From the Issue: Lies My Teacher Told Me
Written by Bwog Staff
The final, May, issue of The Blue and White is on campus just in time for finals. Inside is an interview with Greta Gerwig, BC ’06; the final installment of a series on undergraduate student debt at Columbia; as well as a look at ROTC, years after the controversy. Issues are in Butler and Lerner; PDFs are online. Here, senior editor Will Holt, CC ’15, explains what you should know before you teach for America.
When Wendy Kopp first pitched the concept of Teach For America as part of her student thesis at Princeton in 1989, her advisor told her that she was “quite evidently deranged.” Nevertheless, the organization got its start just one year later with a dedicated charter corps of 500 recruits.
Kopp’s original vision of hundreds of elite college graduates teaching at some of the nation’s neediest schools may have once seemed the stuff of fantasy, but TFA has since trained over 30,000 teachers. 10,000 recruits were sent out to schools across the country last fall alone, and the nonprofit now boasts over $300 million in assets. In 2012, Fortune magazine named TFA one of the 100 best organizations to work for in the United States.
But many critics question TFA’s efficacy as well as the organization’s commitment to its founding ideals; some argue that many of TFA’s policies threaten to damage the schools they set out to save. For instance, the organization currently sends a third of its recruits to charter schools. Charters, though publicly funded, are generally endowed with more enviable budgets, larger donor bases, and better resources than their district school peers.
Moreover, recruits are often considered poorly trained. Many go on the job with fewer than 50 hours of teaching experience. These new graduates, without formal teaching degrees, are frequently sent to districts where budgetary constraints have led to layoffs of long-term professionals. Because TFA recruits are relatively inexpensive hires, veteran teachers have lost their jobs to corps members.
Many of TFA’s critics are disillusioned alumni. Gary Rubinstein, a 1991 alumnus of the Houston corps and a teacher of mathematics at New York’s Stuyvesant High School, has been one of TFA’s most vocal dissenters.
“I was pretty enthusiastic about what me and my friends did then,” he told me about his time in TFA. “My only real complaint was that Teach For America was often exaggerating their success. They were sugarcoating the truth for new recruits, so that those recruits are not well prepared to enter the classroom.”
The TFA commitment usually lasts two years; Rubinstein stayed in the Houston corps for four. Despite a few initial reservations, his disillusionment with the organization didn’t truly set in until recently. “Back then, it was bad for the corps members because they’d be so stressed out,” he explained. “And it was bad for the kids they were teaching, but not so bad that it became a national issue.”
Despite such criticisms, TFA continues to have considerable appeal at elite universities like Columbia. According to TFA’s website, over five percent of the senior class at more than 130 colleges and universities across the country applied to the organization in 2012. Harvard, generally one of the top contributors of TFA recruits, had 18 percent of its seniors submit applications last year.
Alex Donovan, TFA’s campus recruiter at Columbia and Barnard, explained that while Columbia’s statistics do not compete with Harvard’s, the University has consistently been a top 10 contributor among medium-sized universities.
“We can’t give particular numbers about applications,” said Donovan, “but we just had 37 students who accepted their offers. I think the numbers have been pretty consistent for the last few years, around 30 corps members each year from Columbia.
“It may be my own bias,” he reflected, “but I think Columbia does a better job than many schools of creating people who are aware of this issue. Given the proximity to Harlem and the fact that it is the most diverse Ivy, people here understand this issue and understand the gravity of it, so I do think we get a lot of interest on that level.”
After graduating from George Washington University in 2009, Donovan spent three years in the TFA corps. He taught sixth grade math for two years in Houston, then spent another year teaching at a middle school in Bedford-Stuyvesant. This is his first year as a recruiter.
With the help of TFA campus representative Mike Rady, CC ’13, Donovan used a CCSC grant to start an instructional development program catered not only to potential TFA recruits but to groups like Youth for Debate and Peer Health Exchange. The program hosts biweekly meetings with a TFA alum who guides interested undergraduates in lesson planning and classroom management.
