Cloaking Inequity: A Primer for Engaging Teach For America Supporters

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Have you ever found yourself trapped in the insufferable position of having to tolerate a Teach For America true believer relentlessly bombarding you with justifications for Teach For America’s placement atop the corporate org chart of educational excellence?

Teach for America is a $300 million “non-profit” organization that executes a highly sophisticated integrated marketing communications strategy that includes traditional and digital advertising, a wide range of experiential and special event initiatives, and plenty of public and media relations.

With millions spent on corporate communications, it’s to be expected that Teach For America has crafted a concise list of focus-group tested talking points. With discipline matched only by GOP pundits, Teach For America’s “brand evangelists” (from the corporate communications team all the way down to the on-campus recruitment interns) stay “on message” by relentlessly repeating the same lines. The only problem? Many are deceptive at best, while others are downright false.

Here are some suggested replies for eight of Teach For America’s most tried arguments.

1.When a Teach For America supporter says: ”Teach For America might not be the answer, but it’s a part of the solution.”

This is how you might respond: To overcome the challenges associated with educational inequity, Teach For America’s standard of training would require it to be vastly superior to any school of education or alternative route – not less. Corps members would need the ability to deconstruct their own privilege, fully understand their own role in historically oppressed communities, and develop strong relationships with true veteran teachers (not Teach For America corps members who only taught 2 or 3 years). Unfortunately, with only a few weeks of training, and often zero student-teaching hours within the placement community or assigned grade, Teach For America corps members receive nothing close to the unparalleled training that would be required to systemically reduce educational inequity. In all likelihood, by providing the least prepared teachers to the students with the greatest needs, Teach For America corps members may be doing more harm than good.

2.When a Teach For America supporter says: “Teach For America corps members are more effective teachers. The Mathematica study shows that Teach For America corps members produce gains equal to 2.6 extra months of learning.”

This is how you might respond: First, there is no such thing as a test that measures months of learning. That would mean all students learn at the same pace. As any parent or teacher knows, that’s not true. In fact, the “gain” was just .07 standard deviations (miniscule in statistics). By comparison, reducing class size can increase learning by .20 standard deviations (3x more effective). Second, the study only included Teach For America secondary math teachers (136 of them), but claims that this is true for all Teach For America corps members regardless of whether they teach secondary math or not. In most communities, the majority of Teach For America corps members teach elementary, not secondary. Therefore, the miniscule test score gains in this study do not apply to the vast majority of Teach For America corps members. Finally, the Teach For America secondary math teachers who were studied were only compared to other first and second year teachers. They were not compared to teachers who have more experience. Since most Teach For America corps members quit teaching within the first 5 years, they never grow into becoming more effective, experienced teachers. Therefore, implying that Teach For America corps members are more effective than other teachers is patently deceptive.

For more information on the Mathematica study check out:

How I teach 2.6 months more of math in a year than the rest of you slackersNew Mathematica TFA Study is Irrational Exuberance“Does Not Compute”: Teach For America Mathematica Study is Deceptive?

3. When a Teach For America supporter says:  “Teach For America doesn’t take jobs from other teachers. Teach For America just provides corps members for regions that have teacher shortages.”

This is how you might respond: School districts run by politicians who are pushing for the corporate takeover of public education sign contracts with Teach For America to hire Teach For America corps members each year regardless of whether there is a qualified teacher shortage in the region or not. Chicago is a perfect example. In 2013, after closing 49 schools and laying off 850 teachers and staff because of “budget concerns”, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s hand-picked school board authorized an increase of 325 new Teach For America corps members at a cost to Chicago taxpayers of $1.6 million in addition to the salaries that the schools will pay Teach For America corps members. Teach For America corps members are now in direct competition with displaced teachers for available jobs at district schools and charter schools. Similar situations have occurred across the country including Boston, New Orleans, and Newark.

4. When a Teach For America supporter says:  “Teach For America doesn’t take jobs from other teachers. Teach For America just provides teachers for subject areas that have teacher shortages.”

This is how you might respond: Teach For America’s school district contracts make clear that Teach For America teachers are to be considered for all open teaching positions in a district, not just hard to staff subject areas. Teach For America’s contract with Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish Public School System explicitly states, “Teach For America Teachers will be hired by School District for vacancies across the full range of grades and subject matters and not restricted or limited to so-called ‘critical’ or ‘shortage’ subjects or grade level vacancies.”

5. When a Teach For America supporter says: “One third (33%) of Teach For America corps member alumni are still teaching.”

This is how you might respond: Teach For America’s data comes from their annual alumni survey. Unfortunately, Teach For America won’t provide that survey data to outside researchers to verify their claims. However, peer-reviewed research studies show that roughly only 20% of Teach For America corps members are still teaching anywhere after five years (the national average is approximately 50%).

6. When a Teach For America supporter says: “Two-thirds of Teach For America alumni remain in education”

This is how you might respond: Teach For America’s data comes from their annual alumni survey. Unfortunately, Teach For America won’t provide that survey data to outside researchers to verify their claims. However, it is widely accepted that many Teach For America alumni, including those who only taught for two or three years, go on to become principals at privately managed charter schools and run school districts. This begs the question, “Are novice teachers with 2-3 years experience really qualified to be running schools and districts?”

7. When a Teach For America supporter says: “Teach For America is not a part of a conspiracy to privatize education.”

This is how you might respond: In districts across the country, pro-business politicians are closing down public schools and replacing them with privately managed charter schools. Many recent court decisions have concluded that charter schools are not public schools even though they receive public money. A public entity is accountable to the public. A private enterprise is accountable to its board of directors and shareholders. Therefore, as public schools are closed and replaced by privately managed charter schools, the public school system is becoming privatized.

Teach For America’s role in this privatization agenda is by providing corps members to teach at the newly opened charter schools for wages that are often well below the first-year salary of local public school teachers. Recent documents revealed that many charter school management organizations are so dependent on Teach For America to provide them cheap labor that charter managers are reluctant to open new schools without Teach For America.

For more information on Teach For America’s connections to other agents in the privatization and corporate takeover of public education, read the report Mapping the Terrain: Teach For America, Charter School Reform, and Corporate Sponsorship by Teach For America alums, Kerry Ketchmar and Beth Sondel.

8. When a Teach For America supporter says: “Teach For America corps members will now have one year of training.”

This is how you might respond: This is a step in the right direction, but no details have emerged. Furthermore, it is being launched as a pilot program and will most likely not include all corps members. Therefore, Teach For America will still send thousands of the least prepared teachers into classrooms with children who have the greatest needs.

For all of Cloaking Inequity’s post on Teach For America click here.

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YOU CAN HELP: Do you have documents or information about TFA? Are you a TFA teacher that wants to share your experience in a blog. It’s okay if it doesn’t read like TFA’s slick promotion materials. Send to jvh@austin.utexas.edu

Written in conjunction with Sarah Ishmael.

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Chad Sommer

Chad Sommer was a 2011 TFA corps member and taught 4th grade at Chicago’s Rudyard Kipling Elementary School.