Why I Hate Teach for America

Like many English majors who have reached their senior year of college and are unsure of what kind of job they can get with that specialized B.A. in interwar period lesbian literature, five years ago I applied to both Teach for America (TFA) and the New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF). I was promptly rejected by both, but applied to NYCTF again the following year, this time checking the “yes, I would be interested in teaching education” and “yes, I would be interested in teaching mathematics even though I did not major in it” boxes.

Like magic, I was accepted into NYCTF’s “math immersion program,” which provided me with a whole two weeks of extra training in math before the seven weeks of “pre-service training” that all Teaching Fellows go through before the first day of school, and in September of 2005 I began my career as a high school math teacher. As a NYC Teaching Fellow I had to earn a masters degree in math education by attending night classes two to four times a week and during the summer. The cost of this degree was automatically deducted from my pay-check every two weeks and was then partially reimbursed by a $4725 Americorp grant (which, to my knowledge, is not a given for every cohort of Teaching Fellows, but was specific to certain cohorts).

At my school, a small public high school in Brooklyn, New York, well over half of the teachers at the school are Teaching Fellows, and, at least in the three years I have been at the school, the longest any of us has stayed (yet) is three years. A few of us are starting our fourth.

And this sucks for our students. I mean, it really, really sucks. It sucks to come back to school and have to have yet another first-year-teacher as a teacher. It sucks to have six different advisory teachers in four years (the case with my old advisory). It sucks to have no continuity from year to year. It sucks for the ninth grade math teacher you really liked to disappear by the time you are in eleventh grade and wanted to ask for some extra help before the PSATs. It sucks to slowly get the impression that teaching anywhere else, or doing anything else for a job is better than staying here and working with you. It sucks to get abandoned year after year after year by young, enthusiastic teachers who saw teaching in the inner city as something great to put on that law school application.

And I know that my generation (I’m 27) is very different from my parents’ generation, where, if you could, you stayed at the same company, the same firm, the same factory, for 30 years, and when you retired you got a gold watch and a pension. We are a generation of career changers. It’s normal to jump from one job to another these days. For one, the economy sometimes forces us to. Also, a lot of professional graduate programs (law schools and medical schools) like candidates that have some work experience, that are not straight out of undergraduate programs. Besides, we pride ourselves on being ecclectic, on having a wide range of experiences. We proudly put our Peace Corp experience on our resume.

But teaching is one of those careers that doesn’t lend itself to career switching. It’s one of those careers where the longer you do it, the better you get at it (though I’m sure there are limits to this, depending on the person). And, unlike, say, a job as a copy-editor or an architect or an art dealer, when you are a teacher it really matters that you be good at what you do, since there is no one to catch and correct your mistakes before they’ve poisoned your students’ learning experiences in some way or another. If it is your job to make sure that a bunch of six year olds learn basic reading skills, and you fail, you may have just seriously fucked some six year olds. Maybe most of them will catch up in the second grade, but maybe some wont (especially if their second grade teacher is also straight out of the pre-service training…). If it is your job to make sure a bunch of 19 year olds understand basic math concepts well enough to pass a high school exit exam, and you fail, some of those students might never go back and graduate.

I’m not saying any of this to overstate the importance of teachers in the lives or their students or to freakout any first, second, third, or fourth year teachers about their individual failures (myself, obviously, included). Every new (and veteran) teacher is allowed to make mistakes. Further, I’m not saying that teachers are obligated to stay forever in shitty work environments with principals and administration that treat them badly, or in careers that they don’t find satisfying. What I’m getting at is that there is something wrong with a system that floods poorly performing schools with inexperienced teachers who leave just as they are becoming experienced teachers.

Which is why I hate Teach for America.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big fan of the New York City Teaching Fellows either. I’m not defending NYCTF for it’s faults, which include provided precious little support and training for their new teachers as well as frightenly high turnover rates. According to a 2007 Village Voice article, by their fifth year teaching, less than fifty percent of Teaching Fellows remain from a given cohort. But at least in NYCTF the high turnover rate is seen as a failure. In TFA, the high turnover rate is designed as part of the program. TFA members are expected to leave teaching after their two-year commitment is up, those who continue to teach are seen as the exception.

TFA members are not required by Teach for America to pursue a masters in education (which, especially if you do not have an undergraduate degree in education is required to become permanently certified in most states), although some of the states where TFA has program sites require teachers to at least begin taking graduate courses as part of their alternative certification requirements. They don’t require teachers to take the steps to become permanently certified because there is no expectation that their teachers will stay in teaching once their two-year resume-building experience is over. How do I know? Because it’s on their website!

Educational inequality is our nation’s greatest injustice. You can change this.

The first three drop down tags at the top of the TFA website read, “What We Do,” “The Core Experience,” “After the Corps.” Teaching is not a career for this organization, it is an “experience.” You can write about it in your annual Christmas letter and show up your cousins who went straight to law school instead of differing for two years to work in the inner city. You now have some “cred” when talking about why No Child Left Behind sucks. Oh, and, of course, you can put it on your resume.

And TFA will help you make that resume! Just check out the “After the Corps” section of their website. It’s chock full of career services and options of what you can do after you’ve gotten tired of “closing the education gap.” They even have partnerships with various employers such as Morgan Stanley, Deloitte, JP Morgan, and Lehman Brothers, all of which allow TFA members to defer their high paying jobs as management consultants and financial analysts to teach for two years in the trenches of underachieving schools.

Still not convinced? Listen to how much those two years of teaching forever changed this TFA alumnus:

Looking back, I’m so glad I chose to teach before embarking on this next phase of my career. I developed skills that empowered me to excel beyond my peers in business school: organization, effective time management, dexterity in communication and public speaking, and the ability to think on my feet. The responsibilities I shouldered in the classroom prepared me like nothing else could for the challenges of management, communication, and intense focus that characterize my current position, where I conduct industry research, create financial models, identify industry trends, and explain their implications.

-Scott, an analyst at Lehman Brothers

Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that what teaching is all about? Becoming a better financial analyst?

Let’s hear what Mitch, an assistant professor of biology, has to say about his “corps experience”:

In addition to these professional lessons, my two years as a corps member had a deep emotional impact on me. I experienced how a group of dedicated teachers committed to the success of their students can go a long way towards closing the achievement gap.

I’m sorry, but I just can’t accept this. Remember high school? It took most of us about four years, right? My point is that two years is a short time to be a teacher, to be part of a school community, to be a part of students’ lives. And as someone who has been at the same school for three years so far, I can guarantee that two years is not enough time to “go a long way towards closing the achievement gap,” no matter how dedicated the teachers are.

(As an aside, for a really smart article about why the Freedom Writers myth that all schools need is highly motivated teachers who are willing to martyr themselves for their students, check out this January, 2007 New York Times opinion piece, “Classroom Distinctions” by Tom Moore. The crux of it is here: Every day teachers are blamed for what the system they’re just a part of doesn’t provide: safe, adequately staffed schools with the highest expectations for all students. But that’s not something one maverick teacher, no matter how idealistic, perky or self-sacrificing, can accomplish.)

I started thinking about Teach for American after reading this article in the New York Times Magazine about rebuilding the New Orleans public school system. Although the article focuses on the proposed effects of structural changes that are being made in the way the school district is governed (with a shift toward privately run charter schools instead of a more centralized, top down school system), I couldn’t help but notice this casual sentence (amid other descriptions of preparations that are underway for the new school year): Two hundred and fifty Teach for America teachers, nearly all recent college graduates, had just arrived to complete preparations for their new positions in schools in the region. What struck me was how, this article, which discusses various strategies for rebuilding a failing school system and repeatedly reminds us how nothing can be fixed overnight, fails to address the inherant contradiction implied by inviting a huge number of teachers, the overwhelming majority of whom won’t be around in two years.

Where will those teachers be? According to TFA’s website, they will be fighting for educational equality from all sectors. Maybe one of the many TFA members that go to law school will one day sue the NYC public school system for not adequately serving its special education students. Maybe one of the post-TFA financial analysts at Deloitte will sway her boss to donate 100 computers to a school with no technology program. (My school, for the record, received such a donation through a partnership with a major financial company.) This is part of TFA’s strategy, and it is an interesting one. It’s very possible that some of those 250 two-year teachers will make major changes in the realm of education from outside the field.

But, in the meantime, those New Orleans students will be left with new teachers year after year, rolling their eyes as they watch 22 year old Brown-graduates try to keep it cool in front of a classroom of suspicious adolescents.

Is an enthusiastic, idealistic teacher better than a burnt-out teacher? A teacher who reads the newspaper in the front of the classroom? (Yes, this happens.) A racist teacher? Of course. I have seen first hand what those teachers have done at my school in two or three years, the way they have contributed to make the school run better, to make the school a more positive place in different ways.

And let me be clear. I’m not ragging on people who leave the teaching profession. It’s a difficult and often underpaid profession. I’m not ragging on people who apply to Teach for America because they genuinely want to improve education in this country. It’s a very noble and challenging calling, and I have respect for all teachers who are working hard within a fucked-up system. I don’t doubt that most of them felt very conflicted about leaving their schools and their students.

What I’m ragging on is the way Teach for American sends the message that it’s perfectly acceptable to teach the neediest students for two years and then leave, just when you’re reaching your stride, just when you can really start to become more effective.

So, I’ll leave with this, if you’re thinking of applying to Teach for America because you want to be a career teacher, don’t. There are many other alternative-certification programs that will help you get a masters degree (and will help you pay for it). And if you’re thinking of applying to Teach for America because you are interested in doing a service project for two years before starting a different career, don’t. There are many other Americorp-type programs that lend themselves better to that time of time-frame.

In low-income schools, what a lot of students are lacking is consistancy in many areas of their lives (financial insecurity, eviction, incarceration of friends, neighbors, and family members, shitty medical and dental care, reliable transportation, etc.). The least they could have is the knowledge that they will see the same teachers’ faces in the hallways in September that they saw in June.

