By Sandra Y.L. Korn
Last month, I got an email from a recruiter. An associate of Teach For America, citing a minor leadership role in a student organization as evidence that I “have distinguished [myself] as a leader here on Harvard’s campus,” asked me to meet with Harvard’s TFA representative on campus. Dropping phrases like “race and class,” “equal opportunities,” and “educational injustice,” the recruiter promised that I could have a significant impact on a classroom in an underserved community.
I have thought for many years about teaching high school history. But I stopped replying to this email after a few exchanges.
I am not interested in TFA.
For one, I am far from ready to enter a classroom on my own. Indeed, in my experience Harvard students have increasingly acknowledged that TFA drastically underprepares its recruits for the reality of teaching. But more importantly, TFA is not only sending young, idealistic, and inexperienced college grads into schools in neighborhoods different from where they’re from—it’s also working to destroy the American public education system. As a hopeful future teacher, that is not something I could ever conscionably put my name behind.
Princeton alumna Wendy Kopp originally founded TFA with the mission of filling teacher shortages in U.S. public schools. The program, which helps young college grads find placements teaching in public schools after they graduate from college, combines the persistence of a five-person recruiting team with the cache of a competitive on-campus-interview process. It has quickly become one of the most popular destinations for Harvard seniors after graduation.
Clearly, some Harvard students still believe that TFA’s model of recruiting young idealists, throwing them into five weeks of intensive training, and then placing them into schools in neighborhoods very unlike the ones they came from is truly the answer to everything from income inequality to underfunded public school systems. Perhaps they even think that teaching is such an unattractive profession that bright college graduates should be bribed with a feel-good resume booster to fill the vast shortage of competent teachers in the United States.
But it has become increasingly clear to anyone who thinks critically about teaching that there’s something off with TFA’s model. After all, TFA alumni repeatedly describe their stints in the American public education system as some of the hardest two years of their lives. Doesn’t it bother you to imagine undertrained 22-year-olds standing in front of an crowded classroom and struggling through every class period? Indeed, most of the critiques of TFA in The Crimson have focused on students’ unpreparedness to teach.
However, unpreparedness pales in comparison to the much larger problem with TFA: It undermines the American public education system from the very foundation by urging the replacement of experienced career teachers with a neoliberal model of interchangeable educators and standardized testing. If TFA intended to place students in schools with insufficient numbers of teachers, it has strayed far from its original goal. As an essay by Chicago teacher Kenzo Shibata asked last summer, “Teach For America wanted to help stem a teacher shortage. Why then are thousands of experienced educators being replaced by hundreds of new college graduates?” Journalist James Cersonsky notes that veteran teachers and schools alike may suffer from this type of reform: “Districts pay thousands in fees to TFA for each corps member in addition to their salaries—at the expense of the existing teacher workforce. Chicago, for example, is closing 48 schools and laying off 850 teachers and staff while welcoming 350 corps members.”
Chicago is not the first city where Teach For America has tried to replace veteran teachers with new recruits. Two years ago, The Crimson quoted the president of the Boston Teachers’ Union as saying, “Teach For America claims that it does not come in and take positions from incumbent members. That is a lie. They are doing it in Boston…Their arrogance is appalling.” Cersonsky and blogger EduSchyster have meticulously documented TFA’s connections to dozens of charter schools as well as education reform advocacy organizations that focus on standardized testing and privatization instead of grassroots community involvement and student voices. In doing so, TFA is working directly against the interests of teachers, students, and communities alike. Neoliberal school reform is the true “educational injustice” here.
Happily, Chicago does provide a model of truly community-driven and progressive education advocacy. Last summer, the Chicago Teachers’ Union organized with parents and students to advocate for quality public education including smaller class sizes, more staff like school nurses, less standardized testing, and progressive taxation structures for school funding.
I don’t mean to vilify students who’ve chosen to recruit for TFA—I’m sure they have only the best intentions of helping underserved students—but I would like to call on my classmates and current TFA corps members to reconsider their decision to be part of this program. TFA has positioned itself as an ethical alternative to Wall Street for college seniors looking for a short-term commitment. We should all have questions about how much we can actually help to fix structural problems with just a month of training and a few years of work.