Check out my interview with TFA Alum Ben Spielberg where we discuss whether and how TFA and its critics can work together. For the most part, I’ve generally been skeptical of calls for TFA and its critics to work together. When such calls are really urging critics to be quiet or simply be more positive, Katie Osgood’s Hey Charters and TFA, You Want Me to Join With You? Then Change is an appropriate response. However, if working together could help address issues with TFA and could help both TFA and critics work more effectively towards social justice and educational equity, then it could be worthwhile. After all, one of the goals of this blog is to encourage TFA and its members to address issues with TFA. When Ben suggested on a number of occasions (in his writing and in online discussions) that such efforts could be more fruitful than critics might think, I became intrigued and asked if he would agree to an interview on the topic. He graciously agreed and here’s the result. Hope you find it helpful!
A common complaint of TFA recruits is the lack of preparation they receive for teaching and for the often very different environments they’re placed in. This is exactly what happened to Allie, a TFA Corps Member from California who was placed in a rural town in North Carolina. She realized quickly that “I was completely unprepared for the setting I was placed in.” Another common complaint is the lack of support. “To make matters worse, I was given very little support and assistance from the organization that had placed me there, and I didn’t know what to do. I was frustrated with TFA and felt that they had just thrown me in with no care for my personal well-being.” To her credit, Allie held on to her love of teaching, but realized she would have to quit TFA and pursue an “MA in Education and a California teaching credential, so that I can be the best teacher possible.” Read the full account of her experience at Why I quit Teach for America, but don’t consider myself a quitter
To many, it’s concerning enough that TFA targets its placements in low-income minority schools where this exacerbates the churn of ill-trained novices. Even worse, TFA has long placed their recruits in special education contexts despite these recruits having little, if any, training or experience for these demanding and specialized jobs. Without acknowledging this gross deficiency in their training for such placements, TFA has now launched a new Special Education and Ability Initiative, which provides additional, but still very meager, training. In An Open Letter to TFAers Tempted to Diagnose ADHD, Among Other Issues, veteran educator Mercedes Schneider voices strong concern about this attempt to train recruits to “professionally diagnose and serve special education populations”. She warns recruits, “Do not presume that a single year of “training” positions you to diagnose or un-diagnose members of a special population.” While TFA claims their high expectations will lift up special ed students, Mercedes warns them, “Do not mistake enthusiasm for invincibility. If you really want to assist special needs populations, make the appropriate investment. Return to school and treat your decision as an honest, long-term career move.”
In numerous large cities, TFA is moving beyond its role of filling teacher shortages and is becoming a willing partner in efforts to privatize schools. Ani McHugh is a HS English teacher who has written about TFA’s role in taking advantage of school closings to expand its presence and promote the growth of privately run charter schools. In TFA looks to capitalize on School District of Philadelphia crisis, she describes how TFA is part of a plan that will “ultimately hurt students, starve public schools, disrupt unions, and promote the expansion of charters in Philadelphia.” And, in Predictable reform tactics in Camden: close schools, lay off teachers, open charters, import TFA, she again shows how TFA is capitalizing on school closings. TFA has played a similar role in the privatizing efforts in Chicago as well, as described in How big can TFA get? And TFA is poised to do the same in Newark under the leadership of TFA alum Cami Anderson and her “One Newark” plan – even though it’s highly un-popular among parents and teachers and even though research shows no evidence it will help students, and will disproportionately impact teachers of color (refer here for links to the research).
As traditional public schools in largely poor and minority communities are closed, TFA is conveniently waiting in the wings to provide the cheap and disposable labor for the private charter schools that open up to replace them. As reported here, TFA recruits must accept whatever placement they’re given. It’s no surprise then that in these communities, TFA recruits are placed disproportionately in charter schools (see below for examples). So, when TFA says it’s not directly replacing veteran teachers, that is very misleading. TFA is indirectly replacing veteran teachers through school closing and privatization. What’s worse is that teachers in the closed schools are more likely to be minority teachers. So, even as TFA claims to be apolitical, its actions show otherwise.
Overall 41% of TFA alum are teaching in charters and 33% of recruits are placed in charters, which itself dramatically favors charters considering only ~5% of students attend charters nationally. Still, this figure masks how in large urban settings TFA recruits are placed almost exclusively in private charters schools where they provide the cheap disposable labor these schools rely on to undermine teachers unions. Below are a few examples:
So, when reporter Stephanie Simon asked Has TFA betrayed its mission, it seems clear the answer is yes.
The United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) has launched a “TFA Truth Tour” to expose the dark side of corporate education reform. “The tour will visit 15 campuses to expose the truth about TFA: not only does it fail to prepare teachers for the classroom, but it is systematically pushing to replace our system of community public education and replace it with an alternative largely controlled by profit-seeking corporations.” Each stop will feature a panel of student activists, local teachers, and/or TFA alum.
Coverage of some of the stops can be found at Macalester College (and here), University of Pennsylvania, and University of Wisconsin.
Additional coverage is also reported in Colorlines.
The #ResistTFA Twitter chat hit the top of Twitter trending charts on Feb 17th. The chat was organized by Students United for Public Education (SUPE) as part of their Students Resisting TFA campaign, but garnered strong and enthusiastic support from students, teachers, parents, and concerned citizens across the country. The event also received mainstream media coverage in USA Today, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, and Politico. SUPE leaders Stephanie Rivera and Hannah Nguyen released the following statement after the event:
“The overwhelming response to the #ResistTFA hashtag proves that there is an enormous concern among students, teachers, parents and citizens across the country regarding Teach For America’s disproportionate influence on public education. We are encouraged to see this massive outpouring on Twitter, and we look forward to continuing this important discussion about Teach For America on campuses across the country.”
TFA has become perhaps the biggest recruiter on campus at many colleges across the country. This isn’t surprising given the job market these days and the enormous money TFA spends marketing itself on college campuses. But more and more college students are questioning and criticizing TFA as it becomes clear that TFA is straying from its mission of addressing educational inequity. Lucy Griswold is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin (one of TFA’s largest feeder schools) who considered applying to TFA. Even though TFA may have helped her land a job, she came to realize she could not join TFA if she truly valued educational justice. In Teach for America can’t offer real solutions to educational inequality, she cites two main reasons: TFA’s role in the corporate-driven reform movement and her conviction that teachers need extensive training before entering the classroom.
Binghamton University senior, Julianne Cuba voices similar concerns about TFA’s inadequate training in Teach for America doesn’t live up to its mission. She writes, “If the mission of TFA is to ensure that “all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education,” why are we allowing ill-prepared college graduates to be at the forefront of such an undertaking?”
If you’re a student concerned about TFA’s negative influence on educational reform, check out http://studentsresistingtfa.k12newsnetwork.com/. See if there’s a chapter at your school that you can support or consider starting a chapter at your school if there’s not already one. In addition, consider writing a letter in your student paper sharing your concerns. With TFA’s aggressive and well-funded marketing, it’s important that the views of real students and educators are heard.