Critics allege that the program destabilizes schools and
communities and questioned its role in privatization of education
Teach for America, a program which places high-achieving college graduates as teachers in low-income schools around the country, is coming under heavy criticism by educators who allege its training for teachers is insufficient and that it destabilizes schools and communities.
About 100 of those critics assembled in Chicago last weekend at the Free Minds Free People education conference to discuss “organizing resistance against Teach for America”, which is one of the most well-known efforts to improve the nation’s flagging educational system. Its educators represent less than 1% of teachers in the US.
TFA alumni, parents, community activists and veteran teachers gathered to discuss concerns over the role the program plays in the privatization of education. Their criticisms fall in line with those mounted against the program in the past: that the seven-week training program is insufficient, that it destabilizes schools with short-term teachers, and that it disenfranchises communities. In 2009, USA Today reported on concerns that the program’s teachers were displacing older educators.
“In the end, I felt the way I was teaching brought me and my students and their communities pain, and that’s why I’m part of this movement now,” said Hannah Price, a TFA alumna and current teacher who attended the meeting in Chicago. “It doesn’t have to be like that.”
“We certainly have areas of improvements are looking to be better, but based on what we hear from the principals that employ our teachers and the results we see in organizations where our alumni play leadership roles, we have had a positive impact, and that has to be part of the discussion,” said TFA spokesman Steve Mancini.
Problems in New Orleans
TFA participants, usually recent college graduates who have majored in subjects other than teaching, must pass a test before they are are placed in schools in low-income communities for a two-year commitment. They undergo seven weeks of training before the school year begins, and continue to receive coaching from veteran teachers, a TFA coach and an alumni network throughout their commitment.
Price began her two-year commitment in New Orleans in 2010 and said she felt unprepared to teach. She said she was distressed by things including an expectation that she should keep her students silent in the hallways, at lunch and in reading periods.
“It felt so unnatural, but I didn’t have the experience or language to process how detrimental that was to students,” Price said.
Price was on the verge of quitting until she started using resources outside TFA to augment her teaching and help her connect with the local community. Price still works as a teacher in New Orleans, and she credits veteran teacher Stephanie Anders for providing her with the support to continue with the program.
The two met at the New Teachers’ Roundtable, a group that encourages new teachers to think critically about the New Orleans public school system. Anders, now a doctoral student at the University of New Orleans, said that before joining the group: “I had kind of thought of the TFA people as bad guys.”
Anders is a traditionally trained teacher, with multiple professional certifications and extensive experience as an instructional coach for teachers. Yet she has been unable to find a full-time teaching position in New Orleans and she feels TFA’s permeation of the New Orleans school system has played a role in that. This year, approximately 375 New Orleans teachers are members of TFA, up from 85 a few years ago.
Louisiana state officials laid off more than 7,000 employees and took over 102 of 117 city schools after Hurricane Katrina left the city’s population scattered in 2005. When it was time to rehire teachers, the government overlooked the fired employees, who have since won a $1.5bn class action lawsuit which the school system is appealing. At the same time, Teach for America’s New Orleans program thrived, creating tension in the city’s educational community.
Mancini, the TFA spokesman, said those hiring decisions were made by school principals, not the program.
“Teach for America, for over 20 years, has brought smart, caring and dedicated people into education and work in low-income communities,” Mancini said. “Over 80% of our alumni are either working in schools or in education or in low-income communities.”
The organization has long used data to defend criticisms, though many feel the reports are skewed and a fair study comparing a TFA teacher to a traditionally trained teacher doesn’t yet exist.
TFA’s co-chief executives recently completed a “listening tour” during which they received feedback from members, community members and alumni who provided “a wide range of opinions”, said Mancini.
“Teach for America is not the only program who has teachers who struggle in their first year – teachers in traditional programs struggle,” said Mancini. “The question should be how do we help first year teachers improve and grow, how do they become constant learners in the classroom. We’re constantly thinking about the feedback to give those teachers to get better.”