Teach for America is the wrong path to education reform
It’s difficult to understand the complexity of teaching until you step into the classroom. Much of the time, people get caught up in the idealism behind education — that it creates opportunities for all, and that with enough passion and determination, teachers can change every student’s life.
This idealism is at the core of Teach for America, a non-profit educational organization that trains its corps members and sends them to low income schools across the nation to make up for teacher shortages.
Teach for America’s goal is to bridge the achievement gap for students who go to school in low-income communities. The organization recruits college graduates, notably from elite universities like Harvard and Princeton, who agree to teach in an urban school for two years.
English senior Jessica Castro, who is seeking teacher certification at the secondary level, said her daughter’s teacher is a Teach for America recruit.
“My daughter goes to a charter school. I really like (her teacher),” Castro said. “I like the growth that I’ve seen in my kid. She’s been my daughter’s teacher for two years.”
Corps members receive teacher training during a five-week intensive summer institute. During those five weeks, recruits teach for two hours a day.
In addition to teaching, corps members receive feedback from experienced teachers, meet in small groups to reflect on progress, attend lesson planning clinics and study the fundamentals of teaching. Though these intensive summer institutes include components typically found in university teacher certification programs, TFA has received criticism for the brevity of their training program.
According to the Huffington Post, this “intensive” training leaves corps members underprepared when they face the reality of teaching. The Huffington Post also argues that recruiting idealistic students fresh from college and sending them into communities unlike the ones they have grown up in are not the answer to bridging educational equality.
Despite this criticism, UH alumnus Alex Reyna, who joined TFA after graduating in Spring 2014, said TFA has definitely prepared him for this school year and that he continues to receive extra support from them.
“From the long nights preparing for the kids at summer school, lesson planning, finding activities and looking through various resources until 1 in the morning to waiting in the copy room in a line for about 30 minutes with other corps members, the rigorous summer training really did help.”
Castro said she is unsure how this type of training has affected her daughter’s teacher.
“I can’t tell because she is teaching a different grade level. I would think that every teacher needs to go through this (teacher certification) program. Many teachers know their content, but they don’t know how to teach,” Castro said. “From my experience student teaching, if they were just to throw a teacher into a high school, I don’t think they could do that. (The teacher) would hate it, and the kids would suffer.”
Criticism of TFA’s training methods seems to be making students think twice about applying. For the 2014-15 school year, TFA had 12 percent fewer applicants and the organization itself stated that it was unlikely for them to reach their target of 6,300 new corps members for that year.
“I know many people are critical of TFA and look down upon it for throwing recent grads into schools, but the corps consists of many diverse people, some who actually did pursue degrees in education and even some with teaching experience,” Reyna said.
Teacher shortages in low income schools are a result of broken systems in these school districts, as they are poorly funded, and students with underdeveloped skills struggle with high stakes testing — one of the major sources of funding from the federal government.
TFA recruits’ two-year commitment does nothing to solve the problem. Exchanging one set of temporary teachers with another every couple of years keeps students from having teachers who have been teaching for a long time and have had enough experience to have a deeper of understanding of how to teach their content.
Though there are studies that show TFA teachers are more effective than teachers who have gone through a traditional certification program, a study published in January by the National Center for Education Policy at the University of Colorado Boulder suggests that the research about TFA is flawed.
Vasquez Heilig of the University of Texas and Su Jin Jez of California State University pointed out that TFA’s studies are not peer-reviewed and are funded by TFA and other organizations that they partner with. Another flaw with these studies is that it is not specified what kind of non-TFA teachers recruits are being compared to.
After completing their two years as a teacher, some TFA recruits continue to work in education by getting involved in policy making. Teaching at a low-income school will give recruits an idea of the reality of our nation’s schools, but a mere two years is not enough experience to warrant participation in the creation of policies that will affect schools, teachers and students.
While some corps members continue in education as teachers, others go on to work in the corporate world. This transition to the corporate world garners much criticism from opponents of TFA, as critics claim that recruits, who may be well-intentioned, use their association with TFA as a resume booster.
Furthermore, TFA works closely with non-union charter schools and education reform groups that focus on standardized testing and privatization rather than student need and grassroots movements.
A corporate approach is not the way to education reform. Schools should not be businesses, and students are not consumers.
What education reform truly needs are experts who have been teaching for a long time, and if the model of the temporary teacher that TFA advocates continues to grow, we lose these people.
Opinion columnist Rama Yousef is a creative writing senior and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.