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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Column: Teach For America

Teach For America (TFA) is a nonprofit organization that sends recently graduated college students to rural and urban areas of the U.S., where they serve as teachers for a contracted period of two years. It’s essentially a Peace Corps for the country.

The theory is that TFA will recruit young, energetic, idealistic graduates and send them to low-income school areas, where they can change the lives of the students there.

The difference between TFA and most other teaching programs is that TFA is incredibly selective. They have an extensive hiring process that includes an online two-hour long activity, two interviews and a teaching demonstration. All these hurdles combine to become a barrier with which TFA maintains its selectivity by accepting approximately 12 to 15 percent of applicants. Not only that, but they screen their applicants for favorable qualities, weighing heavily towards leadership experience and excellence.

After the application process, the organization takes these graduates, some of the best and brightest of their class, and has them participate in a five-week crash course in teaching during the summer. After this, they are then put into an urban or rural school where they teach for two years.

So what’s not to like about this? TFA is taking some of the smartest and most motivated people and putting them in places where they are needed most: schools in low-income areas with low achievement and high dropout rates.

The problem with this is that it undermines many aspects of the teaching profession.

The TFA contract is for two years, after which the TFA member can move to another career using TFA as a powerful resume builder. The two-year mark is also conveniently before the teacher credential requirements kick in, which motivates a person to actually pursue a teaching career.

Also, teaching is a profession that requires experience. Teachers already following the primary path to teaching enter classrooms underprepared – especially in low-income areas. Putting a person with five weeks of training into a classroom does the children and the teaching profession as a whole, a serious disservice.

The students in the classroom will be taught by a person with five weeks of training in being a teacher. That’s five weeks the teacher has to be prepared for a classroom full of children that don’t want to be taught. And is two years enough time to make a truly positive effect on a life, when you probably need two years just to adjust to the career?

Five weeks of training is not long at all, for a career that people improve and grow in for their entire lives, and having such a short program is actually much more harm than good. Having these prospective teachers training for five weeks says to the public as a whole that an intelligent, capable person can learn the teaching career in a very short time.

This creates an image of teaching as something very simple and easy to do; the sort of thing that anybody can do. With this sort of image, the average undergraduate will look at the career and think to themselves, “who would want to become a teacher? The pay isn’t that great, and it’s very easy to be a teacher, which means it’s not very prestigious.”

Not only that, but — and this is especially true during recessions — frequently, schools will lay off higher-paid, experienced teachers in favor of TFA members who are paid entry-level salaries, leaving very little continuity and overall experience in schools.

In fact, by sending its members almost exclusively to low-income areas, TFA actually exacerbates the education system’s problems by putting inexperienced teachers into the places that most need experienced ones, while keeping the schools from training new teachers that will stay in the field for many years. A more cynical person might even think this to be an intentional side effect.

Teach For America’s stated goal is to give impoverished children an excellent education. While this is a noble goal, the way they go about doing this is not actually effective.

Is this solvable? Maybe, but not without changing TFA’s continuity aspect. Because of the fast rotation of TFA members, TFA doesn’t have an incentive, aside from principles, to train their members for extensive periods of time that will actually prepare them for teaching. If any overarching changes are to be made to the organization, it will have to begin there.

Discuss TFA with DERRICK LEU at derleu@ucdavis.edu.

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