OPINION | Alternatives to Teach for America

Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits teachers from elite colleges to spend two years teaching in under-resourced schools, has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months. Supporters claim that bringing the “best and brightest” into inner city schools is a way of increasing teacher quality. Skeptics question the wisdom of creating a two-tiered educational system in which middle class suburban students are guaranteed a fully licensed teacher with substantial college-level pedagogical training, but poor children and children of color in the most struggling schools may get TFA-provided teachers with only five weeks of preparation to be teachers.

This month, when hundreds of education activists from around the country gathered in Chicago for the Free Minds, Free People conference, TFA was one of the most frequent topics of conversation. The diverse, passionate conference attendees compared notes about the education fights in their cities, the effects of budget cuts, disinvestment, and corporate reforms on their communities, and brainstorm strategies for fighting back.

The most high-profile event at the conference, titled “Organizing Resistance to Teach for America” attracted over 100 attendees, and some press attention. The organizers included Teach for America alumni who found their experiences with the organization troubling, as well as parents whose children had encountered TFA teachers, public school teachers who had been displaced by TFA placements. Together, they provided a devastating critique of TFA’s model of sending high-achieving college graduates (without regard to what their achievement was in) into unfamiliar communities to be heroic uplifters of racial and economic others.

The event drew immediate criticism. In The Atlantic, a TFA alum weighed in:

A more productive counter-movement, Cleek argued, would seek pragmatic alternatives to Teach for America rather than trying to subvert the organization itself. ‘Hopefully these people don't think our education system would be better off with fewer new teachers who graduated at the top of their class," Cleek wrote, "but this is the only certain outcome I see from discouraging potential TFA recruits.’

His comments echoed TFA’s Senior VP for Community Partnerships, who told James Cersonsky at The Prospect,

I hope that they produce a paper or presentation that makes constructive suggestions to the organization…

Framing TFA's critics as “unproductive” is a clever way to concern-troll people TFA disagrees with, but the characterization doesn’t match what’s happening on the ground. The conference was full of positive alternatives to close the achievement gap with sustainable solutions that benefit the whole community.

One of the stand-out panels was a presentation on Illinois’ “Grow Your Own Teacher” program. Though not a new concept in Minnesota (the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers proposed a similar program more than ten years ago that was de-funded), the presenters did a great job distilling the theory of their project. The question they started by asking was an important one: “What makes a great teacher?” The answer they propose is someone with an investment in the community, who is passionate about teaching, loves kids, and believes fully in the potential of the children in their classroom. The question, in schools that are struggling with staffing, is how to find those teachers. Their solution: look in and around the school. The people who care most about that school might already be inside volunteering, advocating for their own kids, or working in non-teaching roles.

Chances are good, at a school that is struggling to staff up, that the effects of long-term structural racism and class immobility will create barriers for potential teachers. The people who are passionate about kids most likely don’t have the requisite education to be teachers. The Grow Your Own program actually confronts that inequity by creating educational opportunities for adults in the community—mostly people of color—to help them achieve bachelor’s degrees and teaching licensure. In the presentation, we heard teachers speaking with real clarity and purpose about what it had meant to them to have the opportunity to go to college, and to dedicate their careers to the kids in their community.

The “Grow Your Own” program finds itself, unfortunately, in direct conflict with Teach For America, which has used its huge resources and political connections to negotiate guaranteed spots for its program in Chicago (among other cities), while Grow Your Own teachers are left, alongside thousands of laid-off veteran teachers, hoping for opportunities to teach.

Beyond the material conflict though, is a conflict in philosophy that deserves more rigorous debate. Nobody argues that we shouldn’t be working to attract excellent teachers to struggling schools where children need the most help. What is emerging, however, are competing visions of what “excellent” means. Is it the teacher who graduated at the top of her class, or the teacher who is deeply, personally invested in her students’ success? Should we invest in recruitment that creates new pathways to privilege for America’s privileged educational elite, or that creates pathways for overcoming structural racism and propels local talent into college, and then the classroom?

The assumption TFA makes is that the “best and brightest” provide a benefit, even as they increase turnover and disconnect teaching from community roots. The evidence of a correlation between high academic achievement measures like SAT score or selectivity of college attended is unconvincing. Even if you accept that such a correlation exists, it is unclear that it’s a variable that can be isolated and brought to scale. The results TFA has produced are decidedly mixed.

The potential benefits of TFA are cast in further doubt when you factor in the costs to the community and the school system of a high-turnover program that provides teachers in need of a great deal of training and support, and with little or no connection to the community. Schools benefit most from hiring great teachers when those teachers care about the community, and stay long enough to let the community benefit from the improvements they make in their craft over time. The need to recruit unlicensed teachers to parachute in for two years should be seen as a symptom of deeper problems at a school, and the replacement of TFA placements with long-term, high quality professional teachers should be one of the goals of any school in such a predicament.

Governor Dayton and the Board of Teaching have come under fire, recently, for not granting special waivers and providing state financial support to Teach for America. By denying these lobbying efforts, they are not blocking Teach for America from doing its work, but they are asking TFA to compete on an even, well-regulated playing field with other ideas for solving school staffing problems. This is the right thing to do. Policy-makers and educators should invest instead in longer-term, sustainable solutions like Grow Your Own that recruit and retain excellent teachers to close the achievement gap.

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