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Published at 12:06 AM on February 8, 2009
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Many educational professors and theorists enjoy attacking Teach for America and similar programs. Recently, Jim Horn took over the soapbox of Change.org to publish a two-part attack on Teach for America. This attack, which frequently devolves into questionable rhetoric, deserves a rebuttal from a less involved party. Clearly, the social entrepreneurs which Jim so critically attacks are not in a good position to provide this, but Jim also isn’t operating from a neutral perspective either. As a member of the educational elite, he clearly has a vested interest in increasingly rigorous teacher training. I offer the following as an outsider, hoping that my inexperience also insulates me from the antiquated self-preserving rhetoric which many educators have adopted.

The most troubling part of Jim’s attack is how he continually strikes out against the actual teachers for America. His tone is clearly derogatory, and sadly strays dangerously close to an older man attacking younger generations out of self-preservation. In many places, he attacks the intelligence and readiness of the volunteers.

This year TFA has an operating budget in excess of $100 million, net assets of over $120 million, and a work force of over 6,000 bright, energetic, and, yes, clueless recruits engaged in on-the-job training in some of America’s most desperately-poor, low-achieving schools, where children, by the way, need most of all (beyond the need to end their poverty) the most highly qualified, experienced teachers with deep knowledge of the subjects they teach and knowledge of how to teach those subjects.

What exactly are these highly educated and intelligent recruits clueless about? Sure, a certain part of the TFA philosophy relies upon tossing recruits into the “deep end” of urban poverty, but I genuinely believe this strategy can be effective. Most situations, including teaching, can be successfully mastered by an individual with a strong will, a good brain, and a healthy dose of resourcefulness. Clearly, given their backgrounds and the application process, most recruits possess these tools. It isn’t fair to argue that TFA recruits are any more clueless than other first-year teachers.

Nor does there seem to be any moral reservation or element of doubt expressed by these idealistic recent grads who would seem equally eager to sign up… And yet for all the sunny assuaging of white middle class guilt and the successful beefing up of law school resumes skimpy on service that TFA has enabled for its thousands of past and present recruits and donors, there are some dark elements of TFA that are incubated and grown by this movement.

Jim immediately concludes that recruits should experience moral reservation, and berates the recruits for not sharing his reservations. Yet, I can see no compelling reason that there should be moral reservations surrounding this. No matter the intellectual objections surrounding methodology, the moral intent is sound. One associates moral reservations with participating in war, not with volunteering to work in impoverished schools.

Throughout, Jim attempts to paint all recruits as self-serving egoists with their eyes only for the coveted law school admission and associated wealth. Given the rigorous admissions process for TFA, one can assume recruits could easily find a more cost-productive way to spend a few years of their life, if their sole goal is wealth and power. Paradoxically, he also attempts to accuse them of naively pursuing a goal of changing the world. Here, I believe he is actually the naive one. While he theorizes about ending poverty from his ivory tower, Teach for America is pursuing the significantly more achievable task of providing a passable education for impoverished students.

Beyond the attacks upon recruits, Jim also takes up a shield to defend unions and the tenure system. In short, he argues for the past, where teaching is only a viable profession after many years of (costly) education and experience.

The fact is, Teach for America fills a need. Society presently doesn’t provide teachers with adequate compensation, particularly in areas with lower tax rolls. The majority of the strong teachers migrate to suburban areas where they can be guaranteed decent salaries.

Clearly, this needs to change. I agree with Jim in that our current education funding system has significant flaws. It serves as a multiplier of poverty, instead of a leveler. However, these changes won’t come quickly or easily — the educational and political establishment are highly entrenched in the current paradigm. Eventually, I hope this will be remedied. Unfortunately, Jim seems to be just as clueless as the rest of us about how to do so. Despite his continued attacks on TFA for only addressing a symptom, he offers no concrete alternatives.

