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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Native Americans Challenge Teach For America in New Mexico

By Anthony Cody — March 18, 2013 2 min read
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Two weeks ago we learned about some questionable practices in the state of New Mexico. These things were revealed by investigator Michael Corwin, as part of the confirmation process for would-be Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera. One part of his testimony that was of special interest was his discussion of the role of Teach For America in his state. As readers know, I have explored the impact of TFA on this blog in some detail.

The first detail uncovered by Mr. Corwin was a bit mind boggling. In 2011, Mr. Corwin was summoned to Gallup to investigate some improper conduct by assistant superintendents. He discovered that Landon Mascareñaz, then TFA’s executive director for the state, had billed the Gallup-McKinley School District $110,000 for recruiting and training 55 teachers. The problem was TFA had already been paid $127,000 by the state for these same services. When Mr. Corwin interviewed Mr. Mascareñaz, he was told the reason for the double billing was that Mascareñaz did not feel the payment from the state was enough, so he intentionally double billed the school district. TFA was forced to pay back the school district $110,000, and two district administrators who had approved the payments were terminated. Mr. Mascareñaz is no longer working in the state.

But the bigger question I wanted to understand was why $800,000 in funds approved to implement the Indian Education Act were going to pay for Teach For America corps members. I reached out to several sources to gain insight. First, to Nate Morrison, who is Teach For America’s current executive director in New Mexico. I then shared his responses with two experts in Native American education, Dr. Christine Sims and Dr. Carlotta Bird of the University of New Mexico. I will share Mr. Morrison’s responses, and then those of Dr. Bird and Dr Sims.

I asked Mr. Morrison why TFA was being funded through this act. He responded:

The Indian Education Act outlines several priorities, and one of them is to recruit, retain, train, and provide continued professional development for teachers who work with tribal students. This year our folks in the Four Corners are working with approximately 4,700 Native kids, and they fill a real need - unfortunately, teacher recruitment is a challenge for many tribal schools, and there are districts (like GMCS) that, midyear, have many vacancies in core subject areas. There's a teacher shortage out here, and districts often struggle to fill positions. Legislators - led by legislators representing Native districts in northwest NM - recognized that need and appropriated $400,000 for the last several years to support teacher recruitment, training, and development for schools serving Native students.
I think it's also important to note that Teach For America first started receiving state funds to recruit and support teachers in Native communities during the Richardson administration and that both Republican and Democratic legislators have supported continuing the source of funds for which we compete, including some of the Native legislators who authored the Indian Education Act.
Mr. Corwin notes that the state issued these contracts instead of partnering with the Indian Education Division, UNM, or CNM to recruit Native teachers, but this claim is missing important information. Contrary to Mr. Corwin's report, the contracts we signed formalized a partnership between Teach For America and the Indian Education Division to recruit, prepare, support, and train 35 educators per year to serve in tribal communities.

Dr. Bird raised the following questions about this.

I have not seen a report on the success of this activity. Have you? How were the funds used? What specific training was provided by TFA to these 35 educators? Was it generic in focus or was it meant to work with AI students who is Apache, Navajo or Pueblo, or are ELLs, etc.? Each TFA teacher is hired by the school districts they work in at a good salary. The rural school districts, i.e. those in the NM area of the state, i.e., Gallup McKinley County Schools and Central Consolidated Schools pay some of the highest salaries in the state, even for beginning teachers. It would be a far better investment to prepare individuals as envisioned by the Indian Education Act who are from the communities, who have a commitment to their communities to serve as teachers and want to work in their community. The schools are the major employer in many of these rural areas and hire many local people in positions to be educational assistants, cooks, bus drivers, school liaisons, janitors, maintenance personnel, etc. so why not as teachers?

Mr. Morrison explained:

In the fall of 2012, the Public Education Department created a competitive process to allocate the $400,000 in funding to train and support teachers in Native communities. In October we applied for that funding in partnership with Growing Educators for Native American Communities (GENAC), which is a local teacher-training partnership between the Native American Community Academy (NACA) and CNM. The Indian Education Division selected our joint application as the most competitive one, and this year Teach For America and GENAC will share the funding as we work to learn from each other and build capacity in both programs. UNM-Gallup wrote a letter of support for this application.
Our work in New Mexico is part of Teach For America's Native Achievement Initiative which is focused on Native recruitment and culturally responsive teaching. This work is led by Robert Cook, a former president of the National Indian Education Association and NIEA teacher of the year.

Dr. Bird offered the following comments:

