(After much lurking in the shadows and posting the occasional odd comment such as this one or that one, I have decided to make my initial post as a full-fledged contributor to Geek Buffet. I promise that others won’t be on such serious topics as this one. Enjoy!)
The Background Story: I was at a small departmental gathering last night and – after much food and drink – the topic of conversation turned to Teach for America, since our host’s daughter is going through their training program as we speak for a Denver teaching position in the fall. Not being one to hold back his opinions, I made several disparaging remarks about Teach for America, including that it A) encourages people to see teaching as an altruistic resumé-builder that a privileged recent college grad could do rather than as a serious profession that must be done by our best and brightest, B) has a low rate of participants who continue in the field as teachers, C) doesn’t sufficiently train their participants to deal with the tough educational environment of poor rural and urban public schools and D) is a stop-gap feel-good solution for a much wider educational equality problem of income tax disparities between districts. These opinions reflect both research published in various educational journals and in the Education training I received at Grinnell College, particularly from Drs. Jean Ketter and Kara Lycke.
Needless to say, the whole room eagerly jumped down my throat to stop my heart. The counter-arguments were admittedly valid: Teach for America does convince our best and brightest that teaching is a serious profession, many folks who wouldn’t end up teaching suddenly become inspired and go on further in the field, the teachers-to-be get 5-6 weeks of intense training and then have to apply for positions at individual schools on their own, and, the real heart-string-puller, these inner-city kids need enthusiastic warm bodies in their classrooms NOW. It turned out to be a complicated and heated subject of conversation as liberals circled the wagons against a radical lefty (me) who believes that Teach for America should be helping to overhaul the whole public education system in this country for the better, not support the continuous, monotonous moralizing discourse of American poverty and education that has ensnared plans for real reform. Let me explain my wacky position.
My Internal Debate: My ideological dissatisfaction with Teach for America stems from five major questions – five axes, if you will – about what the program actually accomplishes, given its 20 years of existence in an educational environment that has become increasingly stratified:
• Does the program encourage new teachers to enter – and remain in – the profession?
• Do the secondary school students benefit from having young, enthusiastic, dubiously credentialed post-undergrads as opposed to older, jaded/seasoned, certified-to-a-T teachers?
• Are the short-term benefits of Teach for America valuable enough to encourage the program?
• Are the long-term benefits of Teach for America valuable enough to encourage the program?
• Does the aggressive, corporate-style Teach for America branding and marketing campaign undermine its commitments to remedying inequities in American education?
I will offer a subjective response to each and then open the floor for comments from the larger Geek Buffet readership, as I know this topic can incite some intense discussions…
Question 1: Does the program encourage new teachers to enter – and remain in – the profession?
Sort of. As of July 2007, there were 12,000 Teach for America (TfA) alumni. Of these, a third have continued on as new teachers, and another third have entered into the field of education in some other way – as administrators, non-profit education reform advocates, AEA coordinators and… well, as Teach for America employees. These teachers are culled from the ranks of the nation’s “best and brightest” – recent graduates of Yale, Amherst, Kenyon, Notre Dame, Wellesley, Grinnell, and so forth – given 5 weeks of training and plopped into uncontested job positions at struggling rural and urban schools. The “2/3 of these bright people are now in education” statistic is very attractive to parents, investors, prospective, applicants, etc. because it signals that A) the program is successful at getting people jobs right out of college, B) the participants are statistically likely to retain them or launch some similar career and C) participants who grew up in particularly privileged background can immediately and almost sanctimoniously claim a moral and professional high ground.
Yet the cynical person in me says that it’s much harder these days for an immediate college graduate to find a job, even if they come from a highly credentialed school, so TfA is a resumé-builder that transforms into a kind of missionary experience: white upper middle-class students aiming to have a long-term paycheck doing something can benefit in any case by applying. Though people like me decided early in college that becoming an educator was my destiny and took appropriate steps, TfA applicants sort of fall into it, begin teaching with virtually no training in the law, theory, and curriculum in the most challenging scenario imaginable, and wind up with far better-looking credentials (and sexier education background) than boring ol’ certified teachers like myself. And the love of teaching certainly grips that 1/3 that remain (or the promise of a steady job somewhere…) in the profession as teachers, but I see that statistic more as “2/3 of TfA graduates aren’t going to actually want to teach when they’re done.”
Compare that statistic with, oh say, the ratio of people who pay lots of money to go through teacher certification programs at their colleges and universities who then end up as full-time teachers somewhere and you’ll find it’s staggeringly higher. TfA on the one hand offers a means to bypass all the oft-nightmarish certification and training B.S. and awaken the inner teacher in the participants for their lifetime. On the other hand, it’s a paying fast track to get a job in ANY white collar profession, and most flee the classroom for something they’re better prepared for.
