There was a time, not very long ago, when I was an active volunteer alumni recruiter for TFA. And, as you might expect, I was great at it. One year, I think it was 1998, I did a recruitment session at Colorado College, a very small school, which brought the house down. A year later when TFA published the list of the most popular schools for TFA, Colorado College was listed alongside The University Of Michigan and all the other common TFA schools as one of the top twenty schools for that year.
The last time I recruited for TFA, I went to my alma mater, Tufts, in 2002. I even wrote this editorial which ran in The Tufts Daily.
There are many similarities between now and 1991, when I graduated from college. Bush was in the White House, war was in the Middle East, and the job market was unfriendly. The prospect of being unemployed and living at home caused my altruistic tendencies to heighten as I applied to the newly formed Teach For America (TFA) program. TFA recruits college seniors from any major to sign up to teach for two years in some of the most under-resourced schools in the country. Four months after my acceptance, just as the current college seniors entered kindergarten, I began the first of my two years teaching sixth grade in Houston.
Signing up for TFA required doing something I rarely did as a college student – taking a giant risk. Sure I risked being turned down when I asked girls out at fraternity parties. I risked getting a C in Psych One when I neglected to study for the final. Those were easy risks to take, and, besides, both of those risks were softened by the fact that I was drunk. Joining TFA required I risk complete failure. Though I tried to envision myself inspiring sixth graders to develop the same affection for numbers that led me to major in math, I knew that a classroom of kids, even ‘needy’ kids, could eat a young idealistic teacher alive. Aside from personal failure, I had to risk financial failure. Even though the pay wasn’t bad (In addition to a full teaching salary, we received additional money from an education grant), I would not be able to afford some of the things my friends could. TFA was a two-year program, so I could still continue with my life ambition to be a lawyer after the program was finished. Still, I was concerned by the prospect of starting law school just as many of the friends I graduated with were beginning their final year of law school. I worried that I would be giving everyone I graduated with a two-year head start in the race of life.
Several forces combined to lead me to my eventual decision. Most importantly, it sounded exciting. For once, I’d be doing something ‘real’. I’d be doing something valuable for society. I’d be making a difference. Also, I really wasn’t as thrilled about applying to law school as my mother was. As current seniors read this, and think about their own decisions about their futures, I wish I could portray a dramatic ‘moment of truth’ that I went through. I could describe myself sitting in my dorm room with my TFA acceptance in one hand and my Harvard Law School acceptance in the other. I look back and forth at each letter and freeze on the law school letter. Then I sigh, shake my head, and begin to chuckle. I take a look at the TFA letter, then back one last time to the Harvard letter before ripping the law school acceptance into confetti. Unfortunately, that’s not how it happened. As soon as I heard about it, I knew I wanted to do TFA. I didn’t even apply to law school. I was accepted to the program in March, and began teaching in August.
As a student, I wasn’t known for making the best decisions. “Double majoring in Math and Philosophy will be cool”, “Let’s stay on campus senior year. We’ll get single dorm rooms”, “It’s never too late for a cheesesteak”. Joining TFA was, by far, the best decision I ever made at Tufts or anywhere else. Though I risked complete failure, and struggled bravely through my first year, I eventually made it through my commitment. In doing so, I helped a lot of kids to learn and to enjoy math.
No other path I could have chosen would have exposed me to the range of emotions I experienced in TFA. One of my best moments was during my second year of teaching. The school at which I taught had 800 freshmen but only 200 seniors. And of those seniors, twenty-five of them had not yet passed the standardized test that determined if they would graduate. I volunteered to teach them in an extra class. When the test results returned, twenty-three of the twenty-five passed. As they received their diplomas, aside from being proud of them, I was proud of myself for putting forth the extra effort for those kids.
The low point of my experience also occurred during my second year. Returning from Thanksgiving break, I learned that one of my top students, a sixteen-year-old girl named Nohemi, had been killed by her jealous ex-boyfriend. I found myself trying to counsel her classmates at a time that I needed my own counseling.
