College panel debates pros and cons of TFA

Students from Harvard University recently asked their President Drew G. Faust to sever Harvard’s ties with Teach for America (TFA) unless TFA agreed to respond to the students’ demands for major changes. According to the Harvard Crimson article published on Sept. 28th, the students want TFA to send teachers only to areas that are experiencing a teacher shortage, to provide more education and training for corps members and to sever their relationship with “corporations the students think threaten teachers unions such as Exxon Mobil and JPMorgan Chase.”

Harvard was one of the stops on the “TFA Truth Tour” that the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) conducted in an effort “to expose the truth about TFA: not only does it fail to prepare teachers for the classroom, but it is systematically pushing to replace our system of community public education and with an alternative largely controlled by profit-seeking corporations,” according to the USAS website.

Though Colby students are not protesting TFA, the Students for Education Reform (SFER) and TFA Colby College co-sponsored a panel discussion on October 22nd to encourage dialogue about the various positive and negative aspects of TFA. According to Dylan Alles ’16, an SFER co-leader and organizer for the event, this conversation is particularly relevant to students on the Hill because  “TFA has been among the most prevalent organizations employing Colby students post-graduation.”

Speakers on the panel included Daniel Johnson, a Recruitment Manager for TFA, Joseph Whitfield ’15, who will start his two year contract with the corps in the summer of 2015, and Alles. Assistant Professor of Government Laura Seay, who was expected to provide a more critical perspective on TFA, was unable to attend at the last minute.

The event was an open forum for audience members to ask questions and consider TFA’s effectiveness. Several of those questions fell in line with the Harvard USAS students’ assertions regarding the lack of training corps members receive (only five weeks) before they enter the classroom to teach alone.

Whitfield attended a Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) public charter school in rural Arkansas. “97 to 98 percent of my teachers were [part of] TFA,” he said. Whitfield added that he felt his experience in the classroom with TFA teachers was extremely positive and was “a model” of what he believes TFA is meant to be. The school at which Johnson spent his two years in the corps was also a KIPP school, and Alles voiced her concern that Whitfield and Johnson’s positive experiences with the effectiveness of TFA and the support it offers its teachers may be unique to the KIPP program.

In response to the amount of training that corps members receive, Johnson said, “five weeks is certainly not enough to be a great teacher, [even] two years is certainly not enough to be a great teacher, with 

out a doubt.” Johnson, who taught for two years in the corps before becoming a recruitment manager, explained that teachers receive tremendous amounts of support inside and outside of the classroom throughout their two years. He said that principals sit in on classrooms and give feedback, and Whitfield explained that site directors (formally known as Managers of Teacher Leadership Development) make their rounds throughout schools, offering help and support to TFA teachers.

Stefanie Solar ’11 reflected in a message on the preparation she received before she started teaching as part of TFA. She said that she was “absolutely not” prepared to teach after a summer of training, “but that’s not necessarily a reflection of TFA’s lack of structure or training– because surviving TFA summer institute is a whole new level of success and it provides a pretty strong crash course on what’s ahead.”

2014 graduates Tom Letourneau and Cole Yaverbaum are both currently in the corps and commented on their experiences with TFA. Yaverbaum expressed difficulty in asserting whether TFA continues to support her throughout the school year: “I feel extremely supported in my school, but I also happen to work in a really supportive network (Success Academy). I know that TFA is there if I do need support, and they do reach out to give it, but I don’t always feel in need as much because I feel so supported by the school where I work. I also think this varies region to region.” Letourneau’s experience with TFA support was more definitive: “I definitely feel like TFA has supported me nonstop.”

Though Seay was unable to attend the panel discussion, she summarized her critiques of TFA via email. “My concerns with TFA relate to the accuracy of its claims about the causes of school failure, the ethics of having the least-trained teach the most vulnerable students, and the general notion that TFA’s approach is the best solution for the problems with public education in our country.”

Seay elaborated, saying, “Essentially, existing teachers and administrators in our country’s weakest schools are blamed for their students’ failures…. TFA takes young people (again, who are bright and committed), gives them very limited training (the quality of which varies significantly from site-to-site) and puts them in front of the most vulnerable students just a few weeks later….To provide the students who need the best teachers with teachers who are so poorly trained—especially when the vast majority of those teachers have no commitment to stay in the profession long enough to significantly improve at their jobs—strikes me as highly unethical.”

Johnson addressed this very issue of continued participation within the education field at the panel discussion. “The most common career post the two years is education,” he said, and “about 80 percent will teach for at least a third year.” Though the three TFA participants quoted here are by no means a representative of all Colby graduates or corps participants,  Solar works for “a non-profit that promotes school choice and empowers families to engage in the marketplace for schools” while Yaverbaum and Letourneau both intend to continue teaching when they leave the corps.

Professor and Director of Education Mark Tappan responded via email to the recent conversations about TFA. “I am definitely ambivalent about TFA, and I am sympathetic to all of the recent critiques,” he said. “I also do not think that TFA is, or ever was, a systemic or structural approach to reforming or improving public schools, and addressing educational inequities in the US.”

Despite its flaws, Tappan highlighted some of the things he believes are positive aspects of the program. “TFA is, however, a very good way for graduates from Colby and elsewhere, who are committed to teaching, to get a job right out of college, to work very very hard, and to get started on what can be a very rewarding and productive career in education.” He continued, “For better or worse (and I guess I think it’s been for the better) TFA has made teaching appealing (‘sexy’) for graduates of elite colleges and universities. We need to make it a genuine career choice for more graduates, rather than just a two-year gig, but TFA has had a positive impact, for sure.”

In response to critiques of TFA, Johnson summarized that “In an ideal world, the classrooms that need teachers the most… would [have] veteran teachers. Unfortunately, that is actually not the reality of the education landscape in the United States, and that is why [TFA] exists….It is a social justice organization focused specifically on education. It is one organization working to close the gap of achievement.”

TFA has not made the changes that the Harvard students requested, many of which are part of the dialogue in which the Colby community has been engaging. Considering the opposing and varying opinions at Colby and students’ continued interested in TFA, conversation about education reform and TFA’s role in it are certain to continue on the Hill.

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