Why We Need To Reform Teach For America

February 9, 2011  |  

by Joe R. Rogers, Jr.

This Friday, February 11th, Teach For America (TFA) will kick off its 20th Anniversary Summit in Washington, D.C. Thousands of TFA teachers, alumni and supporters from across the country will converge on our nation’s capitol for three days of celebrating, networking and hearing CEO and Founder Wendy Kopp’s vision for this much-celebrated organization’s future. At this auspicious moment, low-income communities of color and allies in the movement for educational equity are joining in a petition addressed to Ms. Kopp demanding that she announce the long overdue reform of her teacher preparation program.

Currently, TFA systematically assigns brand new teachers with only five weeks of summer school training to teach Black and Latino children in low-income communities. In addition, few TFA teachers remain in the classroom beyond TFA’s two-year requirement, depriving our children of experienced educators. These are bold injustices in a perpetually unfair education system that denies our children the critical resources they deserve and need to reach their full potential. The status quo educational inequity that assigns well-prepared teachers to middle class and wealthy White children and inadequately prepared teachers to our children must end.

Specifically, we call upon Teach for America to:

1. Adopt a 12-14 month, clinically based teacher preparation model (which might begin with their current five-week summer preparation program) and require that all prospective TFA teachers commit to teach for a minimum of four years (including the full year of preparation) in the district in which they were prepared

2. Use the $50 million of our federal tax dollars they received in 2010 to plan and implement the evolution of the five-week model to a yearlong model

3. Invest in research and development geared towards recruiting academically accomplished undergraduates and mid-career professionals, including increased percentages of Black and Latino candidates, who will make a minimum four-year commitment to serve in the districts in which they are prepared

4. Immediately stop exporting its current training model to low-income communities in developing nations through TFA spin-off Teach For All. Children in those communities are just as valuable and worthy of well-prepared teachers as our children.

Why is this important? 

Studies show that, on average, it takes TFA teachers at least two years to catch up to their traditionally certified peers. However, just as they are hitting their stride, most TFA teachers leave the classroom. The oft-cited statistic that two-thirds of TFA alumni are working in other positions in or related to education is little consolation. Certainly, we need education advocates in a range of professions, and advocates with classroom experience offer an indispensable (though often disregarded) perspective. But every education advocate’s agenda should include well-prepared, experienced, highly effective teachers so more of our children are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to become the primary advocates for their own schools and communities.

Clearly, the challenge of preparing teachers to serve low-income communities of color well is not TFA’s alone. Many other institutions, such as The New Teacher Project/Teaching Fellows and myriad university-based programs, would better serve our children by adopting a rigorous, extended clinical preparation model offering intensive ongoing support. (The Urban Teacher Residency model of preparation, now seeded in cities across the nation, provides a promising alternative that TFA should consider adopting or adapting.)

But Teach for America, an organization that has received hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, that seeks to portray itself as the vanguard of educational equity and civil rights in low-income communities and communities of color, and that exclusively targets our communities, bears a heightened obligation to offer our children only the highest quality educational services.

TFA’s emphasis on recruiting teachers who have themselves succeeded in the classroom as students is commendable. Our children deserve teachers with strong academic skills, and certainly there are teachers working in our schools whose academic skills (and ability to impart those skills) are lacking. But if cultivating and recruiting academically accomplished new teachers who understand the value of a rigorous, extended clinical preparation program and a commitment to teach more than two years presents a major challenge, let us not lower the bar for preparation, but instead focus our resources and energy on more equitable incentives and supports such as free or heavily subsidized preparation programs, career ladders and improved working conditions.
Our children will no longer be denied the educational resources they need to reach their full potential. Please sign our petition and help send a strong message to Wendy Kopp that the status quo of educational inequity has no place in our schools.

Joe Rogers, Jr. is a New York City-based education organizer, advocate and policy analyst focused on educational equity.  He launched Communities For Well-Prepared Teachers, a grassroots movement, in February 2011 to call attention to the systematic assignment of unprepared and inexperienced teachers to low-income communities of color.

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