In the fall, Rady will join the Newark corps as a third grade teacher after five weeks of training at the Philadelphia Institute. Rady described his role as campus representative as that of a liaison between TFA and the student body here at Columbia. “That can be everything from just explaining the program itself to undergraduate students at career fairs and classrooms and club meetings, to people I know that I think could be interested in the program,” he explained. “I also work with [TFA], giving them feedback about the perception of the program on campus, so if I think there’s something that they can provide, I always share my thoughts with them.” Rady and Michelle Diop, CC ’13 and the other campus representative, receive what he called a “small wage” for their work.
Both Rady and Zach Glubiak, CC ’12 and a first-year corps member at College Prep High School, a KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter school in West Harlem, stressed that TFA looks foremost for evidence of leadership in its applicants.
“I think they are ultimately looking for people who are leaders,” Glubiak told me. “They’re looking for people who express interest in education. There’s got to be a certain level of self-reflection and drive involved, because there’s just no way you’re going walk into the classroom that first day and be a natural teacher. So you have to reflect about what didn’t go right and figure out how you’re going fix that.”
It’s precisely this notion of leadership that so many people find off-putting about TFA. Many critics believe that the organization as a whole—along with some of its more famous alumni, such as former D.C. Chancellor of Public Schools Michelle Rhee—actively promotes the idea that only TFA’s elite corps of recruits can save a fundamentally broken system.
Thus, one of the most common criticisms directed at the program is of the perception that TFA members are eminently better suited to tackling the myriad problems faced by struggling public schools than lifelong teachers seen as mired in the system. The turning point in this dynamic, Rubinstein explained, was Rhee’s tenure as D.C. chancellor from 2007 to 2010.
“You have Michelle Rhee out there telling everyone that education in this country is failing,” he said. “She’s telling everyone that teachers have too much job security—and that if we can just measure their quality with test scores, we can fix things.”
“They’re perpetuating this notion that the only thing holding kids back are their current teachers,” Rubenstein continued. “TFA grew tremendously because people genuinely believed this. When you tell people that you’re working miracles, it’s great for fundraising.”
According to Rubinstein, TFA’s shortfalls ultimately break down into three root causes: an emphasis on charters, a culture of teacher-bashing, and a lack of proper training. For many critics, the limited training is most troublesome.
“[TFA] grew too fast, and the model offers too little practice teaching,” said Rubinstein. “TFA’s training model has gotten worse over the last few years. If they had a better model, people should sign up. But I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone right now. They’re not training their recruits properly, so they’re damaging themselves and they’re damaging the kids they teach.”
Still, many other recent alumni disagree with this notion. “Yes, the training is short,” Donovan conceded. “Five, six weeks seems a little absurd on some level. But I do firmly believe the training is really solid, that it’s rooted in research about what are the best practices for educating kids, what’s good classroom management theory, what makes a good lesson plan.”
Aida Conroy, CC ’13, will be entering the Chicago corps this fall to teach at one of that city’s Head Start Programs. “TFA has a really great foundation,” she told me. “The training is pretty extensive. I’ll be getting my Master’s at the same time in early childhood education.”
According to Glubiak, “You spend your day [at Institute] teaching, going to professional development sessions, planning for the next day, reflecting on the previous day. It’s a pretty intensive five-week program. The aim is getting you as ready as possible.”
Critics like Rubinstein assert that many new recruits are missing the bigger picture, which he described as a kind of mission drift. Other alumni and participants may offer more nuanced criticisms, but most maintain that the organization as a whole is of tremendous value.
“I do think some of the criticisms are pretty valid,” said Conroy. “In my case, I hope it’s a little bit different because I’ll be going back to where I’m from and that means a lot to me. Being able to address these issues on a personal level and not just on the theoretical level of policy is really important.”
Many of the recruits with whom I spoke have tried to set similarly reasonable expectations for themselves. “Teaching’s tough,” said Donovan. “Do I walk in as teacher of the year on day one? No. Do I suck on day 20? Probably. But everyone will end up getting better. Institute does provide a good framework on which to hold yourself accountable.” Glubiak offered a similar response to the question of preparedness: “When I think about the future, the future for me is next Friday.”
