TFA detrimental to impoverished kids

In an inspiring letter on education last week titled “Teach for America can close poverty education gap, locally, nationally,” author Jasmine Cannon asserted her belief that poor communities require hope and guidance in the form of bright-eyed college graduates willing to sacrifice two years of the their time. Unfortunately, this is a delusion of grandeur I cannot possibly support.

Teach for America is actively destructive to the public education system, and its methods of “lifting children out of poverty” are counter-intuitive. Education has many virtues and exposes opportunities, but it is not a wholesale cure for the problems which ail communities and social classes.

One teacher, and for that matter, a community of teachers, cannot make a child less poor, their parents more educated, or their home less stressful. These are factors outside an educator’s control, no matter how fervently we wish to the contrary. Teachers can, and often do, give their best in attempting to expose their students to opportunity, but success largely depends upon the receptivity of the student and the parent.

A trained and experienced teacher will tell you this, but TFA does not have trained or experienced candidates – it has a political machine bent on pushing its agenda and publishing its few successes – ignoring the fact that it has changed little about education in impoverished areas. They have not lifted the Mississippi Delta out of poverty and have had little success at changing educational trends in poor communities.

Yet, they are an all too willing pawn in the hands of interest groups who want to bust teachers unions and ignore policy oriented educational reform beyond mass firing of teachers and closing struggling schools.

Poor communities need sustainability and trained educators, not a revolving door of inexperienced and well-meaning kids equipped with platitudes about closing the poverty and achievement gap. Most poor schools and communities suffer from a lack of committed teachers willing to work over the long term. TFA has never served that need. More importantly, we now face a surplus of trained teachers who are better equipped to handle the challenges of a classroom than a child with no experience.

The undeniable fact is that the vast majority of TFA teachers quit after two years, never re-entering education. Any teacher will affirm that it takes a year to become effective, and the second is spent correcting mistakes. In the third, you might actually make a difference.

Sadly, after TFA members move on to law school or medical school (generously supplemented by their time with TFA), their corps members leave satisfied that they have done more harm than good. Unfortunately, they leave trained educators to fill the gaps they left behind.

Yet, TFA procures contracts from many school districts to hire their corps members. The ugly truth is that districts can hire these young graduates with no credentials much cheaper than they can hire a trained teacher. Many teachers with credentials and experience are forced to make way for a child with no experience and sometimes no understanding of the subject they will teach.

In spite of the obvious fact that little has changed about education since its inception, TFA continues to enthrall young graduates like Ms. Cannon. They endow these naïve graduates with the absurd belief that they are the answer to everything which afflicts these communities. Teach for America never did and never will change the lack of resources in these areas. These students need up-to-date textbooks, more instructional time, smaller class sizes, extra guidance, and most importantly, administrators and teachers dedicated to their education for more than two years.

TFA corps members must ask themselves why they are good enough to be hired in impoverished Wilcox County, but Mountain Brook is off-limits. The truth is simple: They are more willing to put the education of a poor child in your hands than an affluent one. The underlying assumption, in spite of all TFA’s claims to the contrary, remains true: poor students are expendable.

I am not willing to experiment with a child’s education. If you are seriously concerned with the work that needs to be done in schools, get a degree in education and commit yourself to five years of teaching in an impoverished area. You will quickly learn that larger forces than a lack of belief in students are at work when it comes to serving poor communities’ educational needs.

John Speer is a graduate student in secondary education. His column runs weekly.

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  • W. Oroke

    Let me preface with the idea that I am not necessarily opposed to the concerns you raise about the program. I believe there are actually many other problematic elements you don’t even touch on, but what I would like to call attention to is two points which you made. The first point is your account on their being a “surplus of trained teachers.” Please tell me where these teachers are, because the entire nation could use them right now. Unfortunately school districts across the nation are not having a large applicant pool for any of their openings because it seems the teachers just aren’t there to fill them. More importantly those teachers which are available are not seeking out jobs in low-income areas. Trust me I want to see experienced teachers in these areas as much as you, but I think this point might be slightly ill founded.
    The second point is based on your argument for what the students need: “These students need up-to-date textbooks, more instructional time, smaller class sizes, extra guidance, and most importantly, administrators and teachers dedicated to their education for more than two years.” All of these points I completely agree with; however, the implementation of them is not as easy as you make it appear. First off, up-to-date textbooks are only practical in particular subject areas, and more importantly, are only effective if the student can read at high enough level. Sadly in low-income areas this is categorically not the case. Smaller class sizes, is only possible if we create both more schools and have more teachers available, and at this point it seems those teachers just aren’t out there, plus the funding for the new schools doesn’t seem to be available. Extra guidance seems like a rather vague term and fails to go into detail about what this guidance would look like and whether or not you would be referring to after school, weekend, summer, etc. work. You last point is clearly well founded but one cause for concern I would like to acknowledge is that simply because a teacher has taught for a particular number of years does not necessarily make them the most effective educator. Think of the teachers and professors who you believe have been the most successful during your academic life; my guess is these teachers are not categorically similar in terms of the amount of time they have spent teaching.