2012 was the first year when it was "a competitive process." This is even questionable as those who viewed the RFP, saw that it was written in a way that TFA would be the one to get the award. Of course when questioned the IED/PED denied this. There were other factors working against another organization being selected for this grant, one is that it was announced well into the FY cycle and second, for those that wanted to work with tribal and school partners the timeframe from announcement to deadline for submission was only a couple of weeks. Prior to 2012, TFA received funding from the IEA/IED/NMPED for several years. I don't know the total amount, but it is a considerable amount of funds that could have been used for programs that could have benefited American Indian students rather than to allow a college student from back east to get their student loan forgiven by working with our "impoverished" students. As to the "local teacher training" partnership, I don't know how it works to be able to comment on effectiveness or quality, but recently I asked for information from the GENAC/NACA director about their work in preparing teachers and have yet to receive a response.
While Mr. Cook may be a former NIEA president and is to be respected for his work there, and in other capacities, he has no background in regards to the American Indian tribes in NM. His perspective as a tribal member of a South Dakota tribe does not automatically prepare him to work with the tribes or students in the Pueblo, Apache or Navajo Nation. At best, a pan-Indian perspective may be employed to substitute for more appropriate instructional preparation of teachers.
It is true that TFA was supported by some of our legislators, who unfortunately responded to the wining and dining that TFA sponsored on many occasions, and so called "education summits" which did not discuss important issues but served as a PR opportunity for TFA. Indeed, the funds also bought lobbyists who also wined and dined the legislators. I have to say again, in my mind there was no "competition" in the awarding of these funds/grants to TFA.

I also asked Mr. Morrison how many of the TFA corps members were Native American. He responded:

Our New Mexico corps is split into two geographical regions. We have a southern New Mexico region centered on Las Cruces with 23 corps members, and in that community 52 percent of corps members identify as people of color and more than half speak fluent Spanish. And then we have the Four Corners region where we have 95 corps members of which 6 are American Indian, which is not nearly enough.
We've developed formal partnerships with Native organizations like the National Indian Education Association and the American Indian Science and Engineering society to encourage more Native people to join our corps, and this year I hope 20% of our new corps members will identify as Native.

Dr. Bird commented:

Yes, 6, or 6%, is not enough; but also 95 is a large number of TFA "corps members." I notice he doesn't use the term teacher. We've heard horror stories i.e., TFA teachers attending family events and criticizing the greasy food i.e. frybread and mutton stew; and students walking out on a TFA teacher who later became one of the Sec. Designate's administrative team members. While young and energetic, they (TFA) are ill equipped and not knowledgeable about common protocol or the cultural background of the students they are hired to "teach," as well as lacking instructional skills. Plus, since not knowing the tribal ancestry of these six American Indian TFA teachers, we don't know if they are appropriate for the students or community. Seems the schools may be settling for "a warm body" in the classroom rather than a qualified teacher.

It's not enough to be "Native" but to be well educated, both in academic and socio-cultural knowledge. Our students need more than textbooks and a brief "Cliff Notes" version of teacher preparation from their teachers.

I followed up and asked Mr. Morrison why the money is coming from Indian Education Act:

Mr. Morrison responded:

The money is coming from Indian Education Act funds because it directly supports work in American Indian communities.

Dr. Bird commented:

The intent of the Indian Education Act was to address inequities in the education of American Indian students in the public schools of NM. Several inequities including lack of NA teachers and administrators are still of concern. Then a major priority for the tribes is the continuing maintenance of native languages. They did not want English Only in the education of their children as many of the leaders, parents and elders of these communities had survived systems of education that purposely sought to wipe out their languages and cultural ways. To quote the first two purposes of the IEA:
The purpose of the Indian Education Act [22-23A-1 to 22-23A-8 NMSA 1978] is to:
A. ensure equitable and culturally relevant learning environments, educational opportunities and culturally relevant instructional materials for American Indian students enrolled in public schools;
B. ensure maintenance of native languages;
In New Mexico we still have tribal communities that have values, ways of living, and knowledge that are of vital importance to our children for the survival of their people in the future. Educating the children in ways that are respectful and honors their cultural heritage is possible. It amazes me that supposedly educated people cannot understand these priorities.
The Indian Education Act in NM was legislated to address the inequities found in the ‬education of AI students, and funds were appropriated to support these efforts. However, legislators and state administrators have also determined how these funds are to be used. While the funds were relatively small, when compared to the rest of the state's education budget, it could have been built upon strategically, rather than pushed to incorporate "quick fixes" determined by the state's need to address NCLB, RTT, CCS, etc. on the basis of what it defined as "research based" methods. Often times the tribes were not, are not, participants in the decisions associated with these matters. Local schools/districts are prescribed performance standards and goals by the Public Education Department to make changes and then fall prey to the corporate "vultures" that sell the latest "silver bullet" to remedy their student's "lack of progress." I would call it the state's lack of progress in addressing their needs. I wonder if similar things are happening in other states where there are populations of American Indian students/communities?
I have referred to the whole "reform movement" that is happening in NM as colonialism in it's newest form, with the secretary designate and governor wanting to implement the templates from Florida and ALEC. I've stated this in comments to colleagues, but not in any public forum. While TFA found support in the previous governor's and secretary's administration, only a few Native American educators (including myself and staff) disagreed with their acceptance as a means to get teachers into the rural schools. The TFA process is like the missionary teachers who came to our lands, supported from the Department of War, which is where the Bureau of Indian Affairs was located, to educate the Indian children.

Dr. Sims added,

This phenomenon of visiting minority communities with such programs as TFA is happening in a variety of places. It just so happens however in NM that this is being done at the expense of the very resources that SHOULD be utilized to build the internal capacities of Native communities to develop their own teachers. TFA has found a source of low hanging fruit that is being exploited for their purposes and not native communities.

This video shares some of the concerns that have been raised related to Teach For America.

What do you think? Is funding Teach For America corps members a wise use of Indian Education Act funding?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.