What I Got (Mostly) Wrong About TFA

From a Skeptic and Former Corps Member

TFA Pumps Teachers Into Charter Schools

This is a common critique of Teach for America, and one that I definitely held when I began my time as a corps member. My logic was that public schools serve the majority of students and given a finite number of corps members and organizations trying to address educational inequality we should focus on doing the greatest good and making schools the places they are supposed to be.

I quickly had the pesky realization that while, yes, TFA does places corps members in charter schools this placement is usually pre-determined by corps members themselves. During the application process prospective corps members are asked to indicate if a charter placement is something they’d like to pursue in order to be allowed to interview with schools like Yes! Prep, KIPP, Uncommon network, etc. — most applicants do not select this option and, as a result, don’t end up at charter schools.

It would be more accurate to say that of those corps members who remain in the field, many end up switching from public to charter schools — which teachers claim are more mission-driven, treat educators more like professionals, and create better results (albeit for a select group of kids).

TFA Feeds A White-Savior Complex

TFA was started by a white woman, one who, in fact, called herself a “corporate tool”, when you add this to the fact that the organization recruited at primarily white institutions during its early years and only recently began to aggressively court minority members a white-savior complex in corps members seems inevitable. I can’t speak to the organizational culture of TFA at its beginning nor can I vouch for the mindsets held by every corps member from 1989 to present. While I was a corps member, however, there was a concerted effort to reduce the paternalism that had been associated with them (humility was recently adopted as an organizational value). Starting with our summer training (more on that later) corps members were gathered together and asked to unpack personal assumptions and cultural biases. Although many these conversations felt redundant to corps members of color and those who were used to frank conversations about race and class, they were genuinely eye opening for some of our more privileged counterparts who thought that racism in the States had been eliminated. Yes, there are still corps members who remain problematically perched on their pedestals, but they do not go unchallenged by their fellow corps members, the organization, or, most importantly, the communities they work in.

Corps Members Are Under-prepared

Most popular research indicated that it takes three years for a teacher in any circumstance to begin to become an expert. Like any other trade, there is a learning curve and the curve for teachers is only made steeper by having children’s educational futures in their hands, students that enter seriously below grade-level, and the pressure of standardized tests looming over them from the first day of school until late spring.

Teach for America purposefully picks people who are determined to lead their own classroom, contribute to a professional learning community and (most of the time) transplant themselves to a new city for its boot camp-style training. Is five weeks of training with a slew of other newbie-teachers sufficient? No, and no one should pretend that it is, but Institute as it’s known is just the beginning of a much more thorough spate of professional development from the organization over the course of their two-year commitment, their teacher certification program and placement school.

Finally, classrooms are increasingly marketplaces driven by trends in technology, emerging research, and policy all of which teachers (from the least experienced to veterans) are expected to keep up with. Following simple logic, if what informs educational standards is constantly evolving, then no one can ever be fully prepared.