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Mind the Gap: An Insider's Critique of Teach for America

An inner-city schoolteacher offers a critique of Teach for America.

This is the second in a two-part series on the education reform organization, of which the author is a second-year corps member.

Among corps members, Teach for America is in the midst of promoting, with its characteristic zeal, a 20th-anniversary summit, to be held in eight months in Washington, D.C. For all of the reasons outlined in my previous post, mainly because I'm proud of the movement the organization has helped launch and endlessly intrigued by alums' current endeavors, I plan to attend.

That being said, I hope Teach for America isn't around when the time comes to hold another summit 20 years from now.

I express this wish half-heartedly, as I've developed sentimental ties to the organization that I was recruited into as a college student and have been a part of ever since. However, I believe the long-term health of public education would be best served if Teach for America acted like jumper cables, by giving the establishment a jolt, which it has largely already accomplished. But then, it would go away.

Teach for America agrees in theory, proclaiming on its website that “we know that enlisting additional high-quality teachers”—by which they mean corps members who mostly serve for two years—“is not the ultimate solution.” Teach for America is looking to replicate the success of Michelle Rhee, a 1992 corps member who was effective in the classroom—bringing her students from the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to the 90th percentile in two years. Rhee went on to implement systemic reform as an alumna, founding the New Teacher Project in 1997. She now oversees the D.C. Public Schools, which have made significant progress since she took over as chancellor in 2007.

The idea seems to be that Teach for America will cease to exist once it has accomplished its oft-stated goal that "all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education." With that goal still out of reach, the organization is expanding from its 35 current regions to a number of new sites next year —among them, Detroit, Alabama, and Rhode Island.

Is such expansion, or even existence, a plus for the American public education system? To help answer that question, I thought I’d address the four most common criticisms of Teach For America.

1. We’re inexperienced, ineffective educators.

Inexperienced? Yes. Ineffective? Too often. When I accepted the offer to join the corps, Teach for America inundated me with materials and videos that showed its teachers as miracle workers. I drank the Kool-Aid, honestly shocked during my summer institute training to see data that showed not all corps members were making significant gains with their students.

I wish I had links to studies that clearly showed corps members’ effectiveness. While a smattering of research does exist, corps members are not conclusively more effective than other teachers. Teach for America’s rigorous recruitment and training process is about as effective as it could possibly be—there is only so much progress that can be made in five weeks of preparation and the occasional follow-up visit.

2. We leave after two years.

This criticism is true for the majority of corps members. Even for those of us who do have a compelling impact on our students’ academic achievement and intellectual development, few of us stay at our schools long enough to make these changes systemic.

My predecessor was a fellow corps member, and his students had very high test scores. My students have done well, too, and they have also been able to partake in a myriad of opportunities outside of school. That said, if I follow his lead and also leave after my two-year commitment is up this June, neither of us will have significantly improved my school in any kind of enduring way.

3. We’re a stopgap solution.

My sister advocated against me joining Teach for America on the grounds that the organization provided a band-aid solution to the shortage of quality teachers nationwide. Around the country, she argued, school systems and graduate schools of education are not forced to reform themselves when there is a ready supply of eager college students willing to work hard for little money.

She has a point. If I was the superintendent of a struggling school system, I would be loathe to invite Teach for America in. While I know some teachers would make remarkable gains, those educators would likely leave after their two year commitment was up, leaving me in a situation similar to what I was in before they ever got there. While those effective teachers might go on to become school leaders, education reform-minded politicians or anything of the sort, I would be reluctant to let my students serve as their laboratory, their training ground.

4. We have a holier-than-thou attitude.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to quibble with the critics who lament the “strain of self-righteousness” that permeates some of the corps. Some of my peers are remarkably modest; many of us have been humbled by this most trying of experiences. Yet I do not take issue with the commentators, including some on my last post, who claim some corps members act like they know more than they do. You need a very healthy amount of self-confidence to think you can take on this role and be effective, and for some of us, the cup of confidence has surely runneth over.

Going forward, Teach for America would do well to push its alumni efforts as much as possible, thereby getting effective leaders into positions of power and creating the kind of profound changes that will, in time, eliminate the need for such an organization to exist in the first place.

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD appears on Fridays.

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