By joining TFA you will emerge as a better person, prepared to face whatever challenges lie in your future. Any time I have applied for a job, I have been able to look the interviewer in the eye and say that I am not intimidated by any challenge. Deadlines don’t scare me. I lived with a deadline that was marked by the end of the period bell. Problem solving and ability to improvise are skills that I developed by necessity.
After the two years, I taught for two more years, winning teacher of the year at my school, and publishing a book about my experiences. I never went to law school, though many of my TFA friends did. I don’t feel like those friends have somehow ‘lapped’ me on the circular track of life. The race thing, in fact, turned out to be an inaccurate analogy.
I invite current seniors to come to the evening informational sessions this week to learn more about TFA and the application deadline.
I’ve been getting some emails from prospective corps members recently asking me if I think they should apply or not. They say that my writings and the writings of others have made them realize that TFA might have its flaws. But, they wonder, do those flaws outweigh the benefits of the program?
When I joined TFA twenty years ago, I did it because I believed that poor kids deserved to have someone like me helping battle education inequity in this country. At the time, there were massive teacher shortages in high need areas. The 1990 corps had 500 members and the 1991 corps had 750 members, with a third of us going to Houston. I was one of those Houston corps members, the first group to ever go to Houston. At the time, we knew that we weren’t going to be great teachers. It was unrealistic to believe otherwise. But we also knew that the jobs we were taking were jobs that nobody else wanted. Principals who were hiring these ‘Teachers For America’ or other paraphrasings of this unknown organization, were completely desperate. If not for us, our students, most likely, would be taught by a different substitute each day. Even if we were bad permanent teachers, we WERE permanent teachers and for kids who had little in life they can call permanent, it was something. The motto for TFA back then could have been ‘Hey, we’re better than nothing.’
And we got out butts kicked. As tough as this was, we partly expected it. That was what we signed up for. We were like those front line Civil War soldiers — the ones with the bayonets whose job it was to weaken the enemy front line ever so slightly at the expense of our own health and well-being.
Many of us quit. I think that a third of the 1990 charter corps did. I’m not sure how many of the 1991s did. I lost count. Those of us who made it through the first year had pretty good second years. It was true, I guess, that what didn’t kill us only made us stronger.
Most of the people I knew left after their second year. They went to law school or other graduate programs. Even if they had a bad first year and a much better second year, they could feel they did their part in the fight to help kids. If many of those kids really were going to have rotating subs, we could be sure that we were doing less damage than good.
I’m glad I ‘did’ TFA. Twenty years ago they filled a need. Putting a few hundred barely trained teachers into the toughest to serve schools was one of those concepts that was ‘so crazy, it might just work.’ We weren’t always doing ‘good,’ but we also weren’t doing much harm. Our five or six hundred teachers were pretty insignificant in the scheme of things.
Over the next twenty years, TFA did a lot of growing, but not a lot of evolving. They replicated their institutes and increased their regions. The 2011 corps is nearly 6,000, twelve times as big as the cohorts from the early 90s. Unfortunately, the landscape in education has changed a lot in the past twenty years. Instead of facing teacher shortages, we have teacher surpluses. There are regions where experienced teachers are being laid off to make room for incoming TFA corps members because the district has signed a contract with TFA, promising to hire their new people. In situations like this, it is hard to say with confidence that these under trained new teachers are really doing less harm than good.
As TFA tried to grow and gain private and federal money, they had to develop a public relations machine. They found ways to spotlight their few successes. There were some dynamo teachers — there were bound to be. And then some of those teachers advanced to leadership roles. Some started schools, like the KIPP program which started in Houston in 1995. Some got appointed to big education jobs, like Michelle Rhee as D.C. chancellor, and some got elected to public office, like Michael Johnston as a state senator in Colorado.
More and more alumni started charter schools rather than take the long route of becoming an assistant principal at a ‘district’ school and then advancing to principal. Some of these charter schools were successful, some weren’t. Some of the successful ones, it is documented, mysteriously lose their toughest to educate kids. TFA ignored this as they needed success stories to grow.
Even through most of this, up until about three years ago, I still supported TFA and encouraged people to apply to it. But right now, I don’t.
