To the Editor:
I am a retired public school teacher and history education specialist with more than 45 years of experience in public education. I am a supporter of Teach For America and charter schools, which are often identified with TFA. I know of many bright and committed students who were not accepted into TFA, and this is how it should be—or should it? If TFA is as good as its press, why not find the funds to increase the number of TFA teachers?
Against this background, the commentaries on Teach For America by Wendy Kopp, Linda Darling-Hammond, Randi Weingarten, and three TFA alumni raise as many questions as they answer, and this is a good thing (“Teach For America 20, Perspectives on TFA in its 20th year,” March 16, 2011). The exchange was friendly, spirited, and informative, and at least all agree that zip code is not destiny.
The missing piece is the linkage in public discussion between TFA and charter schools, which is partly a product of “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” a film which did a beautiful job of articulating the tragedy of having too many children in poor areas who lack any respectable option for their schooling. The film, however, sent a message that the solution to America’s education crisis is more charter schools and TFA teachers. There was not a single example of excellence in a traditional public school, and this undermines the message.
The fact is that parents of students in good suburban schools have little interest in charters or increasing choices. The context is simply different for the middle class and people of lesser means. Nor is it fair to claim that there are not any good traditional public schools in areas with a majority of low-income people. This was the message in the film. Too many people in the charter movement bought the message in the movie and declared a kind of war against traditional public schools, a way of thinking that Wendy Kopp, TFA’s founder, would not embrace.
And what about the bright and mission-driven individual who enters teaching through a more traditional route? Some of these students are likely to stay longer in teaching than TFA graduates, but they lack the prestige of the TFA label and, of course, don’t have the networks that TFA graduates have over a lifetime. Some of these bright students coming through traditional routes may also have a prestige degree and then decide to pursue certification at the local state university or college.
Hopefully, the kind of discussion in these Commentaries can provide a context for more serious conversation about how to increase the number of good students who want to teach. Only a small number can come to schools through TFA, and we have to somehow give students who are certified through traditional routes the same status if we want more of our “best and brightest” to enter teaching.
History Consultant, The DBQ Project
St. Louis, Mo.
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2011 edition of Education Week as TFA Essays Stir Thoughts on Status of All Teachers