Teach For America (TFA) has struggled in the last few years with falling recruitment numbers – namely due to the growing tide of critique that no longer accepts it’s corporate spin and dangerous pedagogical ideology. But that hasn’t prevented a new cadre of supporters attempting to laud the organization. The relationship between TFA and the teacher education community is decidedly not a good one – and for good reason. While traditional teacher education colleges and TFA disagree on, well, almost everything, it seems to me that where an individual, or organization for that matter, falls on vitally important educational debates is an important factor when considering a partnership or collaboration. Debates are fine and can often be useful and productive – even when a consensus cannot be established. But, when an organization stands against everything our profession stands for it is troubling when colleges of education willingly chose to partner with TFA.
TFA represents a direct existential threat to colleges of education, the teaching profession, and proper and quality-based education for students. Yet, despite its relatively small size (making up around 1% of the overall teaching force – though, they make up a higher percentage in the specific regions in which they place corps members), TFA can be scaled larger. It is true that TFA corps members are more expensive than a traditionally certified teacher from a college of education (effectively due to the finder’s fees that school districts pay TFA per corps member, per year – totaling an estimated $400,000,000 since 1990). Myself, Kerry Kretchmar, Beth Sondel, Sarah Ishmael, and Megan Manfra (most of us being TFA alums), examined the question of costs associated with TFA. We found that since TFA corps members receive a full salary comparable to a fully-licensed/certified teacher (a point that is strikingly different than other alternatively or emergency certified teachers), filling a teaching position with a corps member is more expensive because of the finder’s fees. However, once teaching positions are reserved for TFA (they are) and there has been enough turnover in those positions (because TFA is designed to turn over every two years), districts are able to save incredible amounts of money when it comes to salaries and benefits. Moreover, if a district has the choice between a TFA corps member and a teacher who completed a master’s degree (you know, teaching being a profession and all), the corps member is cheaper than the traditionally trained teacher even when considering the finders fee. That’s on a small scale; yet, when the TFA experiment was scaled up in post-Katrina New Orleans, the shift in teacher experience closer to zero saves the district millions and millions of dollars annually. So, while it might seem unlikely to scale TFA up, it has been done in specific geographic regions and it still stands a chance to do so again following the next disaster (real or perceived – see Naomi Kline).
As a traditionally certified teacher, and now a professor of teacher candidates, I’m troubled at the general notion that there must be something we can learn from TFA. Without fail, when I offer critiques of TFA I’m met with a question (in person or online) that usually goes something like, “Okay, but what’s something good about TFA” or “well, not EVERYTHING can be bad about TFA.” This is an artifact of the discourse war that TFA waged and won for the first 23 years of its existence. The assumption was that TFA was innately good and that any critique or criticism must be partnered with praise.
As has been pointed out well on this blog previously, if we were discussing Doctors for America, or Pilots for America, or Doctors for America, or Dentists for America, or Lawyers for America, or Police for America, those in the ACTUAL profession would not ask, “well, what can we learn from the [fill-in-the-blank] for America group” because they would, in fact, see it not only as an existential threat to their existence but, more importantly, an existential threat to the profession itself. Relatedly, it’s troubling to see the celebration of a crash-course entry into the profession that takes place over 5 weeks (18 hours of which are student teaching). The evidence of increased test scores after 5 weeks of drill-and-kill test prep and “backwards planning” (literally taking a test question and teaching it) isn’t evidence of good teaching, it’s an artifact of illusory academic outcomes. That aside, if TFA is THE BEST at increasing test scores, then they are literally the best at what has become the very WORST part of our education landscape. Compensating for training with intensity isn’t sufficient. Here’s the scenario:
You’ve been quite sick recently. Your doctor checks your symptoms with a list of possible causes then, because the list is standardized and one cannot deviate from it, decides surgery is in order. The doctor explains that she is a proud member of Doctors for America which is a highly prestigious organization that takes highly prestigious folks who don’t have a background in medicine, anatomy, biology, or medial procedures and gives them an “intense” and “super-charged” 5-week crash course in surgery. She assures you that her experience as the president of her Greek life organization and her service as a student Senator in SGA gave her the necessary leadership skills to be a good surgeon. She tells you she had 18 hours of residency at a hospital very far away from where you are currently and schedules your operation for tomorrow at 8am. Would you show up because she was really excited? Does it matter that without Doctors for America she might not have considered becoming a doctor? Would it matter that her training was intense over those 5 weeks? I assume the answer would be no and you wouldn’t show up at 8am the following day.
Another tired assertion about the goodness of TFA and what we might learn from the organization centers around recruitment. That is, TFA boasts an incredibly low acceptance rate because the organization gets thousands of applications beyond available spots. With a cursory glance at this reality, it might appear as though TFA must be doing something amazing if they have to turn away folks because so many are trying to become affiliated. Yet, TFA has more applications than spots because it artificially suppresses its acceptance rate by advertising a minimum 2.5 GPA requirement but bringing on an average of ~3.5. This is part of the ploy: create a façade of prestige through data manipulation to reinforce the “goodness” of the folks involved.
TFA remains a threat to good teaching, for our students, and to the teaching profession. Any “[fill-in-the-blank] for America” organization that sends individuals with no background and limited training in that profession would never be tolerated…education should not be any different.