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A Band-Aid Solution

News & Features | February 20, 2018

As graduation looms, many Tufts seniors find themselves scrambling for post-grad plans. Where will Jumbos go after commencement? Certainly some will move to San Francisco, having landed a position at Google. Others will flock to consulting jobs and fellowships in DC, and others still will happily accept whatever entry-level position can pay their rent. And, if tradition holds, a sizeable number of Tufts graduates will join Teach for America.


Teach for America is a national education non-profit that places high-achieving college graduates in public school classrooms across the country. TFA corps members undergo a five to eight week intensive summer training program. Tufts alum and first year TFA teacher Elyssa Harris described TFA’s summer institute as so packed full that it was like “trying to drink from a fire hose.” After summer training, TFA members are hired by a TFA partner school and enter a two-year contract. TFA partners with schools all over the country, working in rural and urban districts and intentionally placing corps members at high need schools with large low-income student populations. TFA corps members are full-time classroom teachers and are compensated accordingly, earning a salary comparable to certified teachers in their school.


TFA recruits actively on college campuses, identifying candidates for the program and reaching out directly to them. Harris first considered TFA after being directly contacted by a TFA recruiter. She said that conversations with recruiters while still at Tufts reassured her that there was space for students like her in the program, space for college graduates who were not really considering becoming teachers, but were interested in education. Knowing that TFA was not looking for committed teachers, but for “people who care, who are interested, and who want to help” made Harris more excited to apply.


But TFA is not without critics. Tufts Professor of Education Steve Cohen centers his critique of TFA on the teachers’ lack of preparation. “What saddens me about going the TFA route is that if you are entering it with a hope of someday teaching, you are entering into very adverse circumstances with very little understanding of the craft of teaching,” he says. After all, the TFA model suggests that a recent college graduate with no qualifications beyond enthusiasm and the completion of a seven week summer training is ready and able to provide the same education to a child as a certified professional teacher. This, Cohen argues, can lead to discouragement on the part of the teachers and a disservice to students in great need of strong teachers.


Cohen’s sentiment is reiterated by Annie Kolle, a Tufts graduate who taught through TFA for a year before quitting due to an unrelated medical problem. Kolle described her year in the classroom as “really, really tough” and said that it was “emotionally draining to be so totally unprepared.” When asked if she felt prepared for her first day in the classroom after her summer training, Kolle laughed, saying “[teaching] is a really hard job… no one could feasibly be prepared to do it in two months.” Kolle went into TFA considering becoming a teacher, though she has since found employment in another field. She said that her plans to teach are currently “on hold,” adding that she was unsure “if that was due to Teach for America.”


There is an indisputable body of literature demonstrating that schools with larger numbers of low-income students struggle to produce high academic outcomes—not because poor students are less intelligent than their wealthy peers, but because schools that are in high poverty areas receive less funding than schools in middle or upper-class areas. While TFA suggests that the high level of need in low-income communities is precisely why the organization serves where they do, Cohen argues that this can actually set up a “mismatch.” On one hand, he explains, you have students who “because of the schools that TFA works in, are the kids who need the most” and on the other you have teachers who “for the most part, aren’t who those kids need.” Cohen’s argument is, essentially, that TFA matches the students at the highest risk of being failed by the school system with teachers who have little experience and little training.


Just as Cohen suggests that TFA does a disservice to students, Gary Rubinstein, Tufts alum, TFA alum, and current high school math teacher, claims that TFA does damage to teachers. On his education blog, “Gary Rubenstein’s Blog,” Rubenstein writes that “TFA survives on the perpetuation of the stereotype of the uncaring, average teacher.” This stereotype, Rubinstein argues, tidily pins the low academic achievement of poor kids on teachers’ low expectations of their students and suggests instead that TFA teachers who hold their students to higher expectations will produce better results.


TFA is not as explicit in this teacher-blame as Rubinstein’s blog would suggest—the organization’s website is careful to use language of institutional failure and “inequitable systems” rather than simply claim that the TFA training method is more effective than the traditional certification process. And yet, Rubinstein is correct to point out that TFA’s identified method of addressing the failures of the American education system is not focused on political or institutional change, nor does it attempt to address the country’s teacher shortage by, say, setting up a scholarship fund for high achieving college students hoping to enter teacher certification programs. TFA chooses to address inequities in education by placing idealistic, enthusiastic, and deeply inexperienced teachers into some of the most challenged classrooms in the country. That this is their solution does suggest a belief that school systems can be “fixed” at the teacher level, a belief that tangentially blames failing schools on teachers.


