"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Hansel & Gretel In Teach For America

We all remember the story of Hansel and Gretel. They got lost in the woods and came across a house made of gingerbread.  Facing a candy smorgasbord in the midst of their incredible hunger was too much for them.  That was all it took for the evil witch to trap them. Only through their own cunning were they finally able to escape.

Today's Gretel is a recent college graduate wandering the business sector looking for a job and often not finding one. Along comes Teach For America who promises them the equivalent of a house made of candy.  TFA would train them, with the minimal waste of time, guarantee them job placement in a system that supplies health care and maybe even pension benefits, pay for their masters degree and maybe even their housing. Not only that, but they would work with them to get a student loan forbearance and pay their interest for the two years of their service. For many, this is too tempting an offer to pass up.  But like Grimm's Gretel, they soon find themselves trapped and facing a fiery oven.

This is not the picture TFA paints of those in their program. According to them, their ranks are filled with shiny happy people performing miracles in inner city and rural schools.

One recent teaching graduate I talked to was approached many times by TFA.  She ultimately declined to apply, but many of her friends did, and ten of them ultimately joined the ranks. None of them have stories that align with the slick image TFA's media department paints of their corp's members.

The internet is full of anecdotes, blogs and message boards filled with stories of woe from TFAers; about being ill prepared for teaching in the hard core classrooms they were sent to, about incredibly long days preparing lesson plans the TFA-way that they never got to use because the behavior issues in the classroom were so bad, about administrative leaders who were forced to take them in because of district contractual agreements who, in protest, did little or nothing to support them, about facing teacher certification exams that contained basic teaching concepts they knew nothing about.

The graduate I talked to was told she would be perfect for the teaching position she applied for in one school, but unfortunately the school was required to hold 10 positions open for TFAers, so they could not hire her. This may have been an easy way to let her down, but there are plenty of stories of other people who have heard the same line.

It would be one thing if the TFA teachers coming in actually were better teachers, but the graduate told me of a friend of hers who got in to TFA (primarily because of the financial benefits) with an undergrad degree in elementary education which qualified her to teach grades k-6.  TFA told her they didn't have any positions open in that grade range, but they would like to place her in a middle school teaching math. The new recruit informed them that math was, unfortunately, her worst subject and that she in fact was short one math course in her program. Undaunted, TFA pushed her on to take the math praxis (which she barely passed) and threw her into a 7th grade math class. TFA is counting on her personal ambition to overcome any guilt about not being the best candidate for the job. What does that say about TFA's ethics, or that of their corps?

TFA likes to brag about their record on keeping their corps members in teaching and their alumni in education in general.  But a closer examination of their own reports shows that they are playing games with the numbers. Barnett Berry, head of the Center for Teaching Quality, based in North Carolina, looked at the reports TFA points to to support their claim that 2/3 of their graduates are working in the field of education after their two year commitment.
TFA alumni are defined as those who have finished the two-year commitment. But only 87.1 percent of members completed their commitment in 2007, and dropout numbers were higher in earlier years. Yet that 13 percent or higher drop-off is not factored in. What’s more, the field of education is loosely defined to include everything from working with a nonprofit advocacy group to getting a graduate education degree. Finally, there is no sense of whether those who responded to the survey tended to be recent alumni, perhaps only a year past their initial commitments and more likely to be in graduate school or teaching for a third year, or older alumni who have moved on to other careers.
The bottom line was, that the best that could be claimed from reading the stats in TFA's reports is that 16.6% of their recruits were teaching k-12 after their 2 year commitment. The graduate I talked to said the TFA program absolutely killed any desire to stay in teaching for one of her friends.

Many of the alumni remain in the field of education by taking the higher paying administrative jobs in education like principals and superintendents. Their two years in the classroom, plus the carefully polished clout of TFA, catapult them over others who have spent years in the system and know, with great certainty, about the challenges of running a school. A higher percentage of them lead charter schools than public schools perhaps because charters can get around some of the more difficult problems of public schools, like dealing with students who willfully resist participating in the education process.  Those students are sent back to the public school to deal with and the TFA principal gets the cushier job of presiding over the students who really want to be there, and usually at a higher salary too.

This is hardly surprising since TFA's main strategy is to recruit leaders from college and the community (they do have older recruits looking for  a second career). The fact that these people are motivated to find high paying, high visibility jobs is not surprising. Many TFA recruits come from political science and pre-law programs so it is also not surprising that alumni who leave the field of education, often run for public office. That's the TFA profile.

Comment sections after many stories about TFA are filled with confessions by former corps members recalling daily crying sessions after another fruitless day of teaching, unanswered requests for help from TFA and incredibly long grueling hours. So if TFA puts their pretty posters up at your school with promises of the "sweet" life, better look in the windows first to see if there is a cage in there waiting for you.


  1. If you can really "talk the talk and walk the walk" you can get appointed as State Superintendent of Education for a state like Louisiana (John White) or elected to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education like in Louisiana (Kira Orange-Jones). Then you can really make a difference for TFA by hiring all your TFA friends and benefactors and diverting taxpayer dollars into the pockets of "reform specialists" ALL OF WHOM are headquarter out of state. You too can be a part of the MYTH and MIRACLE of education reform.


    For more of the TRUTH about reform in Louisiana, see www.geauxteacher.com and www.researchonreforms.org

  2. Lee, you are very correct on all counts. I could add Holly Boffy to the BESE board election since she won only with a smear campaign done on the incumbent.


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