Twenty years ago TFA was, to steal an expression from the late great Douglas Adams — ‘mostly harmless.’ Then about ten years ago they became ‘potentially harmful.’ Now, in my opinion, they have become ‘mostly harmful.’
Though the change happened so gradually, I hardly noticed it, TFA is now completely different than it was when I joined. I still believe in the original mission of TFA as much as anyone possibly can. The problem is, in my opinion, that TFA has become one of the biggest obstacles in achieving that mission.
TFA has highlighted their few successes so much that many politicians actually believe that first year TFA teachers are effective. They believe that there are lazy veteran teachers who are not ‘accountable’ to their students and who are making a lot of money so we’re better off firing those older teachers and replacing them with these young go-getters.
Some TFA alums have become leaders of school systems in various cities and states. In New York City, several of the deputy chancellors are from TFA. I already mentioned ex-chancellor Michelle Rhee who now runs StudentsFirst. John White runs the Recovery District in New Orleans. Kevin Huffman, former TFA public relations VP, is the state commissioner of Tennessee. TFA likes to point to these leaders as the true effect of TFA. Even if they haven’t really fixed the training model much and the first years are pretty awful teachers, and even if those first year teachers aren’t ‘needed’ anymore to fill any teacher shortages, it doesn’t matter since as long as a fraction of them become these ‘leaders’ TFA will have a positive impact in a big way on the education landscape.
Which sounds great except these leaders are some of the most destructive forces in public education. They seem to love nothing more than labeling schools as ‘failing,’ shutting them down, and blaming the supposed failure on the veteran teachers. The buildings of the closed schools are taken over by charter networks, often with leaders who were TFA alums and who get salaries of $200,000 or more to run a few schools.
Rather than be honest about both their successes and their failures, they deny any failures, and charge forward with an agenda that has not worked and will never work. Their ‘proof’ consists of a few high-performing charters. These charters are unwilling to release the data that proves that they succeed by booting the ‘worst’ kids — the ones that bring down their test scores. See this recent peer reviewed research paper from Berkely about KIPPs attrition.
TFA and the destructive TFA spawned leaders suffer a type of arrogance and overconfidence where they completely ignore any evidence that their beliefs are flawed. The leaders TFA has spawned are, to say this in the kindest way possible, ‘lacking wisdom.’
They say things like ‘Poverty is not destiny,’ which is true if they’re saying that it is possible for some to overcome it, but not true if they are saying that teachers, alone — and untrained teachers, at that — have the power to do this.
And the very worst thing that the TFA alum turned into education ‘reformers’ advocate is strong ‘accountability’ by measuring a teacher’s ‘value added’ through standardized test scores. It might be hard for someone who is not a teacher yet to believe that this is not a cop out by lazy teachers. The fact is that even the companies that do the measurements say that these calculations are very inaccurate. Over a third of the time, they misidentify effective teachers as ineffective and vice versa, in certain models. ‘Value added’ is in it’s infancy, and certainly not ready to be rolled out yet. But ALL the TFA reformers I’ve followed are strong supporters of this kind of evaluation.
So TFA has participated in building a group of ‘leaders’ who, in my opinion, are assisting in the destruction of public education. If this continues, there will soon be, again, a large shortage of teachers as nobody in their right mind would enter this profession for the long haul knowing they can be fired because of an inaccurate evaluation process. And then, of course, TFA can grow more since they will be needed to fill those shortages that the leaders they supported caused.
So if you’re about to graduate college and you want to ‘make a positive difference’ the way I wanted to twenty years ago, you should not do what I did and join TFA. Had TFA evolved with the times, and it’s not too late, I’m hoping they eventually do, then maybe it could have been something that I’d advise new graduates to do. Maybe they can make it a four year program. I know that this was not the idea of TFA, but I do think that when people teach for two years and then leave, it contributes to the instability of the schools that need the most stability. Maybe by bringing fewer people but having a plan for them to be true leaders with ‘wisdom’ and the ability to analyze the facts, even when those facts are counter to what they’d like them to be, future TFA leaders can be competent enough to handle the responsibilities they’ve been trusted with.
