Monday, August 15, 2011

I thought I knew TFA but...

Teach for America (TFA) sounded like a good idea the first time I heard about it.  Get the best and brightest into hard-to-staff classrooms and hope their experiences stick and then "the best" will make a career out of helping our neediest children.

It is appealing in the same way the selfless programs of the "Peace Corps" and "Americorps" from the Kennedy era of asking what can we do for our country appealed to my sense of humanity.

But in practice TFA has left much to be desired.  After extensive reading, it's clear the revolving door of TFA recruits damages students in urban areas, destroys the community of a school, and has a 'wolf in sheep's clothing' agenda to change education policy by quickly moving TFA recruits into positions of power (a la Michelle Rhee, the highest profile TFA recruit to date.)

But after attending the TFA workshop "Why Teach For America (TFA) Must Change: Properly Training New Teachers for the Rigors of Teaching" at the SOS Conference on Friday, July 29, I believe that some of what TFA does should be called educational malpractice at best and criminal at worst.

The leaders of the panel were David Green of Fordham University, currently a mentor to TFA recruits in the Bronx; Dr. Barbara Torre Veltri of the College of Ed at Northern Arizona University and author of Learning on Other People's Kids: Becoming a Teach For America Teacher; Janet Grossback Mayer, a Bronx teacher who has taught for an amazing 51 years in the Bronx; Lawrence Mayer, an award winning Biology teacher and New York City principal; and two former TFA recruits John Bilby and John Williamson (in 2010).

Both of the recruits "failed" in TFA, leaving long before their two-year expected stint was up.  Both felt inadequately prepared for the classrooms they entered.  John Williamson, for instance, was trained to teach secondary mathematics but was moved into three different elementary grade level classes in three different schools in his first two months on the job.


In addition to that, Williamson indicated that he was required to meet regularly in the evenings with a donor, who was purportedly mentoring him.  The advice offered by the high-powered businessman had little validity for the work in the urban classroom, but apparently made the donor feel good about his donation.  Williamson found the required meetings a drain on the time needed to prepare for students. By his own admission he was just one page ahead of the students in his class.

Both recruits indicated that the five-week training in the summer was much like boot camp. Absences, even for legitimate illness (Williamson came down with strep throat) were strongly discouraged.

All TFA's were expected to stick to scripted lessons to prepare students for testing as well as scripts for maintaining control in the classroom.  They were to move ahead to polynomials even if the kids couldn't subtract negative numbers.

A favorite classroom management tool "I'm going to count backwards from four and I want you quiet when I get to one" was laughably inadequate with students who are street-smart, having to negotiate bus schedules, gang territory and other hazards just to get to school.

Mentors who worked with TFAers offered engaging alternatives for classroom management that the novices embraced. But when mentors returned to the classroom, the recruits were back to the scripts because "that is what the TFA management wants."

And about that management.  The five-week summer training sessions are often run by other TFAs with as much as, wait for it, an entire year of experience before they begin to train the next group.


But beyond that, TFA seems to also be involved in activities I would call criminal.  Among them:

  • Placing minimally trained young adults with inadequate training in with special needs populations.  (One young woman was beaten severely when left by herself with high-needs students.)
  • Brokering contracts with districts to guarantee that 20% of their workforce will be filled by TFA recruits, even if it means firing experienced teachers to do so.***(See Barbara Torre Veltri's clarification on this point in the Comments.)
  • Getting a waiver from the Dept. of Ed. for the highly qualified stipulation.  Then, when that was challenged in court, slipping in legislation during the budget cuts this spring that changed the law so TFA recruits can continue to wear the highly qualified label.
  • Moving recruits around at will.  Training them for one subject or grade level, then arbitrarily moving the teacher into another area (as was Williamson's experience.) 
As I listened to the litany, I was outraged.  It seemed clear that TFA was interested solely in their own image and did not care a whit for the students subjected to the program. (There was evidence in their own literature about "hitting numbers" that had little to do with instruction.  One of the numbers they are proud of is the number still in Ed.  Unfortunately, the part of education they are in is shaping policy.  Not good.)

