Teaching for America versus Teaching for Life: How the teaching profession is being undermined

Diane Ratich had a heated debate with herself on Tuesday night, as she took a playful approach to presenting both sides of the education reform debate. As someone who is relatively new to the educational field and reform debate, this type of presentation of the subject conveyed how truly frustrating finding common ground for real reform is and will be. Current leaders in policy are basing their arguments on false premises, arguing that our low test scores contribute to us falling behind as a nation. However, dropout rates are lower than ever and graduation rates are higher than they have been throughout history. However, that does not mean our schools are in good condition as right now our public school system is being undermined by privatization and by devaluing teachers as a profession.

As a student, I did not realize how heavy the results of my test scores weighed in measuring the success of my teachers. However, I do know I became a pretty good test taker rather effortlessly. This is one of the main takeaways that struck me from Ravitch’s talk. She notes how teachers are evaluated based on students they never taught and are a highly inaccurate measure of an effective teacher. She stated that teachers only have about 1-14% of an influence on students test scores. These are facts that decision makers are ignoring. Instead, they use test scores to justify firing teachers when in fact we need to figure out a way to retain teachers. The way we have gone about valuing our teachers throughout history must change, and she suggested the only way to do so is to ensure professionals are occupying the field. This led to another interesting aspect of Ravitch’s lecture – Teach for America.

As a college senior just last year, I was completely clueless as to where I would be heading in the next year and Teach for America had been sending a consistent influx of e-mails to me until it finally seemed like a pretty viable option for a person who did not know what she wanted to do. It also seemed like a good opportunity to do some good while figuring it out. While the motivation for pursuing Teach for America are often sought after with good intentions hoping to help with the shortage of teachers, I did not realize how profoundly  this undermines the teaching profession and our public schools. My degree was in environmental studies with a global studies where as teachers spend an intense 4-5 years during their undergraduate education learning and becoming masters of the profession. What does this portray to those who want to teach for life and for their career? Additionally, there are plenty of recent graduates who have an extremely hard time finding teaching positions which is where I do not understand the disconnect. Should Teach for America only hire education majors or people that want to continue in this field?

Thankfully, I was not accepted into the program because even with the five-week intensive program, I was in no way prepared to teach in front of a class. Most Teach for America members talk about how they struggle through their experience. However, they come out with a valuable experience that demonstrates their persistence and commitment to the cause, which definitely looks good on a resume for the next job. But what about those students who had that teacher? How are they effected by a par time teacher playing such a large role in their education. Overall, this is just a Band-Aid for the system, and ignores the larger problem at hand – poverty and inequality.

Allowing unqualified, inexperienced young people who have no real inclination to continue in this field to be put in places where there is often more unfavorable conditions, like poverty and inequality, offers little help to the students and suggests that anyone can teach. This also contributes to the devaluation of teachers in society, when really they should be valued the most.

It seems people in power have used this in addition to other methods, like charter schools, instead of addressing more macro issues, like poverty and leadership in schools. Ravitch suggests making sure principles are qualified in order to hire qualified teachers that are assessed based on their performance in the classroom, not on student’s test scores. This puts more pressure on the decision makers and the leadership of schools for improving our public schools as opposed to putting all the blame on teachers. Overall, policy makers must start addressing root problems instead of making decisions based on false premises that do not improve the landscape for public school systems in the long run.

An Effective Source for Change? A Look at Teach for America

Recently, I read a blog post by a classmate of mine regarding this classmate’s own personal experiences with Teach for America (TFA).  This personal account really resonated with me because I found it strikingly similar to my own struggles when I grappled earlier this year with the decision of whether or not to apply for a Teach for America position.

I too was captivated by the idealistic notion of committing my time to making a difference in the lives of underprivileged children.  A Teach for America recruiter expressed her excitement at my interest and offered me the very rosy sales pitch for why I should join.  As I began to do my own research and as I progressed further through my Master’s in Education gaining a better understanding of the education system and of various education policy debates along the way, I quickly became very disillusioned with the idea that I would actually be doing some good as a Teach for America recruit.  With each e-mail that the recruiter incessantly sent me following our conversation urging me to apply, which was also mentioned in my classmate’s blog post as excessive and caused her to perceive TFA as “more commercialized and less competitive,” I increasingly questioned my desire to join until I ultimately chose not to.  It is here that I wish to shed some light on why.

