Confronting Teach For America

Teach For America is an organization that recruits new college graduates, gives them five weeks of training in a summer institute and then places them in some of America’s neediest schools. Popular with the Obama administration, TFA has increasingly generated criticism about its limited training program and its requirement that corps members stay only two years in a school. I’ve published some pieces critical of TFA (see herehere and here), including this one by  Fordham Professor Mark Naison, who explained why he does not welcome Teach For America in his classroom to recruit. Here is a post by another academic, Mitchell Robinson, an associate professor and chair of music education at Michigan State University, about his recent experience with two TFA recruiters who met him to discuss why he, like Naison, didn’t want them in his classroom.  Before moving to Michigan State, Robinson taught music for 10 years in the Fulton (NY) City School District, and held collegiate appointments at the University of Connecticut and the Eastman School of Music.

By Mitchell Robinson

One of my students was contacted by a Teach For America recruiting representative, and asked if she was interested in getting involved with the organization. She sent me the note, and I replied that TFA was not welcome in my teacher preparation classes (á la Mark Naison!). I received a reply asking for a meeting, to discuss my “problems with TFA.”

And so I met with the two TFA recruiters, both of whom had taught for three years as TFA corps members and then moved into leadership/management roles with the organization. The discussion went just about as well as I thought it would.

They asked how they could work more effectively with traditional teacher education programs, and I asked them how they justified sending out recruits with five weeks of “training” into some of the more challenging classrooms in our state.

When I suggested that TFA was contributing to the displacement of veteran teachers in Chicago, Detroit and other urban centers, looks of shock and disbelief registered on their faces. They said that was not their goal.

When I asked one of  them to explain TFA’s goal, she said it was to improve education in urban schools. I asked her to list the factors contributing to the “problems” in those schools and explain what  TFA was doing about those problems. She didn’t answer.

I suggested that the teacher “shortage” in some urban schools might be the result of poor teacher working conditions and a destabilizing of teaching as a profession, causing more teachers to leave the classroom–and that TFA played a major role in creating these problems. She denied this was the case, but acknowledged that the “perception is there.” I replied: “Its not a perception. That’s your business plan, and if you aren’t doing anything to actively combat that “perception,” then you are part of the problem. When traditionally prepared teachers leave the profession, it’s a bug–when TFA recruits leave, its a feature.” She disagreed, and I asked her what the average length of service was in Detroit for TFA recruits. She “wasn’t sure.”

We finished our discussion after I posed this question to one of the recruiters: “What would you say to my student teachers who decided they wanted to be teachers while they were in middle school or younger, elected a major in education, and then spent four or five years preparing to enter the profession, if they asked you why someone with no degree in education and five weeks of summer training should be competing with them for the same job?”

Her response was that some people decide to become teachers at different times, and that should not preclude their entry to the profession. I agreed with her and suggested that these persons then enter a graduate program in teaching, which takes two years of coursework and includes a full student teaching placement at my institution. I said that students in high-need schools deserve nothing less.

The other recruiter appeared disturbed by the conversation. She had majored in journalism and Italian, and then taught English and Social Studies for three years.

I asked her what was wrong. She said, “I just wanted to get into the classroom in the worst way.”

“You did,” I replied.