Action Alert: We need to debate @TeachForAmerica and Special Education

Special Education students are one of our most exceptional student populations. Should Teach For America teachers who have had 18 hours in a classroom teach Special Education? Natomas Unified School District right here in Sacramento California will be debating this issue tomorrow (Agenda for the Board Meeting on June 10, 2015. TFA Agenda Item is XII. Consent Items – g). More on that later in the post.

The following is from a dissertation entitled A disparate impact?: Understanding the relationship between discretionary removal, special education, and African American students by Bonita Homer, a student whose dissertation i chaired while teaching at the University of Texas at Austin.

In the early 1800s, special education in the United States appeared in the form of schools that were designed to educate students who were with deafness, blindness, and mentally retardation (Winzer, 1993)… The purpose of these schools was not to educate, but to provide a place for students with disabilities (Winzer, 1993)… The Compulsory Attendance Law established, at least in policy, free compulsory education for all children, including students with disabilities. In spite of this law, students with disabilities were often denied access to public schools and were restricted to no education, being educated in institutions, or home schooled (Winzer, 1993). This practice of restricting students with disabilities from public school continued until the passage of Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, also known as Public Law 94-142 (PL 94-142).

PL 94-142 required public schools to serve all students including students with disabilities. Attaching federal mandates to federal monies, PL 94-142 required all public schools that were receiving federal funds to provide equal access for the education of children with physical and mental disabilities (Losen & Welner, 2001). After the passage of this Act, all public schools receiving federal funds were required to establish guidelines to ensure that children with disabilities were provided an appropriate education. In addition, PL 94-142 established the concept of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) (Ysseldyke, Algozzine & Thurlow, 2000). Least Restrictive Environment was defined as the educational setting where a child with a disability would receive a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE).

PL94-142 was subsequently reauthorized with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (IDEA). IDEA served as a civil rights statute for students with disabilities. This act outlined how states and local education agencies must provide special education in public schools (Upstead, 2008). IDEA instilled two premises for special education. First, it addressed the educational needs for students from birth to 21 in 13 specified disability categories. Second, it established procedural safeguards to protect the educational rights of all students with disabilities and their families. Since its inception, IDEA has been reauthorized two times, with the most recent reauthorization occurring in 2004 when IDEA was amended and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004—also known as IDEIA (Pl 108-446) (Marlett, 2008). One of the goals of IDEIA was to align special education and the accountability standards for special education students with the standards set forth by No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

teachforamericaNow I am not an expert in Special Education, but what is clear is that the courts have protected them and required very specific accommodations such as an Individualized Education Program (IEP). I think it is now time to ask a very important questions. Should untrained, uncertified Teach For America corps members be teaching Special Education? This should be a national debate.

When the San Francisco School Board was debating this issue, a former Teach For America special education teacher contacted me. I discussed her story in the post Will San Francisco Cancel TFA?: @TeachForAmerica Alum letter to Board details threats, depression, and debt. Here is what she concluded about her experience teaching Special Education for Teach For America,

I pray you take this into consideration to stop TFA from entering our schools, especially within Special Education. If not for my fellow corps members, do it for the disservice students. They do not deserve this. They are our future and we should always want the best for them. And lastly, it was the students that brought others and myself to join TFA. We wanted to make a difference; however, I fear we have caused them inadequate teaching and support. It’s distasteful and shameful what the TFA-LMU partnership is doing by taking advantage of a broken school system and making a profit from it, regardless of their corp members well-being, and children who are hurt in the process.

So what has been Natomas’ experience with TFA? TFA spends millions marketing and can reliably produce a corp member or two to talk about their amazing experience in the classroom. So I thought I would ask teachers in the schools that have worked with TFA Special Education teachers for counter-narrative— I conducted some investigative blogging. I have included below a summary of the comments that came from teachers at Inderkum High School and other schools in Natomas where Teach For America Special Education teachers have been placed. They should provide some important areas for inquiry for the Natomas School Board.Natomas_NOTFORPRINT_2x

  • No training, no background, and no expertise in the field.
  • IEPs are not being done on time.
  • Documentation for actions (behavior modifications, lesson plan modifications, etc.) are not being done.
  • The training and support promised by Teach for America at the School Board meeting when the Board approved this program has not been done.
  • Natomas is facing a $4 million state fine for not doing the special ed program correctly.
  • Regular credentialed special ed teachers were given the problems caused by inexperienced Teach for America personnel and told to “clean it up” on top of their existing class loads
  • Regular credentialed special ed teachers were threatened with receiving (and some did receive) letters of reprimand for NOT cleaning up the mess caused by inexperienced Teach for America personnel.
  • The number of special ed students passing exit exams has gone DOWN due to Teach for America personnel because they do not have the skill set to teach special ed students.
  • There have been increases in the number of Ds and Fs (now standing at 95%) in core classes because of Teach for America personnel do not have the skill set necessary to assist special ed students.
  • Teach for America personnel are NOT “highly qualified” in contravention of the requirements of the No Child Left Behind federal legislation (which were in effect during the times in question).
  • There have been statements/comments of concern made by teachers in Natomas indicating that there is some belief that the District may be interested in retaining Teach for America personnel as full-time teachers, with permanent job status, and without those persons even having the proper credentials to teach.
  • Special ed students are not getting the services that they need – and to which they are legally entitled – in both academic and life goals.

