The Loving Critic

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 12 2012

Visions of a different Teach for America

This past winter I developed a bit of a habit of reading critiques of TFA online.  After too many feverish nights of clicking through links and wallowing in the back-and-forth between the organization’s detractors and devotees, I couldn’t shake off this feeling that the critics made a lot of sense.

As a corps member who made “significant gains” both years (trumpets blare), I had always thought favorably of TFA and my own impact as a teacher.  First off, I was good at it.  The numbers loved me.  Secondly, everywhere I turned I was greeted with affirmations that I was pretty much single-handedly closing the achievement gap (Michelle Rhee, TFA alumna extraordinaire, danced in my honor across  the pages Newsweek; “Waiting for Superman” sang to me that I would lift communities out of poverty at a charter school).  Third, upon completing my two years, TFA told me the world was waiting with an open door, hoping I would have an even bigger impact by becoming an education reformer.  Though I knew that I was not the world’s (or my school’s ) best teacher , I reveled in the idea that I was an agent of change, and that the achievement gap was on notice.

So, as I pored over the arguments and evidence online, I was pretty horrified to find my previously unsullied impressions begin to brown at the edges.  Were TFA teachers really scabs?  Was Wendy Kopp really part of a neo-liberal secret society intent on turning children into warriors for the global economy?  Did TFA teachers destabilize the communities where they worked?  Did they have a weak impact on student achievement?  And, probably the most striking question of all: was TFA actually belittling the teaching profession and weakening the entire teaching enterprise?  Alone, in front of my computer, I again and again had to mouth a quiet ‘yes’.

Now, as impactful as that web surfing was, I don’t want to give an impression that I think the TFA critiques are entirely correct.  Overall I think that TFA’s critics and adherents both have good points.  TFA does bring a lot of energy to the table, and a lot of TFA corps members and alumni work incredibly hard to help their students.  I myself was moderately effective as a teacher, and I did my best to love my students.  But does all that hard work and good intention make up for TFA using huge amounts of resources to create a potentially damaging short-term teaching corps?  And what the heck is TFA doing allying itself with corporate reformers who push a very narrow view of education?

This blog is my attempt to engage others in answering these difficult questions. I recently decided to return to teaching, and as I reenter the teacher workforce I know that so much of what’s wrong with education could be fixed if we listened more to the people working in schools.  I have to admit that I still have some of the TFA glow–some feeling like I’m an agent of change.  I think this is good.  Teachers should feel motivated and passionate about their ability to make an impact.  But, they should also be informed, especially if they do engage in speaking out about education’s “big questions”.  I hope that my voice is informative and constructive.

Before I close my first blog post, I wanted to share three primary visions of what I’d like to see TFA become.  As I note in my About Me page, I am 100% behind TFA’s mission, but I think it needs to change its programming in order to eradicate educational inequity.

1.  TFA should stop placing corps members in areas with sufficient numbers of fully certified teachers.  Evidence on the effectiveness of TFA teachers is mixed, and most TFA teachers don’t stay in the field long enough to become maximally effective.  Districts may use TFA corps members as a cheap way to plug holes, but if cities have teachers who want to be there long-term, we really should question the role of TFA in those regions.

2.  TFA should actively partner with the best graduate schools of education in the country in order to improve its training and develop a more robust vision of education.  Unlike many teacher preparation programs, our country’s best schools of education create great teachers and great scholarship.  TFA has looked extensively into the research on teacher effectiveness, but its done so with such a narrow view of education that its training is kind of absurd (teacher-directed reading and math, anyone?).  I’d also love to see TFA use some of its organizational and fundraising might to increase the size of teacher preparation programs at Stanford, Michigan State, Vanderbilt, etc.  Perhaps have a school of ed track within TFA where you get funding and commit to 5 years of teaching?

3.  TFA should be much more humble about its achievements, and much more transparent about its outcomes.  Sadly, TFA has not moved the needle on the achievement gap.  If anything, the gap is getting worse thanks to growing economic inequality (not that TFA alum aren’t fighting this, though!).  Although the organization is prospering, I do not see it being honest about its meekness in front of the challenge.  Widely sharing internal data on teacher effectiveness, retention, financial management, and other aspects of its organization would help our society realize that ivy-league novices are no match for macro-social and economic forces.  In fact, I think transparency would lend urgency to the scope and scale of opportunity and achievement gaps.  Also, such transparency would help educational scholars understand how we can best prepare and support teachers, and would help policymakers make informed choices.

Here’s to TFa.  With love.


P.S. I hope to link to a lot of other people’s writing and academic studies in future posts.  Since I’m not getting into the weeds about anything here, I decided not to do so in this piece.  Feel free to take me to task for anything I said!

P.P.S.  Thanks to Gary Rubinstein for inspiring me to blog.

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Because TFA could be so much more

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