Teach for America will announce its final round of acceptances for next year’s corps tomorrow.TFA, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-income neighborhoods, consistently makes Fortune’s list of the Top 100 Employers to work for. Last year, only 11 per cent of the nearly 50,000 students who applied were accepted into the prestigious program. So it is no surprise that most students would be thrilled to receive one of the coveted acceptance letters.
But Mark Naison, an African-American studies and history professor at Fordham University, says that the recruits should think twice before accepting. According to him, the program has a noble mission but it is being fulfilled in all the wrong ways.
“This program had great potential and it moved in a really negative direction,” he said. “Maybe it could be salvaged.”
Here’s his take, along with a response from Teach for America spokesperson Danielle Montoya:
TFA recruits students for the wrong reasons
According to Naison, Teach for America is not committed to training lifelong educators, and instead focuses on people who use the program as a stepping stone to other careers.
As an example, he shares a story from several years ago when the program’s recruiters peppered the Fordham campus with fliers that said, “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.”
“That seriously offended me because you’re not saying teaching is the greatest thing, that there is no better contribution that you could make than to be a teacher for life. What you’re saying is, ‘How can Teach for America help you get into business school, into law school, into a nonprofit management program,'” he said. “The idea is that the real way to influence education is to become a policy-maker, not to be a teacher.”
TFA should require a longer commitment
Naison says that Teach For America should extend its two-year program to a longer five-year commitment, which would be more likely to attract people who would stay in teaching for longer periods of time.
But TFA officials see the ascent of TFA alums to high level education posts (such as former DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee) as strictly a positive.
Montoya said that TFA has a track record of taking students who may have never considered education before entering the program (only 6 per cent of the program’s 2011 class were education majors) who then stay in education for their careers, even if its not in a pure teaching capacity.
According to internal surveys, while only one in six corps members thought about a career in education prior joining Teach For America, two-thirds of its 24,000 alumni continue to work in education.
TFA doesn’t provide enough training
Teach for America recruits undergo several levels of training, including 45 hours of independent coursework, a five-week training institute and then practice as summer school teachers. They also work with a mentor to outline their year’s curriculum.
But Naison says that the training just isn’t enough to adequately prepare them for the classroom, especially considering most have little or no teaching background. He says that providing at least a full year of training is the solution.
“Would any affluent community bring in Teach for America? Teachers train for six weeks who are going to teach for two or three years,” Naison said. “You are using things that you would never dream of doing in a middle class community and doing them in the nation’s poorest school districts. To me, it undermines the teaching profession and it is also class and race based. It is a two tier track.”
Montoya said that teacher support and education continues throughout the two-year program. She also cited a Harvard study that found that the TFA selection model is predictive of identifying those who will have a positive impact on students in their first year.
“We do a ton of internal research as well, so year after year we look at how our core members are performing,” she said.
TFA is too focused on test scores
Similar to the federal No Child Left Behind program, Teach for America puts a strong emphasis on raising student test scores, which Naison says places too much pressure on the teachers.
“You have to build rapport with them to get performance, but the whole approach of TFA, of ‘make them pass those tests,’ you don’t have time to make a connection,” he said.
Montoya said that TFA teachers have a successful track record of indeed raising student test scores; an important academic benchmark.
TFA teachers replace veteran teachers
In the age of education budget cuts, Teach for America teachers have sometimes replaced more experienced union teachers, a fact that does not sit well with Naison.
“These are schools in usually high poverty neighborhoods, where some of the teachers have been there 20, 30 years,” he said. “They work like hell to try to make it work. You close the school and bring in these kids who have like 6 weeks of training and leave after 2 years? I find that really disturbing.”
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