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73 comments for “Why I Hate Teach for America

  1. Loren
    August 23, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    Right on, and well said. As a TFAer myself, most of the points you make have become infuriatingly clear to me over the past two years.

    TFA brings young, often incredibly privileged, enthusiastic teachers to come into schools feeling a self-righteous sense of martyrdom. We often end up fostering an expectation in our schools that a) all teachers should be able and willing to, for example, work for 15 hour days without demanding pay (which is fundamentally union busting, in the sense that many teachers who are veterans may have families or second jobs that prevent them from being able to put in that much time without pay), b) essentially “price out” veteran teachers, because new teachers come in being paid less than veteran teachers – which public schools and the public education system loves, and c) often end up becoming principals after only 2 or 3 years in teaching, over far more qualified veteran teachers who didn’t go through such “prestigious” programs.

    If TFA is truly trying to eradicate educational inequality, then you would think that the goal of TFA would be to phase out, or not be necessary anymore, at some point in the future. But think about it this way: does Goldman-Sachs usually partner with or invest in something that is going to go away anytime soon? Hell no.

    So… right on.

  2. AnonymousCoward
    August 23, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    Maybe I’m misreading you, but it seems like you’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the good here.

    It seems like Teach For America is having a net positive impact on education, as you indicate here:

    Is an enthusiastic, idealistic teacher better than a burnt-out teacher? A teacher who reads the newspaper in the front of the classroom? (Yes, this happens.) A racist teacher? Of course. I have seen first hand what those teachers have done at my school in two or three years, the way they have contributed to make the school run better, to make the school a more positive place in different ways.

    If that’s the case, why scrap the program? Sure, it’s not perfect or ideal, but if World_with_Better_TFA > World_with_TFA > World_without_TFA, why is eliminating TFA a good idea?

  3. LeilaK
    August 23, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    Okay, I have a million conflicting thoughts on this piece. I’m going into my second year teaching, with TFA. And a lot of the criticisms you have of them are correct. One major problem I have is that TFA is very purposely marketing itself to individuals who are “using” it to get into better law schools, get into Lehman Brothers, etc. Personally, I don’t think the long term solution is a good one, but I will say that I believe the number is 40% stay in education after their 2 year commitment – that’s hardly no one. My best mentor at my school last year was a TFA alum.

    On the the graduate classes? I had to take 15 hours to get my certification. And ya know what? The classes were TERRIBLE. They did not improve my teaching whatsoever. If they had, maybe I’d go on to get my masters. But they didn’t, and instead I’ll improve my teaching by doing professional development on my own time.

    But overall, your criticisms of TFA as a program are pretty valid.

    My bigger problem was this: you say you’re not ragging on teachers for leaving the field. But that’s basically what your entire opening was about. Instead of blaming teachers for not providing consistency, it’d be better to focus on what we can actually do to improve the profession.

    Me personally? I probably won’t stay in teaching. Why? Because I don’t have enough supplies for my students. Because standardized testing is ruining education. Because I’m expected to come early, stay late, and work on weekends, for crappy pay. Because I have 30 students when I’m supposed to have 22. Because its 10 times more stressful than any office job I’ve ever had. These are problems we need to fix on a more fundamental level, rather than just blaming teachings for leaving a terrible situation.

  4. LeilaK
    August 23, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    Loren – right on with the union busting comment. One of my major problems with TFA.

  5. August 23, 2008 at 5:44 pm


    I can’t rag on individual teachers for leaving the profession. Too many of my friends have made this choice. I will probably make the same choice sometime in the next few years. (I can’t say at this point.) And your point about addressing the shitty conditions and pay in which teachers work as a way of stopping teacher turnover is SO important.

    But I cannot say that it doesn’t suck for students to have constant teacher turnover. It does suck. Without placing blame (on teachers, on principals, on TFA, on our generations attitude about “careers”), I can say that high teacher turnover is not good for students.

    And I find that taking high teacher turnover as a given the way that TFA does is really counterproductive to their stated goal of closing the educational gap.

    Oh, and just to clarify, my graduate classes were the worst glasses I’ve ever taken. The state of education graduate programs is abismal. I only mention the masters degree because more and more states require that career teachers (as opposed to two-year teachers) get a higher degree in education. Alternative certification programs that build this long-term certification into their program are clearly more interested in creating career teachers than TFA.

  6. LeilaK
    August 23, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    I’m with you on high teacher turnover being a problem. My school probably lost 25% of our teachers last year. I just think it’s really important that we focus on the correct source of the problem any time we talk about it.

    Too often in education, everyone wants to blame us (the teachers), and I think we all need make sure we are counteracting that claim every chance we get.

  7. Tori
    August 23, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    I’m a TFA alum who taught for three years, two in my placement school and one in a charter school. Now I work in education policy, in a job that is stimulating and fun and about 15 times less stressful than teaching was.

    I have plenty of problems with charter schools, many of which share the same philosophy as TFA: it’s ok to push your teachers to the brink of burnout, because the achievement gap needs to be closed, teachers’ needs be damned. This is completely unsustainable, which is I think one of many reasons why TFA is only a two-year commitment: no sane person would want to push themselves as hard as TFA asks teachers to push themselves for more than two years. TFA is built on a guilt trip: work yourself to the bone, because that’s the only way the achievement gap will close.

    On the other side of the spectrum are teachers like the ones I taught with who were not TFA teachers and who screamed at their kids relentlessly, showed them illegally downloaded Disney movies instead of teaching them, and basically ignored their lowest-performing kids. That was not ok with me, and one of the best parts of TFA is that it recruits a large group of teachers who believe that kind of shitty non-teaching does a horrible disservice to kids who need good teaching the most.

    So I think we need a middle way: dedicated teachers who will create real change in the classroom but will not let shitty teaching stand. It happens too often, and no one ever gets fired for it, because unions protect teachers no matter what they do (racism, sexual harassment…only 10 teachers got fired in New York last year).

    Honestly, the two-year thing is a recruitment problem. TFA wants to recruit people who otherwise would have gone to law school, so they make the commitment short. Some people who choose TFA over law school decide they love teaching, and become fantastic teachers. Would they have gone into teaching at all if TFA hadn’t been around? Probably not. So I give TFA a lot of credit for that. Does it mean some assholes go into teaching to pad their resume? Probably. But assholes go into teaching through regular-certification programs, too.

  8. August 23, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    And I thought about one more thing about this issue of teachers leaving the profession.

    Although it’s a complicated issue, I can say that I don’t think people should go into teaching knowing that they will leave in two years. I don’t think it’s an ethical choice to make. As I said at the end of my post, for those who are interested in serving their community/country, there are other programs/internships/jobs that are more suited to a two year commitment than teaching in high needs schools.

    Did I know that before I became a teacher? No. I think I only saw the good side of coming in for two years (comparing myself to the newspaper-reading teacher). But having taught for a few years now, and seeing the effect that high teacher turnover has on my students and my school community in general (for example, as programmers and testing-coordinators and data specialists need to be trained from scratch every few years, and the tremendous time suck it is to attend hiring fairs looking for quality teachers to replace the ones that are leaving), I can say now that you shouldn’t go in planning to teach for only two years.

    Does that mean if you come in wanting to be a career teacher and find it to be soul-crushing and unrewarding work that you shouldn’t seek a career in which you feel more valued and productive? No. Of course you should leave.

    Does it mean that you should accept the shitty work conditions and stay at a school that is mismanaged? Of course not.

    Does it mean that if, after two, five, or fifteen years you decide you want to go to law school or medical school or write a novel or stay home and raise children that you should instead stay locked into your teaching career forever because it would be wrong to leave? No.

    But given that all of these reasons (and many others) cause teachers that intended to stay in teaching for a long time to leave the career, if you know you’re only in it for two years (and Yale Law has agreed to differ your acceptance), don’t add yourself to the legions of teachers who unexpectedly quit after a few years. Leave the space for someone who might have a chance of staying in the profession and really mastering their craft.

  9. August 23, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    As someone who had kind of a little nervous breakdown and ran away from Brooklyn rather than return for a second year of teaching, I fully endorse this article and the arguments therein.

    I may still put it on my law schools apps, though. Maybe not the nervous breakdown part.

  10. Ms. Fakename
    August 23, 2008 at 6:41 pm

    The education requirements are the reason schools can’t find people who really want to be teachers. And they don’t actually make teachers any better, since the curriculum is, without exception, awful. It’s the worst example of rent-seeking in modern America. RNs, who are largely responsible for keeping sick people alive can get certified in a two year, city college program. Teachers not only need bachelors degrees, but additional certification, or advanced degrees. It’s bothersome enough to keep good people out of the job, and the salary isn’t, and never will be, high enough to attract other people to take their places.

  11. August 23, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    Thank you for this post. I did an Americorps program in an elementary school this past year, and while I also went into it very idealistically, by the end of the year I did have a problem with a program that expects its members to stay for only a year (especially given the state of the training we did, and how much of that year was devoted to figuring things out a la learning to swim by being tossed in the Atlantic Ocean). At least our role in the school was very much “[insert name of program here]” and not just regular teachers; kids expected a new roster of us every year.

    I am planning to go into teaching after college–probably not lifetime (a lifetime is a long time) but hopefully for a good while–and while before I might have considered TFA, now I very much doubt I would apply, based on my experience with how impossible it is to get a handle even on the more low-key duties we had with minimal training. Plus, I’m sort of a dork and ed school looks fun. Heh.

  12. August 23, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    RNs, who are largely responsible for keeping sick people alive can get certified in a two year, city college program. Teachers not only need bachelors degrees, but additional certification, or advanced degrees.

