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At the Chalk Face: An Open Letter to TFAers Tempted to Diagnose ADHD, Among Other Issues

Dear Teach for America (TFA) Corps Member:

In 1985, I graduated from high school. So did TFA founder, Wendy Kopp. She and I happen to be only five weeks apart in age.

In April 2014, I published a book. Kopp has her own chapter.

She attended college at Princeton from 1985-89. I also attended college, at Louisiana State University (LSU). I stayed for an extra two years and graduated in 1991 with a degree in secondary education, English and German.

I chose to become a teacher. Kopp chose political science.

It is 2014. For my entire professional career, I have been a teacher.

Kopp’s professional career has involved creating TFA, an arrangement whereby non-education majors like you make two-year commitments to teach. Many of you will later become charter school “founders,” principals and superintendents. With minimal classroom experience, you will call yourself “educators,” and TFA will boast that the majority of their recruits remain in “education.”

Some of you will drop out of TFA before your two-year commitment is complete. You will realize that teaching involves much more than simply a high college GPA and enthusiasm.

I realize that you have been indoctrinated to believe that career teachers are lazy, or that they are not capable because they did not graduate from the top five or ten percent of their class.

I also realize that you believe that the ultimate measure of learning is the standardized test score and resulting graduation rates (however the term “graduation rate” happens to be defined– four years? Six years? Nontraditional program?).

I know that some of you struggle with the idea of “using” teaching to pad resumes. Others view teaching as an ill to be tolerated for two years and end up resenting your experience, viewing it as a “waste” of your life.

I am no fan of the TFA program. I do not believe that five or six weeks of training– in a controlled environment, to boot– is in any way sufficient to prepare you for the classroom.

Teaching is a profession in its own right, and those who graduate from four-year colleges and universities with degrees in education– evidencing the long-term educational investment that testifies to an intent to stay– also risk not making it beyond the five-year mark.

So, to me, a program that sells you on five weeks of training as adequate preparation clearly does not have your best interest in mind.

I have written about Louisiana’s contracts with TFA. You are making quite a bit of money for that organization, an organization that also solicits millions in donations.

I am sorry you are being exploited for your youthful enthusiasm.

Allow me to address an issue of greater concern: The idea that TFA will try to “train” a subpopulation of its recruits to “become” special education “certified” (I use the term loosely), and to potentially (and mistakenly) believe that TFA has equipped you to professionally diagnose  and serve special education populations.

There is a March 2013 article that I read today in Huffington Post in which Matt Kramer, one of TFA’s two current CEOs, discusses his recent diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and how his education might have been improved had he been diagnosed during his formative years.

He then continues with a discussion of the high numbers of minority students classified as special education students. Given TFA’s frequent focus on gaps, it does not surprise me that Kramer proposes a new TFA “initiative” to help “close the gap” in the graduation rates of special education students.

What I find especially troubling is the lack of clear connection between his late ADHD diagnosis and wishing it had come sooner in his life and his announcement that TFA is now going to “train” select TFAers to “help” special education students to “reach their potential.”

Kramer clearly believes that one year of training for a two-year TFA stint in special education is just fine for all involved:

The communities where Teach For America corps members teach have a particularly high need for additional special education support, as Black, Latino and Native American students are overrepresented in special education courses nationwide. Special education diagnoses are sometimes used as a way to help kids get the support they need, but in these communities, generic diagnoses are too often used to rationalize the struggles of students who already face many other challenges. Adding to their challenges is the fact that, according to the Department of Education, 46 states face a teaching shortage in special education subjects.

Because over 10 percent of our corps work in special education contexts — and likely all 11,000 teach at least one student with some level of learning difference — we feel a strong responsibility to help create a culture of high expectations and tailored learning for special education students.

To aid in that effort, Teach For America is launching its Special Education and Ability Initiative to enlist and develop more leadership for the movement underway in America today to ensure that every child gets access to an excellent education, regardless of how they learn. Over the last 24 years, we’ve learned about the power of excellent teaching to change lives, and we’ve learned about the importance of ensuring that the leaders influencing the educational and related systems from every angle are grounded in the perspectives that come from teaching successfully in high needs schools. Nowhere are those lessons more important than in our work in special education. [Emphasis added.]

Thus, I am left with this question:

Is TFA going to put its young, idealistic recruits in the position of not only attempting to “serve” special education students but also to 1) serve as catalysts for “identifying” disorders such as ADHD in the regular education population and 2) to attempt to “un-diagnose” special education students or dangerously push a vulnerable population beyond limits determined by true special education professionals?

Before I proceed with my advice to you, allow me to address the issue of my credentials and experience. I want you to absorb what I am writing to you and not to dismiss me as “one of those lazy, less intelligent, less capable teachers” you have been drilled to believe must populate public school classrooms.

First, let me warn you that I have only ever attended public schools and state universities. I have never participated in an honors program, and I was not required to take standardized tests except in elementary school.

I graduated from LSU in 1991 in the top five percent of my class. I do not know my exact ranking, but I do know that it was in approximately the top 100 out of 2000 graduates. In 1998, I graduated with a masters degree in guidance and counseling from the University of West Georgia. My GPA was 4.0. I continued on for my Ph.D. in applied statistics and research methods with a counselor education concentration at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC). My UNC GPA was 3.96; in four years, I earned all A’s except for one B. I have 50 hours in professional counseling beyond my masters and am license-eligible as a counselor practitioner in Colorado. I am certified as both a classroom teacher and school counselor in Louisiana.

I have taught for 22 years (19 full time) in grades 7 through graduate school in three subjects (English, German, statistics) in four states (Louisiana, Georgia, Colorado, and Indiana). I have taught in regular and alternative education classrooms.

And because you have been told that this means something, let me add that I have been rated as a “highly effective teacher” based upon both administrative observation as well as student test scores. (Rating me via my students’ test scores has less to do with me and more to do with the students scheduled into my classes– including their backgrounds, intellects, and work ethics.)

So, now that you know that I fit even the TFA definition of an “effective” teacher, please listen to this advice:

No matter how it might seem, this “year of extra training” in order to promote “a culture of high expectations” in special education classrooms places you on dangerous and shaky ground, for it falsely assures you that you are prepared to offer a safe, non-exploitative, quality education to America’s most vulnerable students.

Do not presume that a single year of “training” positions you to diagnose or un-diagnose members of a special population.

For all of my credentials and experience, I do not presume to diagnose students.  Furthermore, I never tell students or parents, “You/ your child has [diagnosis].” I follow district procedure and offer my observations as a classroom teacher to our school counselors and psychologists, and I do so with years of counseling training and teaching experience to draw from.

My educational background, which includes a grounded knowledge in developmentally appropriate practice (“grounded” meaning years of study), combined with my decades in the classroom, allows me to read and understand my students well.

I did not achieve my professional skill via a seminar, or a year of training, and certainly not in isolation from my career as a teaching practitioner.

Do not place yourself in a position to damage the vulnerable via a naivete exacerbated by an inflated ego.

You could harm students. You could be harmed by students. You could be held legally responsible.

Do not mistake enthusiasm for invincibility.

If you really want to assist special needs populations, make the appropriate investment. Return to school and treat your decision as an honest, long-term career move.

Make informed decisions.


Mercedes Schneider

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Mercedes Schneider

Mercedes Schneider is a Louisiana public school teacher and education activist. She holds a Ph.D. in applied statistics and research methods and has taught for th...