Friday, November 9, 2012

"Teach" for (white elite) America

The articles and podcast for this week brought up questions that have been troubling me with other issues in the course: Are those in power perpetuating the system aware of the detrimental effects of their actions on low income, minority communities? Furthermore, do those behind Teach for America actually believe their program is doing good work?

            Both authors make it very clear that TFA only harms the children in low-income communities by putting inexperienced and unqualified teachers into the classrooms, hampering the students’ education experiences.  The claims of the former TFA members demonstrate this well.  Jonathan Scorr claims, “But I was not read…I was not a successful teacher and the loss to the students was real and large” (Darling-Hammond 22).  Many former TFA recruits and members of the administration at the schools that take them echo these claims about TFA members, maintaining that not only are they unprepared but most are not really dedicated—that they don’t understand the complicated needs of the children and the surrounding community. (Darling-Hammond 25).  This is due to the assumptions embedded in TFA—that a quick summer course without any formal evaluation, and one that fails to address necessary ideas about teaching and the learning process is better than longer teaching certification programs in creating able teachers that can help reduce the achievement gap (Darling- Hammond 29).   

It seems that a common theme underlying all these assumptions is that elite, mostly white, graduate students, because of their innate superiority, will naturally know what is good for low socioeconomic students—that white elites naturally know the rights solutions to poverty without any knowledge about the communities they are serving.

This is an especially dangerous supposition and one that results in a loss of proper education for low income and minority students.  TFA becomes even more problematic because of the underlying principle that the proper way to deal with low income, minority students is to submit them to Taylor institutionalization, so that TFA recruits are taught to employ punishments when students are not meeting the strict standards imposed on them (Hartman).  Therefore, not only does TFA deprive kids of meaningful learning, it also constantly reinforces the notion that they are deviant and need to be controlled, thereby reproducing negative stereotypes about their race/class background and making the classroom experience much less enjoyable.

 The abundance of evidence about the problems is shocking.  Researchers continuously find that the students of beginner TFA teachers perform significantly less well than those of credentialed beginning teachers, while most administrators have claimed that TFA teachers leave a lot of chaos because they fail to respond to the needs of the children, and/or quit or need to be fired.  As a result, the school is left to pick up the pieces (Darling-Hammond 26).  Furthermore, many former TFA members speak out against it, arguing that it hurts the children, the recruits, and the qualified teachers who cant get jobs because of all the spots secured for TFA recruits (This American Life).  The evidence begs the question of how those supporting TFA cannot see the detrimental effects of their actions.  Do they not know or is it simply that they don’t care? Do they really think this is the best way to educate low-income children?

Linda Darling-Hammond asked Kopp about these problems.  “If the candidates didn’t succeed, she explained to me, it would not really be a problem, because most of them would not stay in teaching anyway.  And they would have had an important experience’…She never mentioned the children’s lives” (23).  Kopp’s statement reveals the disgusting and dishonest aims of Teach for America.  It is irrelevant whether or not those behind TFA believe in their ability to educate low-income children or whether they know the disastrous effects, because the process is not about the children.  The title, “Teach for America” is deceptive and has misled many people, myself included, if they do not know the facts.  The only “America” they are serving is white, upper class America, while the other communities must deal with the consequences of the chaos imposed on them…..yet again.


  1. Having taken this class where I’ve been introduced to the negative potential of neoliberal reforms like TFA, I found myself unsurprised at how harmful programs like TFA can be while reading this week’s articles. However, I also thought about what I might’ve thought if I had read these articles two years ago, without any of the education policy background understanding that I have now. Like Maddy, I was originally misled by TFA. Two years ago at this time my older sister was in the process of interviewing for TFA (she made it to the last round and was eliminated), and I had no understanding of the greater implications of TFA. At the time a close family friend of ours who is extremely bright and motivated was teaching for TFA, and this gave me more reason to not question TFA as a program, because I was under the impression that it was filled with all “good” people just like my family friend. I thought, “how could it be a bad program with such good people participating in it?” I remember helping my sister prepare for her interviews and mock-lessons, and I crossed my fingers that my sister would get the chance to take part in such an elite program.

