Opinion Columns & Blogs - INACTIVE

Esther Cepeda: A disturbing portrait of Teach for America

Esther Cepeda
Esther Cepeda 12/15/10

After all the media fawning over the nonprofit Teach for America, there are some veterans of the program who are now telling a different story.

“Teach for America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out” contains 20 essays with anecdotes that seem too crazy to make up.

Edited by T. Jameson Brewer and Kathleen deMarrais, this volume is filled with explosive and jaw-dropping insights into the organization whose stated mission is to “enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation’s most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence.”

Teach for America (TFA) has drawn much praise for its cream-of-the-crop college grads valiantly taking a short sabbatical from their rising-star careers to teach inner-city children.

But some education policy wonks know that in the last two years, there has been a bit of a backlash against TFA from alumni of the teacher corps. But what started as ex-TFA teachers coming forward in personal essays in education-focused publications, knocking the so-called modern-day version of the Peace Corps, took on a new flavor once school districts started severing their contractual relationships with TFA.

As a preface to the critiques about how TFA grinds out masses of newbie teachers just in time for the start of school each fall – and then all but burns them out in the first few weeks – Brewer and deMarrais explain what they see as the program’s recent change in strategy.

“While the first 20 years of TFA were billed as working toward a viable solution for addressing teacher shortages, the organization has slowly transformed into acting on [TFA founder Wendy] Kopp’s second assumption, that traditionally trained teachers are not as qualified or as intelligent as they should be;” write Brewer and deMarrais. “ [That] her cadre of Ivy League, predominantly white and affluent corps are innately better suited to become teachers because education majors have low SAT scores. This change is evident in the organization’s recent shift away from rhetoric about teacher shortages to an argument that the 145 hours of training corps members receive during TFA’s Summer Institute – only 18 hours of which are ‘teaching' hours – is superior to the traditional four-year college degree and student teaching semester.”

Even firm proponents of brighter, better-educated teachers would agree that there’s no SAT score high enough to prepare someone with no background in pedagogy to be effective in a classroom full of real students – much less students from low-income communities.

The essays eviscerate the myth of TFA’s unmitigated success by detailing the organization’s high-pressure bait-and-switch recruitment tactics, an emphasis on prestige and future career prospects, inspirational slogans overlaying inadequate preparation, and the fear instilled in corps members who do not perform up to metrics-mandated standards.

The book also describes hard-core classroom management edicts, highly scripted lesson plans and scant, rushed “training.” But you’d expect that from an organization that prides itself on churning out earnest, ultra-smart “teachers” ready to take the helm of classrooms on day one.

What you wouldn’t expect is that TFA has done such a poor job of accurately representing to recruits what turns out to be a tightly prescribed out-of-the-box teaching job (how else could young adults with zero teaching experience be expected to get through the job?) that increasing numbers of alumni are becoming publicly opposed to the program.

“The person leading curriculum sessions taught us ‘Compliance leads to freedom,’” wrote Jay Saper, who said he was dismissed from TFA after vocally advocating for community input in school-reform measures. “That night, my roommate pointed out that a sign with those words would look good hanging on the walls of a sweatshop.”

Saper clearly wasn’t a good cultural fit for a highly corporatized organization that, in his telling, requires compliance to stand in for experience – which in and of itself underscores the failing each essay points to: TFA’s educational tactics are not good for the people they are foisted on.

You may agree or disagree with such a conclusion – TFA acknowledged this book on its blog and said, “We’re proud of the impact we’re having, but like any organization, we always have room to grow” – but in stark contrast to TFA’s own slick narrative, these troubling first-person accounts should give pause to anyone interested in how major education policy players shape reform movements through money and great marketing.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist with the Washington Post Writer’s Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

  Comments