Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Teach for America and Me: A Failed Courtship

Teach for America and Me: A Failed Courtship

Dr Mark Naison

Fordham University

Every spring without fail, a Teach for America recruiter approaches me and asks if they can come to my classes and recruit students for TFA, and every year, without fail, I give them the same answer: “Sorry.

Until Teach for America changes its objective to training lifetime educators and raises the time commitment to five years rather than two, I will not allow TFA to recruit in my classes. The idea of sending talented students into schools in high poverty areas and then after two years, encouraging them to pursue careers in finance, law, and business in the hope that they will then advocate for educational equity rubs me the wrong way”

It was not always thus. Ten years ago, when a Teach for American recruiter first approached me, I was enthusiastic about the idea of recruiting my most idealistic and talented students for work in high poverty schools and allowed the TFA representative to make presentations in my classes, which are filled with Urban Studies and African American Studies majors. Several of my best students applied, all of whom wanted to become teachers, and several of whom came from the kind of high poverty neighborhoods TFA proposed to send its recruits to teach in

Not one of them was accepted! Enraged, I did a little research and found that TFA had accepted only four of the nearly 100 Fordham students who applied. I become even more enraged when I found out from the New York Times that TFA had accepted 44 out of a hundred applicants from Yale that year. Something was really wrong here if an organization who wanted to serve low income communities rejected every applicant from Fordham who came from those communities and accepted half of the applicants from an Ivy League school where very few of the students, even students of color, come from working class or poor families

Since that time, the percentage of Fordham students accepted has marginally increased, but the organization has done little to win my confidence that it is seriously committed to recruiting people willing to make a lifetime commitment to teaching and administering schools in high poverty areas.

Never, in its recruiting literature, has Teach for America described teaching as the most valuable professional choice that an idealistic, socially conscious person can make, and encourage the brightest students to make teaching their permanent career. Indeed, the organization does everything in its power to make joining Teach for America seem a like a great pathway to success in other, higher paying professions. Three years ago, the TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.” To me, the message of that flyer was “use teaching in high poverty areas a stepping stone to a career in business.” It was not only profoundly disrespectful of every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it advocated using students in high poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume padding” for ambitious young people

In saying these things, let me make it clear that my quarrel is not with the many talented young people who join Teach for America, some of whom decide to remain in the communities they work in and some of whom become lifetime educators. It is with the leaders of the organization who enjoy the favor with which TFA is regarded with captains of industry, members of Congress, the media, and the foundation world, and have used this access to move rapidly to positions as heads of local school systems, executives in Charter school companies, and educational analysts in management consulting firms. The organization”s facile circumvention of the grinding, difficult but profoundly empowering work of teaching and administering schools has created the illusion that there are quick fixes , not only for failing schools, but for deeply entrenched patterns of poverty and inequality. No organization has been more complicit that TFA in the demonization of teachers and teachers unions, and no organization has provided more “shock troops” for Education Reform strategies which emphasize privatization and high stakes testing. Michelle Rhee, a TFA recruit, is the poster child for such policies, but she is hardly alone.
Her counterparts can be found in New Orleans ( where they led the movement toward a system dominated by charter school) in New York ( where they play an important role in the Bloomberg

Education bureaucracy) and in many other cities.

And that elusive goal of educational equity. How well has it advanced in the years TFA has been operating? Not only has there been little progress, in the last fifteen years, in narrowing the test score gap by race and class, but income inequality has become greater, in those years, than any time in modern American history. TFA has done nothing to promote income redistribution, reduce the size of the prison population, encourage social investment in high poverty neighborhoods, or revitalize arts and science and history in the nation’s schools. It’s main accomplishment has been to marginally increase the number of talented people entering the teaching profession, but only a small fraction of those remain in the schools to which they were originally sent.

But the most objectionable aspect of Teach for America –other than its contempt for lifetime educators- is its willingness to create another pathway to wealth and power for those already privileged, in the rapidly expanding Educational Industrial Complex, which offers numerous careers for the ambitious and well connected. An organization which began by promoting idealism and educational equity has become, to all too many of its recruits, a vehicle for profiting from the misery of America’s poor.

Mark Naison


tracey bouwens douglas said...

Preach! Beyond AWESOME!

CitizenWhy said...

Teach for America is a part of the same elite inbred gang blaming teachers for poor educational performance in the US. They often cite Finland as a nation that set a commitment to international business competitiveness and succeeded in reforming their educational system to make Finlanders into highly competitors workers AND better citizens in a nation committed to democracy.

What they leave out:

1. In Finland's reform process teachers and parents led the discussions and devised the specifics of the reform plan. In the US Teach for America and billionaire elitists prefer a "business model" of top down edicts from businessmen who do not understand teaching. The Canadian province of Alberta followed the Finnish model of reform, not the US model, with great results

2. Testing in Finland is not used the way it is in the US to test "skills" and to produce a "teach to the test" educational culture. The emphasis in Finland is on teaching, not testing, including teaching problem solving and critical thinking. Skills are taught in conjunction with problem solving and other educational activities such as essay writing.

3. The child poverty rate in Finland is very low. In the US it is extremely high (20%) and getting worse, largely because the nation's wealth is being redistributed to billionaires and Ivy League graduates, who now believe that privatizing the US education will miraculously solve all teaching problems. Greatly reduce or eliminate child poverty and you will see greater educational achievement.

4. In all research it is demonstrated that experienced teachers are far more effective than lightly experienced teachers. Teach for America and privatized schools on the public payroll overuse inexperienced teachers.

5. The billionaires educational meddlers insist that class size does not affect educational performance. All research shows the opposite.

6. More resources make for more one on one an and better instruction. Isn't that why billionaires send their kids to richly resourced private schools with experienced teachers?

CKearney said...

Thank you for writing this. Most people are too afraid to speak truth to power. TFA is a simple "solution" that our government is throwing money at, when the real solution is to bring individuals who are committed to serving these communities into teaching--individuals who will stay. Bravo! Thank you.