Tess Ross-Callahan, a Tufts senior who recently accepted admission to a Masters of Education and teaching apprenticeship program at Lesley University, spoke about an informational interview she had with TFA that left her feeling unsettled. Ross-Callahan walked away from the interaction feeling that the organization was less interested in developing the next generation of committed teachers and more that “it frames teaching as a thru-way to greatness, but to your greatness, not the greatness of your students, who are, it seems to me, supposed to be grateful that someone as smart as you is there.”


Ross-Callahan’s categorization of TFA as a thru-way to accomplishment is, in some ways, reflected in the recruitment language on the organization’s website. TFA advertises its strong alumni network and informs applicants that “Teach For America can connect you to high-impact opportunities to continue your influence and accelerate your leadership trajectory.” Cohen explained that this branding, with an emphasis more on leadership development than teacher training, has made it easier for TFA to be considered as a gap year or a pit stop for college graduates on their way to a completely different career path.


Cohen, not unlike Rubinstein, claims that this model relies on an understanding of “teaching as talking—that if you know something you can teach it.” This understanding disregards the professionalism of teachers and devalues the work that they do. After all, Cohen quipped during our interview, “You don’t see Doctors for America or Dentists for America.” While Cohen spoke in irony, his point stands: our culture holds some careers as “serious” and others as worthwhile, but nonetheless teachable within a seven week crash course.


For all of this critique, it is impossible to deny that TFA addresses a serious crisis in our education system: according to CNN, 48 states report shortages in qualified math teachers, 46 states report struggling to find qualified special education teachers and 43 states are without science teachers. These shortages are most acutely felt in urban and rural districts. And declining enrollment in teaching programs, dropping 35 percent between 2009 and 2014, has only served to exacerbate the problem. This gap is part of what motivated Kolle to join TFA after graduation. While she admitted off the bat that she did not believe “Teach for America is or should be a long-term solution and honestly can be pretty problematic,” she also felt that, “in certain areas, especially really rural areas, it helps fill that gap that otherwise wouldn’t be filled.” Where the traditional pipeline is failing to produce teachers, TFA continues to produce thousands each year, even if they are underprepared and guaranteed to be temporary.


Why is it that TFA is able to recruit so successfully while teacher certification programs across the country report falling rates of applicants? For starters, TFA reduces barriers for young people hopeful to get into the classroom by offering an access point to schools that leapfrogs over expensive and time-consuming certification programs and graduate school. While completing TFA does not give someone eligibility to teach in a public school like a traditional certification program, TFA gives young people access to classrooms to test out their interest and gain experience, all while being paid a teacher’s salary. For Cohen, the financial incentive is hard to ignore when discussing TFA. “The $80,000 difference between learning to teach through TFA versus a program like Tufts, that’s not nothing. In many ways, that’s an indictment of the way we have decided to educate teachers and the cost of graduate school.”


From this perspective, TFA is not the cause of the devaluation of teachers, but a symptom of this cultural problem. That bright-eyed college kids are filling the classrooms left vacant by a teacher shortage is not an indictment of well-meaning millennials, but rather of a system that makes it hard to want to teach in the first place.


Those who can afford graduate school and get traditionally certified find themselves entering a profession with low and stagnant pay. Professional teachers have a high burnout rate and often report low job satisfaction. A study from the University of Pennsylvania reported that nearly half of teachers will leave the profession before their fifth year in the classroom and in 2013 the Metlife Survery of the American teacher reported that only 39 percent of teachers reported high levels of professional satisfaction, an all-time low. Increasing pressure to teach to standardized tests robs teachers of their professional autonomy. Teachers in high-need schools face ballooning classroom sizes and rarely have enough prep time and professional support. But, if TFA claims that the school system can be fixed at the teacher level, it does little to support the professionals already occupying that space.


Cohen describes TFA’s model as a Band-Aid solution, at best. “These teachers haven’t become part of the solution, they have become a temporary fix that will simply be replaced by the next temporary fix,” he says. “And that’s just not great for kids.” There is plenty of work to be done in the development of an education system that makes teacher training accessible, supports teachers at risk of burnout, and serves low income children well, and plenty of space for idealistic college graduates in that work. If Teach for America is the best access point for that reform effort, however, is another question.