Education Funding Opinion

Marie Levey-Pabst: Will the Teach For America Elite Save the Poor?

By Anthony Cody — February 15, 2011 4 min read
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Marie Levey Pabst offered a provocative comment to my recent post about Teach For America, so I asked her to expand her thoughts a bit more. This is the result. She is a 2004 TFA alum, who taught in Oakland, California, for three years before moving to the east coast. She is currently a high school English teacher in Boston Public Schools where she also spent a year as a literacy coach. Her blog is An English Teachin’ Vegan.

As a TFA alum myself (currently in my 7th year of teaching) I have seen some of the problems that Mr. Cody pointed out in his post “Does Teach for America Deliver Systemic Education Reform?” I especially agree with the point that TFA has fallen into the trap of viewing test scores as the measure of student and teacher success. I felt similar pressure to get my students to “perform” in 2004, and I hear it has only gotten worse. However, I feel the same pressure now from my principal, and I teach in a school with no TFA representation (but still in a low-income urban community). I think that this focus on test scores is a far more pervasive problem, as Mr. Cody has pointed out in the past.

However, I have heard from many critics that one of the main problems with TFA is that its teachers leave too soon. From my experience, TFA has never really been about creating teachers (although they have spun their message to get funding). TFA is about taking people who would, they assume, become leaders in some form in our country, and putting them in schools where they see education inequality first-hand, in the hopes that these same leaders will then go on to do something to improve educational equality with this important understanding. TFA has never been about creating teachers - that is often just a “lucky” byproduct. To be honest, I’m a bit tired of hearing how we have to get people in classrooms longer, when that would happen our country really decided that it valued teachers, and provided the pay, support, etc. that went along with it. As Mr. Cody said, TFA is a stopgap.

What I don’t hear people talk about as much, which bothers me, is the fact that students of color really become “training material” for mostly middle and upper class white “leaders.” This is a phenomenon that bothers me a lot as a TFA alum. As a white teacher teaching primarily students of color I face many of the dilemmas that other white teachers face (TFA or otherwise). Whether I like it or now I carry white privilege with me into my classroom, and because of that white privilege I have definitely made faulty assumptions about what my students think, believe or have access to.

However, the issue I want to discuss is this aspect of TFA that involves the “training” of future leaders. As mentioned before, TFA is really (as far as I understand) about sending “future leaders” into schools where they see the issues of education inequality first-hand. What this often results in is middle and upper class white folks going into schools with large populations of students of color, teaching for a few years (3 or 4 would be considered a long stay by some) and leaving to go onto positions of leadership in our society.

Many of my fellow TFAers work incredibly hard and create really important and long-lasting relationships with their students, and that is fantastic. But there is still a big problem, in my mind, when one of the best solutions we, as a country can come up with, to help close the education equity gap, is to send the elite and privileged to the “other side” to see how bad things are. TFA has received a lot of recognition and funding from our federal government, and other programs (such as the New York Teaching Fellows) seem to have been modeled after TFA’s recruitment strategy - get the best and the brightest our universities have to offer and put them in high-need schools.

However, many of the participants in TFA are, like me, beneficiaries of white privilege. And part of that white privilege involves the fact that we get to go into school, see how the “other” side lives, and then we get to leave. If this was happening in a few places it would still bother me, but what really makes me nervous is that our country seems to be saying (with funding and similar recruiting programs) “This is the way we can fix education - send in the (white) elite.”

Fundamentally, I believe that the glorification of TFA, and the “super teacher” myth in general, creates a distraction from the real problem. Our country has a huge gap between the lower and upper economic groups, and that gap is widening, not shrinking. If we as a country really believe that sending in privileged folks to see how the “other” side lives is part of the solution to our education problem I think that is denying collective ownership of the problem of inequality and it is also ignoring what the folks we are “helping” have to offer.

While I certainly don’t know the answers to this fundamental dilemma of inequality in education and society, I wonder what it would look like if TFA and other teacher programs recruited more heavily at smaller state universities in addition to (or maybe instead of) some of the more elite schools. I know that TFA has worked really, really hard in the past years to improve the diversity of its corp, but it seems as though TFA (and our country) still believe that the elite will solve our problem - and the reality is our elite is mostly white. Maybe we need to start recruiting tomorrow’s teachers in my 10th grade class now, offer them money for college if they promise to teach after they graduate for a number of years. If our teacher recruitment programs are going to have high turnover anyway let’s put people into classrooms who have lived “the other side,” not just folks who are stopping by for a visit.

What do you think of Marie Levey-Pabst’s perspective? Are students of poverty and of color served well by Teach For America-style programs? Or should we place our emphasis elsewhere?

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