly have demonstrated intelligence, passion, and leadership in order to make it this far.
And now I am asking you to quit.
Teach for America likely enticed you into the program with the call for ending education inequality. That is a beautiful and noble mission. I applaud you on being moved by the chance to help children, of being a part of creating equality in our schools, of ending poverty once and for all.
However, the actual practice of Teach for America does the exact opposite of its noble mission. TFA claims to fight to end educational inequality and yet ends up exacerbating one of the greatest inequalities in education today: that low-income children of color are much more likely to be given inexperienced, uncertified teachers. TFA’s five weeks of Institute are simply not enough time to prepare anyone, no matter how dedicated or intelligent, to have the skills necessary to help our neediest children. This fall, on that first day of school, you will be alone with kids who need so much more. You will represent one more inequality in our education system denying kids from low-income backgrounds equitable educational opportunities.
Many of you no doubt believe you are joining a progressive education justice movement, that is the message TFA sells so well. But I want you to understand clearly, TFA is not progressive. The kind of limited data-driven pedagogy, the fast-track preparation, the union-busting, the forced exploitation of your labor, the deep-pocketed affiliation with corporate education reform are all very conservative, very anti-progressive ideas. Look no further than TFA’s list of supporters/donors. The largest donations are from groups like the Walton Foundation, of Walmart fortune, which has a vested interest in the status quo of inequality, breaking unions, and keeping wages low and workers oppressed. Or notice the many partnerships with JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America, the very institutions which caused the financial collapse and threw millions of Americans-including your future students’ families-into foreclosure, bankruptcy, and deeper poverty. These organizations choose to donate to TFA because TFA supports their agendas. If TFA was truly pushing back on the status quo of educational inequality, these types of donors would not only refuse financial support, they would be attacking a group which threatens their earning potential.
Ask yourself honestly, since when did billionaires, financial giants, or hedge fund managers on Wall St begin to care about the education of poor black and brown children in America? If you follow the money, you will see the potential for mass profit through privatization, new construction, union-busting, and various educational service industries. Why would a group dedicated to educational justice partner with these forces?
A Broken Model
In places like my city of Chicago, TFA has come to represent a gross injustice from the very first day of training. TFA places up to five trainees at a time in our summer school classrooms. Please understand that in Chicago, summer school is for children who failed courses during the school year. These are the children most in need of expert teaching and support, many may have or eventually may need special education services. Instead, TFA partners with certain schools where students are used as practice tools the entire day as novices have their very first experiences working with a group of children. Last year, a phenomenal teacher friend of mine described his experience of having TFA forced upon his classroom, “They are using my kids as guinea pigs,” he lamented. This powerful, experienced teacher was told to sit silently in the back of his classroom, and watch-not allowed to even give feedback-as five novice TFAers fumbled their way through lessons for four whole weeks of a five week summer term. Those kids will never get that time back.
The sad thing is that TFA will tell you over and over again that you will be offering something “better” than our traditionally-trained teachers can provide. I want you all to understand what even first-year teachers from traditional teacher prep programs are offering. Pre-service teachers are slowly introduced into teaching, beginning with hundreds of hours of observation in multiple settings, with much discussion, reflection, and study of pedagogy and child development along the way. We slowly step up our practice to individual tutoring, small group instruction, and short whole group lesson plans before moving on to student teaching placements for many months. This model of teacher prep minimizes the effect on children, and creates safe spaces for new teachers to practice under the watchful eye of a mentor. Compare that to TFA’s model of novices taking turns teaching one single group of students for only four weeks then being placed in classrooms by themselves. Where is the time for observation and practice in many different settings/age groups/subject matters/ability levels? How can anyone even argue that the two types of training are comparable? And, if TFA truly offered higher-quality prep, why aren’t schools serving upper-income students demanding first year TFA teachers? The idea of course is preposterous. Upper-income parents would never, ever, allow uncertified, unprepared novices teach their own children. So why should Chicago’s low-income students endure this type of injustice?