    I am now in a very different place. This week’s articles only helped to confirm my belief that programs like TFA are not the solution to our country’s problems. One of the most shocking parts of the Darling-Hammond article was her description of TFA’s method for assessing the performance of their corps members. Darling-Hammond explains that “the rating form doesn’t help us identify a standard of practice,” which results in “maximum subjectivity” when it comes to evaluating teachers (30). Despite the fact that the TFA system for evaluation seems to be completely arbitrary, and thus, not very useful, what struck me the most was how hypocritical their practices seem to be. The TFA program essentially has no standards by which to evaluate its teachers, yet the leaders of TFA are the same people who are calling for standard-based education reform throughout the entire country. There is clearly something missing from standards and accountability based reforms if the very people who call for certain reforms do not implement the same policies within their own systems.

  2. This week’s podcast contends that TFA fails to address systemic problems facing schools and instead perpetuates the myth that there is a desperate shortage of competent teachers in underperforming schools. Within this discourse, it is easy to accept the idea that bringing intelligent, young, energetic college graduates into high-needs schools will help alleviate issues of educational inequality. As Neha and many others have come to see first-hand, however, this narrative obscures the overarching concerns facing schools. TFA not only harms schools by diverting attention away from the larger social issues that produce educational inequality but, moreover, it actually enhances inequality in schools because experienced and qualified teachers are often replaced by TFA recruits. At best, these recruits are well-intentioned yet untrained and ill-informed concerning “child development, learning theory, or such essential skills as how to teach reading” (Darling-Hammond, 22); while others are simply using the experience as a springboard for careers outside of the field of education altogether. As Maddy noted, TFA founder Wendy Kopp emphasizes the benefits of the TFA program for privileged volunteers while disregarding the loss high-needs students incur from having inexperienced and unprepared teachers, falling in line with recurring themes we have seen throughout the semester. TFA, consistent with corporate education reform at large, co-opts a discourse of social justice and equality to justify practices that conceal systemic inequalities that yield educational disparities and enable those in positions of privilege to exploit low-income, minority students. TFA is yet another example of experimentation on devalued, high-needs students and begs the question, how would white, suburban parents react if untrained, uncredentialed recent college graduates were employed to teach their children?

  3. I would say that the more I read about TFA the more I realize how flawed their theory of change is. I’ve had an interesting experience with TFA. I was accepted into the 2013 Corps, but decided the mission was not something I was comfortable attaching myself to. It’s complicated because as Maddy said, I’m not sure that people are deliberately oppressing underserved students and families. In fact, I’m sure most of the Corps members care about students, but the issue is that they are not prepared and don’t understand the how the larger system undermines public education. I think TFA has more responsibility than it can handle which seems to be something that many large organizations and companies have in common. Because they provide funding or influence, they have a large amount of control in areas like education. This becomes an issue when companies are not experts in the areas they advocate policy for. For example, Kopp makes some pretty sweeping generalizations about organizing effective teacher training. Additionally, TFA is a leader in implementing factory like models and using corps members as factory line workers, an idea we learned by reading Au earlier this year.

    Ideas that operate under the guise of social justice seem like they can’t go wrong, but I think one thing we have learned from this class is to examine the roots behind organizations. Who is funding these initiatives? TFA is supported by Goldman Sachs, Visa, and Wachovia. Drawing connections between the policies that these corporations advocate for and the program TFA is implementing brings forward some scary conclusions about the motivation behind the organization. Even though TFA claims to be apolitical, it is clear by listening to Kopp’s quotes that their organization is clearly pro privatization and anti teacher preparation programs. TFA exists under the guise of social justice, and even those who are critical of the organization often make the same mistake I did: they think they can do good working within the larger oppressive framework. I think for privileged students like us, it is more constructive to fight the larger systems.

