What is the problem that TFA is trying to solve?
You go to their website and they talk about the lack "educational equity" for low-income students. This is true and most would not dispute it. Okay, but why create a teaching corps?
What is TFA's "approach?"
Teach For America provides a critical source of well-trained teachers who are helping break the cycle of educational inequity. These teachers, called corps members, commit to teach for two years in one of 39 urban and rural regions across the country, going above and beyond traditional expectations to help their students to achieve at high levels.
Under History, they state:
We have become one of the nation’s largest providers of teachers for low-income communities, and we have been recognized for building a pipeline of leaders committed to educational equity and excellence.
She (Wendy Kopp) was convinced that many in her generation were searching for a way to assume a significant responsibility that would make a real difference in the world and that top college students would choose teaching over more lucrative opportunities if a prominent teacher corps existed.
Under Growth Plan:
We feel an imperative to grow given the enormity of the problem we’re addressing. Every additional recruit is another corps member who has the potential to have a life-changing impact in the lives of children growing up today and another alumna/us who can be a lifelong leader for fundamental change. Moreover, attaining critical mass within communities increases our leverage and fosters a sense of collective impact that motivates corps members and alumni to do still more. (bold mine)
I went and read and read about TFA at many websites. I have to tell you that it is not often that instead of feeling inspired or confused or angry, I felt my blood run cold. Why do I feel that way?
1) Nowhere did I find the answer to my question: what is the problem they are trying to solve? To answer that question, they need to explain why TFA was created. Ms. Kopp says so her generation could assume a large responsibility to make a difference in the world and she chose teaching. Nowhere does she say to help low-income students. And, more importantly, she started for her peers, not for those she wanted to help. As well, I can't find at their website any information on what gap they filled, if school districts had been asking for this help, and how many teaching positions were going unfilled at districts with low-income students.
2) What did I find that worried me? An awful lot of backbiting, in-fighting, confusion over what they are trying to achieve, pride in TFA as well as defensiveness.
3) What I can say for certain is that TFA is not about being apprentice teachers or being student teachers with a mentor teacher. That, I think, would be wonderful because you would help these new teachers (with only 5 weeks of training and a bachelor's degree) learn from a mentor teacher but also be an inspiration in the classroom to the students AND help reduce class size.
But that is NOT any part of what TFA is.
4) Again, more research needed but what is clear is that districts sign some kind of MOU with TFA and money is exchanged (district to TFA). Why would any district pay extra (on top of the TFA teacher's salary) for a under-trained first year teacher?
5) Some of the comments from TFA teachers, present and past:
I think the real key to addressing the very difficult question teacher preparation is to provide multiple pathways. Don't dog TFA just because it isn't a cure-all.
Here in DC, Michelle Rhee conflates “high quality teachers” with new TFA recruits. Not so – you may be excellent teachers someday, but not yet. But thanks in large part to TFA PR, the public doesn’t know this. Instead, they think “Isn’t it noble – the best and the brightest, willing to help the least amongst us.” It’s demeaning to the kids and to the regular teachers and puts the focus on YOU, where you know it doesn’t belong.
I’m not against TFA; I’m against the glorification of TFA.
I too would probably take a TFAer over some of the waiting-for-retirement teachers I've seen. What scares me is that TFA is clearly making a concerted effort to hype their product as something that it's not. And this is relatively new. There was a time when TFA acknowledged its shortcomings. Now it's saying that TFA teachers are not only just as good, but better than any other teachers, regardless of experience. And because of that TFA wants to continue to expand, possibly doubling its size in six years. Really? Why do they need to expand?
There are legions of certified, qualified, experienced substitute teachers trying to break into the ranks of full-time classroom teachers. Many have subbed for years in hopes of developing contacts that could lead to jobs. Please don't dismiss all subs as lousy teachers. It's not true. School districts would do well to consider many of their subs for full-time jobs before they turn to inexperienced TFA grads.
I found an interesting but troubling article at a oddly named website, Blue Avocado. From their article comes my concern laid out better than I can write it:
But as the nation moves toward defining social innovation and handing over the federal Social Innovation Program to private foundations, it cannot hurt to recognize TFA and other vaunted models for what they are: real-life nonprofit organizations with lots of good things going for them, but not without limitations, controversies, and trade-offs in what they purport to achieve.
The overall, unfolding story of TFA is not contained in its funding, its political prowess, the odd negative audit finding, or even the stories -- some inspiring, some disillusioning -- from its participants. It will be played out as the nation defines social innovation and how socially innovative nonprofits supplement, revolutionize, subvert, or instigate social change.
Folks, this could be a simultaneous good/bad thing. That TFA is hell-bent on expansion and having more of their alums move into management and leadership seems to point to a bigger agenda than helping low-income students succeed.
That our district has at least 1 (maybe more) TFA teachers and seems to be lining up to allow more and that the Seattle Foundation is all lined up to help is concerning because of one factor. Where was the public discussion about this? This is not whose building gets maintained or who gets what program - this is about the people in your child's classroom. Parents are not part of hiring or firing but yes, I think discussion over whether you want someone with 5 weeks training in charge of teaching your child IS within your rights to discussion.
Why would our School Board not tell us about this? Why is this suddenly upon us? It makes me very worried and I just have this gut instinct that somehow this district is really transforming quickly and without much discussion. Don't let it be that way - write your Board member today and ask, "What is the district's stance on Teach for America and why aren't we ALL talking about it?"