The summary thought came on the record from Brenda Borge via email. Brenda taught in Natomas for seven years and has worked as a counselor for the past 15 years. She stated,

TFA has been tried and failed already in Natomas USD, as we do not currently have the adequate support system needed to implement such a program. We do not need this program as our Natomas students deserve better.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 5.19.26 PMSo what could the Natomas Unified School Board ask for from TFA? In the post @TeachForAmerica Ground Offensive Stalling Spectacularly in California, a parent and special education teacher laid forth the following principles for Teach For America in Santa Ana:

  1. TFA recruits will make a five year or more commitment to SAUSD in order to assure that the financial and non-financial investments being made in them by our community is utilized primarily for the benefit of students of SAUSD. The breadth of the research literature demonstrates that on average teachers become more effective over time with proper training and support.
  2. Instead of being contractually guaranteed a spot over other applicants, TFA recruits will be required to competitively interview for positions without special preference and must be deemed to be the most highly qualified and trained by building leaders and teachers in order to be selected for a position. TFA recruits will not be guaranteed a placement as has been the case in their contracts signed by other districts.
  3. TFA will not charge SAUSD a $2,000 finder’s fee for providing SAUSD resumes for TFA recruits to compete in the hiring pool so that the district can use the funds for other important purposes and priorities.
  4. All TFA recruits will be SAUSD alumni to promote school stability, community knowledge and professional longevity.
  5. All TFA recruits will be fully certified the day of classroom entry to teach in California schools. Emergency credentials and/or the weak “Highly Qualified” No Child Left Behind moniker will not suffice. Our MOST vulnerable children deserve the MOST qualified teachers.
  6. These are the reforms that the TFA must implement for their model to be a viable part of our community instead of perpetuating longstanding challenges in our education system.

I agree. Currently, Teach For America is tabled in Santa Ana until the district is able to secure more favorable terms. Will Natomas do the same?

You can email school board members and Superintendent Chris Evans. It would be especially help for former TFA alums to do so.


Teri Burns

Scott Dosick

Ryan Herche

Susan Heredia

Lisa Kaplan,,,,,

If you decide to email, please keep it professional and informative.

See also two NEPC 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)

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

Want to know about Cloaking Inequity’s freshly pressed conversations about educational policy? Click the “Follow blog by email” button in the upper left hand corner of this page.

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

Also, check out the new book Teach For America Counter Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out

Twitter: @ProfessorJVH

Click here for Vitae.

More context and history from Natomas provided by a current teacher: TFA contract was originally approved by the Natomas board on Feb 28, 2012 Burns, Heredia, and Kaplan were on the board at the time. Burns and Kaplan voted yes. Heredia was not at that board meeting and did not vote. They approved for up to six positions. Kaplan and previous Superintendent Walt Hanline were quoted on a TFA Press release back in 2012 after the approval vote: Teach For America Expanding To Sacramento, Bringing Additional Dedicated Teachers To The Region’s Highest-Need Schools This Fall | Teach For America


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  • It’s a hot debate and has been national issue for many years. Whatever the final results, I hope we can accept it as a new way to make special education better.


  • It is time for TFA to fold. TFA has done much damage in 20 years. The only good to come from TFA is Wendy Kopp’s large bank account. I wonder how her, and those like her, sleep at night.


  • This is one of the biggest issues we raised here in Seattle over TFA. I am proud to say that no TFA teacher in Seattle Schools ever taught Special Ed. And TFA is completely on the ropes in the Puget Sound area as most districts are just not interested. The TFA program at the University of Washington is (and has been) underenrolled since it opened.

    The downside is we have plenty of TFA administrators.

    They are crossing their fingers for more charter schools to open in Washington State (we just got a charter law two years ago but it’s in our state supreme court under review).


  • Kathleen Mikulka

    As a reading specialist I believe this is malpractice. If I were in this is district I would be contacting parents and telling them this is also illegal. Federal Spec. Ed law is very specific about a child’s program. It may not say that a special ed teacher needs to be the instructor because the lawmakers would never have imagined that a person without specialized training would be hired to work with this population. Poor children!


  • I would like to make a few comments as a retired teacher of the deaf. I find it incredible that this issue even needs to be debated. It is an insult to special education teachers to think that someone can become qualified to teach the diverse and complex educational challenges that children present with in a handful of hours. To attain my professional certificate to teach the deaf I took a two year Master’s Degree program at Gallaudet University, which included a semester of student teaching. Many people seem to have the ludicrous idea that it is easy to teach special education–nothing could be further from the truth. On another point regarding Least Restrictive Environment: I received my degree in 1975, about the same time that 94-142 became law. Deaf and hard of hearing students have unique communication needs, which impact every aspect of their educational program, and for many students, a school for the deaf is the most appropriate option. A continuum of services needs to be available, and the decision of which approach is best must be made on an individual basis with the IEP team, including the parents. The IEP process is still the law of the land, and students are fully entitled to the diagnostic and habilitative services that their individual constellation of needs and strengths requires. There is no reason to assume that a separate school for deaf students provides an inferior program.


  • This is spot on. Sadly, the adoption of policies permitting untrained teachers has the greatest adverse impact on students with disabilities. Not only do these policies violate students’ rights under the IDEA, but they result in what can only be thought of as educational malpractice — with extensive damages to the students.

    Ask any parent of a student with dyslexia (myself included), or any educator trained to teach these students. It takes a very specialized form of reading instruction in order to teach these kids to read — but it works when done right. Without appropriate instruction, children with dyslexia may never learn to read. These kids make up almost half of all kids in special education! And we wonder why this country has a literacy crisis and a school-to-prison pipeline?

    If school districts continue to move in the direction of hiring glorified babysitters for children with learning disabilities — children with unlimited potential if given appropriate instruction at the critical time — I worry for our country.


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