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Disillusionment and Noblesse Oblige

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A critique of Teach For America? It's about as popular as badmouthing the Peace Corps. Yet as the first wave of Teach For America idealists reach the end of their two-year teaching commitment I have a growing sense of unease.

I won't dwell on the issue of whether untrained but well-intentioned college graduates can or should be expected to teach youngsters of any kind, but particularly those whose previous schooling has failed them most completely. Much has already been written about why education continues to be thought of as a charitable, rather than a professional, activity.

Nor will I dwell on precisely what sort of preparatory training should be required before allowing neophyte teachers to enter the classroom--whether the training should emphasize theory before practice, practice before theory, or a simultaneous combination of the two. Whether it should be conducted by university-based faculty or school-based practitioners. This, too, is a debate that lends itself to a fundamental reconsideration of professional training rather than a focused look at Teach For America.

Rather, my concerns have more to do with the future impact of Teach For America teachers than with its present operation. Specifically, I fear we are witnessing the creation of a cadre of articulate, well-connected, politically sophisticated individuals who will, with two years of problematic experience behind them, become credible educational experts. Once settled in their "real'' careers, they will come to be regarded as the respected policymakers of tomorrow.

It is wise to remember who these T.F.A. participants are. They represent the best and the brightest of our college graduates, the future doctors, lawyers, and public figures, individuals whose elementary- and secondary-school experiences most often demonstrate the power of privilege as a determinant of educational success. Those for whom Teach For America represents the ultimate form of noblesse oblige.

Does a background of school achievement, of family support and expectation, of college attendance as a birthright, of a perfect mesh between behavior and school expectation prepare one for understanding the consequences of growing up without, of constant physical danger, of years of miseducation, of low self-esteem and limited expectations? Or might it reinforce the view that it's up to the individual, that the world is yours if you just work hard enough?

I worry about what long-term effects Teach For America participants will have on a public which will view them as credible critics regarding the ills of American education. The media will make sure their voices join those of the other so-called "experts'' who tell us how to fix our schools and whose perspective is often at odds with those who work at teaching as a day-to-day, year-in year-out career.

What conclusions do young T.F.A. teachers draw when their students appear to lack motivation, when their students seem unresponsive, even disinterested in T.F.A.'s well-intentioned, but often ineffective efforts aimed at improving skills and fostering intellectual curiosity? Whom do they hold responsible for the continued failure of so many of their students to achieve academic success?

It doesn't take a cynic to assume that many Teach For America participants will leave their experiences disillusioned. Indeed, we might reasonably conclude they will be less than sympathetic toward those youngsters who seemed to reject their best efforts; perhaps their critique will extend beyond the children to include a fundamental challenge to public education itself.

I do not wish to undermine the brilliance of T.F.A. as an idea, and so, I offer a modest proposal--one designed to leave untouched the laudable youthful idealism tapped by Teach For America. Let its supporters continue to fund it. Continue to recruit the young, well-prepared, privileged students into the teaching profession. But instead of assigning them to poor inner-city and rural schools, send them to the privileged suburbs or the private prep schools. There they can take the place (temporarily, of course) of the most successful and seasoned members of the staff, who, in turn, can be loaned out to those inner-city and rural communities in need of renewal and qualified staff.

In the bargain, we will obtain the services of successful teachers who will hopefully be so appalled by the discrepancy between their normal placement and that of their new assignment that they will become a new voice for true reform and commitment. Teach For America participants will be able to experience their initial teaching service in stable and familiar settings, and children in the receiving schools will benefit from an infusion of expertise and seasoned experience.

It's worth a try. How about it, Philip Morris. Is it worth $3 million?

Ann Cook is co-director of The Urban Academy, a New York City alternative public secondary school and member of the Center for Collaborative Education.

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