Soon after I returned from Peace Corps service in 1990, I started to hear of a new organization called “Teach for America.” People fancied it as something of a domestic Peace Corps, which rankled. Not only did I remember the suspicion toward VISTA volunteers in Western North Carolina in the sixties, but I knew the reasons for it–and understood the difference between VISTA and Peace Corps.
No matter what you think of its purposes, Peace Corps is difficult. Volunteers spend a minimum of three months in intensive training and often live in conditions that are hard for Americans to imagine. My light, for example, was a kerosene lantern, my roof thatch, my water came from a pump a football field away and my sanitary facility was an outhouse. In addition, our work as PCVs depends on cooperation with local citizens. We don’t come in to replace, but to augment.
Teach for America, as far as I could tell, had neither the rigor nor the commitment to the host communities that Peace Corps makes central. Even at the start, it seemed to me, the organization was nothing more than a means for graduates of elite colleges to pretend that they were contributing to the betterment of “them.”
Over the years, as I have learned more about TFA, my opinion of it has, if anything, gotten lower. Unlike Peace Corps, which has the explicit goal of leaving communities stronger and less dependent (whether it succeeds or not is another question), TFA seems targeted toward ripping communities apart, replacing local teachers with a string of temps. Nothing the organization is doing, as far as I can tell, makes local schools stronger once the TFA “teachers” (it is hard to call them that, on the strength of their five-week training) leave.
I’m not the only one with doubts about TFA. United Students Against Sweatshops has even gone so far as to try to get TFA removed from campus recruitment. The group wrote to Wendy Kopp, founder of TFA:
Providing corp members to regions without teacher shortages has devastated local communities by enabling rampant school closings and teacher layoffs, which have helped to catalyze the dangerous phenomena of weakening teachers associations and privatizing public schools. Far too frequently, TFA corp members are taking over recently vacated teaching positions from unnecessary layoffs in new charter schools formed in the wake of public school closings.
Following the student example, faculty are also organizing against TFA on campus. There is even a new petition committing faculty to keep TFA from their classrooms. It includes this:
we understand that teaching is at its best when highly trained professionals enjoy a modicum of autonomy, Teach for America is part of a powerful movement to de-professionalize teaching by reducing all instruction to standardized test preparation, even though much research shows such tests do not measure learning or good teaching.
The problems with TFA go far beyond simple use of under-trained “teachers.” It is part of a “reform” movement threatening the very structure of American public education.
It’s not likely that TFA will ever recruit where I teach. The City University of New York is hardly the type of “elite” institution whose graduates can afford to give up real income for a couple of years. However, they do come from the types of communities TFA claims to “serve.” If TFA really did want to make a difference, it would recruit at my school, New York City College of Technology, providing its volunteers with real and substantial training and salaries and futures teaching within the communities they know best, the ones they come from. This would strengthen public education in America.
But that is not TFA’s purpose.
Sign the petition, if you are willing. I certainly did.