Luckily, more Chicago students are speaking out against Teach for America. Here is a spoken word piece from a former Chicago student Rachel Smith who powerfully says,
“Only see them for 2 years because we’re just aHere is what another Chicago high school student wrote recently on his facebook page: “I’m walking out of school and I run into a group of college students. They greet me and ask me if I go to this school. I say yes, I just graduated and I’m here because we’re facing massive budget cuts. I ask them if they are with an organization. They say, yes we’re from Teach For America. I told them ‘that program is no good, get away from my school.’”
stepping stone so they can get to their
It’s time we refute these self-proclaimed saviors and
put our faith into the true educators,
who demand Masters Degrees and double majors,
and not the ones trying to do the black community
a couple favors.”
Understand The Pushback
And fundamentally, this is what you must understand. Most corps members are being thrown into highly contested, politically unstable education environments. Here in Chicago, there is a massive grassroots battle underway led by parents, teachers, students, and community members to save public education. This past year alone has seen mass protests, acts of civil disobedience, and a successful teachers’ strike all to protest devastating corporate education reforms being forced on our schools. Despite this mass movement, 50 schools were closed by our appointed Board of Education, hundreds of teachers laid off, and school budgets were slashed. Tens of thousands of parents have come out to plead for the their neighborhood schools, to beg for more funding, to demand an end to excessive high-stakes testing, to speak out for their beloved teachers, and each time our Mayor’s Board of Education turned a deaf ear to the needs’ of the people.
As a result, we have thousands of displaced teachers looking for jobs, we have dozens of quality schools of education producing certified teacher candidates-many from the neighborhoods they hope to teach in-all looking for work in Chicago and other urban centers around the country. Just yesterday, I spoke with a fully-qualified new teacher who reported that she will likely have to take substitute positions or do after-school tutoring as there are no full-time jobs being offered in the Chicago Public Schools. Like so many other cities (New York City, Detroit, and Philadelphia to name a few) we have no teacher shortages. We have teacher surpluses. And yet, TFA is still placing first year novice corps members in places like Chicago. To put it bluntly, the last thing our students undergoing mass school closings, budget cuts, and chaotic school policy need is short-term, poorly-trained novices. Teach for America is not needed in Chicago. Teach for America is not needed in most places.
TFA Practices Disaster Capitalism
But, instead of responding to community need, TFA has instead decided to partner with the very people causing the destructive, divisive, cruel chaos of current education reform policy. While school budgets are being slashed around the country, TFA has fundraisers raising millions of dollars in a single night, partners with corporate brands like J Crew or JC Penny to raise yet more money. And still TFA requires districts to hand over thousands of dollars per recruit and pay a full, first-year teacher salary. TFA also lobbies state governments to give up millions in precious funding and convinced the Federal Department of Education to give up tens of millions to this organization. With over 250 million dollars in reserves, TFA still never offers to pay CM salaries to help struggling districts or waive “finder’s fees” for a vast majority of placements. Luckily, some states are finally pushing back.
In addition, TFA has developed a very cozy, very troubling relationship with the very people implementing these horrible policies. Here in Chicago, TFA recently invited Chicago Board of Education member Andrea Zopp to speak at the Chicago Induction ceremonies. As far as I know, Zopp never bothered to come out to the hundreds of public hearings to listen to the thousands of parents who begged to save their schools before casting her vote to permanently shutter 50 schools, the largest single school-closing action in US history. The newest Mayor Emanuel-appointed Chicago board member is a woman named Deborah Quazzo, a millionaire business woman, who once sat on the Chicago Board of Teach for America. These ties represent massive conflicts of interests as the policies being pasted by The Board are benefiting TFA directly or indirectly. TFA has even pushed alums to get elected to Local School Councils (LSCs), democratic bodies designed to give voice to parents, teachers, and community members, and instead is using LSCs to promote their TFA-friendly corporate reform agenda.
What’s even sicker is that TFA is poised to benefit greatly from the horrible policies happening to children and teachers here in Chicago. As I describe in the post “Teach for America Has Gone Too Far”, TFA plans to expand into the very neighborhoods experiencing schools closings, the neighborhoods which by definition have more teachers than they do positions. Teach for America has truly crossed a line when closing schools and slashing budgets-policies detrimental to children-become the avenue for expansion. Also, the new “per-pupil budgeting” pushed by the BOE and Mayor Emanuel, means principals now must pay more for experienced teachers. In the past, teacher positions were opened based on the number of students and principals were free to hire any qualified teacher, regardless of salary as that salary did not come out of the individual school budgets. Under this new formula, principals are given a lump sum for every student enrolled and therefore are incentivized to hire less-experienced, cheaper teachers in order to save money (all the more necessary as budgets are experiencing the largest cuts in living memory.) I suspect that TFA quietly helped push this new budgeting policy into place.
