Last Friday (May 3, 2013) Boston University’s seniors, sans me, gathered for the Senior Breakfast. Essentially it’s a morning of free food, friends, and finally hearing who the commencement speaker is. It was revealed that Wendy Kopp, Founder and Chair of Teach For America, would be this year’s speaker. It was also revealed that Morgan Freeman would be getting an honorary degree but not speaking much to the bafflement and disappointment of every single person on BU’s campus and the rest of God/Morgan’s domain. Now I have never met Ms. Kopp and I have no real opinion of her or TFA. I know about TFA and I have heard their recruitment plug but I cannot say I have ever taken the time to care enough to form an opinion. Don’t get me wrong, I love to talk about education reform, but TFA just doesn’t ever seem to come up.
Let’s get a little background on TFA first though. Wendy Kopp founded Teach for America in 1989 as an educational nonprofit organization after graduting from Princeton. According to their website, their mission is, “…growing the movement of leaders who work to ensure that kids growing up in poverty get an excellent education.” Recruits attended five weeks of crash-course classes to educate and prepare them for their work in low-income area classrooms for a minimum of the next two years. The recruits are then distributed all over the United States and paid a standard teacher’s salary during their time. The school districts in which the recruits teach also pay TFA a negotiated fee of anywhere between $2,000 and $5,000 per TFA teacher to make up for TFA’s overhead cost. Statistics on TFA’s effectiveness in student learning, member retention, and members who go on to work in education vary depending on which sources one looks at.
Upon learning that Ms. Kopp would be the BU 2013 Commencement speaker, my social media feeds exploded with both praise and disdain for the woman. Many were excited to hear from a woman who had led so many young graduates to fulfilling early years out of school. Others were quite blunt in their disdain for her organization and its effects on the schools, teachers, and, most importantly, students. Below we have an argument from both sides of the spectrum. Both of our debaters are BU seniors who will be listening to Ms. Kopp next week whether they like it or not. The first is by Maya Jimenez, the daughter of a teacher and opponent of TFA’s use in the classroom. The second piece is by Tino Bratbo who will be starting his TFA experience in Detroit this coming fall. Enjoy and be sure to comment below.
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Why do I think TFA is damaging our schools in need?
My mother has been a teacher since before I was born. No, not a teacher; an educator. When I was younger, I saw her work hard to get her masters. She attended night classes and sometimes had to drag me along because there wasn’t enough time to take me home. I praised the days free food was involved. Sometimes my mom felt so bad that she’d treat me to junk food after class. For the last couple of years, I’ve seen her work even harder to get her PhD and I couldn’t be prouder. She’s dedicated her entire life to bettering herself and is always excited to learn more about education to perfect her craft. TFA tells people that you don’t need to do any of these things to be a teacher. Heck, if Joe Blow can do it, I most certainly can! And let me tell you a little bit about myself: I love children but I’m impatient, sensitive, and I take everything personally. So no, I’m not qualified to be a teacher. Yet TFA tried to recruit me a couple of months ago. Let me just say that when they asked why I wasn’t interested, the email I sent back got no reply.
In schools where help is needed the most, it’s not OK to send in recent college grads who probably don’t have any idea what’s going on and maybe even hate kids. But they’re doing it because it looks great on a resume and it’s awesome community service work. I’m under the impression that only a very small percentage of people who’ve studied education actually get accepted to the TFA program. I’m assuming this isn’t because of a lack of applicants in the field, but because TFA is dedicated to diversifying their staff. More than anything, it is frustrating that they make their “teachers” come off as mighty heroes because they’re helping communities in need. The sentiment for the mission is there, it’s just the execution that is flawed. Most of the TFA applicants are students who are buying themselves two years before deciding to go into a completely unrelated field.
Teaching isn’t something that anybody can learn; it’s an art that must be cultivated and appreciated. Being a teacher is the most important, noble job in the world. I don’t think that just anybody is cut out for it.
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Three reasons TFA is a great and necessary organization/ a response to common criticism:
1. TFA teachers go where most teachers will not go. It’s no mystery that TFA exists. It wasn’t created to be a conversation piece, or to foster controversy. TFA was created because there is a real and severe lack of teachers in many under-funded school districts. That is an undeniable truth. I think that there is a general misunderstanding that we are taking jobs away from “qualified” teachers. This is untrue on two counts. TFA teachers go on job interviews with principals, and have to take certification and aptitude tests just like any other teacher. And we are qualified: we are all graduates of prestigious institutions, excelling in our fields. However, if there is someone more qualified for the job, whether a traditional teacher or otherwise, TFA doesn’t get preference.
2. TFA teachers are a true presence in the education community. There is another misunderstanding about TFA: the belief that most corps members use TFA as a stepping-stone to medical and law school. This is the case for some. But 60% of TFA Corps members remain directly involved in education, whether in the classroom or as administrators. Of the 40% that do not remain directly involved, over half work in non- profits, local government, and the like, as advocates for education reform. TFA alums even founded the acclaimed KIPP public charter school.
3. TFA is founded on real pedagogical principles, which are innovated to suit the real needs of the students we serve. TFA teachers do not get as much pedagogical training as those who received their undergraduate degree in Education. Granted. However, what TFA corps members are learning are real pedagogical techniques that are taken from established Developmental Psychology and Learning Theory principles, and have been tested and altered in 20 years of high-needs teaching. Besides which, the fact that we do not have Education degrees is not unusual. “Alternate Routes to Teacher Certification” has existed for years. Several of my high school teachers in suburban middle-class New Jersey did not have undergraduate Education degrees.
In the end, we all want the same thing. We want to alter the education system of America, and get students to believe that they truly can succeed and that they can break the cycle of poverty. Of course, intelligent teachers are necessary and TFA teachers are among the best educated in America. But what matters more than years of pedagogical training is consistent application of sound principles of teaching, and a willingness to fight and roll the massive stone up the incline until you reach the peak. Because we know that it is possible to succeed. Teachers, both traditional and TFA have succeeded in raising tests scores and college graduation rates. The solutions exist, and they are tangible – what we need are people who are willing to push and participate in the process. We need partners of all sorts, teachers and advocates from all fields and experiences to work together. It’s a cliché because it’s true: one group can’t solve this problem. Prejudices and professional pride have to be put aside for the larger goal: fixing and innovating the education system and helping students succeed.
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