    Ooh, quick add since this wasn’t up when I posted–even though I personally am looking forward to ed school, I do think it is absolutely ridiculous that teaching at LEAST elementary school requires like six years of schooling if you don’t major in education, and I do think that two-year teachers’ colleges should make a comeback. I’ve heard the arguments that teachers need to be “well-rounded” and the more you know the more you can help your kids, and I think they are sort of BS, since I think a lot of the most importance skills for teaching can’t be taught academically (some people have the constitution to be patient with small children; some people don’t) and I think people with those skills would be better additions to the teaching profession than someone with an Ivy League degree and a quick temper. Plus, grad school is expensive! Plus, with one year of college, after a year of interacting with children in an academic setting, I don’t really think my remaining three years of school (my school doesn’t have an education major) are going to make me a better teacher AT ALL. I’m looking forward to them, I’m sure I’ll learn a lot that I will be glad to have learned, but do I think American Protest Literature from Tom Paine to Tupac is going to help me out with a seven-year-old who won’t stop fighting or a ten-year-old who can barely read? Not a whit.

  13. August 23, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    Thank you for a really thoughtful and well-articulated post. Some of my research is on teacher turnover and it’s such a difficult issue to think through. On average, the percentage of people who leave teaching in their first few years is not all that much higher than other professions, which leads some people to want to say that this is just the normal churn of people seeking out jobs that are a good ‘fit’. But the averages mask huge variation across schools – the turnover rate is a LOT higher in schools with more kids who are low-income, non-white or have other special needs. One could argue that programs like TFA contribute to that high turnover; on the other hand, one could argue that without programs like TFA, it would be that much harder for those schools to find teachers to staff their classrooms. Loren is right on that the goal of TFA really ought to be not being needed anymore but schools are stuck between a rock and a hard place – it would be great if teaching were attractive enough a profession that we wouldn’t need programs like TFA but until it is, my impression is that there are a lot of schools who are way better off with TFA than without it.
    At the same time, I agree with you 100% that there is something just not quite right about going into teaching *intending* not to stay. I wonder whether there are other ways such people could help public schools without ultimately hurting them and still get the cache of TFA…

  14. Sara
    August 23, 2008 at 7:54 pm

    I agree with your criticisms, and I think many of the same ideas apply to VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), an Americorps program.

    I spent two years in VISTA in a rural area working to “eradicate poverty.” At the end of my service, I hadn’t solved poverty, but I had parlayed my experience into a fancy scholarship to graduate school.

    The most revealing aspect of my service was that the program did not allow any kind of political work – no lobbying, no driving people to the polls. I don’t think government workers should get involved in politics in that way (just think of how the Bush administration has politicized the Justice Department).

    But I did often wonder how much more effective I could have been had I helped poor people organize for real political gains, like an increase in the minimum wage or an expansion of food stamp benefits.

    Instead, I conducted service projects that only worked at the margins of poverty, like raising money to put new siding on one family’s house.

    Programs like Teach for America and VISTA channel bright, idealistic people into work that makes them spin their wheels, rather than into more radical action that might achieve real social change. And I think that’s the point.

    What if all the VISTA workers became hard-core anti-poverty and union organizers? What if all the brilliant people working for Teach for America quit teaching and organized for higher teacher pay and better curricula?

  15. exholt
    August 23, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    Me personally? I probably won’t stay in teaching. Why? Because I don’t have enough supplies for my students. Because standardized testing is ruining education. Because I’m expected to come early, stay late, and work on weekends, for crappy pay. Because I have 30 students when I’m supposed to have 22. Because its 10 times more stressful than any office job I’ve ever had. These are problems we need to fix on a more fundamental level, rather than just blaming teachings for leaving a terrible situation.

    Those were the very reasons several college classmates who became teachers after getting their MEds and teaching certifications ended up leaving the teaching profession after 3 or less years. That and the great deal of disrespect* from students, parents, and from the educational bureaucracy that at best..does little/nothing to support new teachers and at worst…uses them as scapegoats for long-standing systemic problems which predated their arrival.

    Most of them ended up leaving psychologically and financially burned out as the starting pay did not begin to cover their basic living expenses…much less having to purchase many school supplies out of their pockets without reimbursement.

    * This included incidents of physical violence from students and parents.

    In addition to the suggestions to fix the way school systems recruit, pay, and support all teachers…..we also need to fundamentally change our cultural anti-intellectual attitudes which seem to encourage the degrading of the teaching profession among students and especially many parents.

    Oh, and just to clarify, my graduate classes were the worst glasses I’ve ever taken. The state of education graduate programs is abismal.

    Nearly everyone I’ve known who has gone through an MEd program…including those ranked in the top 5 has mentioned a feeling that those classes were not only bad, but were quite useless in helping them improve as good teachers.

    Some of them have also mentioned a stigma in being a graduate student in Education as grad students in other programs on the same campus often had the perception of them not being “as smart” because the admission requirements were perceived as far lower than other campus graduate programs.

    Heck, at one Ivy-level school where I happened to be visiting some acquaintances who were doing PhDs at their campuses’ Arts & Science division…they made many cracks about their campus’ Graduate School of Education and the supposedly “lower intelligence” of their students. When I attempted to challenge them on this, they shot back by asking how many of those ED students could match their astronomically high GPA, GRE scores, and CV. :roll:

  16. DavidSpade
    August 23, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    “Educational inequality is our nation’s greatest injustice.”

    Aren’t women out performing men on the SATs, taking more Advanced Placement classes, engaging in more extra-curriculars, graduating at higher rates and getting more college degrees?

  17. douglafem
    August 23, 2008 at 8:58 pm

    i’ve been lurking feministe since the beginning of the summer but never felt absolutely pressed to comment until today. your article really caught my attention and i hope you can share a little more insight!

    i’m a rising sophomore at college in philly, know a few recent alumni who have committed to TFA in the philly-camden area, and — looking ahead — think i may apply to TFA myself.

    i (very) recently completed an internship partnered with philadelphia freedom schools (PFS) and am in the process of completing a collaborative research paper based on my placement at PFS and various pedagogical practices. (i should be writing right now, actually, but google reader distracted me!)

    my partner and i are writing about cultural literacy and the role urban research universities/the academy can and should participate in correcting structural inequalities in their backyards. we believe that committed, *culturally literate* teachers and afrocentric/multicultural pedagogy in practice are beneficial to high-needs urban public schools. i’m an english and africana studies double major and most likely will apply to grad school as well, but i know i would want to partner any future academic work with an investment in the black community, especially through urban education — public scholarship/community engagement.

    i am a young woman of color who grew up in a similar position to poor and working-class urban students. i consider myself very lucky in my pursuit of post-secondary education and want very sincerely to use that good fortune to help correct inequities in my future. i’m not planning (at this moment) to become a career teacher.

    what are the better options for someone in my position?

  18. August 23, 2008 at 9:04 pm

    I don’t know what the answers are but I certainly do not believe that answer is to demonize teachers. The system is broken and teachers get no support. In the media you constantly hear about teachers that are not doing their jobs without examining the schools that are falling apart, and the lack of proper equipment. The issues seem to me to be more systemic. Teachers are expected to do more with less and this is not fair. The ones that are suffering are the kids. If a parent is not able to make up for the short fall in education the child will fall behind, never to catch up. After witnessing the work of my sons first year teacher…(God bless you Madame Melissa for your dedication and support) I have the utmost respect for teachers.

  19. Shelby
    August 23, 2008 at 10:05 pm

    I’m not sure if this is a baseless assumption, but TFA always just gave me that quasi-imperialist, “anti-racist white hero” coming in to save all the poor colored children kind of feeling.
    I agree with douglafem, a multicultural pedagogy and “cultural literacy” are imperative. The ideal would be to have a curriculum and administration that reflected that, but I think it would be immensely helpful to just have more “culturally literate”, anti-racist teachers.

    And again, there’s only so much teachers can do. Step too far outside of the white-washed education plan and you end up like Karen Salazar– fired for teaching students their own histories.

  20. ed u. cate
    August 23, 2008 at 10:45 pm

    I am an English teacher in a high school in Philadelphia, and I got there through the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows program. I have been frustrated with (some) TFAs that I have worked with in a way that I have not been frustrated with (most) Teaching Fellows, and I do believe I is about philosophy and the different demographics that the two organizations recruit.

    The Teaching Fellows seem to be more interested in ‘career changers,’ while TFA, as Anna suggests, build into their program a two-year-resume-experience-builder-justout-of-college kinda folk. In my experience, those in the Teaching Fellows, at least in my cohort, were folks that were at least 4 or 5 years out of college, most of which took a pay cut to do something ‘meaningful.’ That’s not to say that there aren’t lost of people who dropped out of the PTF program within a month of school starting, but it seems that those of us who are left are in it for the long haul. There was no indication in my presevice institue with PTF that I should think of this as anything as the begining of a long career working to close the achivement gap.

    i started in february, and i am not required to get an MEd, just my Certification. I am often frustrated by a lack of supplies, but I have an excellent principal who actually gives more of a shit about students than she does about NCLB and does a great job of finding the balance between these two forces.

    I am in a school that is NOT predominately TFAs or PTFs and has mostly ‘traditionally’ trained teachers who survived requirements of NCLB, so i think that have a different experience. In Philly, it seems that a lot of the NGOs have a lot of ‘alternatively educated teachers,’ and I am in a regular ol’ coprehensive high school. and in my education classes, that, mind you don’t suck, but i think it is because at my University, all of us Teaching Fellows are together and are interested in social justice, we have talked a lot about the deprofessionalization of puplic education and our potential culpability in that. and continue to be torn, torn, torn.

    but, at my high school, there are a few of us who identify as ‘lifers.’ and those of us who identify that way, are lifers in urban education, have no designs on busting out to the suburbs, and have a little phrase that keeps us going as much as it is not the best reflection of reality, and it is this:

    all you need is a piece of chalk and a dream. that keeps me going.

    oh, and that guy who now is the CEO in New Orleans, Paul Valles, just before he went there was the CEO of Philly, and he runs education like a business, rather than being in the business of education. which is sucky and doesn’t work, unless you are ultimately interested in the complete privatization of public education. but that is another conversation for another time.

    and Anna, I agree with you: there are plenty of ways to do a very meaningful service project, but fucking with a kids sense of dependability is not the way to do it.

