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.
Leading in today’s Crimson White: