Friday, December 23, 2011

TFA, Brainwashing, and Not Playing Nice

Here is a comment I wrote in response to a blog post written by someone who works directly with first and second year Teach for America interns.  In the last paragraph, the author DG argues:
Finally, TFA isn’t going away. It’s too powerful. We also have to acknowledge that without it, we would have approximately 8,000 fewer teachers where we need them most. We have to try to get them to see how to work together with experienced teachers, their associations and unions, and universities. We need to have them see how better training of their inexperienced teachers will help them achieve their stated goals. Coalition is a better word than confrontation."
Check out the full blog at  And here is my comment:

Interesting perspective on TFA.  Your position as field specialist means you get to see the classroom experiences of these unprepared novice teachers.  It is heart-breaking to hear stories of just how unprepared and even brainwashed these well-meaning kids truly are.  Their young idealism is being abused.

Still, I am concerned when people say we need to work with a group like TFA.  While the young people themselves may have good intentions, the end game for the organization is one I cannot and will not support.  When it began, TFA simply looked to place its members in districts with teacher shortages and was at best a stop gap.  The only claim about the novice teachers' abilities was that "they were better than a string of substitutes".  In the early days, there was talk that TFA hopefully should  someday become unnecessary.

Today, however, the organization has morphed into a powerhouse hotbed for billionaire's money and politician's praise.  TFA now has the audacity to claim their novices are actually "better" than veteran teachers.  As you pointed out, this is simply not true for the vast majority of core members.  But TFA's rhetoric itself has become dangerous.  By claiming "experience doesn't matter", TFA empowers adminstrators and lawmakers to save a buck, fire older teachers, and fill positions with these untrained novices.  And as an extra, these kids do tend to be more compliant, obedient, and almost never stick around long enough to collect a pension.  Heck, they spend so much time with TFA's organization, they don't even have time to become involved in their unions. 

I don't know how it is in New York, but here in Chicago there is NO shortage of teachers.  At the last open job fair they had (more than 3 years ago), there were far more teachers looking for work than schools hiring.  Shrinking budgets mean there are more teachers than ever searching for jobs.  Add to that, school closures and turnaround staff newly looking for work, and you have plenty of highly-qualified teachers wanting to get back in the classroom.

TFA has controlled the media and therefore the message for too long.  But that's all the more reason for career educators to speak up for our profession, and more importantly for the children whose lives are being negatively impacted because of this program.  I am a special education teacher and I believe it is immoral and illegal to put an untrained teacher into a special ed position.  TFA does this all the time.  That is wrong.

I will not stay silent on this.  Putting untrained novices into schools which need the MOST highly-trained and effective teachers is an injustice I will not let slide. 

I have heard many educators talk about "working together" with corporate reformers like TFA's CEO Wendy Kopp.  In fact, I am writing this post just days after NEA's president Dennis Van Roekel partnered with Kopp to write a USA Today article about "improving America's teachers".  (Note the language:  teachERS to be improved not their teachING.  It speaks to a worldview where teachers are good not based on experience or training, but on some sort of innate qualities, probably the same ones which get people into better universities.  That last bit was sarcasm, by the way.  What a classist and racist way to sort and quantify "good people" from "bad".) See the article here:  This odd partnership certainly stirred up the blogosphere and Twitter for a few days.

As I alluded to in my comment, I do not believe this is the time to "cooperate" with organizations that stand for everything I am against.  I will not form coalitions with TFA, with DFER, with Stand for Children or StudentsFirst, with Duncan, with Bloomberg, with Rhee, with Rahm or any other corporate education reformer who is actively pursuing the destruction of public education.

And to throw up our hands and say, "well they're not going anywhere" or "we have no choice, they're too powerful" is ridiculous.  If I see a massive injustice occurring before my eyes, am I to just shake my head and say, "well they're so powerful...guess I'll just play along."  Did Ghandi shake his head and cooperate with the British Empire?  Did Martin Luther King Jr just accept that African Americans would always be treated like second class citizens?

This is not a mere difference in perspectives.  Not even in ideologies.  This is not the old "whole language" versus "phonics" reading debate or even the history curriculum battles of past education wars. This is a fundamental fight between those who would sell our education system to the highest bidder while actively ignoring the poverty and inequalities that infest our nations's schools and those who stand for a quality equitable public education for all.  And it will take a fight, as all social change requires, to actually change the discourse.

Teach for America is a program that damages children, and its damage is being compounded by its influence, money, and power.  Those of us who understand the actual impact of the program NEED to speak out against it.  It is our moral obligation.  For me, I know I can no longer sit back and let schools fill special education positions with these untrained novices without even a word in protest.  So I write my Congressmen to oppose alternative certification programs which do not prepare teachers in advance.  I am vocal on the comments sections in articles, blogs and on twitter.  I WILL fight for the right for EVERY CHILD TO HAVE A FULLY-PREPARED TEACHER for every single day of their school career.

Please, do NOT remain silent and let groups like TFA just take the spotlight.  They don't get it without a fight.  And for God's sake, don't ever, no not ever, partner with them.


  1. Just came across this fantastic article on #TFA's destructiveness in American education: A must read.

  2. TFA continues the decline to an exploitation based society. No real goal of an empowering education, simply an efficient one that prepares future victims/consumers/workers. Quality education that grows real learners and leaders will happen in private schools and select charters for the children of those who TFA our public schools.

  3. I've been writing letters to Seventh Generation about their support of TFA interns, as stated on the tags around the necks of their laundry soap bottles. I get very sweet pat on the head answers about how they hope the education problems in my city get solved. However, one small thing that I can do is let companies who support the TFA Employment Placement Agency know that they are doing the wrong thing.

    Here's my first letter....

    I am extremely disappointed in Seventh Generation for your support for Teach For America Trainees. Teach for America trainees may be called the best and the brightest of their college classes, but that does not mean they have what it takes to be good teachers. Nor does it mean that those of us who have
    committed our careers to teaching public school are the worse and the
    dimmest. Did you know that TFA trainees (Temps for African Americans or Teach for Awhile) are placed with high needs students after a 5-week summer crash course? Did you know that they are only committed to staying for two
    years, which increases the teacher churn of said high needs urban schools?
    Did you know that TFA trainees do not need to meet minimum state
    qualifications to teach? Did you know that TFA charges districts a placement
    fee? Did you know that TFA equates standardized test scores with actual
    improvement in student learning? Did you know that TFA trainees are offered
    high profile jobs or guaranteed admittance into various business and law

    I urge you to withdraw your support for Teach for America. Our students
    deserve teachers who are committed to their teaching profession. A first
    step of commitment is to seek and undergo the best professional training
    available at a fully accredited university or a strong alternative
    certification program. Please do not contribute to the
    de-professionalization of teachers. Please do not perpetuate the falsehood
    that anyone with a smart brain and a pre-written curriculum can teach.
    Please help stop the diseased notion that test scores are paramount. There
    is no need to bring TFA into our schools or to give them additional funding.
    Consider that if TFA were truly committed to American children it would
    deploy an army of tutors to work individually with high needs children.

  4. I think corporations that do this are doing it out of cluelessness and have no idea they're getting embroiled in controversy. Apple was offering used iPads, I think free, to TFA interns. (I'm not sure if this was localized or nationwide.) Education activists in Seattle organized a protest at an Apple store there, and the program was immediately, quietly dropped without explanation. Clesrly, Apple didn't want controversy, which indicates it had no clue that it was jumping into one.

  5. Amen, sister!

    I graduated with a Bachelors in elementary education in 2009, and after a year of looking unsuccessfully for a job while working as an aide and a sub, I applied to be in TFA. I got through most of the process but ended up not getting in.

    The people in my whole-group interview were all graduates of ivy league schools who had probably never talked to a 6 year old. We had to do a 5-minute sample lesson plan, and after I presented mine, the girl next to me leaned over and said, "Wow! You did a great job!" And I said, "Well...... this is what I went to college for..." Sigh.

    Marvelous Multiagers!

  6. As a teacher who came from an alternate certification route (NYC Teaching Fellows) - I couldn't agree more with what all of you have said about how woefully underprepared members of these groups are. I was lucky in that I entered not as a recent graduate, but after several years of working with developmentally disabled adults. I had some experience working with special needs individuals and some good mentors.

    But it was still pretty awful. I expected something completely different from my 5 week training and grad school degree. I expected to learn different ways to break down concepts and teach them. I got none of that.

    That being said, I support the idea of speaking out against these programs. But I also urge everyone that works with a teacher that comes from one of these programs to lend a hand, and ear, and a shoulder. Your mentorship and guidance are what they need. Not all of us are total douchebags. Most of us want to do the right thing.

  7. Miss Rim,

    I totally agree about career teacher's lending a helping hand to struggling TFAers. And I think most teachers do this willingly. Still, the fact that TFA RELIES on the veteran teachers' helping hands really irks me. Instead of offering support for their own recruits (and the little support they give is often another TFA under-trained 2nd year or 2-year "graduate", hardly an expert...)they actually encourage the novices to seek out someone in the building for help. This means a veteran teacher must give up their time, unpaid, year after year as each new recruit comes in, to mentor these completely unprepared newbies. It seems like TFA takes advantage of the goodness and compassion of the veteran teachers.

    And then as a slap in the face, the TFA organization has the audacity to claim that their recruits are in fact BETTER than the veteran teachers who are giving them support. Truly sickening...

    Again, it's not the TFA kids themselves, it's the organization I stand against.