Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Teach for America is great! Just not for my child...

Today I came across a Wall Street Journal opinion piece written by Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp. She rightly condemned the public release of teacher test scores in New York City. I applaud her for speaking out against this disgusting act. But as I read, I became enraged when I saw a story about Ms. Kopp's own experience with her child's teacher.

She writes:
A few years ago, my son had a teacher who under the current system would probably be ranked in the bottom quartile of her peers. This wasn't for a lack of enthusiasm or effort on her part—you could see how desperately she wanted to connect with her students and be a great teacher. Knowing my son was in a subpar classroom didn't make me angry at the teacher. It made me frustrated with the school—for not providing this young educator with the support and feedback she needed to improve.

Wait a second...Wendy Kopp was upset when her child was given an unsupported (but enthusiastic and hard-working) young teacher? A teacher who really meant well, but wasn't getting the help she needed to reach all her kids? And Kopp calls this a "subpar classroom"?

So let me get this straight, when Kopp creates a program which by design puts unsupported young people into subpar classrooms, it is fine? As long as it is for other people's children?

And then she seems to argue that it was the current "system" and not the individual teacher which was to blame. And yet Teach for America constantly argues that their recruits are better people, that they fight educational inequality on the individual classroom level. Teach for America does nothing to address ANY of the systemic problems which drive educators away from high-needs schools.

I suppose that's not entirely true. I should add that some Teach for America alums go on to join the corporate reform movement ( a la Michelle Rhee) which is actively damaging many classrooms. Way to change the system! Too bad it's for the worse.

When it's her own child, Wendy Kopp seems to think enthusiasm, hard work, and youth are not enough. And that teaching contexts matter greatly. But for all those teachers teaching other people's children...not so much.

Is anyone else outraged by this?


  1. Very much so. I entered teaching through a similar program (NYC Teaching Fellows) and was APPALLED with the training.
    These programs place woefully unprepared teachers - through no fault of their own- in the most difficult settings. I really like the idea of attracting people to the teaching profession, but this is not the way to do it. If TFA and other programs want to last, they'll need to do a serious overhaul of their training and *gasp* spend more money. Those who truly want to teach will stick with a longer commitment and more tarining.

  2. I couldn't have said it better myself. The notion that a smart, energetic, well-meaning 22-year-old can reverse the effects of institutionalized poverty in two years of teaching with no training and no support would be laughable if it weren't the dominant narrative driving education "reform" in this country.

    TFA has only made things worse. It has disrespected the profession of teaching by insisting that it depends only on innate talent and not carefully honed skills and experience.

  3. I've read your comments on TFA's Teach For Us forum as well as this post and was wondering if I could ask you for advice. First, I'd like to explain a little about myself.
    Last Monday I was given an offer by TFA to teach Spanish in the Mississippi Delta area. I'm a traditionally trained teacher from a division III school in Wisconsin. I've taught bilingual education in an inner-city school in Santiago, Chile as well as volunteering as an at-risk mentor for students at a high school from my hometown. I've done many volunteer programs such as the ones I just mentioned and will be completing my student teaching this June. The reason I applied for TFA is because working in those schools and with those students made me passionate to fight for kids in under-served areas. I sort of knew of the flaws that TFA has while applying but went ahead with it anyway.
    Anyway, I haven't accepted the offer yet. Considering my background and education in pedagogy, and also that I could just as well get a teaching job the traditional way in my state, would you advise me to stay away from TFA? Or should I go into it despite knowing that I will have to fight not only for my students and their schools but also most likely against the organization that sent me?

  4. @Thiefinthenight11 I appreciate the question although I don't know that I'm the best person to ask. I think you already know my answer. Like you said, as a traditionally trained teacher, you can easily get a job in a high-needs school if that is your calling. (Although, that being said, I actually believe that in some districts, like mine in Chicago, getting a job is no longer a guarantee. Unfortunately, joining TFA means you would automatically get placed somewhere, but possibly at the expense of some other teacher. Kind of a scary thought.) If you feel called to work in a high-needs school, why not make it more permanent? I wouldn't recommend viewing working there as a short-term "volunteer" experience. I'm not sure why exactly you are looking to teach in a high-needs area, but if it is wanting to give back, there are many other ways to do it. (And it sounds like you already are in many ways.) As you know, kids need stability more than anything, not "saviors".

    Ultimately though, I do believe participating in an organization is a tacit approval of what they are up to. Even if you are the most vocal CM opposing the organization ever, I still think your participation looks like agreement to the outside world. Plus, you would still be getting the perks that come with it: Americorps $$, guaranteed placement, the prestige and network connections to elites, and sometimes even a free iPad! How could you accept those things knowing the other "real" teachers around you aren't getting them for doing the same job?

    It will be a hard decision and I wish you the best in making it. Either way, keep pushing back and reminding people about what our students really need!

  5. Thanks for the quick response. I began wanting to teach in a high needs area when I got to work very briefly with students from a church in Cabrini Green and became more aware of it being my calling when I worked in Chile for a longer period of time. I definitely would not view TFA as a volunteer nor short-term commitment, I'm hoping if it's possible to stay in my region long-term.

    The perks are so far down on my list I haven't even given much thought to them to be honest, but I can see your point there. Although, so you're aware, it's not a guaranteed placement. I'll still have to interview with my school district, and although it is rare, some CMs have not been placed in the past. Districts contract with TFA but aren't forced to take whoever is sent to them. And in the Delta there's still a lot of vacancies, much like what Rubenstein wrote about as being the original mission to "fill gaps." I don't like terms like "real" teacher, but I know what you're trying to say by that.

    But, like you say it is a tough decision, and I knew what the answer would be, but I figured it'd be good to ask people from all ends of the spectrum as I decide. So keep on keepin' on with the teaching, I'm sure someone with the passion you seem to exhibit is a good model for your students. I have a sister in special ed and another who teaches it, so I really appreciate all that y'all do for those kids.

    I know you have your reasons, but please try not to be top harsh with CMs. Though you dislike TFA, keep in mind that many CMs (from blogs I've read at least) don't seem to receive much support from anyone and you may be able to be a significant teacher for them as much as your students. Even if they don't accomplish much, the trend of hiring them doesn't seem to be going away and compounding their likelihood of failing with disapproval isn't helping anyone, especially the students.

  6. Dear Katie,

    I'm a special education teacher in Taiwan. I often enjoy reading your blog articles and learned a lot, thank you very much.

    I wonder if you allow me to translate your exciting articles into Chinese to introduce to my countrumen.

    Sincerely wait for your response.

    Best regards