Question 2: Do the secondary school students benefit from having young, enthusiastic, dubiously credentialed post-undergrads as opposed to older, jaded/seasoned, certified-to-a-T teachers?
No. According to the recent U.S. News and World Report book review of Donna Foote’s Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches With Teach for America, the journalist discovered that “there was a very palpable tension between the old-timers and the new-timers over the notion that these young, smart things would just come in and know it all.” She goes on to elaborate that, one-on-one, these tensions tend to evaporate, but that there’s still “quite a bit of resentment throughout the profession from people who have gone to schools of education for two years and trained traditionally, who then see these young kids come in after five weeks as teachers of record.” The older, experienced teachers seem willing to work with these enthusiastic upstarts but are not inclined to hand them the keys to the profession, particularly due to their effectiveness in the classroom.
The question is about the kids. In a 2002 study by Idiko Laczko-Kerr and David C. Berliner on primary school children, they found that the students of the under-certified teachers whom TfA offers so generously to these school districts experience 20% less academic growth than their certified peers. This study is, of course, disputed by TfA’s contrary data in mathematics assessment (which means that they’re currently locked in a data war with academia…) but nevertheless demonstrates the kind of degeneration in educational quality that a “stick a warm, smart body in the classroom” approach seems to engender. Then again, I think it has to do with the fact that there is less socio-cultural respect – from the students to their parents – for teaching as a profession in this country than there is in, say, Japan or Germany (since I know many of our Geek Buffet writers have participated in teaching programs abroad and have had much success in them).
Question 3: Are the short-term benefits of Teach for America valuable enough to encourage the program?
For the kids being taught, no. For the post-undergrads looking for something to do after they graduate, absolutely! The question is: whose interests are more important here – the corporate-encouraged sense of altruism of these boot-camp-trained benefactors or institutional continuity and stability in every public school in this country, no matter how high their incomes are.
Question 4: Are the long-term benefits of Teach for America valuable enough to encourage the program?
In a way, yes. TfA encourages people who’d ordinarily be merely contemplating law school or investment banking or engineering school or medical school into taking an interest in the dire educational situation in our country. As TfA members rise through the ranks of our public sectors, one finds that public school policy is changing to reflect more demographic realities rather than institutional fantasies such as those fueling Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation, which is a can of worms I’ll leave shut for now. Unfortunately, this leads me to…
Question 5: Does the aggressive, corporate-style Teach for America branding and marketing campaign undermine its commitments to remedying inequities in American education?
Yes, and in a big way. The thing that struck me about TfA while I was undergoing my own teacher training in a small, underfunded rural district in Iowa was how corporate and moralizing the propaganda for TfA was in comparison to the reality. It had a hero complex. It was slimy. It portrayed my chosen profession as this altruistic, tough, almost militaristic experience where one’s moral and intellectual capacities were sharpened to a superhuman degree. I was thinking to myself: people can now go teach in schools for two years and then come out saying “I’ve been there, I know what it’s like, I got to know my students as people and I was an agent of change.”
Not to use a primary school expression, but I can’t resist: “Well, DUH!”
As a teacher, of course you’ve got to go to work everyday, probably in a building that resembles a prison, where students feel like prisoners. As a teacher, you know what it’s like because you can’t survive in the classroom if you don’t: constant assessments of the learning environment, social atmosphere, short and long-term educational objectives, and so forth. As a teacher, you get to know your students as people because it’s part of your goddamn job – to teach them, the students that are in your classroom, and you can only teach them if you have an intimation of how they might think. As a teacher, you get to change students because students are changing all the time, some for better and some inevitably for worse, but you get to be there, be affected by it and try to affect your own kind of change. Again, the nature of the profession. So why can’t TfA people go through the whole pedagogy course rigamarole and get certified like the rest of us schmucks?
Because our profession isn’t respected as a profession; it’s become volunteer work.
Our profession isn’t paid well enough; it’s become a noble cause.
Our profession isn’t “sexy” enough; it’s got to be dolled up and MTV-ed out in order for young and confused undergrads to seek it out.
Public schools aren’t public anymore; they’re proving grounds for a behemoth, corporate-sponsored non-profit to show how Ivy Leaguers and other privileged people are still better than the rest of us
As a certified teacher and the son of a long-time teacher, I think you can tell what side of the controversy my heart remains on. My alternate solutions to TfA are simple: reform our income tax-based educational funding system so that there’s no such thing as wealthy or poor public schools, but “just” public schools. And pay K-12 teachers higher salaries… through the generous donation of corporations who care about the long-term well-being of our country’s education system.