Opinion | Teach for America not solving education crisis
Published: Monday, February 18, 2013
Updated: Monday, February 18, 2013 23:02
At the end of my last column, I briefly touched on the importance of moving past entitlement and working on helping others and improving our own characters by citing people joining organizations such as Teach for America.
I was unsure about including that particular group though, as I have some qualms about the program but had yet to be able to figure out what they were.
Teach for America is a non-profit organization that serves to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting recent college graduates to serve for at least two years in underprivileged communities across the United States.
That mission, on the surface, does not sound like such a bad idea at all. In fact, it seems like an exact solution needed for the larger problem with education that we are facing in the U.S. What could be wrong with that?
Recently though, the nagging feelings I had about Teach for America, or TFA, were finally brought to the surface through a like-minded acquaintance highlighting one of the exact problems I had been struggling to realize myself. Not to take a shot at TFA, as I have some great, talented friends who have or are about to go through the program themselves, but there are some deep flaws that go unaddressed.
The choice of educators who are hardly qualified for the task at hand, the impermanence of these educators in the communities that they serve and the fact that it is merely a temporary band-aid for a much larger dilemma are some of the faults to be found.
While the program does have required qualifications and certain expectations of its applicants and puts them through several rounds of interviews, it is not the achievements or character of TFA candidates that I am at odds with, but their experience in this particular situation.
If you have ever had a teacher who through any extraordinary efforts was able to truly inspire you, there is a very good chance they had years of teaching experience under their belt. Education was something they most likely wanted to do: they went to school for it or studied the subject which they taught and saw teaching as a long-term occupation for themselves.
TFA members undergo a five-week crash course in “how to become a teacher,” and some may have had previous experience as a counselor or some similar position at a summer camp or program.
These experiences alone do not make a teacher who can undo the crisis we are witnessing in today’s education system. Speaking as someone who is not going into education but who is concerned with the management of classrooms in underprivileged areas, this training cheapens the profession of teaching as a whole.
While TFA members still have to interview for teaching positions in their assigned city, this does not undermine the fact that they only initially sign on to stay for two years.
A 2008 Harvard doctoral thesis by Morgaen Donaldson stated that 61 percent of members stay beyond the first required two years, a figure also cited in a TFA press release. However, what the press release doesn’t cover but the thesis went on to state is that few members even remain in the same profession of teaching after four years.
University of Texas professor Julian Vasquez Heilig conducted a study in 2010 that found 85 percent of TFA teachers left after four years in the New York City schools.
It doesn’t help that these members, who decide to commit to a greater service (or at the very least, the idea of a greater service), leave or rarely stay more than an additional two years after their original contract length.
Imagine how fast two years of your elementary, middle or even high school education went by. How can someone who will be replaced within a relatively short period of time expect to make an impact?
In order to really help change the way classrooms are run, students succeed and to become more than an extra perk on someone’s résumé, TFA should extend the time period a member is required to serve.
The amount of “commitment” given to the community and to this service becomes nothing more than an résumé builder for corps member’s future ambitions, and in an economy where jobs are scarce for college graduates, non-profit organizations that seemingly give back to the community look extremely promising for after college plans.
TFA seems to be a program that will have more of an impact on the members and their views of the communities they serve, as opposed to the students they will be teaching.
I don’t disagree with the fact that something needs to be done for the future of education, and that in some situations and cities temporary solutions are found through TFA members who are used to fill empty teacher positions in schools where there are no teachers.
But that is all TFA currently is—a temporary solution, nothing more than a band-aid that merely solves a much larger, recurring problem in need of a larger solution.