Monday, March 5, 2012

My Letter to an Idealistic, Young Teach for America Corps Member About How Destructive the Organization Has Become

Dear . . . .

Unlike many people on this list serve, I am not an expert on pedagogy, nor someone with a lifetime of experience teaching, or training teachers, in public
schools. However I have over forty years of teaching and research in labor history under my belt, and from that vantage point, I think Teach for America has become a profoundly destructive force in American society

My colleagues can talk much better about the role Teach for America has played in de-professionalizing the teaching profession--in convincing policy makers that six weeks of training in a summer program can be substituted for years of training and supervision in a graduate school of education

My comments will focus on the role TFA has played in union busting and wage compression in the public sector. In the last few years TFA has encouraged,or at least passively accepted, a pattern of school districts firing veteran teachers and replacing them with TFA corps members. This has happened most recently in Montgomery Alabama, a city where one of the education scholars on this list serve Katie Stafford Strom grew up, but it has happened in at least five cities I know of, mostly in the South. Such a policy is attractive to financially strapped municipalities who save money on pensions and labor costs, but its effect on public sector wages is absolutely devastating. Since there are no gains to be made in educational quality through such a policy, what you have is TFA becoming a the elite's chosen instrument to break unions and lower labor costs.

This is why the Walton Foundation has contributed so generously to TFA. The weaker public sector unions become, the less likely the labor movement is able to unionize Wal-mart, something, by the way, that would instantaneously lift hundreds of thousands of families out of poverty and do more to promote educational achievement than all current educational reform initiatives combined.

Let me be blunt. Unless you and other progressive teachers in TFA protest against the organization's policy encouraging districts to fire veteran teachers so that TFA can be brought in, you are guilty of condoning strikebreaking. In the 1930's they would have called you a "scab," and you would not have been treated very kindly by those losing their jobs, and members of their families

But of course this is 2012 and you are all wonderful idealistic young people devoted to helping young people escape poverty through education. You have received nothing but praise from the press, politicians and officials of the US Department of Education, and will have ample opportunities inside and out of education, when you leave teaching, as most of you will do. But while you may be wonderful individually, you are part of an organization which is ruining the careers of veteran teachers, weakening uninons, and driving down public sector wages.

I can't tell you what to do, but the first thing I recommend is doing dome serious soul searching about what your role will be in an organization which is doing serious long term damage to the standard of living of American workers


Mark (Naison)


Christina Stopka Rinnert said...

This article is particularly disturbing to me since I once wanted to participate in TFA until I realized what they were really all about. I am not saying schools should be made to hold on to bad teachers but the truth is they are often keeping the bad teachers in order to get rid of those who cost them more money. It will bite America in the backside if we don't figure something else out, and soon. Thanks again for sharing such awesome insight.

c.dolazal said...

I would like to thank you for posting this entry. It's about time someone shed light on the dark side of TFA (of which there undoubtedly is one). I am currently getting my REAL teaching certification, and I hope to one day teach in an area of Washington, DC where Teach for America currently has corp members. I, unlike TFA corp members, have been in school for many years pursuing a teaching degree along with a degree in my chosen concentration. The myth that the organization goes into schools where teachers are necessarily needed is just that, a myth. Furthermore, the idea of someone without a teaching degree being hired above someone with a real certification, who has wanted to be a teacher for many years and is willing to devote their life to it, is sickening. This isn't to say that corp members are not good or ineffective teachers. I know some are, but they should have to get a real certification before they go out into the world and teach some of the most at-risk students in our nation. These students need far more than just good teachers; they need counselors, aids, friends, and good roll-models. Many of them also need special-education assistance, something that Teach for America corp members certainly do not have.

Putting a TFA corp member in a school does nothing to help the school; the school and district need to work together as a whole to support the education community. Adding corp members to a school does not help the rest of the teachers or failing administration. My final point is some that are closet to my heart. Over and over I hear that people apply for Teach for America because they needed a job; they use the program as an alternative in this struggling economy. They went into college pursuing a degree with little or no demand, or they were simply unable to find a job in their field of study. These are not the types of people that should be in Teach for America to begin with, but, too often, they are. Teach for America should not be used an "alternative" means of getting a job.

Where the problem lies is not with the teachers, as TFA has so obviously made people believe. The problem is with administration, school districts, and families who do not support their students.

As a friend of mine so plainly put it, would you accept a "teach-for-brain-surgeons"? Probably not.

(I by no means believe that all certified teachers are effective. Obviously, they are not, but those teachers should be educated by the districts and encouraged to seek help from highly effective teachers, instead of being replaced by corp members.)

c.dolazal said...

I forgot to mention one key aspect of TFA in my last post. The students that these corp members teach are impoverished. They come from broken homes and need support. I touched on that, but only briefly. Students from homes such as these are not motivated to go to school and do work, and understandably so. Students who do not get enough food to eat each day, or who are abused, or who have to take care of their sibling, are not going to encouraged or motivated to get good grades. Their motivation lies in staying alive at any given moment. Working in inner-city Chicago, I see this all the time. It isn't that these kids don't want to learn or can't learn; many of them just cannot make it a priority. TFA does not understand that. What we need is a district of schools who are willing to educate parents - parents who need jobs and greater income. Poverty breeds poverty, but teachers are not the ones to blame.