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Why Not Teach For America

not teachforamericaWell, it’s about that time of year — when seniors start frantically applying for fellowships and internships and jobs, the socially conscious among them aching for a career that will allow them to change the world, others looking for something they can put on their application for law school. Then comes along the recruiting powerhouse of Teach for America, to assure college students that yes, you can in fact change the world AND have an in to law school (or business school, or political office).

Progressive students of America who care about social justice: I know you care deeply about education. I know you see yourself as a change agent, fighting injustice. I know you have organized for progressive causes on campus and in your community; you’ve done civic engagement, you care about the DREAM Act, you are disgusted by the achievement gap, you think we are cheating low-income students, students of color, and differently-abled students in our current education system. I agree with you. But please, please, do NOT do Teach for America.

Consider that teachers are being laid off left and right with extreme cuts to education funding, teachers who have dedicated their lives and careers to their students. When you take a job as a Teach for America corps member, the school pays much less for you (a starting teacher’s salary) than an experienced teacher with a Master’s Degree. Do you think a cash-strapped district is more likely to hire you, looking for a few gap years before law school, or your brother or sister in the struggle who has been teaching with a graduate degree for ten years? Good thing that anti-union laws have been advocated in state after state, making it easier for school districts to save money by laying off experienced teachers and hiring new recruits every two years.

Consider that Teach for America advocates for a “No Excuses” approach to the classroom – which asserts that the world outside of your classroom should have no effect on student performance. The crux of student achievement is solely the fault and responsibility of the teacher – there is no need to break down the social systems (racism, sexism, capitalism) that keep communities in poverty, there is no need to acknowledge the personal struggles a student might be going through. So – my student who is being harassed for being gay, my student has missed school because his depression is so intense he can’t get out of bed, my student whose mother is dying from cancer, my student who stays at school until 6 PM and commutes an hour and a half each way, my student who has been in three foster homes in the past year, my student who just immigrated with his family from Mexico the week before school started – they should all get zeros on missing assignments, detentions for falling asleep in class, should be told that they should work harder, should not be allowed adjustments or extensions, should be allowed to fail. And the teacher? If your students can’t succeed in that environment? You are the sole reason for that failure. For students who have been studying the impacts of social systems, you should see this line of thought as ridiculous and oppressive.

Consider that Teach for America serves as a pipeline for organizations like Leadership for Educational Equity (the sister organization of TFA that runs its legislative agenda), Students First, Stand for Children, and Students for Education Reform, as well as scores of charter schools across the country. These organizations support the privatization of public schools, the de-unionization of teachers, the emphasis of standardized tests over authentic instruction, and supporting anti-teacher policies like tenure reform and merit pay. These policies make billions of dollars for Education Management Organizations and for test and textbook publishers like Pearson — while public education funding continues to be cut. And It’s not just the policies and organizations that Teach for America supports, but where these policies have originated: from the same organization that has pushed the privatization of prisons and racist immigration bills like SB1070, none other than our favorite folks at ALEC. ALEC’s legislative agenda for education is eerily similar to the bills being supported by TFA’s partners — school vouchers, parent trigger laws, charter school privatization and expansion, teacher tenure reform, and anti-union reforms. It is hypocritical for us to advocate against racist policies like SB1070, to speak out against the privatization of prisons and healthcare, and then to support organizations that want to privatize public education. Do you trust that ALEC’s education policy is truly looking out for at risk students? Do you want to be a part of their agenda?

So. College seniors. I know you care about students, I know you care about your community. If you really want to be a teacher, know what you’re getting into. Commit to being a life-long educator. Commit to staying in the teaching field for more than the required two years – make that a part of your plan. Commit to standing against the legislative agenda of “education reform” and speaking out about their connections to the far-right wing. And if you can’t commit to that, don’t cut corners. If you answer the question of “Why do you want to do Teach for America?” with, “I want to teach for a while before grad school,” or “I want to help low-income youth,” or “I’m interested in education” – really, anything other than “I want to be a teacher,” you are doing more harm than good. There are so many ways you can affect change for students and communities without buying into Teach for America.

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Robin Lane is a native of St. Louis and a recent transplant to Austin, TX. She is a proud graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, with a degree in Sociology and Women’s Studies. Currently, Robin teaches middle school English, and is passionate about bringing the wonder of reading and the joy of writing to her students. Robin has her heart in several social justice projects, including serving on the board of Empower Art, a group that conducts art workshops for young women, and volunteering with the Workers Defense Project’s youth program. She is also involved in Occupy AISD, a grassroots group of parents and educators organizing around issues of charter school expansion, public school privatization, and standardized testing. Robin believes in the good of people, in optimism, in honesty and in love and carries these words with her into the classroom: as Audrey Hepburn said, “People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone.” Her work has appeared in TeenINK Magazine and the Coe Review, as well as on the stage of the Red-Eye Theatre Project.

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About robinclane

Robin is an educator, writer, and activist living in Austin, TX. You can follow her on Twitter @robinclane or via her personal blog (unaruptura.wordpress.com).