    Anna, thank you for a fabulous piece.

  21. Suz
    August 23, 2008 at 11:28 pm

    Thanks so much for publishing and putting into words all the issues I have with TFA as a program. I was dating a guy who was applying for TFA and was appalled by the materials they provided and their mission, coming from a line of good, dedicated teachers. The especially infuriating thing is how it cheapens teaching as a profession, that is you can go into TFA with no experience and you will go in and be a perfect teacher and suddenly the kids will be well-taught, in just two years!
    One of the biggest problems I see is that teachers simply are not paid enough for the work that they do; there is no economic incentive for staying at a job that requires so much out of you. You’ll see very few male teachers for this reason: they can’t be the primary income earner on a teacher’s job. Intelligent women stayed in teaching 80 years ago because there was no where else they could go. Now they can do TFA and move on to do Goldman Sachs or some other high-paying job.
    Also so many problems originate in the community that you simply can’t get rid of, even if you are the best damn teacher ever. If the child’s parent(s) aren’t supportive of education as a goal for their children, the children are far more likely not to do well. And how can you make a parent feed their children healthy foods? Make sure the children do their work? Or even provide a safe environment for their child? You can’t.
    Education’s brokenness exists at all levels of society, from the individual to the community to the national level and an individual acting as an individual can’t change that. The community must be willing to pass school budgets. The community must be wealthy enough to get money from property taxes. The community must encourage its students. With the current system of individual school districts of varying wealth, which gain their wealth from property taxes, education will continue to be a luxury of rich suburban residents. Inner city and rural students will continue to be penalized as they are excluded from the money ring of the suburbs.
    Teach for America is one more way to do the “White man’s burden” without actually burdening people to change their lives.

  22. August 23, 2008 at 11:40 pm

    “I’m not saying any of this to overstate the importance of teachers in the lives or their students…”

    Well, that would be pretty much impossible. :-)

  23. Lizard
    August 24, 2008 at 2:07 am

    A really interesting post—thanks.

    I’m too exhausted to craft a proper response, but since you mentioned the “Freedom Writers” myth, I do hope you’ve seen this outstanding send-up from Mad TV: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVF-nirSq5s&feature=related

  24. DavidSpade
    August 24, 2008 at 4:10 am

    The problem isn’t the teachers, but rather the sub-cultures they’re teaching in. From kindergarten to getting my BA I attended nothing but public schools in Alabama. But where I grew up there was a culture of education. In my hometown 1 in 13 people is an engineer, and in my particular area it was probably twice as concentrated. As you can imagine, in that type of environment education comes first. The teachers at my school were paid the same as the ones across town. But yet we easily out performed most private schools across the country.

    A lot of parents like to say they value education and they “get involved” but really their idea of getting involved is just bitching at teachers for stuff that isn’t the teacher’s fault. What they need to be doing is giving their 5 year olds math games to play instead of sitting them down in front of Barney or Grand Theft Auto. Parents need to stop being so concerned about whether their kids like them. They need to stop babying them and making sure that every moment of their lives is entertaining and just treat their children like the information-soaking sponges that they are. Young children find damned near everything interesting. A third grader ought to be able to play Sudoku or Towers of Hanoi, you just have to teach them the rules. By fifth grade, if your child is not an expert Mankala player, you have failed as a parent.

  25. Marksman2000
    August 24, 2008 at 6:48 am

    Anna, go back to school and get your M.L.S. As goofy as it sounds, there’s a drastic shortage of librarians in the United States. And, no, it doesn’t mean you’ll have to shuffle dusty books in a public library for the next 30 years. That M.L.S. can open all kinds of opportunities for you, but it’s within easy reach for anyone who’s graduating with a B.A. in English. Good luck!

  26. George
    August 24, 2008 at 6:53 am


    This is an excellent article. Thank you. Education is something we can all relate to, even if we cannot improve it first-hand like you. Perhaps you might find this video (I’m sure you’ve seen it already, though) inspirational http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4964296663335083307.



  27. August 24, 2008 at 11:09 am

    K, if anyone is reading this thread and has NOT clicked on Lizard’s link, and can watch videos, I seriously recommend you go and and click right now, because it’s hilarious. Yeah, I don’t usually like Mad TV either, but: this is good. Thanks, Lizard.

  28. Lizard
    August 24, 2008 at 11:53 am

    Thanks, Lizard.

    You’re so welcome. It makes me laugh out loud every time I watch it.

  29. Jen
    August 24, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    And, unlike, say, a job as a copy-editor or an architect or an art dealer, when you are a teacher it really matters that you be good at what you do, since there is no one to catch and correct your mistakes before they’ve poisoned your students’ learning experiences in some way or another.

    Just wanted to say I’m a copyeditor working on a Sunday in my quiet, empty office, and this pissed me off. I know this isn’t at all relevant to your post, but I find it ridiculous that you would assume it doesn’t really matter that I be good at what I do. Thanks.

  30. August 24, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    I briefly went back to grad school for education and after 2 semesters dropped out. It seems that TFA is a short term program implemented to get teachers into the classrooms of high need schools. Sort of program that makes the public believe someone is trying to do something to solve the teacher shortage problem in high need subjects and schools.

    I would bet that if teachers were paid what they deserve more people would stay in the profession. It is time we pay teachers like we care about the next generation rather than sports players and actors ridiculous amounts of money.

  31. exholt
    August 24, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    One of the biggest problems I see is that teachers simply are not paid enough for the work that they do; there is no economic incentive for staying at a job that requires so much out of you. You’ll see very few male teachers for this reason: they can’t be the primary income earner on a teacher’s job. Intelligent women stayed in teaching 80 years ago because there was no where else they could go. Now they can do TFA and move on to do Goldman Sachs or some other high-paying job.

    That along with the rank disrespect K-12 teachers receive from students, parents, the educational bureaucracy, and US society at large.

    Moreover, it is not only male students who don’t go into teaching, but IME….the vast majority of students who excelled academically in high school and college.

    Nearly everyone I knew from my public magnet high school’s graduating senior class were aspiring towards professions with higher pay and/or social status such as medical doctors, engineers, wall street bankers, lawyers, etc. No one I knew wanted to become a K-12 teacher…especially considering the crap we’ve received from some of them because they didn’t like to deal with bright students who aren’t afraid to question them along with seeing how the teachers have to deal with from the educational bureaucracy.

    Though my progressive radical-left leaning undergrad campus prized K-12 teaching as one of those progressive “noble professions”, it is more the exception than the rule.

    IME, there seems to be a common perception of many students at more mainstream colleges….especially those at the Ivy-level to dismiss the K-12 teaching profession either as a profession for an extreme minority of “bright, but deluded idealists/do-gooders”….or more commonly as the profession of last resort for marginal/mediocre performing students. The latter perception feeds into the dismissive attitudes many non-Grad Ed school students have of Education grad students “not being at their intellectual level”.

  32. exholt
    August 24, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    Argh…forgot to add the :roll: at the end of the last sentence. :roll:

    I think people with those skills would be better additions to the teaching profession than someone with an Ivy League degree and a quick temper.

    And/or someone with a 4.0 GPA who is a complete jackass in the classroom.

    Moreover, as someone who has taken a few courses at an Ivy alongside their undergrad and grad students……there are plenty of idiots there too……just look at our esteemed Ivy educated Prez…..

  33. August 24, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    @ exholt: “Ivy educated” may be overstating things. Yale can be blamed for many things, including admitting and graduating the sonofabitch, but I’d wager they were entirely unsuccessful at “educating” him (if that’s even on the program for legacies of the rich and powerful).

  34. NoFluZone
    August 24, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    I’m a copy editor (no hyphen, please) who left my career as a teacher because I had this unbelievable desire to pay the rent AND eat in the same month. (And not be blamed for all the problems of today’s youth.) You know what I spend a lot of time copyediting (one word as a verb)? Textbooks for student teachers. So, while you might think my job isn’t as noble or as important as teaching, without me, you’d be learning how to do your job with some seriously illiterate gibberish. If only you could see the raw manuscripts that cross my desk. Be careful when you say teaching (or any job) is more worthy than any other. You’d be surprised at the interconnectedness of many professions.

  35. August 24, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    As a seventh year teacher returning to school next week, I say “Right On!”

    I didn’t enter teaching via TFA, but I was still unprepared. Seven years later, I understand completely your quote “The crux of it is here: Every day teachers are blamed for what the system they’re just a part of doesn’t provide: safe, adequately staffed schools with the highest expectations for all students. But that’s not something one maverick teacher, no matter how idealistic, perky or self-sacrificing, can accomplish.”

    Thanks for the link to Moore’s NYT article too.

    Thank you for a great article and insight.

  36. Gabriele
    August 24, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    I had a few responses to missing information in your piece. First, turnover is not as high as you state. (And you really provided no data on what that turnover was, except for the NYCTF). Over 60 percent of Teach for America alumni stay in education whether it’s teaching, advocating for change, or another related area. 60 percent! In comparison, almost 30 percent of beginning teachers leave after five years. Second, just because they leave after two years does not make them less effective. Actually, an Urban Institute study found that Teach for America teachers are three times as successful as regular teachers with three years of experience, as measured by end-of-year test scores; the difference is most significant in math.

    I really find it difficult to believe that people enter Teach for America thinking of those two years as a resume builder. Teach for America corps members work their butts off for two years; it’s really not something to be taken lightly.

  37. August 24, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    exholt: heh, I attend an Ivy, trust me, I am WELL aware of the lack of guarantees that go along with that particular qualification (Random People: “You go to [Ivy]? Wow, you must be SMART!” Me, outside: “[awkward smile]” Me, inside: “Eh, not necessarily.”)