All without being held accountable?

The second grade that Williamson took over before December had already had numerous adults at the head of the class before him and was, unsurprisingly, in chaos.  What has happened to those kids?

Many of the panelists argued that TFA needed to be reformed.  But when the floor was opened to discussion, the young man at right (Sorry for pic quality. Snapped with iphone.) made a passionate argument that "TFA is the devil"  and "I say burn it down."

He was a student in New Orleans when the city was hit by Katrina.  Many of his teachers, some who had Ph.Ds according to the young man, were replaced by TFA recruits.

He argued they failed to connect to the inner city minority students and that resulted in confusion among the student body.  The impromptu speaker had earned the nickname of "Grandpa" because he had filled in where the other adults had failed.  He repeated several times that "New Orleans is dying and nobody cares."

Not even those who advertise that they do care.



  1. Why do the terms "multi-level marketing (MLM)" and "scam" come to mind when I read these descriptions of TFA practices? I guess we have a new adage: "Those who can, teach; those who can't go into ed policy"!

  2. I agree with Jason. I'm amazed at how teachers who wanted to dedicate themselves to teaching are looked down on and not listened to. While those who do the minimum in the classroom so they can start up the later are treated like gods.

  3. Jason and D -- Thanks for reading and commenting. Please pass the word. It was alarming to listen to.

  4. Mary, thank you for posting. I was at this seminar as well and I think it's important to spread the word about what TFA has unfortunately become.

    It baffles the mind that so many support a program that not only doesn't help our neediest students, it actually HURTS them.

    Grandpa spoke the truth: TFA has got to go.


  5. Read Thomas S. Popkewitz: Struggling for the soul. Its a critique of TFA

  6. Dear Mary,
    Thank you for your very inclusive and descriptive summary of our six member panel presentation on TFA at American University and SOS Conference. I appreciate your recap of the information presented as all of us came together, for a unique opportunity to have corps members, and lawyer Affeldt present together with teacher mentors and researchers concerned with Teacher Education and TFA's preparation model.

    I want to clarify one point that you make in your summary.
    I presented information from the district contract to the audience and noted that 20% of corps would be placed in Special Education classrooms. This is meant to correct the notation above that 20% of hires are TFA.

    Hence, I shared aspects of the district placement of TFA that is of serious concern, SPED assignments, since TFA's generic training model is not preparing general education corps to teach (based on remarks from corps who addressed the training piece), so how can Special Education assignments for corps members be considered appropriate.

    Currently, a high profile (and costly media campaign) pictures TFAers with SPED students, who along with the Ipad, seems to be meeting their educational goals.

    This new advertisement that Apple is presenting to the public, both on line and in Apple Stores, suggests that it is worthy for the public to donate an IPad for TFA's teaching Special Education students. They won't be less inclined to struggle even with the technology tool, unless they are prepared and trained. It is interesting that Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of Apple CEO, is a TFA national board member.

    TFA is not bringing corps teachers into districts under the "hard-to-staff" subject areas label, such as math and science, as many suggest, either. Rather, they are liberally assigned by districts to "non-shortage" areas.

    I thank you for also sharing the closing remarks of Dimi, the New Orleans college student and LA resident who so passionately described what educational life was like for his peers, as students, who were left behind not only from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but when TFAers exited New Orleans classrooms upon completion of their two-year commitment.

    Perhaps he and others would be interested to know that Scott Cowen, Tulane University's president, and Michael Martin, LSU's Chancellor, serve on TFA's University Champions' Board.

    Thank you for presenting factual information to concerned readers and citizens.


  7. Barbara,
    Thank you for further clarifying the 20% figure in the post. Also for adding to our awareness of other media campaigns. I was alarmed by the litany of irresponsible practice represented.
    Also, thank you for identifying Dimi for the readers and myself.

  8. This is powerful stuff and an important part of the educational deform movement in the United States that is nothing more than a veiled attempt at busting teacher unions and destroying public education.

    Thank you for sharing this.