Ever since I first learned about Teach for America, I knew I wanted to participate. Social action, teaching, working with underprivileged kids…I wanted to be Hillary Swank from Freedom Writers. I thought this could be my chance at sculpting young minds through education, which I already know is a powerful socialization tool.
It was not until this year that my praise and glory of TFA shifted. After receiving countless emails from TFA recruits on campus, I decided to meet with one. She, of course, represented everything that is positive and optimistic about TFA: someone whose life was changed by the amazing and talented group of kids and staff that she worked with for two years. Clearly this program changed her so much that she is continuing to work for TFA as a recruiter. But getting multiple emails a week was a bit much, and made TFA seem more commercialized and less competitive.
Throughout this year I have continued to hear more and more criticisms of the TFA program. I’m sure they have always been out there, but I think that I turned a blind eye so that my idealistic program could live on as a part of my future. Recently at Macalester College in Minnesota, a TFA Truth Tour presentation took place with a panel of teachers and former Corps members exposing the truth about TFA’s educational policy. According to Neja Singhal, a former corps member, “…if more college students actually knew what TFA was doing at the policy level, they would not be applying to be a corps member. They would never want to be a part of this organization.” TFA seems to equate student leadership skills with teaching skills – a very sellable message to high achieving students, but not necessarily the reality. During Singhal’s experience, many of the teachers in her assigned school were laid off as TFA teachers were entering, possibly due to the high turnover rate for TFA members.
“They know that we are basically being told by TFA ‘do not rock the boat, smile, be good, do your work, get the tests scores up, be good with admin, but don’t cause any issues because then you’re going to mess up TFA’s name.” (Singhal)
Many news articles disagree with these criticisms, highlighting the powerful impact that TFA can have on teachers and students alike. In the past month, a group of observers from various media outlets observed Nicholas Boatwright’s class: a TFA corps member teaching mathematics. The observers were astounded with Boatwright’s teaching abilities, noting how much these kids respected him, looked up to him, and were improving their scores. Boatwright admitted that he had never thought about being a teacher before getting into this program, despite the amazing experience that he is having.
Why would someone enter into a teaching program if they did not intend to be a teacher?
It is certainly true that Corps members do not receive as much training as certified teachers. In the article and study, Does Teacher Preparation Matter by Linda Darling-Hammond, Deborah J. Holtzman, Su Jin Gatlin and Julian Vasquez Heiling of Stanford Univeristy, findings suggest that teachers “consistently produce significantly stronger student achievement gains than do uncertified teachers.” There is a clear relationship between teacher education and teacher effectiveness – one that I am not convinced TFA is committed to understanding.
In Teach for America and the Politics of Progressive Neoliberalism by Randall Lahann and Emilie Mitescu Reagan, TFA is categorized as an example of “progressive neoliberalism,” holding all of the criticisms of neoliberal education. This article also presents the concern over whether TFA “can truly operate as a corrective agent to the market, given that corps members only receive five weeks of pre-service teacher preparation before entering the classroom as full time teachers.” Though I am not a mathematician, I do not think that those five weeks are equivalent to the amount of weeks required to get an actual teacher certification.
If you had asked me a year ago to describe Teach For America, I would have made you watch Freedom Writers and told you what an inspirational, motivational, and life changing program it is. It used to be a dream of mine to participate in this program. However, as a senior witnessing so many of my classmates applying to this program for all of the wrong reasons and being accepted, my perception has changed. It seems as though TFA has turned into a program that students apply to if they have no other job prospects. Rather than commit because of a love and attraction to teaching, many of my friends have applied simply because they do not know what else to do with themselves next year.
I do think that TFA has great intentions and attracts some of the best students nation-wide. But those are the students who are natural-born teachers. And since I am not certain that I want to become a teacher, the critiques of this program are clouding what I once thought was idealistic.