I Won't Say 'Don't Join Teach For America' (Yet)

In too many instances, Teach For America does more for those who join it than for the students and communities it hopes to serve.

Earlier this year, an undergraduate emailed me a great question: If I knew then what I know now, would I still join Teach For America? And, last summer, after Chicago educator Katie Osgood asked new TFA corps members to quit, a corps member asked me the same question.

Indeed, Fordham Professor Mark Naison may have started a trend when he penned this piece about why TFA can't recruit in his classes. Now we've come to another TFA recruitment season, and several provocative stances regarding TFA have recently been made. In the Harvard Crimson, student Sandra Korn urged her classmates not to join—the Crimson’s editorial board responded with this defense of TFA—and Catherine Michna, a fellow TFA alumnus and academic, also recently wrote about why she will not write recommendation letters for students applying to the organization.

As someone who knows that nuance matters, I hesitate to tell students not to join TFA, though I agree with most of Michna's and Korn’s critiques of TFA and recognize that Naison and Osgood continuously raise valid concerns. Though I find it highly problematic, I also agree with the Harvard Crimson editorial board in this statement: "Teach For America is valuable because it provides at least a temporary solution to America's educational problems." However, those Harvard students couldn't be more factually right and morally wrong.

I am a foundations of education professor and urban education scholar. I guide graduate students through interrogating what lies beneath what we see in schools. I also live in Philadelphia. Korn wrote, "We should all have questions about how much we can actually help to fix structural problems with just a month of training and a few years of work." If ever there was a school district with "structural problems," Philadelphia's is one. Our public school system has been decimated in the last 12 years and devastated in 2013.

Last June, more than 20 of Philadelphia's public schools were closed and almost 4,000 school district educators and support staff were laid off. In September, in one of the district schools where there was no nurse, a 12-year-old girl became ill and later died Our needs are high and extreme. Temporary tweaks will not solve our systemic, structural issues. Yet Teach For America brought new corps members here, most of whom are now teaching in charter schools that are run by charter management organizations that feed off the destruction of the district. Philadelphia and school districts like it need systemic changes, not tweaks, not tacit support for the expansion of charters while our traditional public school system is starved, robbed, and cheated by those who hope that it will die.

Urban public school systems need more than temporary solutions like TFA. Supplying teachers by relying heavily on TFA with its two-year commitment and incentives for people to leave the profession is deeply flawed. In districts and cities where people have, for decades, experienced constant experimentation in schools, classrooms, and district governance and are now struggling to cope with school closings and mass educator layoffs, these districts, cities, communities, and families must rely on teachers who, for the most part, have limited understanding of their historical and cultural contexts and little to no long-term investment in the sustaining and improving of the community, city, or district. It could be that accepting TFA means that a district has given up on finding real, sustainable, permanent solutions to our woebegone situations.

Korn described an email exchange with a TFA recruiter and then lamented that "TFA has positioned itself as an ethical alternative to Wall Street for college seniors looking for a short-term commitment." My own students have told me about receiving unsolicited TFA recruitment emails, positioning the two-year commitment as a stepping-stone to their real careers. Because of TFA's political connections, government preferences, and local practices, some districts now hire TFA teachers before other applicants. This means that more or differently qualified educators—those who are more likely to share backgrounds with their students—have to wait and may not be hired at all. Though the organization responded to Korn by saying that "TFA is among the country's largest providers of African American and Latino teachers," my concerns are not assuaged. Far too many people who were actually interested in being lifelong educators have come to me, confused after having been rejected or waitlisted from TFA.

Since TFA has been given vast access to many of our urban school systems, I care about who does (and does not) have access to Teach For America. Who has access to our most vulnerable students, students who need the most and far too often get the least? Who teaches and cares for children? Who cares about their academic achievement, their humanity, and their lives as whole people? While they are mostly do-gooders with noble ideals, the majority of TFA corps members are not "highly qualified," regardless of the Capitol Hill lobbying that got them labeled as such.

This brings us to TFA's training and support. For the most part, TFA's Summer Institute program is centrally created and distributed to its locations across the nation. Corps members are taught instructional and classroom management strategies that are watered down, condensed into the least common denominators of what some well-meaning yet misguided souls think is most appropriate for students striving while poor. There is a problem in assuming all poor people, all black people, all Latino people are the same and that the same thing will work everywhere for every situation where public education is a man-made disaster, like in my hometown, Philadelphia.

When I've previously supervised curriculum specialists (who teach corps members at Summer Institute), we spent a significant amount of time complicating the pre-determined curriculum and changing it based on our critiques. Still, that is not enough to shift the thinking of some corps members—or of the TFA alumni who impose erroneous policies on children as a result of their slanted experiences and limited perspectives about poverty and school reform.

So I'm conflicted. I understand the resist-TFA strategy Korn, Michna, Naison, Osgood, and others advocate. They seek to suck the organization dry of recruits who far too often serve as band-aids on the broken arms of our systemic, structural issues. However, I don't believe the organization is going away, and I'm concerned about who will join if those who are critical shun it. If the organization is going to change, organizational thinking must change. Who TFA attracts and how they choose to live their lives as educational professionals matters. The only way I think change can come is from within, which means getting more people into TFA who, while aligned with the mission, question its methods. I would rather see people with critical lenses like Sandra Korn resist from within TFA.

I won't say don't join Teach For America or I won't write recommendation letters. Whether you enter the profession through TFA, a school of education, or some other path, I care about who enters our schools and classrooms, why they come, why they stay, if they stay, and what they do while they are there. Should you choose to teach, please examine your motives and aspirations .

TFA teachers may have been sold tall tales of being able to correct educational injustice in the two-year commitment, but Wendy Kopp has acknowledged "I know we are not going to change the education system with people teaching for two years. That's not what we are trying to do." Then what, educator, are you trying to do? What is your purpose? Urban schools and classrooms don’t need hyped-up heroes who burn out before their fire really gets going. We need resilient, lifelong educators who are focused on collective responsibility and the greater good. We need servant leaders, not self-serving saviors. In too many instances, Teach For America does more for those who join it than for the students and communities it hopes to serve. If you do choose to teach FOR America, please make sure your work improves more than just your life.

As for whether or not I would join TFA if I knew in 1999 what I know now, this question is just as spiritual and philosophical as it is political and career-oriented. If I hadn't been affiliated with TFA, I wouldn't be who I am now. I am better for having had my TFA experience. I hope TFA is better for having had me in it. I hope my students were better for having had me as their teacher. Still, the impacts the organization claims to have are likely gross exaggerations. (I'm not buying claims of 2.6 extra months of math growth.) And I do not support some of the directions and choices the organization makes. But that's why I've also chosen to be a critical friend to the organization. Somebody has to tell TFA, in a way they can hear it, when their stuff stinks. Might as well be me.

Hallway image via Shutterstock

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