But if you enter TFA now, I think you are contributing more to the problem, unfortunately, than to the solution. This is not to say that the current 2011 corps — God help them with their dozen hours of student teaching classes of 4 to 15 kids — aren’t great people who are giving it their all. I’m sure that most of them, deep down, agree with everything I’m saying.
But if you truly feel that TFA is really the ONLY way that you have a chance to ‘give back’ to the society that has provided you such opportunities, I suppose that you can apply, but there are some things you should demand before accepting their offer. First, you should refuse to be placed in a region that is currently suffering teacher layoffs. In those places, you will be replacing someone who, most likely, would have done a better job than you. Why would you want to live with that guilt? I was horrible my first year, but I was better than the rotating group of subs I replaced. Second, you should refuse to go to a charter school. Though there are some charter schools that are not corrupt, I believe that most are. They NEED those test scores and they do anything they can to get them. This often means ‘counseling out’ the kids that TFA was created to serve. Third, you need to demand that you get an authentic training experience. TFA signs contracts with districts where they promise to train you properly. But team teaching with three other teachers for twelve days with classes with as few as 4 kids is not fair to you and it is really not fair to the kids that you will teach. They deserve someone who is trained properly. Fourth, you should commit to teaching for four years instead of two. America let you practice on their kids for your first year — you’ve got to give back three good years to make up it.
TFA does not like new recruits making any demands, so if you make them, be prepared to be asked to leave. If enough people, however, make these demands they can’t ask everyone to leave and they might consider fixing these flaws.
It does make me feel bad to write this post. I hate that TFA has lost its way so badly and that they have become a huge part of the reason that the country is going in the wrong direction with regard to ed reform. I never thought they would amass so much power. Because they have refused to learn from their failures, which they deny, and from critics, like me, they have found themselves in this difficult position. When the corporate ed reform bubble bursts, as I believe it will soon — you can’t lie about inflated success forever — I worry that TFA burst along with it. That’s too bad since the people in charge of TFA do believe they are doing what is good for the kids of this country. They just aren’t sophisticated enough to know that they are wrong.
I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able, again, to sing the praises of TFA and advise people who want to make a positive difference for kids to become a member. For this to happen, though, TFA will have to make some changes. Primarily, they will have to break the alliance they currently have with the so-called reform movement. It’s not working and it never will work. Pretending it is, like pretending that all the first year corps members are succeeding because a few outliers are, or that all alumni run charter schools are succeeding because a few outliers are. All this proves is that in a large enough data set there will, inevitably, be outliers.
And don’t misunderstand this essay as me denouncing the organization or of turning in my membership card. I’m all for the mission of TFA — to get more soldiers to improve education for poor kids in this country. But I want these people utilized in a way that helps, not that brings down the public education system promoting the myth that firing teachers and shutting down schools really works.
TFA, in its current vise, is serving a purpose for which it was never intended. It serves a purpose that is no longer needed, nor wanted by the people it is serving.
TFA, if it is not careful, will face the same fate as Blockbuster video. It filled a need in the 90s and the 2000s, but did not adapt wisely to the changing conditions. Blockbuster is all but gone, and TFA if it refuses to adapt may face the same fate.
If I were ‘America’ I would have this to say to TFA: While I appreciate your offer to ‘teach’ for me, I’ve already got enough untrained teachers for my poorest kids. And if teaching is just a stepping stone, for you, on the path to becoming an influential education ‘leader,’ thanks, but no thanks to that too. I don’t need the kind of leaders you spawn — leaders who think education ‘reform’ is done by threats of school closings and teacher firings. These leaders celebrate school closings rather than see them as their own failures to help them. These leaders deny any proof that their reforms are failing and instead continue to use P.R. to inflate their own claims of success. We’re having enough trouble swatting the number of that type of leader you’ve already given us. If you want to think of a new way to harness the brain power and energy of the ‘best and brightest,’ please do, but if you’re just going to give us a scaled up version of the program that tries to fill a need that no longer exists, please go and teach for someone else.