  38. Law Prof
    August 24, 2008 at 8:53 pm

    What an amazing, thoughtful post about a tough subject. I agree with so much that has been said here (between the post and the comments), but just wanted to add one thing. I’ve been on a law school admissions commitee (well, a couple of them). TFA alum are a dime a dozen. Some are really interesting people who have done or written or said things that made me and my co-committee members enthusiastic about them as prospective students. Some are obvious resume padders. A TFA experience, alone, has never once influenced me to recommend admission of an applicant.

  39. Sarah
    August 24, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    Thank you for this post! As a Teach for America alum (I taught for three years, in two different TFA regions, before moving into a different education-related job), and as someone who comes from a family of career public-school teachers, I have huge issues with the organization. I was particularly disturbed by the constant exhortations that new corps members “change things” in their schools without taking the time to gain a true understanding of school politics or of the craft of teaching. By providing a steady influx of enthusiastic newbies, Teach for America provides a convenient band-aid for school districts that are struggling, and prevents these districts, and the communities that fund them, from having to improve working conditions in schools and increase salaries for experienced teachers.

  40. August 24, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    Re: comments 29 and 34.

    I really meant no disrespect to copy-editors, or architects, or art dealers. I have friends that fall into all three categories, and I have tremendous respect for their work, and for the skill-sets that they possess (and I do not).

    Copy-editors, in particular, have saved my ass in the past, and no doubt will countless times in the future. I am tremendously grateful. I simply do not possess the discipline and attention to detail needed for that job.

    My only point, was that in many jobs (and perhaps copy-editing is not one of them–I picked it from among the jobs that non-teacher peers of mine have), I think people are expected to go through a period of “training”, or, at the very least, a period during which you are considered “the newbie” and perhaps given more leeway than more experienced colleagues.

    I haven’t found this to be the case in teaching. If I’m a bad teacher for my first year (and who wasn’t, really?), that’s a whole class of students whose geometry teacher was awful. And given the structure of my small public school (in which social promotion is a “necesity” given our size and resources), that’s a class they’ll never get to take again, except maybe in summer school. I fucked them by being a bad teacher my first year. Could it have been avoided? Maybe not. Maybe everyone needs to crash and burn a little their first year. But ideally, students get a first year teacher once in a blue moon, not three of their five academic teachers every other year, which is a reality in many low-performing schools.

  41. Jay
    August 25, 2008 at 12:13 am

    I appreciate your comments. You bring up some excellent points, but I think you may be missing a couple of very important things.

    Much of your criticism is based on the incorrect assumption that hiring a TFA member makes non-TFA teachers and their schools worse off. This is incorrect. In the school districts that TFA serves, there is not a plethora of experienced and exceptional veteran teachers standing in line but losing jobs to Ivy-educated, inexperienced hotshots right out of college. These school districts form partnerships with TFA because it offers a pipeline of bright, hard-working, and creative people eager to take jobs that cannot be filled by other more traditional teacher staffing methods. This is seen clearly when a TFA member decides he or she cannot hack it and quits. A highly qualified veteran teacher does not immediately step in to replace them. Often times the students are divided among other classrooms- lessening the instructional quality available for everyone.

    I recently finished my two-year commitment in one of the newer Teach For America sites. During a TFA meeting the new superintendent of the district came to speak. He mentioned a recent meeting he had with the principals of the district’s underperforming schools. When asked for the number one thing they needed to improve – they asked for more TFA teachers. A few weeks later a large sum of money was donated to the district with the stipulation that the superintendent must use it in the way that he felt would most improve the city’s achievement gap. He gave the money to Teach For America. Over 90% of principals in the district say they would hire TFA members again- and over 90% admit TFA teachers are better prepared than other first year teachers.

    Fixing the many problems in public education is not an easy task, and of course Teach For America is only one part of solving the problem- but its impact cannot be dismissed. The first priority must be the students served by our school districts. We can only hope to have the highest level of instruction available to all children at all times. If a TFA member can offer great service to his or her students for two years, isn’t that better than not having them at all? Veteran teachers are wonderful and have often finely tuned their craft- but experience alone does not deliver results. If TFA can continue to recruit and train excellent teachers to replace those that leave- no child is being left behind by TFA members pursuing other careers.

    Of course not all TFA teachers excel, and many struggle or even quit. The fact is more succeed than don’t, which is the reason schools continue to hire TFA teachers. It is also certainly true that many leave the classroom after two years. As long as they have given their students better instruction than had they not been there- the children are better off. While many go leave for graduate school or more lucrative careers, you cannot discount those that continue to donate time and energy to the educational movement. Having a network of thousands of successful doctors, lawyers, and investment bankers that both understand and care about the achievement gap should not be viewed negatively.

    Teach For America is imperfect and not designed to replace other methods of training and placing teachers. It does, however, offer wonderfully bright, creative, and successful young people to help fix the problem both during their two-year commitment and beyond. I believe both the students and the schools they serve are better off by having them.

  42. August 25, 2008 at 3:48 am

    Thank you Anna. Great article. I referred to it in my blog, Math Me Thinks.

  43. August 25, 2008 at 6:24 am

    As a TFAer about to start my first day of school, I am quite bothered by this post. Trust me, I am not one of those rah-rah TFA types…I think the program is flawed in many ways. But I have met tons of incredible people who are far from the “privileged resume boosters” that you and many of the commenters are talking about. And I see it this way–even if you are just here to boost your resume, TFA rides your ass so much you will make a difference. And as far as I’m concerned, the outcome here is more important than the intent. And in my region (Eastern North Carolina) the retention rate is something like 75-80%. A lot of the people in my year want to stay on for 5 years, at least.

    It seems to me this is horrible case of you judging a huge group of people, who instead of tooling around after college, traveling or working some job they hate, are trying to help children. And I expect better on Feministe.

    I joined TFA because my region has one of the highest AIDS and Rape rates of any county in the country. I joined to help and work with young girls. And no, I don’t want to be a financial analyst or a corporate lawyer after this. I want to be social workers and (gasp!) still work with children and women.

    Please, get off your high horse and actually talk to some TFAers. You are blaming the wrong people here–and just for the record, TFA and its members don’t turn around blame seasoned teachers or other teaching fellows either.

  44. Sailorman
    August 25, 2008 at 10:08 am

    TFA is definitely of the “half a loaf” variety. But that said, the adage holds true: half a loaf IS better than none, isn’t it?

    I mean shit, we have hard enough time getting teachers as is. And we have an even harder time getting them to work in many of the schools that TFA supports. Now you want to guilt people out by telling them they should make a fucking ten year commitment? Christ. Talk about the quickest way in history to lose more teachers.

    “same pay, but you suck if you won’t stay for a while!”


    What I’m ragging on is the way Teach for American sends the message that it’s perfectly acceptable to teach the neediest students for two years and then leave, just when you’re reaching your stride, just when you can really start to become more effective.

    It IS acceptable. Just like it is acceptable for me to give some money to charity (but not as much as some would like), or to do a certain amount of public service (but not as much as some) and so on.

  45. August 25, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    Is there a reason my comment is caught in the moderation queue? I’d like to hear a response to it.

    Because after my day today, my day from hell, if *this* is what trust-fund babies do in order for good job experience, someone should give them a nobel peace prize anyway, cuz I’ll be damned if this wasn’t the worst day of my life…and I’m here for the right reasons.

  46. August 25, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    Teach For America is not perfect, and as a new corps member about to enter the classroom I recognize that. Many of the critiques of the program are quite valid, but the problem is that many educators take their issues with TFA and apply them to the teachers they meet. As a new teacher with TFA I plan to stay in the classroom for years to come, so I might be an exception to the rule, but I know that when I enter the classroom I don’t want people judging me based on the program that is helping to put me there. I want to be judged based on my own teaching abilities and willingness to learn. All TFA teachers are different, and I’m sure there are some that aren’t interested in unions and those who don’t seek out the advice of veteran teachers, but like each student, don’t we deserve to be treated as individuals and not TFA stamped and manufactured teachers?

    70% of TFA corps members stay in education or education related fields, and while yes, that still means there is a high teacher turn over rate I know that I am not a statistic, and that my commitment is more than just to TFA. My commitment is to my school and most of all to my students.

  47. August 25, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    OK. A couple of things.

    Regarding retention/turnover rates, if people can cite where the rates they are quoting are coming from, that would be great, because I have found many different rates quoted in different places on the internet (including on TFA’s own website).

    As I said already, I became a teacher through an alternative certification program that also has a high turnover rate. Although I would be thrilled to know that more and more TFAers (and other alternatively certified teachers) are staying in education for longer, my main point remains the same, that it is irresponsible for TFA to set the tone that it is OK to only teach for two years.

    It seems to me this is horrible case of you judging a huge group of people, who instead of tooling around after college, traveling or working some job they hate, are trying to help children… Please, get off your high horse and actually talk to some TFAers. You are blaming the wrong people here

    Let me state for the record that I am not trying to trash people who join TFA, I’m not trying to say the people who join NYCTF or other alternative programs are “better” than people who join TFA. As I said at the beginning of my post, I originally applied to both programs, was rejected by TFA, but would have been thrilled to be accepted and perhaps have moved to a new part of the country (as opposed to staying in New York, where I have lived on and off since 1994). I have a tremendous amount of respect for all teachers, and I admire the idealism and the hard work that it takes to be a TFA teacher (or any first year teacher), especially when you are just stepping into the classroom for the first time.

    I’m not “blaming” TFA members. I’m criticizing a part of TFA’s model. Specifically, I’m criticizing the part of TFA’s model that has institutionalized the idea that teaching for two years is an acceptable commitment to teaching, since I believe it is not.

    I’m not on any high horse, either. For a variety of personal and professional reasons, I highly suspect that I will leave teaching at my school after the end of this school year (after I have seen my advisory class graduate). I don’t blame teachers for leaving an incredibly challenging and underpaid profession, or for leaving poorly managed schools or schools where they are not valued. What I’m criticizing here is a system that caters to those people that know they only want to teach for two years before switching over to their true calling as financial analysts.