Even so, Glubiak said he wouldn’t mind staying in education for a while longer. That’s not uncommon, said Donovan. According to him, roughly two-thirds of TFA alumni are directly involved in education. “That’s 20,000 people,” he said. “[TFA] changes priorities, and it gets really talented people invested in working with kids. That’s why I think our impact has grown.”
But how exactly does TFA define “education”?
“It is a fairly broad definition that they use,” said James Liebman, the Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. “They count things like sitting on the board of a charter school or being active in politics in a way that advocates for change in one way or another.”
Indeed, one of the principal criticisms of TFA is that many recruits use the program as a stepping stone to elite graduate schools. As Liebman pointed out, many alumni end up in the private sector and maintain only a tangential connection to public education.
Since working as a school desegregation lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 1970s and 1980s, Liebman himself has maintained a strong personal investment in public education reform. From 2006 to 2009, he worked as Chief Accountability Officer at the New York City Department of Education. Overall, his assessment of TFA was positive.
“It has definitely enhanced the access of public school students in the United States to better teachers,” noted Liebman. “One thing that is very true about Teach for America is that it’s an incredibly good screener of talent. And their judgments of people who are not only smart but actually able to apply their intelligence and get things done is really good.”
Rady offered a similar assessment of the organization’s overall value. “I don’t think you’d see so many graduating seniors so excited about getting into education if it weren’t for TFA,” he added. “If there’s one thing they’ve done right, it’s getting so many talented individuals to go back into their communities to teach.”
In interviewing various TFA recruits, I found that many were either highly circumspect or visibly uncomfortable about discussing some of the criticisms that Rubinstein raised with me. Perhaps the most obvious dodge they made had to do with TFA’s growing emphasis on charter schools versus districts. “Well, charters are public schools,” said Glubiak. “That all depends on the region,” said Rady, “so I can’t speak to it.”
The distinction is significant, and the fact that TFA now sends a third of its recruits to charter schools is troubling. Corps members are quick to mention that charter schools are publicly funded and that any student can have the chance to attend, but this ultimately fails to address that charters are an entirely different animal. Whether because of motivated parents or motivated kids, the student body at any charter school in this country is fundamentally distinct from district counterparts with students from otherwise similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Charters do not face the problem of parents who use public education as a kind of day-care in the same way that underperforming districts do. Given these differences, is TFA is really allocating its resources where they’re needed most?
Conroy expressed justifiable concerns about the unique presence of TFA at elite colleges and universities. Aggressive recruiting at a Harvard or a Columbia fails not only to address a disconnect between educational theory and practice but also diminishes the importance of being able to personally relate to one’s students.
“Is it valid to send a bunch of Ivy League kids into areas where they don’t really know the issues and can’t really relate to the people?” Conroy asked. “I believe that I’m no better than someone who goes to a small state school where they won’t have a TFA recruiter.”
Nevertheless, there’s something undeniably valuable about TFA, both for its members and for the students it aims to help.
“I have found that for 90 percent or more of the TFA alumni that I’ve spoken to—and I’ve probably spoken to a couple hundred—the experience was positive and in many ways life-changing,” Liebman told me. “They often learn something they didn’t know. In many cases that’s learning how hard it is to do what teachers need to do.”
Liebman was quick to add that those who don’t continue with teaching can still have a tremendous impact on public education. “You get a law degree, a business degree, or a policy degree, and there are lots of things that you can do with that in the public sector,” he said. “I’ve noticed with the [former TFA] students I teach that they’re actually quite interested in public sector work.” He concluded: “They’re interested in change, and they’re actually quite prepared to think about how to engage in change from a kind of tactical, strategic perspective.”
Perhaps Rubinstein was wrong to discourage students from applying outright; neither TFA’s legacy nor its future can be boiled down to basic talking points. That being said, Rubinstein’s criticisms warrant careful consideration. When larger structural problems of TFA threaten to weaken the very schools that need it most, one must question whether the corps has ultimately lost sight of its mission.