There’s a story out today in the humor magazine The Onion that offers a point and counter-point on the merits of Teach for America. You can read it here. As you may know, Teach for America is a national nonprofit that brings high-achieving college graduates into underserved schools as classroom teachers. It was founded by Wendy Kopp in 1989 and has gone on to be one of the leading employers of high-achieving college graduates across the country. It’s also one of the most polarizing organizations in the education world today.
You can read more about the very real impact of TFA on its website here, and through this good reflection with Kopp herself from Harvard Magazine and through this thoughtful (though a little dense) report from the National Education Policy Center. There’s even more from a more recent piece in Education Week here.
So how do I feel about TFA? My feelings are mixed. I have several good friends who have put in their two-year commitment and then headed in different directions: some have stayed in education, some have stayed in the nonprofit universe, and some have gone on to law school and medical school and the corporate world. The aim of TFA is a great one: the idea is to take America’s best and brightest and engage them in what many people (myself included) consider the primary civil rights issue of our time: equity in education. TFA has deployed smart, motivated, energetic young people into some of the toughest neighborhoods in America to try to share their motivation and energy with young children–and, most importantly, to actually teach them math and reading and everything else.
TFA is frequently maligned for several reasons, and one of the biggest criticisms is that its teachers are ill-prepared for the challenge ahead. Their training is short: they spend a matter of weeks in their institute between college graduation and the start of the new school year. Corps members (as they are called) are thrust abruptly into situations that give a seasoned teacher pause. Twenty years in, TFA has great support systems and structures in place, but the schools that the organization serves have widely varying resources: some are understaffed, some have out-of-date textbooks, some have meager space and physical materials to support teaching.
Additionally, the whole premise of TFA–just get the smartest people you can and put them into a tough situation; they’ll figure it out–may contribute to negative attitudes about the teaching profession. There are lots of arguments out there for trying to raise the status of the teaching profession, from offering teachers salaries over $100,000 to assessing the social economic impact of teachers and the fact that they’re surely worth more than a national average salary on par with that of bartenders and waitresses. Teaching should be hard; it’s a demanding job and the stakes are high. I’m not sure that TFA’s style offers a positive move for the profession in the national perception. These other sources argue, “This is a hard job that should be hard to get and which should be compensated well.” The argument from the TFA camp seems more like, “We’re smart, passionate, and we just graduated from college and don’t mind being underpaid; how hard can this be?”
Every conversation I have about TFA tends to come to the same conclusion. I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s quip about democracy: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” Yes, TFA is problematic and imperfect, but it’s an awfully good start toward bringing high-quality teaching into the classrooms that may need it most.
There are two things about TFA, though, that I find distressing. The first is the holier-than-thou attitude that I’ve heard from some (very few but very vocal) corps members. I know one person like this, and her general demeanor toward me and my different path through education can be politely termed dismissive. She has more than once smirked that it must be nice to have such an easy job, in a school with caring parents and motivated students and supportive faculty. Because her job, she insists, is harder, and her work, she insists, is more important than mine.
I find this a little appalling, since the whole point of educational equity is that everyone’s education is important. (I think she must never have read any Orwell. Or something.) Quite frankly, I don’t think that my students’ education at Convent is less important than her students’ education in another place. They all deserve a high-quality education.
Furthermore, I’m not sure this this person’s stance is fair, really, since the fact that I haven’t made identical life choices to hers does not necessarily mean that I disagree with everything she stands for. And that seems to be the defensive, accusatory stance she takes in each conversation we’ve had on the subject. I didn’t do TFA, but that doesn’t make me the bad guy. I support TFA. I just don’t think it’s the only way to go about massive educational change in this country. And it also wasn’t the path that I happened to choose, since I think that there are profound things to know about educating children that I personally couldn’t reflect on effectively in a brief student-teaching institute and a baptism-by-fire entry into an underserved public school. That’s not how I learn. And I don’t think I personally would be an equally or more effective educator if I had taken that path for myself.
Secondly, here’s the thing that rings especially true for me in this article–and it’s the thing that I think about most when I think about TFA–these kids know who you are. They know that some of these TFAers have been airlifted in from exceptional college educations and they will (in many cases) be airlifted out two years later–and these students will stay in the same place. Kids are savvy: they know that, while your intentions as a new teacher may be pure and your work may be stellar, there’s an expiration date on your commitment to them. They may know that you’re not only teaching them how to multiply fractions; you’re also honing a narrative for your personal statement.
Kids are smart. Really. They can smell insincerity a mile away. And any system that discounts that, any system that underestimates that, is doomed for failure. As far as I’m concerned, TFA and the vast majority of its corps members do great work. It’s when people stray from this commitment to the hard, good work of education and into something more cynical and self-serving that things go awry.