Discussion

8 thoughts on “Why Not Teach For America

  1. Robin,

    We’re starting an organization looking to democratize and decentralize learning in St. Louis. You can find our site here: thedisruptiondepartment.org. We’re struggling to find a voice for direct participation from students and teachers in grassroots learning efforts. I’d love to talk with you about our making projects. My email is gregory@thedisruptiondepartment.org.

    Look forward to chatting.

    Posted by mrsenorhill | December 13, 2012, 10:56 pm
  2. I wouldn’t call “tenure reform and merit pay” anti-teacher, but rather pro-student. Yes, there are negative effects. Yes, this might put an emphasis on standardized-test-based education. But a system where there’s no focus on merit for pay? What other job in the world utilizes that system, to a point where merit doesn’t play even a small part? I appreciate and acknowledge all of those other conditions going on in a student’s life, so no I don’t think merit should be the only factor. But it needs to be one. And tenure…we need a better system for removing bad teachers. I don’t know what it is, but reform is absolutely necessary.

    I liken this to tennis. If you hit the ball in the net, it takes one correction of technique to hit the ball over the net and out of the court, and one more to rein the ball back into the court. But if you start with hitting the ball out, then it only takes one shot to hit it in. Merit-based pay and reforming teacher tenure isn’t going to be the solution, but it’s one step closer. My two cents.

    Otherwise, great points!

    Posted by Anonymous | December 15, 2012, 5:22 pm
    • It’s unclear what problem you’re hoping to solve with merit pay and what makes you think it’s a viable solution. Merit pay is the solution that never works (numerous studies dating back more than 50 years prove this over and over – for teaching and other professions) and yet fails to die. To say that other professions use merit pay is both false and also not a reason for adopting it. Many professions do not use it and just because some do, is not reason by itself to adopt it for teaching. Check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc.

      Similarly, the research on tenure or seniority protections shows these are only weakly related to student success, and the slight weak correlation favors stronger protections. To suggest that it’s a major issue holding back our schools is simply hyperbole. And, while there are certainly areas for improvement, there’s no basis to suggestion abolishing tenure or seniority protections and even less to get rid of collective bargaining or other “reforms” that are thinly veiled attempts at union busting.

      Posted by Demian | December 17, 2012, 12:37 am
  3. Robin, Thank you for this excellent post! I am a TFA alum who’s been intending to write something like this. Thank you for writing such a thorough while clear and succinct piece for me to share! I will be forwarding it far and wide. Had I read this when I was a college senior, I never would have joined.

    Posted by Hannah | December 20, 2012, 2:30 pm
  4. Robin – I am currently in the interview process to join Teach for America. I hear everything you are saying but could you help me out… Could you provide me with sources for your statements – especially your comparison of TFA to ALEC. As I search for the right place to launch my career I want to make sure I have as much information as possible – thank you for the article – I am trying to research both sides of the argument. Another question – your degrees are in sociology and w omens studies but you teach English – do you have teaching degree or how did you get your certification? What alternatives exist beyond TFA and the traditional degrees – mine is in social work.
    Best – Jennifer

    Posted by jenmarie | December 29, 2012, 8:18 pm
    • Hi, Jennifer — Thanks for your comment. Here’s a good one-pager on ALEC’s connection with ed reform: http://alecexposed.org/w/images/7/7b/ALEC_on_Education_2.pdf I

      And here’s another good article about the debate over TFA: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2012/04/deepening_the_debate_over_teac.html

      As for your other questions, I was certified to teach through a program run by The New Teacher Project — which, like Hannah, if I had known more info about, I never would have joined.

      Lots of State DOEs have alternative certification programs for students that don’t require a Master’s Degree, so I would encourage you to explore that as an option. I would also say that getting your Master’s in Teaching (there are lots of one-year programs that give you an MAT vs. a Master’s in Education – MEd) is certainly worth it in the long run if you’re planning on teaching for a long time — I wish I would have done that instead of the program I did.

      Posted by Robin | December 31, 2012, 6:37 pm
  5. Hello Robin! I am really glad to see someone writing this. I have a lot of suspicion of Teach for America because it is designed to appeal to competitive, elitist instincts; in fact was founded on the premise that the way to get “top college students” to teach in schools was to make TFA very selective. But your point about displacing teachers is very well made, and I see it as connected to the attitude that TFA runs on.

    I am curious to ask for a similar analysis of the program I did, a one-year program called City Year. It was the biggest Americorps program when I did it, and probably still is. Rather than displace teachers, they send a team of 8 young people to a school to mentor kids, tutor, run afterschool programs: in other words, engage more emotionally with kids we connect to as best we could; and they were charging $10k/year for a team at the time, but the program makes changes quickly. I think it was very “change the world” idealistic in advertising, but it did make strong connections, do anti-oppression training, and put its program members in a position to do a lot better afterwards. In my case learning that I needed to drop my arrogance and begin learning a lot while acting; in the cases of fellow corps members, support, empowerment, and also learning.

    So that’s how it might be part of the solution. But if you’ve heard of the program, I would like to know how it also might be part of the problem.

    Posted by nonviolentrage | January 13, 2013, 2:37 pm

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  1. Pingback: An Urgent Message to current and future Teach for America recruits « inspirEDucation - July 6, 2013

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