Here in Chicago, as in many placement areas, TFA is closely tied to the charter school movement, as most CMs are placed in charters in this city. Charter schools are highly controversial and have been proven to exclude students with disabilities, students who are still learning English, and students with behavior problems. I have written extensively about how charters, along with the broader corporate education reform movement, are making educational opportunity worse for my high-needs students. Charter schools also tend to be non-unionized which leads to teacher exploitation and arbitrary firings with no recourse for staff. Charter schools have also come under fire for scandals involving misuse of public funds, nepotism, and corruption, such as the large, TFA-heavy, UNO Charter chain which experienced a massive scandal and has growing debt. However, due to political connections, UNO will suffer no long-term repercussions from their mismanagement.
Why You Must Say ‘No’
What I describe above is just the tip of the iceberg of the assault on teachers and public education and TFA’s role in it. As people new to the world of education, you must understand the context that you are stepping into. Read what other TFA alums have already written eloquently on describing why they no longer support the organization such as here or here. Do research about the realities of Teach for America, its effect on education, and the shoddy research they use to support their practices. Understand why a number of TFA alums and education activists are organizing against TFA this summer in Chicago. Know why groups of educators and parents boo and hiss when the name “Teach for America” is spoken. You must understand the pushback, and that it has nothing to do with you personally. There have been multiple abuses already endured in the cities you are entering and which TFA exploits. How else are stakeholders supposed to respond as TFA takes precious resources from districts and states in budgetary crisis? Or watch as TFA steals jobs from beloved experienced teachers and qualified, fully-credentialed teacher candidates? As TFA undermines a noble, and importantly female-dominated, profession with false claims that teachers need little preparation? Or as TFA increases inequality by giving our neediest students–students living in poverty, students with disabilities, students still learning English–the least qualified teachers. And what about when TFA partners with the very wealthy and politically-connected forces wreaking havoc on our schools against the will of communities?
You new recruits did not create this current situation. But by participating in TFA you will become a part of the problem.
A Chance to Do What’s Right
If you truly want to help children through teaching, give those future students the greatest chance possible by doing a full preparation program in advance of being left alone in that classroom. Those of us in the teaching profession will welcome bright young beginning teachers with open arms. And if you are not sure teaching is for you, volunteer in a school, tutor, participate in after-school programs. Whatever you do, do not allow TFA to let you learn how to teach on the backs of our neediest children, children living in poverty, children with disabilities, children who are still learning English, children living under oppression, racism, and savage inequalities. All children deserve a fully-prepared teacher for every day of their educational careers. Please do not participate in denying them that right.
And please do not become a foot solider for the Education Reform movement. Do not partner with the very people trying to destroy public education for their own personal gain.
You have a choice to make. TFA may ultimately benefit you personally, it may open doors to lucrative careers, help you get into prestigious law and graduate degrees, even give you direct paths into high-paid jobs in the worlds of education, business, or politics. It may even make you feel really good. But are you willing to participate in the destruction of the common good of public education, destroy the teaching profession, and deny needy children experienced long-term educators who would gladly take jobs filled by these TFA novices? Are you willing to do great harm to children and communities for your own personal gain?
Please make the right choice. And then join those of us on the ground fighting for REAL reform. We need your passion and drive. But we absolutely do not need you, without proper preparation, in our neediest classrooms.
Special Education teacher in Chicago
**UPDATE** Just read this article detailing how our appointed Board of Education in Chicago just renewed and EXPANDED Teach for America’s contract with CPS at last week’s Board meeting: http://www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=4364§ion=Article In the middle of a supposed “budget crisis” where 50 schools were viciously closed down and hundreds of teachers and staff laid off, CPS has increased the funding to TFA from $600,000 to $1,587,500. In addition, the number of TFA first year novices went from 245 to 325 (http://www.cpsboe.org/content/actions/2013_06/13-0626-PR46.pdf ).