  4. I agree with Maddy that a common theme of TFA is idea that elite graduate students, usually white, because of their superiority does not need training for a classroom and they already know exactly what is needed for low socioeconomic students and communities. TFA believes that these recruits naturally understand the solution to poverty yet the number of TFA recruiters who ended up dropping out of the programs before completing the two-year commitment is outrageous. These young elite recent college graduates who quit their jobs end up abandoning the students and most importantly prohibit the students from creating a foundation of learning (Darling-Hammond, 24). The TFA recruiters are not provided with any preparation for teaching in a classroom because the messages emphasized in the TFA training period are “concern much with issues of discipline and very little concern or understanding of issues of curriculum” (29). TFA’s “quick-fix” mentality goes against every teaching program that demands high quality teaching to facilitate meaningful learning. Critiques of TFA have said it “provides almost no time for learning, has no continuing faculty or planned curriculum, exhibits no familiarity with knowledge about teaching, exerts little control over the quality of cooperating teacher” (28). A program articulating these messages should not be replacing certified and qualified teaching our countries most problematic schools. TFA claims it is apolitical however after reviewing the literature it is clear that they have similar ideologies of neoliberal reforms

  5. I want to use this blog post to talk about something I was thinking about in class after the election, but could not find the right words. During elections, politicians, the ones who supposedly hold the power to create change, make elaborate platforms that detail all their policies and ideas to “better” America. But what I always wonder, and this relates to the idea of whether people actually believe that TFA is a good program etc. is to what extent, if at all, these politicians believe in what they are preaching or whether or not they will say what they know America wants to hear. It makes me so “sad” that we are all voting, mostly because we believe we have a voice and it would be un-American to sit back and not participate, yet what we are voting for we are not always sure. We put our trust into a single individual, and then seek evidence that they are indeed doing something good for our country. However, as this class has showed us, many of the policies and programs that are put in place have underlying principles and push certain agendas that do not promote equality. It almost seems that we are voting to have a voice, yet are then manipulated into believing certain things. Our voice isn’t even our voice anymore. With all this in mind it led to me to question what is better: voting for a candidate because you disagree with them a little less and you need to vote anyways to be American? Or don’t vote because you don’t actually agree with either candidate and face the label of being lazy, and not caring enough for our country?

  6. When I read the readings on Teach For America, I was oddly not shocked. I had always been a little "anti-TFA" even before reading about the program. It is obvious that something is wrong when a company tells you that you are guaranteed a job, without any qualifications, that will "save" a group of people. It sounds ridiculous. I am finding that the biggest problem with teaching now is that people have taken the "professionalism" out of teaching. As a senior, I see this now when I am applying to teaching jobs. Most places do not want people who have a history in educational studies. Why is that? Because if you have that background, you are unable to be controlled by the unequal educational policies that are in place? Darling-Hammond continuously approaches this idea of a "Captain-Save-A-School" (my terminology). This is the person who is from a privileged background that comes into schools in low-income communities and act as "saviors" for the students. (Darling-Hammond, 24). The problem is not that someone from a privilege background is willing to help the students, it's that they continue to ignore the real problem, poverty. They only ensure quick fixes (Hartman). I think that because poverty is such a "hard" issue to attack in our society, due to neoliberalism & meritocracy & other things that add discriminatory gaps between people's interactions, it is not the concern of educational policy. Poverty is seen as the fault of the individual person not society. So if Captain-Save-A-School comes in, the problems for that individual "disappears" and now they are Captain-Save-A-Community and it is their responsibility to stray away from issues they face due to poverty.

    This way of "fixing" schools drives me insane because people do not seem to care about children. They only focus on them as "students who need saving," forcing them to be educated under a system centered around authoritarian rules and teaching to the test.

    I have become a pessimist when it comes to people stating that they can fix these types of schools only because the real focus of most of these organizations is the profit. I think the critics of TFA and other education "quick-fixes" shows that we do not really care about the nature of people. Where is our concern for children? (Darling-Hammond, 23). Because of this, I don't solely blame TFA, I'm upset that WE as a people have not done more to stop this. I am upset that children are no longer the center of our concerns.

    I respect people who join these organizations and fellowships, but are actually interested in teaching and students. But, how rare is it to find people like that?