When I first about Teach for America … I thought “Wow … what a neat idea!” This was an organization which actively tried to recruit top college students into teaching in the worst of the worst schools as a way to bolster the ranks of teachers, and help kids that really needed help.
Then reality set in …
One of my former students who graduated with honors from UIUC in Business passed up a bunch of offers to join Teach for America. As he told me “I’ve had great teachers, and I really felt I wanted to give back before I really start my career”. I was very proud of him. Two years later, he was singing a different tune, and so was I.
He flew (on his own dime) to Arizona to be trained as a science teacher. He of course paid for his own room and board down there. Then he was sent (again, his own dime) to New Orleans where he was sent on job interviews. He said he did about 7-8 before he landed a job as a one-on-one special ed assistant to a middle school boy, where his duties were wheeling him around, changing his diapers, and trying to help him a little. After two years, he was done.
He never complained about working with the kids. He found that part rewarding, if not a bit dirty, but this guy is no prissy … he’s a real worker). What upset him about his TfA experience:
1. His money spent on training was useless. He thought he would be assigned to teach a science class. That never happened. He was not the only member of his cohort that ended up working in an area that he was not trained for.
2. The training they received about dealing with kids in classrooms was completely substandard. When they would try to apply what they learned, they realized that they were completely unprepared.
3. When he got hired, since he was TFA, he was not covered by the teachers’ contract, and thus his salary had to be negotiated. As a Business student, he was looking forward to this, but then learned his salary would not only be negotiated by a TfA representative, but that part of his salary would be kicked back to TfA.
When it was over, he called it a huge scam, and was happy to walk away. In the end, he felt that he had been able to help one student a little, but likely not too much.
More and more has come out that schools are trying to hire more and more TfA people as a way of hiring less expensive “teachers” who tend to be very under-qualified. Only a small percent of TfA hires ever stay on to remain teachers … as one principal commented “it was like hiring tourists who were there to pad their resumes for law school … they really didn’t care much for the kids, they really weren’t trained well, and two years later, they needed a new teacher who had to start the learning process all over again.
It didn’t help that TfA and the charter school movement have been hand in hand for a long time. Many of the former corps members have been on the forefront of the new “reform movement” that is increasing the stakes of testing, and lowering the barriers between teachers and government (as in, making teachers more and more a mouthpiece for what the government wants to be taught).
Now, at the moment when the number of people entering education is dropping precipitously, and as a huge retirement is looming, more and more schools are turning to TfA … and TfA does not have good news for them.
According to recent news, Teach for America is learning that fewer and fewer top college students want anything to do with them, and the drop has been so sharp (TfA is reporting a projected drop in corps membership as high as 25% for next year) that they are closing two of their 8 training centers. This is at least partially due to the improving economy, but more and more students and educators are starting to rebel by taking a page from TfA’s book, and going to the colleges to tell people what is really going on. USC has even had students protesting TfA recruitment events on campus. Given that charter schools are some of the biggest employers of TfA students, that’s a big bit of bad news for the charter school movement.
I have little doubt that TfA may have started for all of the best reasons … but some good ideas need only a push before they become part of the problem (did I mention that noted warm and fuzzy philanthropists like Comcast and the Walton Family are some of TfA’s biggest supporters?)
Hopefully, this is an organization that will be making serious changes or will be shuffling off its mortal coil soon.