    My concluding point would be this: TFA is far from “the ” solution, I believe the TFA community is beginning to realize this; but, it should also not be completely written off. There are studies and personal anecdotes which suggest many of the teachers entering the program are successful and do improve the academic lives of their students. I think we can both agree that what we need is a more comprehensive policy which sees the relationship between a students’ academic life and their home life, and properly attempts to address both issues.

    • Barry_D

      “Please tell me where these teachers are, because the entire nation could
      use them right now. Unfortunately school districts across the nation
      are not having a large applicant pool for any of their openings because
      it seems the teachers just aren’t there to fill them.”

      They’re every where, liar. They’re the graduates of education schools who didn’t get a job, because districts were laying off, not hiring. They’re the experienced teachers laid off by districts all over the country.

      I’m gong to shout now: WE ARE IN THE WORST LABOR MARKET IN THIRTY YEARS; ANYBODY WHO SAYS THAT THERE IS A SHORTAGE OF WORKERS IS A LIAR.

      • W.Oroke

        The emphasis within my commentary is primarily based on teachers seeking low income positioning. As I have heard at every hiring fair currently being put on for teachers across this nation, they are not have a large enough applicant pool to choose from to fill their positions. So if there are in fact teachers everywhere, it seems they are shying away from these positions for whatever personal or professional reason they may have.

        The comment I don’t fully understand is your commentary on “worst labor market in thirty years.” 2013, as it currently stands is not the worst labor market in even the past year, so I haven’t yet been able to fully understand your point.

        So while there certainly may be a large amount of teachers seeking out positions at high-performing, middle-income schools, when I see principals working in low-income communities pleading with teachers to come on and fill their positions, I see a disconnect between our two points.

        • Barry_D

          I see people complaining that they can’t get people, but salaries and wages simply are not rising – see Krugman for more details.

          • W.Oroke

            Barry, I think we have finally found our common ground and can agree that wages are terribly low. As a new teacher myself, I understand what it is like to grapple with these low wages and trying to make a living, while still wanting to have enough to provide for others. I hope we are eventually able to solve this crisis. Thank you for your insight and debate.

  • S. Seaborne

    “Education has many virtues and exposes opportunities, but it is not a wholesale cure for the problems which ail communities and social classes.”

    EDUCATION IS NOT A WHOLESALE CURE?! Seriously?! Education is the silver bullet, education is everything. I refused to read you opinion past that line. You’re an idiot. Also, I’m not a TFA fan either, but you are way off the mark.

    • S. Seaborne

      also, “Education has many virtues and exposes opportunities, but it is not a wholesale cure for the problems which ail communities and social classes.” – is not a complete sentence. just thought i would point that out. i hear TFA has some pretty good english majors teaching grammar in Wilcox County, you should look them up.

  • http://twitter.com/stupidjerkface Hmph.

    Alright. Mr. Graduate Student in Secondary Education. After you graduate, I expect we’ll find you putting in at least 5-10 years in a poor rural or urban school district? Surely you won’t go to work for Mountain Brook. You’ll go to where the kids are in the most dire need, schools that have the most trouble attracting teachers, the kinds of places that rely on TFA.

  • Maury

    This is exactly what is wrong with America. Solid, privately funded programs striving to help the impoverished are getting in the way of the teachers union status quo monopoly. I’ll bet the author of this article has the same argument against charter schools. What a communist idiot. I love how the author uses the term “child” when referencing TFA teachers. Way to intelligently lump all of those 22-24 year old adults in to some ignorant group of neanderthals in the wake of your superior gaggle of elitists from academia.

    • John Speer

      Good man, TFA is not a private program. They are a public non-profit that receives federal funding. You should also learn what communist means.

      • W.Oroke

        Just to clarify…TFA is both privately and publicly funded. The majority of the money does come in through private companies, but they still receive money though the Americorps.

  • dgodon

    Nice summary of some of the problems with TFA. For more on the problems of this organization, check out https://reconsideringtfa.wordpress.com/