    And because a lot of people’s comments seem to suggest that they think that I am advocating disbanding TFA, let me clarify that I am not. I am well aware that there are huge teacher-shortages (especially in math, science, and special education) in many areas of the country and through my experiences on my school’s hiring committee, I am aware that of the candidates who are interested in applying to my school, the best are often NYC Teaching Fellows and other first year teachers (rather than experienced teachers). Let’s face it, most of the quality, experienced teachers want to teach in the suburbs where they get paid more, have better resources, more beautiful school buildings, a parking lot, parents with the the time and resources to be more involved, and a bunch of other perks. I recognize that TFA puts teachers, even if they just stay for two years, into classrooms where sometimes there are no other teachers. That’s a positive thing. (And thanks to commentor #2, who used that phrase, “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good”, which I had never heard before and which is really smart.)

    What I am advocating is that TFA transform itself into an organization that supports teachers in choosing to stay in the profession. Rather than build partnerships with Morgan Stanley in which TFA members can defer their high paying job for two years, complete with summer internships at Morgan Stanley, thus creating accomodations specifically for those teachers who are 100% sure they aren’t making a serious commitment to the profession, why not do more to recruit those who have a stated long-term interest in education? With their 14% acceptance rate in 2008, I think they can afford to attract fewer applicants in exchange for longer commitment.

    TFA’s School Leadership Initiative is a great example of a TFA program that is trying to encourage its members to stay in education in leadership positions. But this is at the bottom of the list of topics in their “After the Corps” section. Why not transfer their emphasis away from attracting two-year teachers and catering to their law, medical, and business school needs, and do more to foster a greater long-term commitment to education?

  48. August 25, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    I was more responding to the people calling us privileged, Lehman Brothers Brats.

    Of which many of us are not.

  49. August 25, 2008 at 8:23 pm

    Oh, and my retention rates come directly from my regional office paper work and such (Eastern North Carolina) but for all you know it’s made up.

  50. Selby Chu
    August 26, 2008 at 1:13 am

    As an undergraduate student at CUNY Hunter considering application to TFA (as well as medical school), I found this post to be very thoughtful and informative. I am, undoubtedly, less knowledgeable than many of the commenters before me regarding teaching, but I feel the need to lay out just a couple of my own thoughts here.

    While TFA does promote teaching as more of a 2-year experience, which can certainly be viewed as irresponsible, it seems to me that the main goal of the program is, as you stated, largely attracting those who will defer to a higher-paying opportunity. But this doesn’t seem to me to be as great a tragedy as you make it out to be. Teacher turnover rates are absolutely crucial, and understandably hinder student performance and progress, but in the case of many of these low-income schools, a fresh-out-of-undergrad teacher is better than none at all. Your main argument also deals with the focus of TFA and its improper target of participants who will knowingly be transferring to other professions, but you point out that there are plenty of alternative programs out there for aspiring lifetime teachers. So it would appear to me that TFA is just another one of these programs, albeit with a different purpose in mind. One that hopes to enact widespread, systemic change through potential industry leaders. Many TFA’ers come out with a greater sense of responsibility, and most certainly with a better understanding of the dire situation our education system is in. These 2-year teachers may be happier in another field, but why does that necessarily require them to be deprived of an experience that seeks to educate them about education. Aren’t we all more productive and efficient when we are doing what we love most?

    In my case, I am a prospective medical student, but I also think that I can help in some way, shape, or form to deal with this education crisis. I am only interested in the sciences today through the handful of amazing teachers I’ve come across. And maybe I can have that same impact on some of the students in these areas. Yes, I can see that the idea of teaching being an “experience”, and the 2-year turnover as a disservice to many of the students of these TFA’ers, but the problem is also greater than the teachers themselves, and can only see progress if the infrastructure itself is improved. So why not give these possible med, law, and business students a chance to have an empathetic view of teachers? If these Ivy-league grads are truly the future leaders, then I also believe that exposing them to the horrors of low-income schools can produce a launch pad for greater change as true awareness amongst them spreads. TFA is not a panacea for all high-need schools, nor will it seek to cater to those who are looking at becoming lifetime teachers. Because, as many here have pointed out, the real problem lies in the system, and while having more dedicated, passionate teachers in these schools will help tremendously, it doesn’t overshadow the greater issue at hand. I don’t believe TFA is perfect, but I do feel that they are working to provide enough industry leaders with education on their minds to become an effective system-changer, not the convenient “band-aid” some of you claim it to be.

  51. JuliaG
    August 26, 2008 at 7:47 am

    Great post! At risk children deserve much better than to be treated as stopping grounds for individuals who wish to make better connections, are lost in a slumped economy, or who want to give their conscience a massage.

  52. Billy
    August 26, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    Rock on. I am a first-year teaching artist in NYC and have been struggling with a lot of these same issues. What I like about our program is that it is set up to help artists and youth. It is part-time. So it doesn’t have the same weird pre-professional, future super-earners, slum it up for a year before making it big feeling. But I find myself at a place now, after less than a year, where I have adjusted all my other career goals and thinking about the future because I know my students, specifically my les, gay, bi and trans students would be really let down if I left after doing a lot of LGBT organizing at the school last year.

    Also, so many of my students like being around me. I don’t pretend to know what it is. And I really don’t have that favorite teacher personality or anything, I am pretty quiet. I just bring in snacks and cool stuff to make art with at lunch time or after school. I let them talk a lot about themselves. One student even asked me if I was that ‘therapy class teacher,’ I said, “No, I teach digital photography.” They will spend two hours after school in my classroom talking and collaging or talking and doing whatever on the computer, then I literally have to kick them out so that I can leave. I have a suspicion that they feel invisible.

    I also feel bad for the other teachers. Math, history, physics are all really cool things too, but they have so much BS and red tape they have to go through. It cannot be fun teaching for the regents. I sometimes feel guilty about this sweet deal I get where we just hang out, eat, make art, and interact with young people.

  53. August 26, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    Great post! At risk children deserve much better than to be treated as stopping grounds for individuals who wish to make better connections, are lost in a slumped economy, or who want to give their conscience a massage.

    Um….again this assumptions made about the INTENT of those who do TFA ( I am most certainly not teaching to give my “conscience a massage”) is really ignorant and biased. NONE OF YOU know WHY anyone is doing this program UNLESS they have EXPLICITLY spelled it OUT for you. And EVEN if their intent is to defer a higher paying career, that does not make them an INEFFECTIVE teacher.

    I am getting really tired of everyone on this board assuming that all TFAers are selfish, spoiled kids. It takes a VERY selfless person to get in front of that classroom every day, deal with having to teach 11th graders how to read and 9th graders how to add, and then get lambasted for it by complete strangers. What have any of you done today to better the education system? I am willing to bet a number of you ARE teachers, but I have a hard time believing all of these critics are teaching in a decrepit school in the middle of nowhere (or in the heart of a huge city) having to break up fights all day, getting called a “mean white bitch” by a student for simply asking him to sit in his assigned seat (this happened to me on my first day) all while trying to catch up dozens of others in math in science who have been failed by the system. 10th graders who don’t know how to multiply. 9th graders who CANNOT WRITE THEIR OWN NAME.

    This is what it’s really about, folks. I am not sure what you think we “Lehman Brother’s Brats” and “trust fund babies with a conscience” do all day as part of Teach For America, but it isn’t sitting around on our asses, eating bon-bons and reading the Wall Street Journal. No, we are busting our asses on the front lines of the worst education systems in the nation, trying to pull miracles out of kids MOST people have given up on. We aren’t saints, but we sure aren’t dicking around, massaging our consciences.

    But really, even you want to believe the former, go head. If it makes you feel better about what YOU are doing (or aren’t, as the case may be) by all means, continue. Come talk to me when you get up every morning, are sick to your stomach with fear because a student threatened you, have to face his mom, answer to the principle, write up four kids for fighting in your classroom, and still try to teach the precious few who work hard, but still have very little in life since some of them have babies (at 15 and 16!) and can barely write a complete sentence. Then you can come talk to me. Tell me how I, and the other 94 of us in Eastern North Carolina, are just a bunch of rich, spoiled 22 year-olds looking for karma points and resume building. Because trust me, there are easier fucking ways to get there.

  54. Nic
    August 26, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    “I’m criticizing a part of TFA’s model. Specifically, I’m criticizing the part of TFA’s model that has institutionalized the idea that teaching for two years is an acceptable commitment to teaching, since I believe it is not.”

    I am a NYCTF alum, and as far as I was told, 2 years is not the “acceptable commitment to teach”. I don’t know anyone who was serious about the program and who didn’t see this as a longer-term choice and expected to be there more than 2 years – I can’t think of any of my colleagues who saw the program as something “fun”, “interesting” or as a “resume building” option to do for just a few years. I and others in my classes looked at this as a long term decision, and many of us had to work very hard for this decision and it was not something that we took lightly. I also noticed that the few who were not as serious about the commitment to begin with, tended to all drop out before they were even placed in the classroom, and actually the program factors those types of situations in. Still, the intensity of the program is a pretty good way to ensure that only the genuinely serious stay on to be placed in the classroom. I know this is more my anecdotal reasons than anything else but….here’s what the NYCTF website has to say about retention rates for fellows:

    “Today, 87 percent of Fellows begin a second year of teaching, a higher rate than the national average, and nearly three-quarters teach a third year. These retention rates are noteworthy since Fellows teach in some of the hardest-to-staff schools in the city. Nearly half (49 percent) of all Fellows who start their first year continue into at least a fifth year in the classroom.”

    I would say that if this program can achieve higher than national averages for NYC schools, than it can be looked at as an improvement from even the traditional paths teachers follow into education.

