As autumn emerges it signals blooming foliage, a Riggi mansion decked out for Halloween, and, last but not least,Teach for America (TFA) applications. This year a friend and I started a Skidmore College chapter of an organization called Students United for Public Education (SUPE).
At the national level, SUPE is about to release a campaign called “Resisting Teach for America.” I hesitate to become fully involved because my stance does not reach the same level of opposition as other SUPE leaders. However, I do think that joining TFA is a very loaded commitment and would like to offer some food for thought to anyone considering an application.
Since Teach for America’s founding in 1990, the organization has cultivated national praise, billions of dollars in funding and an increasingly elite pool of applications. TFA’s pearly reputation has successfully rooted itself in American minds— my own included. Over the years I have learned about admirable graduates volunteering to take on the public school trenches, including the toughest working conditions and most challenging students throughout our country. TFA corps members seemed to epitomize noble and good intentions. But that very statement—their pure intentions—marks the beginning of a very unfortunate and necessary critique of this “superhero” program.
As compassionate as TFA recruits may be, their goals need to be less idealistic and more broad-sighted. If the long-term consequences of TFA were more closely examined, optimistic potential corps members would realize they were about to participate in a harmful system. The prospect of bonding with some struggling students just may lose its allure.
Why do so many college seniors apply for this prestigious program in the first place? Perhaps it looks good on a resume. Perhaps they don’t know what else to do after graduation, so a short teaching gig seems like a nice move. Or perhaps they want to earn their teaching certification in an alternative way (I am quite guilty of this consideration myself). Realistically, these motives are all understandable, but it needs to be more widely understood that the two years of the program do not only impact the lives of the corps members.
The students in each placement are very real kids that college grads should not be using for the above devices. They are not guinea pigs deserving to be toyed with by a group of enthusiastic yet inexperienced novices. Everyone knows that a teacher’s first experience is never the most successful; they need years of trials and errors to get into their groove. In the case of TFA, those errors are inflicted upon the highest-needs students in our nation. These kids need the best professional educators in the field, carrying far more than five weeks of TFA training under their belts.
In my own public school years, any troublesome teachers had their negative effects balanced and assuaged by the high quality teachers to follow. The same cannot often be said for students in low-income districts, where quality teachers are dissuaded from applying to work because of the frustrating conditions.
Even if well-practiced “career” teachers (those who teach by long-term profession, rather than using teaching as a stepping stone) do enter the struggling school scene, they are increasingly laid off with tightening school budgets. In the “Resisting Teach for America” campaign, SUPE founder Stephanie Rivera, in an interview, explains TFA’s affiliation with this problem, “In many of the same school districts where experienced teachers have been laid off, TFA recruits have come in to replace them” Moreover, Rivera observes, “Since most TFA teachers do not stay in their schools beyond their two-year commitment, they are far less likely to demand the higher pay and benefits, and thus stand as an attractive alternative, from the districts’ perspective, to career teachers and their unions.”
This observation was blatantly demonstrated in July, when the Chicago Public School district laid off over a thousand teachers and committed to hiring over three hundred new TFA recruits. In this way, TFA isn’t just following its mission to fill the voids of teachers in undesired schools; it is helping to create these voids.
Thus a cycle emerges, as is always the case with social issues. Students who need the most help – those who have fallen behind their affluent counterparts since the early differences of pre-school – are bound to detrimental teaching from which they cannot recover. Their achievement decreases. Harsh evaluations are implemented to hold their teachers accountable for these results. The best teachers stay far away from this powerless, degrading scenario. Instead, hopeful, well-intentioned college grads are called in to “save the day.”