As a Teach For America corps member, I taught up to 32 kindergartners, without recess, in a rat-infested South Bronx basement. My school’s staff was cracking under intense scrutiny, because fewer than 30 percent of our students were on grade level. With a 60 percent staff-turnover rate and a majority of new teachers on an emergency credential, the experienced, expert teacher my students deserved was not waiting in line for my job.
I did the best I could. I worked tireless hours. I built a respectful classroom community and strong relationships with families. Using culturally relevant pedagogy, I worked to ensure that my students were on a 1st grade reading level at the end of the year.
Leaving after my two-year TFA commitment was difficult, but necessary for my mental and physical health. I had developed an ulcer and frequent headaches—and then, there was the crying. I cried more than my students—and I taught 5-year-olds. Sure, some of the crying came from the typical beginning-teacher struggles. But a lot of it stemmed from frustrating, failed fights to get services students legally deserved, as well as the combative environment that pitted teachers and administrators against one another and the illogical, maddening restraints of mandated curricula.
I cried, also, with the weight of realizing that there was nothing I could do that would change the ways our society miserably fails children in poverty. There were many ways in which teaching was an amazing, fulfilling experience, but facing the broader realities about education and social oppression in America was devastating.
Yet Teach For America made it impossible for me to justify hopelessness. My first year, I cursed TFA for throwing me to the sharks under the false pretense that I could make a difference. But my commitment to educational change probably would not have existed without the tumult, and without TFA’s constant reminders that I had to work toward educational transformation. The e-mails telling me about alumni projects and opportunities for involvement, the recruiting calls from TFA or charter school networks, and the ways the training instilled a sense of urgency for bettering our society were constant reminders of a moral imperative.
So I sought out action-oriented involvement that aligned with my ideals. I was ready to jump at any opportunity to engage progressively in an immediate way. I found many isolated examples of educators engaged in inspiring work, but I was not as successful at locating larger networks with which I could associate.
As a progressive who is thoughtful about where my money goes and my food comes from, I surprised myself when I considered working for a charter school network. I did not believe charter schooling or privatization was a sustainable solution for education. But I taught in a regular public school that was horribly failing its students, families, and community. When I visited a Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, school in the neighborhood, I couldn’t help wishing my students were part of this drastically improved alternative.
But I ended up pursuing a Ph.D. in teacher education. Now, despite the good intentions behind this choice, I sometimes wonder whether it is the most powerful way for me to contribute. Like many TFA alumni, I’m still searching for a path to more active advocacy for public education.
Unfortunately, others in the field often seem to define me by my training program. It’s not that simple. As a progressive Teach For America alum, I’m not an anomaly. To truly mobilize around the fight for public education, we must examine our presumptions about TFA and other reform-minded movements. This is the only way we can harness the energy of everyone committed to the best interests of children. After all, TFA is producing many alumni with a passion for education, whether they teach for a career or not.
As most in the field know, TFA is a two-year program that recruits recent college graduates to teach in urban and rural communities. It currently supports 7,000 corps members in 35 communities, and has 17,000 alumni. As urban districts experience dramatic shifts, many school reform efforts there are being spearheaded and staffed by Teach For America alumni. A 2008 survey conducted by the organization reported that 63 percent of its alumni work in an education-related field. Of those, 49 percent are K-12 teachers, 357 serve as school principals, and 30 are superintendents and leaders of districts or charter networks.
Alumni have founded six charter school networks, as well as the New Teacher Project. They include such nationally prominent figures as Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, and Michael Feinberg and David Levin, the founders of KIPP charter schools. TFA hopes by the coming year to have 800 school leaders among its alumni and 100 elected officials playing a role in the field. Although 800 school leaders may seem inconsequential among some 250,000 U.S. school administrators, TFA alumni filling these roles are concentrated in urban and rural areas, making their impact more palpable in areas such as New Orleans, Washington, and New York City. In sum, 19 years after its inception, evidence of the organization’s impact is growing.
All sides have weighed in on the debate over TFA’s role in education. The organization has garnered glowing media attention and occasioned scathing critiques from many progressives and some leading educators. It is also frequently pointed to as evidence to support an agenda for deregulating teacher education. But, as with most new ideas reduced to sound bites, none of these authentically captures the organization, nor is any one entirely false.
Critics condemn the program’s elitism, its focus on accountability, and its business structure. Such criticisms may be warranted, but a number of positive elements of the program are rarely mentioned in dogmatic characterizations. First, TFA looks significantly different from what it did early on, when many of the most critical studies were published. Research has not focused on analyzing the organization, but has attempted to isolate teacher effectiveness, producing mixed results.
TFA training content has changed drastically over the years, and the program has increased support for novice teachers. Although the curricular sessions are centered on attaining “measurable goals,” such as moving 80 percent of students two grade levels on standardized tests, corps members are taught to employ strategies rooted in culturally relevant pedagogy to build an effective learning community. Home visits and meaningful participation in the community are strongly encouraged. Further, the TFA training institute now emphasizes frequent discussions and self-reflection about identity, power, race, class, and community. The diversity of the corps made these sessions some of the most authentic, heterogeneous discussions I’ve engaged in around identity.
While there is certainly homogeneity in terms of corps members’ record of leadership and high academic achievement, the assumption that TFA is predominantly upper- or middle-class whites is no longer true, with 30 percent of the corps’ membership people of color, and 25 percent Pell Grant recipients.
My point is not to argue that such changes have made TFA a paragon of good policy, but to refute the notion that any education issue can be categorized simply as black or white. TFA is structured to instill a commitment to educational change, and many of its alums have taken up that charge. Rather than debating the merits and the politics of the program, let’s start thinking about what it would mean to mobilize passionate people in the field, TFA members included, around the fight for public education. We all need to move forward together.
A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Teaching for America