    Obviously the programs are not perfect. But originally these programs were set up because cities were desperate for teachers as the situation they were facing was that 60% of new hires were lacking certification and they knew that states (at least NY) were soon going to be mandating that ONLY certified teachers be teaching in the schools. The schools were faced with the task of finding a realistic, fast, solution, and that is how these programs were started (at least in NYC that was the case).

    Quote from the website:
    “In 1999-2000, 15 percent of New York City’s public school teachers and 60 percent of all new hires lacked teacher certification. The New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF) program was created in 2000 to recruit, select, and train talented professionals from outside the field of education to teach in City schools that were struggling to find highly qualified teachers.”

    Also the reason why people leave are not always “I just don’t feel like teaching anymore” or “it’s too difficult”. Although, yes, I’m sure there are some. However, in my case, I was forced to leave because I became too ill to physically teach any more, I am now disabled and out of work. But I would to have given anything to have been able to continue teaching, but it was totally out of my control. Still, there are many reasons why teachers do not stay for 3, 5, 10, 50 years. The reasons are varied and diverse, however, a huge reason that teacher turnover is high, is not by any means a result that is just particular to the teaching fellow programs. As the statistics that I just quoted point out, the NYCTF retention rates are higher than the national averages. To me this indicates that the fundamental problem in teacher turnover lies NOT within the “fast-track” teaching programs, but elsewhere. I think it is pretty obvious that low salaries, poor support for new teachers (whether you are a fellow or not), testing constraints, slashing of budget and extracurricular programs, adversarial relationship between unions (principals vs. teachers), the lack of respect that teachers receive as professionals, unrealistic work load expectations (teachers are expected to do more and more with less and less), punitive measures taken towards schools that need help the most (NCLB), and a host of other issues are driving the high teacher turnover rates. The turnover rates seem to have everything to do with policy measures that are dictated by state and federal governments. And of course, as many teachers already know, whenever these policies are made, none of these politicians or businessmen ever bother to ask actual teachers.

    Something else I would like to point out, is that, as we all know, many teachers are women. (And we all know the issue with the wages and women can be very oppressive) Anyway, many teachers are not only women, but single women raising their own children…or I should say … were teachers. What I also had heard via, word of mouth is that some, especially those with dependents and whom are the only source of income, were being forced out of their teaching jobs because they were not able to support a family on a teachers salary. In fact, many teachers have been noticing that they cannot even afford to live in the same neighborhoods in which they teach, because of this. So wage issues, (not the TA programs) really can have a big affect on whether or not teacher’s families are able to support themselves and thus stay in the profession. It’s just one of many points, but I just thought it was worth pointing out.

    So, last point, to sum up, I guess I am a little offended by the narrow view of the teacher turnover situation, that it is the fault of fast track programs, because In my experience it actually has very little to do with the Teaching Fellow/TFA programs and very much has to do with policy. To me this is obvious, but perhaps some here have not been in the trenches long enough to have observed this. Still, I feel like just blaming teachers and fellowships is taking the easy way out of discussing these difficult problems. I notice that people would rather play the blame game, rather than offer and advocate for possible solutions, I guess it’s just easier that way since most people know little about the system and how it actually works (not that I know everything about everything, but I’m fairly educated on the issues)… Again, while the fellowship programs were not perfect, at least the they were a partial solution to a difficult problem and although they could always be improved upon, it is a far better solution than just complaining and leaving things as they are.

  55. JuliaG
    August 27, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    “It takes a VERY selfless person to get in front of that classroom every day, deal with having to teach 11th graders how to read and 9th graders how to add, and then get lambasted for it by complete strangers. ”
    Welcome to my world.
    Only difference is, I paid for the educational preparation in order to do so and am not high tailing it out of there.
    Teachers who stay in the profession work their asses off and are “lambasted” on a daily basis.
    To add insult to injury, we see these stupid corporate based programs that decide that the best thing to do to an already broken system is send in people who have no training. Oh, yea, they’re the solution.
    If you really want some respect then stick around for a few years, get lambasted constantly for doing so, and still care about the kids.
    Then we can talk.
    Until then, say hi to Wendy Kopp and Goldman Sachs.

  56. Sarah
    August 27, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    Aw Kacie, as someone who has been through the hell that is first-year teaching in a shitty place, I promise it gets better… a little better, anyway. I don’t think Anne is implying that people ever choose to teach for purely selfish reasons, but the systemic and programmatic issues she raises are real.

    The structure of TFA’s recruitment and placement processes (limiting the power that applicants have to select their own placement regions, forming recruitment partnerships with non-education-related corporations, using promotional slogans like “Teach for 2 years…learn for a lifetime!”) exacerbate the turnover issues that already plague under-resourced schools.

    In response to some of the comments about teacher shortages– TFA explicitly states that the organizational mission is not about filling the teacher shortage, but about closing the achievement gap. Plugging passionate but inexperienced teachers into the schools where students need the most help doesn’t seem to be the best way to do this. Instead, what about creating a program that provides incentives and support for outstanding experienced teachers and administrators from well-performing districts who choose to relocate to high-need areas? That seems like a more effective (if more expensive) means of addressing the real needs of children and schools.

  57. JuliaG
    August 27, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    Hey, here’s an idea. Stop spewing nonsencial rhetoric about what TFA says and stay in the classroom for more than two years.
    What’s the problem?
    Scared to get your hands dirty for too long?
    Scared to struggle on a teacher’s salary for the rest of your life?

  58. Ellen
    August 28, 2008 at 10:42 am

    Whoa, there’s no need for name-calling.

    While I’m 100% on board with Anna’s post and think it’s a fantastic indictment of TFA’s marketing and basic philosophy, Katie Versaci is right that some of these comments represent ad hominem attacks on the individual people who choose to enter teaching through TFA. As Anna herself her reiterated, attacking individuals isn’t what this post is about, and isn’t the most productive way to approach reforming TFA and reforming teaching and education in general.

    I understand where you’re coming from, JuliaG. I also have some significant anger towards people who work for Goldman Sachs and make a ton of money. I went to a university where my fellow graduates were encouraged to apply to major corporations in finance, marketing, advertising, investments, etc. There was no critical discussion of the problems that these companies perpetuate and represent. There were weekly job fairs from, yes, Goldman Sachs & Co., but ZERO job fairs for nonprofit, grassroots, activist, or sustainable change organizations.

    If you think there is an ethical problem with the desire to earn more than a teacher’s salary — and I think that’s a very real possibility — there’s got to be a better way to articulate that than calling those folks wimps.

  59. Ben
    August 30, 2008 at 12:39 am

    Sadly, You’re missing the point about TFA.

    First of all, 2/3s stay in education in some capacity after their two year commitment. So to suggest that all TFAers bail after 2 years is unbelievably misleading. It’s worse than that — It’s a lie.

    TFA has launched a full-out attack on the achievement gap. Their battle plan is two pronged. One prong is the teachers’ impact in the classroom. This part of the plan is limited in scope because there are only so many corps members. You cannot eliminate the achievement gap with only a few thousand teachers in the classroom — logistically, TFA’s reach is limited by the size of the corps. Although, study after study suggest that TFA teachers outperform their colleagues.

    But the second prong is also very powerful — the TFA alumns who know the achievement gap intimately. TFA works methodically to place their alumns in positions to reform eduction. Their goals revolve around how many alumns hold leadership positions or become school board members, principals, elected officials, administrators. Not to mention those who do become investment bankers and lawyers who are able to contribute enormous capital and resources to the movement. And because TFA alumns are fanatical about high expectations for low-income students, and working relentlessly to achieve student results, these values permeate throughout the communities that TFA alumns share. The second prong of TFA’s moel for change is incredibly powerful.

    An enormous problem in teaching and education today is that there is a talent gap in the profession. Talented and well-trained teachers usually gravitate towards more attractive settings. They want to work where there are involved parents, safe surroundings and resources to teach effectively. Most do not end up in the neighborhoods that TFAers do. In many situations, there are teachers who are not nearly as committed as most TFAers and do not hold students to the same expectations. So, the bad teachers ususally end up in the least desirable classrooms in the country. That is simple supply and demand. Increasing the demand for some of the roughest classrooms in the country is a good thing for education in low-income communities. Attracting America’s best and brightest young people to solve this problem is incredibly important.

    I am in my second year as a corps member, and at the outset of my teaching career, had very little interest in being a teacher for more than two years. Now, I am consumed with leading my students, and will work relentlessly until we have reached our goals. I cannot imagine my life without working towards ending the achievement gap. Nearly every single one of my colleagues in TFA feel the same way. Hardly anyone is in it for whatever is next. My colleagues and I get up every day, work as hard as possible for our students all day, and plan four hours to do it again tomorrow. This grind has given so much meaning to my life. It is insulting to suggest that anyone would work this hard and become so emotionally invested in education reform, just to put it on a resume. That shows a profound lack of understanding for what our organization is all about.

    Education reform is the civil rights movement of our generation. Bemoaning thousands of smart, committed people who are working as hard as possible to right the injustice of the achievement gap is pathetic.

