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Is TFA Cloaking Inequity?: Discussing Headwind on Al Jazeera

After several decades, Teach For America, a program that sends inexperienced teachers (typically only 5 weeks of summer training) before they are shipped off to teach on a (primarily) temporary basis in America’s toughest schools, is facing some headwind. Alumni are increasingly speaking out against the organization, many of whom who joined Teach For America with the right intentions. I suspect the high turnover at Teach For America’s internal administrative offices may also be related to similar epiphanies, but this I cannot confirm. For the last 8 years, I have taken calls from reporters who have puff pieces headed for print that extolled the virtues and soaring rhetoric of Teach For America— even more so at the start of each school year. I first received these calls because of a 2005 peer reviewed piece entitled Does teacher preparation matter? evidence about teacher certification, teach for america, and teacher effectiveness examining the effectiveness of Teach For America in Houston over a decade using statistical modeling. Then, when NEPC asked me to author two policy briefs examining all of the peer review research on the organization (Teach For America: A review of the evidence and Teach For America: A Return to the Evidence (The Sequel), the calls from the media increased in frequency to approximately each fortnight. I have spent a great deal of electronic ink discussing Teach For America here at Cloaking Inequity. I have also sought empower Teach For America alumni via Cloaking Inequity (i.e.“I felt Strange and Guilty”: Annie Tan @TeachForAmerica alum speaks) to make their counter-narrative on the organization available to the public (even from my own former student).

I have noticed that Teach For America is now facing headwind after all these decades in the media. Now the media still writes glowing (often race-pimping) pieces for Teach For America. I talked with Erika Mellon from Houston Chronicle for the puff piece Teach for America seeks diversity as it nears 25th anniversary and I told her essentially what I told Al Jazeera yesterday. Erika asked me a few questions about Teach For America. In response, I presented the peer reviewed research and counter-narratives from TFA alumni to her, it didn’t jive with her approach to praising TFA in her puff piece, so she changed the subject— the interview was over.  Not a sniff in her article of the critique that is permeating through the media. Not to put Erika on blast, but it’s the truth.

Regardless of whether the Houston Chronicle is attuned to the emerging critical public discourse surround TFA or not, The Harvard CrimsonHarvard MagazineThe Atlantic, The Nation, and TFA alumni education blogs are… which brings me to discuss my visit to Al Jazeera’s America Tonight with Joie Chen last night. How can I describe Al Jazeera? It’s like PBS, but major network style. I am aware that Time Warner and ATT have resisted carrying Al Jazeera in the past. Once I read the difficulty that Al Jazeera has had getting national distribution, I became curious. Turns out that Al Jazeera has won numerous awards for its reporting. I have been under the impression that MSNBC was the most thoughtful news network (minus Education Nation), I think Al Jazeera (formerly Al Gore’s Current TV) might give them a run for the money— which explains why the corporate media companies don’t want the general public to get hooked on the channel like many are on FoxNews (I don’t have cable so my father can’t watch it when he comes by the house). Imagine a nation where Al Jazeera is playing in every dentist office and doctors office instead of FoxNews— who chooses the damn station in those places anyways!? I digress, back to TFA, the segment last night on Al Jazeera was entitled The growing movement against Teach for America. In the first 4-minute portion, As Teach for America’s popularity grows, so does backlash (part one) here is snippet of what was said:

There’s a growing backlash led by some of its alumni who claim that TFA isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For Nolan, she was in a bit of denial about TFA but grew skeptical about the program and its expectations for its teachers. She was placed in a magnet school in St. Louis, teaching science after completing TFA’s five-week training course.

She said she felt behind from the beginning because TFA hadn’t given her enough to transition from the summer program to classroom teaching. With 173 students, Nolan was overwhelmed. She resigned from TFA after teaching for just six months.

“I was miserable,” she said. “I was in a position where not only was I feeling incompetent every day — my incompetence was hurting the lives of children. So it was a heavy burden. It’s something where no amount of hard work I could do would fix it because I was so paralyzed by anxiety and discomfort and stress and sleep deprivation … I didn’t make forward progress.”

The second 4-minute portion As Teach for America’s popularity grows, so does backlash (part two) discussed the growing backlash from districts who have wised up to Teach For America

The backlash against TFA came to a head this fall. The Durham School District in North Carolina severed its relationship with the organization after more than a decade of working together. Last year Pittsburgh became the first school district in the country to reject an active Teach for America contract.