My major is Globalization and Educational Change, and I am interested in just that: change. Education can easily be used as a tool to reproduce the status quo, but whether it is in my own backyard or somewhere across the world, I am passionate about seeing education increasingly being used as a force for empowerment and self-fulfillment.  Ultimately, I am skeptical that Teach for America is contributing to change in the entire system of education in a positive way.

Teach for America is an organization that sees itself on the frontlines of “A Solvable Problem,” and that problem is the achievement gap. [1] TFA representatives believe that all children, even those in poverty, can achieve at the highest levels – despite the challenges they face – if provided the opportunity. [1] This is without question a cause worth believing in, but what do the statistics show?

The Institute of Education Sciences’ National Center for Education statistics cites Hispanics as the fastest growing sector of the United States population. [2] There is certainly a story to be told by looking at fourth grade and eighth grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) from 1990 to 2009 for Hispanic students as compared to White students.  While the score for both groups overall have improved with time in mathematics, the achievement gap has largely remained unchanged. When looking at these groups nationally across all fifty states, Hispanic students have remained on average a steady 21 points behind in 4th grade and 26 points behind in eighth grade.  In reading, when comparing scores over time from 1992 to 2009, the picture is essentially the same with Hispanic students hovering right around a persistent average of a 25-point deficit in both fourth and eighth grade. [2]

In short, the achievement gap is maintaining a stubborn hold within our society, as it has persisted for almost 20 years, essentially unchanged.  Interestingly, Teach for America began in 1990 and has been operating ever since.  While one can argue that the achievement gap has not widened very much as evidenced above, it does not seem as though Teach for America is addressing some of the systemic ways in which our education system in the United States is failing certain populations of students.

I have long questioned whether our system could use more alternative routes into teaching, whether our standard methods of study and certification are ultimately leaving out large portions of individuals that, while they may not be able to afford to get a college degree or a master’s degree, could prove to be excellent in the classroom with some time and experience.  For example, Darling-Hammond, Holtzman, Gatlin, and Heilig (2005) explore how various pathways to certification affect the effectiveness of both TFA and non-TFA teachers in Houston, Texas.  The authors cite that alternatively certified teachers in Houston were particularly effective in raising students’ Aprenda scores, which is a standardized test given to students who receive reading and language arts instruction in Spanish.  Their rationale for this trend was that the Houston alternative certification program enrolls a very large number of Hispanic teachers, many of which are Spanish-speaking and may be better able to support the literary progress of Spanish-speaking students. [3] It is clear here that an alternative pathway to certification may prove to be very valuable in serving this population, especially given that a majority of students in Houston are Hispanic.

It may be argued that Teach for America is another one of these alternative pathways into teaching that ultimately places passionate and capable individuals in the classroom.  However, it is no secret that Teach for America recruits students at the top of their class from elite universities, as they have been criticized for becoming merely a stepping-stone for these elite students on their path to becoming something greater.  These recruits are then placed in ‘hard to staff’ districts to teach the most at-risk youth in the country.  Is this really changing at all the demographics of teachers that have access to the classroom?  While some of these recruits may be successful, others struggle to relate to their students and are unable to meet their specific needs.

The aforementioned article by Darling-Hammond et. al. (2005) also states that experienced teachers are significantly more effective than inexperienced ones, and that there is no instance in which an uncertified TFA teacher is as effective as a standard certified teacher.  I fear how teacher status would be affected by the assertion that no special training is needed to become a teacher and that one simply needs to be generally academically able and have strong subject knowledge to be successful.  Rather than staffing the most vulnerable classrooms with uncertified, and more importantly highly inexperienced teachers, I think we need to focus on the system as a whole and on relevant policies at all levels such as teachers’ pay, working conditions, and support.  We must create a climate in which a diverse pool of well prepared teachers are put into all of our classrooms and are there to stay for the long haul so that all students can benefit as they gain confidence and experience. [3]



[1] http://www.teachforamerica.org/our-organization/our-history

[2] http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/studies/2011459.aspx

[3] https://coursesite.lehigh.edu/pluginfile.php/1023185/mod_resource/content/1/LDH-teacher-certification-april2005.pdf

Senior Year Reflections on Teach for America

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.