Until these issues of poverty and education can be remedied, the fact remains that urban schools need teachers. The highly trained teachers whom Jim insists are needed don’t seem to be willing to fill this void until the funding issues are resolved. Jim himself has a good, safe position at Cambridge College, which I imagine pays decently. Meanwhile, the blog host, Clay Burell, has spent years working at international schools. These examples just illustrate the fact that there is a lack of qualified teachers willing to work in urban schools today. Teach for American fills this void, by providing highly educated individuals ready to work in poor districts.

While TFA itself may be a stop-gap, I also believe it can be part of the final solution. Though many recruits will only teach for a few years, this is not entirely a bad thing. These successful individuals are clearly on their way to positions of power, in both politics and business. Hopefully, having some classroom experience will help them to be cognizant of the issues classroom teachers face. With this experience, they will be less likely to regulate ineffective solutions and more open to equitable distributions of funding. TFA is providing valuable on-the-ground experience for future leaders.

Teach for America clearly has some issues, but it is not entirely bad. The recruits are certainly not idiots, and Jim Horn would do well to aim his scorn at more deserving subjects.1 When debating educational politics, we would all do well to examine our own prejudices, whether they be towards the educational elite or business. Instead of attacking people trying to make a difference, we should all do more to make a difference ourselves.

What do you think of Teach for America? Is it a helpful partner in change or a dangerous cancer?

Notes
  1. Actually, he is clearly open to doing so, variously describing Congress as soured bags of bad air and all Business Roundtable members as crooks.

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Hi Morgan, Good response. My take: Jim’s polemical tone is better for blogs than for books. People can push back in comments. Provocative and forceful arguments like his seem to engender more discussion than mild ones. Not saying this is good, or always true, but I think it holds. My reservation about TFA is that it treats symptoms, not the cause: poverty and inequitable resources in poor districts. It shifts the focus from the center to the periphery. I also don’t think two-year teachers serve schools or students well, or gain enough expertise to serve as good reformers in their better-paying futures. There are exceptions, and some TFA-ers stay in the classroom. But Google abounds with testimonies of idealistic young TFA-ers leaving it with disillusionment. As for me - I live abroad by choice. No public schools for me to teach at here. But from what I gather, I certainly wouldn’t teach in bad schools for my own mental health and well-being. That’s why I think the schools should receive more investment, not lower teacher costs.
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Clay had said most of what I was thinking as I read this. I understand the reason so many bright, thoughtful people are so supportive of TFA. However, after 11 years in the classroom (teaching students living in poverty) I know that I knew practically nothing in my first couple of years of teaching. This is a very challenging job, at least if one wants to do it well and wants to teach students who do not have the ideal home life and background. It takes time to get good at it and to truly understand how to meet the needs of kids. I don’t believe that can happen in just two years. As a result, I find it painful to think that these folks are going to be leaders in education. I have many concerns about Michelle Rhee in Washington DC (around the corner from me) and most of them can be traced back to her time in TFA. She thinks she understands schools because of her brief time working in them. I don’t agree. I also think that TFA allows us to ignore the bigger issues. TFA slaps a band-aid on our neediest schools so that we can feel we have accomplished something. In reality, those students are still receiving a sub-par education. Even if we believe that the TFAers in those schools are doing exceptionally well for their students, that is the minority of teachers there. What about the other teachers? We, as a society, need to find a way to truly address ALL our school and ALL our students. We have so far been completely unwilling to do so and TFA helps us ignore the problem.
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@Clay: I still question Jim’s forceful rhetoric, especially where he disparages young people. While its true that TFA treats symptoms instead of the cause, the fact is that’s what most charities do. The causes are so complex and so difficult to deal with that someone has to treat the symptoms or people would die from them in the meantime. Doctors work to find and treat the cause, yes, but they also try to stop the suffering of the symptoms.

@Jenny: Good points, but all teachers do have to start somewhere. Ideally, TFAers will go on to complete long teaching careers, building on the experience of those first 2 years. I maintain that I would have an educational leader with at least some classroom experience than one with only pure business or political experience. TFA certainly isn’t the answer to all the problems of urban education, but it is a start. With time, society can and will work on a broader basis to fix the problems.

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