“Why should we put the least-experienced people in the schools that need the most help?” said Sylvia Wilson, a member of the Pittsburgh Public School Board, who helped decide to reject the TFA contract. “They didn’t have the kind of training that teachers are required for certification needs, what you need to have to become a teacher. I’m not saying that their hearts wouldn’t be there … But you have to have more than that. It takes more than just walking in a classroom and caring.”

In the final portion, I had a 3-minute one-on-one with Joie Chen. See the Youtube video below. Also check out the photos from the evening at the end of the post.

O-100 Real Quick. —Drake For Hip Hop music fans only. NSFW

Teach For America is clearly facing headwind against their “reform”. Will they continue on the same path or reform their “reform”?

For all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts on Teach For America click here.

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Please blame the media who continue to write only puff pieces for/about TFA for any typos.

Twitter: @ProfessorJVH

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About Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig (705 Articles)
Julian Vasquez Heilig is an award-winning researcher and teacher. He is currently a Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and the Director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership at California State Sacramento.

7 Comments on Is TFA Cloaking Inequity?: Discussing Headwind on Al Jazeera

  1. This post is so relevant as media buzz about TFA increases and the organization nears its 25th anniversary. Love what Wilson said here: “Why should we put the least-experienced people in the schools that need the most help?”. How many complaints do you think there would be in a middle class suburban school if a bunch of unexperienced teachers with little training came in to teach their children? Our nations most at risk schools and struggling children are the ones that deserve the best, most experienced teachers, and more funding! Those who join TFA have a lot of heart and I think that most of them have it in the right place, but how can we expect them to manage such a high need and high stress environment, and make an impact higher than that 0.07% increase, without the wisdom of experience? I completely agree with the suggestion to increase training for TFA teachers, both for the well being of students and for the teachers themselves.


  2. The issue really at stake is not whether 5 weeks training is enough (it clearly isn’t as anyone who has run 4 year teacher education programs can attest – 4 years isn’t enough!) The issue is whether we can get any intelligent, energetic, well educated people in high need classrooms, especially in hard to fill areas like STEM, ESL, SSL. Historically it’s been extremely difficult and TFA or similar alternative teacher prep programs, were originally designed to supply the talent (limited as it is) in nearly impossible to fill up areas. It’s possible TFA are better than teachers out of their content areas, long term subs, teachers with emergency certificates, etc that usually fill up the holes in hard to fill areas. I’ve yet to see a study that does the right comparison. I think TFA has suffered from mission creep and expanded too quickly and lost its focus from hard to fill positions where their role was essentially triage education (and possibly better than the alternatives) to a broader and more questionable and problematic agenda. Moreover the teaching profession has historically suffered from lower academic quality enrollment than other professions and one thing TFA has done right is change the shape of this curve and the interest in education among students that have been hard to attract to the profession (even for the 2 years they stay). I realize turnover is a problem, but this problems has been played up way too much in the critique of TFA: International schools “suffer” from the same problems (and manage it), and turnover is already sky high for non TFA teachers in high need public schools. If I’m going to have turnover I’d much prefer academically strong TFA over lower quality alternatives.


    • We need to aim higher than a choice between bad and worse for poor kids.


      • Julian— Exactly. We need to attract the best college students, give them mentoring in their early years of teaching, plus the prospect of salaries that will rise if they stick with it
        (Let’s say $115,000 after 10 years of teaching—plus good benefits). Being a public school teacher is as hard as being a lawyer. (My daughter is a public school teacher—her father and my son are both lawyers. Very hard to say who works harder, or which job requires more intelligence, imagination, patience, discipline.
        My daughter was very lucky. When she first started teaching 11 years ago, two veteran teachers took her under their wings.She spent her lunch time and any other free time watching them teach, talked to them after school about her problems and problem students. (She was teaching in the North Bronx.) After about 3 years she began to feel that she knew what she was doing—and even then, she continues to learn..
        TFA teachers who sign up because they think the gig will look good on their law school
        application—and teach for only 2 or 3 years—do our public education system little good.
        (I realize that some expect to teach for many years, but for others TFA is merely a step-stone to more prestigious job.
        Also, TFA recruits way too many teachers who have never gone to a public school. Their experience at a private school—or at a high-end suburban school—does not begin to prepare them for teaching in urban or rural public schools.


    • Cosmic Tinker // December 17, 2014 at 3:15 pm // Reply

      Don’t assume that TFAers with newly minted bachelor’s degrees and 5 weeks of training are the most “academically strong” teachers in classrooms with children. There is evidence that, across the nation, the students of teachers with master’s degrees have higher test scores in both reading and math than students whose teachers have just bachelor’s degrees:


  3. Reblogged this on Dolphin.


  4. Great job Julian- as always.


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