Reconsider TFA


By Guest Contributor

When simple solutions and polished narratives are applied to complex issues, there is often something fishy lurking beneath the surface. Such is the case for Teach for America (TFA), which presents itself as an organization that recruits graduates of elite colleges, like Middlebury, and provides them with two-year teaching positions in “high-need” rural and urban schools.

Several of our friends and peers who we respect and admire and whose intentions we trust have become involved in TFA as corps members, recruiters or in other roles.  Our goal is not to demonize them. After all, we personally know many past, current and future TFA members who are committed to teaching and who were even positively impacted by TFA teachers themselves growing up.  But, we believe that, as a whole, the TFA organization threatens public education in our country by giving priority to the desires of private interests over the needs of American children whose communities have been impoverished by unjust economic and societal structures.

TFA began 20 years ago, seeking to address teacher shortages by placing inexperienced college grads in schools where their presence would be better than no teachers at all. Since then, the public education landscape has changed drastically: there is now a surplus of qualified, veteran teachers who are getting laid off, often via massive school closings. But instead of adapting to its diminished need, TFA has grown to 32,000 people and boasts assets totaling over $400 million. This huge amount of human and monetary capital is needed, TFA claims, to further its work using “innovative” tactics to address a “crisis” in our public education system caused, they imply, by lazy teachers and corrupted teachers’ unions. This “crisis” has occurred at the same time the Program for International Student Assessment found that, when controlling for poverty, American public school students outperform top scoring nations like Finland and Canada.

Something, indeed, is fishy.

And it is time for us as a campus community — which is one of the top 20 schools TFA recruits from — to closely examine what is going on. Here are some places to start:

First, TFA is “deprofessionalizing” the teaching profession. TFA corps members, often entering classrooms with only a 5-week training course, are rarely equipped to deal with large classes of struggling students. Not only that but 80 percent of them leave the classroom after 4 years. This increase in the teacher turnover rate destabilizes school systems and makes teachers into interchangeable commodities instead of long-term community members and leaders.

And while apparently 60 percent of TFA corps members continue in the education field, that figure represents not only teachers, but also those who enter into school administration, education policy and charter schools, where they often push the same agenda of privatizing public education.

As these TFA corps members flood classrooms, veteran, unionized long-term community teachers in both public and charter schools are being laid off. In Chicago, for example, the city closed 48 schools and laid off 850 teachers and staff while hiring 350 corps members. And those TFA positions are often funded with the heavily lobbied help of federal and state subsidies and grants, in addition to corporations invested in TFA’s privatizing methods such as ExxonMobil Foundation, JPMorgan Chase, Monsanto Fund, and Shell Oil Company who have bolstered TFA’s endowment with six and seven figure donations.

TFA claims that it is challenging the status quo, but we believe that it is part of maintaining an unequal system. Instead of addressing societal and economic structural problems that create poverty and inequality, TFA preaches that the courageous efforts of “leaders” from elite colleges and innovative (read: neoliberal) approaches to education are what is needed to address the “solvable problem” of education inequality.

Catherine Michna counters in Slate that in order for education inequality to have been eliminated at the school where she was a TFA corps member, “We needed smaller class sizes, money for books and materials, money to renovate the crumbling school building. We needed more professional development…Our students’ parents needed jobs that paid a living wage. We needed the police to stop profiling and imprisoning the young men in our community. We needed the War on Drugs to end. We needed all these problems addressed.” Instead, the polished narrative of TFA and the corporate education reform movement conveniently leaves out these issues while calling for an increase in high stakes testing, charter schools, and interchangeable TFA corps members in schools across the country in an effort to privatize them, bust teachers’ unions, “commodify” the teaching profession, and undermine public education.

We challenge Middlebury students to reconsider applying for Teach for America and accepting positions in the program, and instead find other ways to learn about and get involved with education in our country.

Students Resisting Teach for America, including ELMA BURNHAM ’13 (Student Teachers Program) of Fishers Island, NY/Stonington, CT, LUKE GREENWAY ’14.5 of Seattle, WA, HANNA MAHON ’13.5 of Washington DC, ALICE OSHIMA ’15 of Brooklyn, NY, MOLLY ROSE-WILLIAMS  ’13.5 of Berkley, CA, LUKE WHELAN ’13.5 of Seattle, WA,  ALLY YANSON ’14 of Naples, FL and AFI YELLOW-DUKE ’15 of Brooklyn, NY