Monday, December 10, 2007

Why I Don’t Like Teach For America

I found this link on TFA at a Brown University panel discussion

At the discussion, panelist James Campbell from the Africana Studies Dept. read a few excerpts from Bil Johnson’s sharply critical opinion piece “Why I Don’t Like TFA.” Professor Johnson was a professor in the Education Department at Brown, and now he’s at Yale. We invited him to come down to see the panel, but he had to attend another conference that night (although he did say that he heard about how the discussion went, and was sorry to have missed it. But I digress). However, below I’ve pasted the entirety of “Why I Don’t Like Teach for America.” It’s funny, but it’s also very incisive. He raises some excellent points and asks very important questions.

Why I Don’t Like TFA, Version 1.1 - By Bil Johnson

#1) As a professional teacher/educator, I find it denigrating to the Profession of Teaching to say that people can be prepared to teach in 5 to 6 weeks. Simply b/c people have attended Brown or Yale or wherever may mean they are intelligent, it does not mean they have some innate understanding of the complexity of teaching and learning that genuine teacher preparation programs instill in their candidates. It is offensive and pretentious to think otherwise.

#2) Equally denigrating to the profession is the notion that teaching is something you can “dabble in.” Oh, do it for a couple of years, assuage your (usually white/suburban/privileged) guilt and then get on with your “real life” in law school or business school or wherever. Teaching, you see, isn’t all that important and anybody can do it for a couple of years (which, by the way, their own statistics don’t particularly bear out — check out what their attrition rate is in the first year – and consider it’s their statistics, so adjust for reality). How do we feel about “Nurses for America?” Or, better, “Doctors for America?” The lack of respect for teaching as a profession is historic — based on seeing it as a “feminine” profession and one that does not pay what “real” jobs pay. Teach for America continues to support that historic disrespect for the profession by treating it as something one can do until something “better” (read high paying, more prestigious, etc.) comes along.

#3) I find TFA patronizing, patriarchal, and colonialist. It continues a “wonderful” tradition of upper class noblesse oblige which says, essentially, “Well, we will take a little time out of our (important) lives to help you poor children of color (briefly) and then we’ll leave (because we can!).”

#4) Little or no decent support is supplied to the Novice Teachers who go out into some of the most difficult and stressful schools in our cities. Anyone who knows teaching will tell you that support and genuine mentoring are essential in the first few years of teaching.

#5) Many districts see TFA “volunteers” as fodder (there’s a wonderful piece in The Onion, online, about this) and shift them around willy-nilly to “fill in” gaps they have in staffing. How does that help anyone — and, particularly, how does it help the students these “volunteers” are supposed to be serving?

#6) TFA perpetuates the miserable conditions in urban schools. It allows politicians to claim, “Look, something’s being done” when, in fact, no significant change is occurring. In all its time in existence TFA has NEVER made a policy statement that their real goal is to improve urban schools to the point of making TFA unnecessary. Their motto, if they were sincere in improving schools, should be “Put us out of business.” But that’s not their goal. TFA has become a cottage industry, and a self-perpetuating one at that, which allows the mass of society to look the other way and essentially say, “See, there’s really no hope for those urban schools (and those children who are, clearly, “unteachable”). Teach for America keeps trying and there’s no progress.” TFA is, at best, a medicated band-aid but a band-aid nonetheless. Our urban schools are hemorrhaging and TFA is a band-aid — and that’s fine because in the world of Fox News, that looks as if an effort is being made. It’s clearly the fault of the children and their families if there’s no decrease in the “achievement gap.”

#7) For those who survive TFA and then join their ranks as recruiters or “Executive Directors” or whatever, their allegiance to the organization is cult-like. It is not a Learning Organization whose goal is to better the schools. Like some evangelical sect, their goal is to recruit more members, receive more recognition (usually from right-wing “do away with public schools” types), and continue to sing their own praises as saviors of some sort (“If we weren’t there, who would be?” Which begs the deeper questions about “How can we actually fix the system instead of putting our TFA finger in the dyke?”).

Please feel free to share this with anyone who expresses an interest in joining Teach for America.


Can you really “dabble” in teaching? Is TFA denigrating to the teaching profession? Has TFA become a cult-like non-profit whose goal is self-perpetuation rather than the eradication of those structural equality it claims to address?

In her paper on Teach for America (which we published in the Spring ‘07 BPR), panelist Erin Brown said it best when she argued that TFA should try to reform itself out of existence.

Oh, and finally, here’s a link to that Onion article Professor Johnson mentioned (it’s hilarious):


Anonymous said...

This is a very cynical way to look at people trying to help. You're right, TFA doesn't solve everything. But it does do something. It's better than nothing.

As a privileged-white-suburban-someone who is applying for TFA, I'd caution against this idea that we are merely using TFA to "assuage our guilt". I think if you took the time to talk to some of us, you'd be surprised about how many of us actually do care about enacting a lasting change in the education system.

TFA should be encouraged, not criticized. Our hearts are in the right place. If you want to criticize someone, go criticize investment bankers.

Anonymous said...

Firstly, it's very funny that an onion article was cited in a response. C'mon.

Secondly, an m.a. in education is one of the most over-valued degrees that American universities award. Incentivising universities for producing graduates with education masters degrees caused the quality of these degrees - and graduates, our teachers - to plummet. Someone with a masters in Education - from somewhere like the university of Phoenix - could be less-valuable than someone with any liberal arts degree from a top-tier university. Being a teacher is not a prestigious thing, especially those with modern degrees.

Finally, is it worse to fill gaps in our education system with highly-educated individuals temporarily, or to leave them unfilled altogether? Or, should we quickly send these educated individuals to the university of Phoenix to snatch up that coveted m.a. in education before they begin their teaching career?

Anonymous said...

In response to number two did you know that 60% of TFA Corp Members stay in the field of education after their two year commitment. I think this is pretty impressive, especially considering 60% of education majors who become teachers move on to something else in less than 5 years.

I just found this interesting

Anonymous said...

Wow.. I'm saddened to see that I seem to be the only commenter who actually got this post. And how depressingly and critically true it is.

Anon 1: Good luck in TFA. I mean this honestly. You will need luck in addition to your five weeks of training in order to "enact a lasting change in the education system" (which the career teacher with years of experience apparently can't).

Anon 2: The idea is that schools get federal bucks for hiring discounted TFA volunteers - so they fire more expensive, career professionals which cost much more due to their experience. This creates the "gaps" to be filled by very cheap teachers.

Anon 3: As usual, when a statistic is cited the citer hasn't thought through what it might entail. Most volunteers stay in education because TFA volunteers often have the option to continue their district contracts, but discover to their dismay that they actually have no other real job opportunities. So: (a) pay money to go back to school, or (b) make money staying where you are.

In order to make a compelling argument that TFA's fall in love with their job, or have a deep commitment to their cause (which may indeed be the case), you'd have to also have a matching statistic on opportunities they turned down *for* education.

Your statistic additionally disincludes all the TFA volunteers who get fed up before the two years are over.

parus said...

The "60% of TFAers stay in education" figure is misleading. According to TFA themselves, only 28% actually stay on AS TEACHERS, and that data is only based on a self-selected survey that was only offered to people who completed the full two year commitment. So the real number of continuing TFA teachers is probably much lower.

Anonymous said...

Although I have no knowledge of TFA beyond the fact that I have two young relatives who participated this article appears to make some very good points. Any first year of teaching is not one's best. Reaching one's best takes two to three years minimum and then there is also the fact that one often makes the discovery in the first year or two (max) that the profession is not for one. This last scenario is not a rarity. It is 50% and this holds for TFA. Why should children in a troubled school have to contend with this? They can't afford to lose a year and lose a year they very well may given the situation of a rookie teacher. No matter how brilliant , no matter how even starry-- eyed motivated a young teacher may be this profession can be major league difficult and many are called but few are chosen so to speak. The effort to reach into the colleges to find the best and the brightest is commendable but there has to be another way to do it because children especially those in difficulties cannot afford to lose a year. Be honest about TFA statistics in the light of this fact.