  60. September 17, 2008 at 9:41 pm

    Teaching is without a doubt one of those professions where the learning curve is steep and mistakes, like in any first year profession, take time to overcome. It is easy to bash an organization without truly taking the time to understand it. You are quick to point out that first year teachers struggle, and that placing them in under-resourced schools adds to the difficulties. That will be the case with any teacher no matter how well trained, rather as an education major right out of college, someone with a masters degree, a member of the Teaching Fellows, or someone from Teach For America. T he obstacles are across the board no matter where you teach, where you received your education, and whether or not you are affiliated with an organization.
    Teach For America is an organization looking to partner with teachers, educators, and administrators in bridging the nation’s most pervasive problem, not one looking to damage students. For those who are quick to criticize that it leaves poorly trained teachers in precarious situations, consider that most first year teachers face the same challenge. Teach For America, however, helps to fill a fundamental shortage of teachers in low income communities. Too often, even experienced teachers jettison underperforming schools for the suburbs. It is my understanding that Teach For America seeks to partner with Teaching Fellows, and those dedicated teachers (not to say those who leave are not committed) in servicing the lower income communities to the best of their abilities. Few if any first or second year teachers are as successful as they want to be, but every day the vast majority of Teach For America corps members show up with energy, enthusiasm, and attempting to use innovations or similar techniques as experienced teachers. Teach For America is a data-driven organization, which means it is constantly evolving, analyzing, and finding ways to better prepare its teachers to make an immediate impact, and although that is not always the case each year their corps members enter much more prepared.
    In response to your criticism that corps members often leave after beginning to become effective and after having a significant amount of time invested into training them, I cannot disagree entirely. However, I would like to point out several facts that you are quick to overlook. Over 60% of Teach For America’s alumni stay in education. A large number of these people may never have even considered teaching or education before being recruited by Teach For America. This creates a legion of devoted teachers who continue to learn and add to their schools after their two year commitment is complete.
    The purpose of debate and open public discourse is always to seek to share information and enlighten. I cannot deny that I am biased as a second year corps member teaching in the South Bronx. That being said, I cannot hide certain biases as well. However, as someone from part of the organization and who has undergone the training I can tell you that corps members deeply care about their students and are well aware that their failures as teachers affects much more than their pride, but the lives of their students. Few first year teachers are successful, but that does not mean that all Teach For America’s are unsuccessful. Over 30% achieve Significant Gains, a term reserved for building students’ reading levels by over 1.5 years or having the class master over 80% of their objectives. A greater percentage has Solid Gains in their students, which also seeks a strong movement forward in the academic ability of their students. Again, this does not mean all are successful, but a substantial portion are not screwing uptheir students’ lives.
    As mentioned, I am a second year corps member, and I am currently mulling the difficult decision of whether or not to continue teaching. This is not an easy choice, especially after seeing drastic improvements in my own craft only a week into my second year. Part of the tenet of the Teach For America mission is that the achievement gap is so persistent and widespread that it requires committed individuals in different sectors with direct knowledge of these challenges. Which teachers would not want to see people in finance, consulting, lawyers, nonprofit employees, and politicians, who shared their growing pains wanting to help them and supporting education? I know if I do not end up teaching (something that I did not consider before joining Teach For America) that my experiences will go with me in any profession, and I will do my part whether by giving time, mind power, networks, or financial support to help all teachers battling the achievement gap. The reality is that inner city schools need teachers. Teach For America provides that. Career teachers who are in the trenches could benefit from support outside of their schools and corps members and alumni are looking to provide this in the future. We are all in this together and should spend time trying to work together rather than criticize.
    I hope this helps provide more insight into the organization that you are quick to attack.

  61. Enlightened
    September 18, 2008 at 11:49 pm


  62. Anon Y Mouse
    September 19, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    Aww, yeah, I would be bitter too if I was condemned to a life of being a public school teacher in New York. I would also be bitter if I didn’t have the skill or tenacity of becoming an investment banker — after all, they are making 4+ times more than what a teacher makes every hour, but don’t have to deal with little savages.

    So imagine being able to teach for (arguably the hardest) first two years of teaching, to become financial analyst. It seems like those TfA’ers are moving up in the world, so I guess I would be mad too if I saw all these well educated grads surpassing you in their careers.

    At least you have job security as a blogger right?

  63. Miss Marsh from Memphis
    September 19, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    1. You have some excellent points. You are absolutely right that it sucks that enthusiastic, skilled teachers at best, and warm bodies at worst tend to leave the classroom after two years at such a rate.
    2. Reasons teachers leaving isn’t apocalyptic:
    a) A sizeable chunk of TFA teachers would never have gotten into teaching without TFA. Regardless of when or if they leave, there are more passionate people in education because of TFA than without it.
    b) Even if they leave to pursue law school, business, med degrees or something directly outside education, these teachers can never look at a ballot or career decision involving education without their experience influencing it. (More people making reasoned, experienced decisions about education is never a bad thing).
    c) In my experience, a pretty big number of people who came in lured by the promise of “an experience” have ended up staying, unable to pass over the implications of broken school systems for the Lehman or Goldman-Sachs lives that their kids may never achieve in the current system.
    d) Depending on the exact year, region, etc somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of TFA folks stay involved directly in education or teaching. I struggled immensely deciding whether or not to leave my school but when it came down to it, I decided that I’m more skilled at working with adult administrations than with students. Therefore I see attaining a degree in Public Policy of MORE benefit to my students and the general public than me personally teaching. I can affect more people in a wider sphere when I really struggled and was worn down in the classroom, making me less than a much less than perfect teacher.

    As someone else said, why is perfect really the enemy of good?

    I don’t hope to have the whole answer, but even a program with admitted flaws like TFA is better than doing nothing. If you have a better idea, please bring it into the open, get it to policy makers and legislature, tell me and I’ll vote for it- god knows we need it.

  64. John
    September 21, 2008 at 12:08 am

    Alright, I’m going to identify myself so that you understand where I’m coming from about this comment:

    I was raised by public school teachers and attended public schools K-12. Kentucky’s schools are actually pretty solid, and I was able to take several classes in Television-Production; I was a good student and I received a scholarship to a top private university to study film. During my undergraduate work, I decided I didn’t want to make a career on a set, that I DID want to go to law school, and that I needed to take some time beforehand to do something important while I had the time and energy.

    Enter Teach For America, an organization that I knew to be flawed but solid nonetheless; for the first time in my life, I felt like I could honestly endorse a non-profit because everything they do is so transparent. Your quips about the quotes on the website are somewhat amusing to me, as though it were a dirty secret that we try to convince people who wouldn’t otherwise be teachers to come and teach. Obviously that’s what we do, and I don’t think that an organization so honest about what it does–and in the public interest, at that–should be harangued.

    I am now teaching three self-contained 8th grade math classes at a middle school in the Bronx. I’m not a great teacher–I feel like I’m failing my 29 students each day–but every single administrator and teacher at my school has told me that I’m the best math teacher my kids have had. PERIOD.

    Also, I am not an anomaly within the system. The independent research shows that, regardless of the intangibles you discuss, students who have Teach For America corps members achieve AT LEAST as much as their peers in math and reading, even if the students have a veteran, fully certified teacher. http://www.teachforamerica.org/research/studies_student_outcomes.htm

    Yes, it is atrocious that a 22-year-old film major can be the best math teacher a 16-year-old overage student with a severe emotional disorder has ever had. Yes, it would be better if I didn’t “leave” my students after two years, but, if everything continues as planned, they’ll be GRADUATING FROM MIDDLE SCHOOL AND GOING ON TO A HIGH SCHOOL because they are being taught by three different Teach For America corps members. They won’t see me again next year because I’m doing my job now to make sure they are prepared for the next stage of their academic career. Obviously that isn’t always going to be the case–promotion doesn’t lead to a new school in every grade–but you sure are making a mountain out of a molehill when you look at the whole picture.

    This is the state of our current education system: last year, my boys had a woman who hadn’t taught or taken a class in math for more than 30 years, and the year before they had a string of “permanent substitutes.” At least I passed the AP Calculus test with a 5 within my students’ lifetimes. It sickens me to think that I am considered “qualified” to teach my kids, but I also know that my principal was not going to find a more “qualified” teacher willing to work in her school.

    Your entire post is based on the presumption that there are enough certified, effective teachers just WAITING to enter the field of education and take the jobs which are being stolen by Teach For America corps members. The simple fact is that if I hadn’t been convinced to teach in New York City by Teach For America, my eighth grade students would never have learned how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, let alone evaluate expressions with integral exponents like they did on Friday.

  65. s
    September 28, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    I notice that several people have talked about how hard teaching is. Some people also comment on the low pay, tough to navigate administrations, and how shamefully far behind students are in low income communities.

    Then there seems to be this rival between Kacie and JulieG about who is “tougher?” or cares more and who is willing to put up with more shit–as teaching is tough and Kacie might not want to deal with that shit for quite as long as JulieG?

    It seems apparent that you’re both working your asses off. I wonder, JulieG, if rather than telling people who weren’t going to go into the classroom in the first place (but who have the support of a national organization that is constantly striving for higher student achievement above all else) to STAY out all together, your job might actually benefit from them coming in. TFA isn’t in the business of taking jobs from good teachers. They’re in the business of both educating students and THEN reforming education. I mean…Ms. Marsh from Memphis says that she’s going to policy school after two years in the classroom. Wouldn’t you rather people making ed policy have some experience in the classroom than not?

    And wouldn’t you rather TFA tell her it’s OK to go in and make gains with students for two years (as indicated by the several studies cited in other posts) than NOT?

    Does it really threaten the profession for people to come in and start to respect the hell out teachers and then leave to go make it a little less difficult for teachers and students to be successful in the long run?

  66. October 9, 2008 at 11:45 pm

    As a TFA corps member, I’ll admit TFA is far from perfect. Most TFA’ers will admit that. However, I feel like your criticisms ignore the realities of the situation. The fact is, there is a lack of supply of people who are willing to make a career of the often soul-sucking profession of urban teaching. TFA recognizes this, and instead of attempting to shoe-horn every potential corps member into the mold of career-teacher, their less-idealistic goal is to try to get 2 years of solid, dedicated work out of top-caliber student/leaders.

    I posit that the end result is that people who want to be urban teachers permanently will join TFA anyway, but that they are also attracting a large number of people to at the very least fill the gaps in the ranks of the national urban teacher corps. I should also add that it has been my experience in the Baltimore corps that a large emphasis actually is put on staying in Baltimore City classrooms beyond the 2 year commitment.

    The obscene turnover in urban teaching would be there with or without programs like TFA, and I believe it would be even worse without TFA. The problem isn’t TFA, the problem is the horrific lack of support and resources, as well is the incredible strain put on people who step into the profession.

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