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A primer on Teach for America…

May 31, 2011

If you don’t know about Teach for America, here is an excellent primer article, by Barbara Miner in “Rethinking Schools” that endeavors to explain it.  I had heard about TFA many times, I had also heard of its founder Wendy Kopp many times as well but I never really took the time to connect the dots about the organization until I read this article by Rachel Levy on her “All Things Education” blog.

Below are excerpts from Miner’s article:

 I have come to distinguish between the generally hard-working, smart, and idealistic TFA classroom teachers, and a nation al organization that is as sophisticated, slippery, and media savvy as any group I have ever written about. TFA is perceived as a major player in the education wars over the future of public schools, and a key ally of those who disparage teacher unions and schools of education, and who are enamored of entrepreneurial reforms that bolster the privatization of a once-sacred public responsibility.

But what exactly is TFA’s role in these education wars? Who is directing the organization and to what ends? More importantly, what is TFA’s role in improving urban education?  But leaving aside issues such as poverty and inadequate school funding, it is universally acknowledged that one of the biggest problems in low-performing schools is the revolving door of inadequately prepared teachers. Does TFA’s two-years-and-out commitment feed into this problem and thus exacerbate educational inequity?

TFA recruits from Ivy League colleges and has its members work in low income school areas for a 2 year period.  These teachers then leave, which perpetuates the revolving door of teachers in high poverty areas.  Miner raises an excellent question about TFA.  While I am sure there are some dedicated TFA educators I am relatively certain that some are doing it as a resume enhancer on their way to graduate school.

In the article there is a ton of information to digest, actually, I am still digesting it and all of its implications for career teachers.  Call me cynical, and I just may be…but one thing that has served me well over my life has been a healthy dose of positive skepticism.  I don’t take anything at face value without a little investigating first.  TFA hires short term teachers who then move on.  One must ask: why?  Why so short term?  Are these teachers really committed to what they are doing, or are they angling for something in their futures?  Below are several links about articles written with regard to TFA.  I think anyone interested in the ramifications of TFA, and their new organization “Leadership for Education Equity” (LEE) should peruse these links:

Baltimore teacher runs into trouble with TFA

Seattle Schools Ink Deal with TFA

Impact of TFA not clear – Academic Study

I see TFA as another way that “reformers” are trying to undermine traditional education.  To me, it doesn’t make sense to hire a teacher for two years (which many don’t complete) and then have to go into the recruiting process all over again.  I will have more on TFA, but my initial reaction is a high level of skepticism.  This last quote is one of the reasons I am skeptical, Linda Darling-Hammond is a critic of TFA, this is the woman who I feel should be our education secretary, and not Arne Duncan.  I will post on this as well in the future.

At the same time, Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University, a vocal critic of TFA, has been tarnished as a pro-union anti-reformer in influential media outlets such asNewsweek, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the New Republic. Darling-Hammond’s 2005 study found “no instance where uncertified Teach for America teachers performed as well as standard certified teachers of comparable experience levels teaching in similar settings.” (see sidebar, p. 31.) Following Obama’s election, when Darling-Hammond was head of the education sector of Obama’s transition team and mentioned as a possible secretary of education, media attacks increased, with her critique of TFA one of the concerns cited. The attacks became so relentless that the late Gerald Bracey wrote an article for the Huffington Post titled “The Hatchet Job on Linda Darling-Hammond.”


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