Katie Osgood is a special education teacher in Chicago currently working at a psychiatric hospital. She previously taught in the Chicago Public Schools.
Around the country, hundreds of college seniors and a handful of career changers are receiving letters of acceptance into Teach For America (TFA). Congratulations on being accepted into this prestigious program. You clearly have demonstrated intelligence, passion, and leadership to make it this far.
And now I am asking you to quit.
TFA probably enticed you into the program with its call to end education inequality. That is a beautiful and noble mission. I applaud you for being moved by the chance to help children, to be part of creating equality in our schools, of ending poverty once and for all.
However, the actual practice of TFA does the exact opposite. TFA claims to fight to end educational inequality, and yet exacerbates one of the greatest inequalities in education today: Low-income children of color are much more likely to be given inexperienced, uncertified teachers. TFA’s five weeks of institute are simply not enough time to prepare anyone, no matter how dedicated or intelligent, with the skills necessary to help our neediest children. This fall, on that first day of school, you will be alone with kids who need so much more. You will represent one more inequality in our education system, denying kids from low-income backgrounds equitable educational opportunities.
Many of you no doubt believe you are joining a progressive education justice movement; that is the message TFA sells so well. But TFA is not progressive. The data-driven pedagogy, the fast-track preparation, the union-busting, the forced exploitation of your labor, the deep-pocketed affiliation with corporate education reform are all very conservative, very anti-progressive ideas. Look no further than TFA’s list of supporters/donors. The largest donations are from groups like the Walton Foundation, of Walmart fortune, which has a vested interest in the status quo of inequality, breaking unions, and keeping wages low and workers oppressed. Or notice the partnerships with JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America, the very institutions that caused the financial collapse of 2008 and threw millions of Americans—including your future students’ families—into foreclosure, bankruptcy, and deeper poverty. These organizations choose to donate to TFA because TFA supports their agendas. If TFA was truly pushing back on the status quo of educational inequality, these donors would not only refuse financial support, they would be on the attack.
Ask yourself: Since when did billionaires, financial giants, or hedge fund managers on Wall Street begin to care about the education of poor black and brown children in America? If you follow the money, you will see the potential for mass profit through privatization, new construction, union-busting, and educational service industries. Why would a group dedicated to educational justice partner with these forces?
A Broken Model
In places like my city of Chicago, TFA represents a gross injustice from the very first day of training. TFA places up to five trainees at a time in our summer school classrooms. In Chicago, summer school is for children who failed courses during the school year. These are the children most in need of expert teaching and support; many have or eventually may need special education services. Instead, these students are used for practice as novice TFA corps members have their very first experiences working with a group of children. Last year, a phenomenal teacher friend of mine described his experience of having TFA forced upon his classroom, “They are using my kids as guinea pigs,” he lamented. This powerful, experienced teacher was told to sit silently in the back of his classroom. He was forbidden to give feedback as five novice TFAers fumbled their way through lessons for four weeks of a five-week summer term. Those kids will never get that time back.
TFA will tell you over and over that you will be offering something “better” than our traditionally trained teachers can provide. I want you to understand what even first-year teachers from traditional teacher prep programs bring with them: Preservice teachers are slowly introduced into teaching, beginning with many long hours of observation in multiple settings, along with discussion, reflection, and the study of pedagogy and child development. For many months, we practice small group instruction and short whole group lesson plans before moving on to extensive student teaching placements. The goal of this model is to minimize negative impact on children, and to create safe spaces for new teachers to practice under the watchful eye of a mentor.
Compare that to TFA’s model, in which novices take turns teaching a single group of students for four weeks, and then are placed in classrooms by themselves. Where is the time for observation and practice in different settings/age groups/subject matter/ability levels? How can anyone argue that the two types of training are comparable? And, if TFA truly offered higher quality prep, why aren’t schools serving upper-income students demanding first-year TFA teachers? The idea is preposterous. Upper-income parents would never allow uncertified, unprepared novices to teach their own children. So why should low-income students endure this type of injustice?
As former Chicago student and spoken word artist Rachel Smith explains:
Only see them for 2 years because we’re just a
steppingstone so they can get to their prep schools . . .
It’s time we refute these self-proclaimed saviors
and put our faith into the true educators,
who demand master’s degrees and double majors,
and not the ones trying to do the black community
a couple favors.
Understand the Pushback
Most corps members are being thrown into highly contested, politically unstable education environments. Here in Chicago, there is a massive grassroots battle under way led by parents, teachers, students, and community members to save public education. Over the past few years, Chicago has seen mass protests, acts of civil disobedience, and a successful teachers strike—all to protest devastating corporate education reforms being forced on our schools. Despite this mass movement, 50 schools were closed by our mayor’s appointed board of education, thousands of teachers laid off, and school budgets were slashed. Tens of thousands of parents have come out to plead for their neighborhood schools, to beg for more funding, to demand an end to excessive high-stakes testing, and to speak out for their beloved teachers. Each time, the board turned a deaf ear.
To add insult to injury, mere weeks after the announcement of mass school closings, TFA successfully pushed the board to renew and expand TFA’s contract with Chicago Public Schools. In the middle of this supposed “budget crisis,” CPS increased the funding to TFA from $600,000 to $1,587,500. The number of TFA first-year novices went from 245 to 325.
As a result, we have thousands of displaced teachers looking for jobs. We have dozens of quality schools of education producing credentialed teachers who are looking for work in Chicago and other urban centers around the country. We have quality programs like Grow Your Own, which recruits people from high-needs communities, supports them through a full teacher education program, and then helps them find work in their own communities. Unfortunately, while TFA is handed millions in public funding and private donations, programs like GYO struggle to simply survive.
Like many other cities (New York City, Detroit, and Philadelphia to name a few) we have no teacher shortages. We have teacher surpluses. And yet, TFA is still placing first-year novice corps members in places like Chicago.
TFA has developed a cozy, troubling relationship with the very people implementing these horrible policies. Here in Chicago, board of education member Andrea Zopp spoke at TFA’s 2013 induction ceremonies. New board of education member Deborah Quazzo, a millionaire businesswoman, once sat on the Chicago board of TFA. These ties represent massive conflicts of interest as the policies being passed by the board are benefiting TFA directly. TFA pushes their alumni to get elected to local school councils, democratic bodies designed to give voice to parents, teachers, and community members, where they promote their TFA-friendly corporate reform agenda.
In many placement areas, TFA is closely tied to the charter school movement. Charter schools are highly controversial; research has shown that they tend to exclude students with disabilities, English language learners, and students with behavior problems. Charter schools are usually nonunion, which leads to teacher exploitation and arbitrary firings.
To put it bluntly, the last thing our students—undergoing mass school closings, budget cuts, and chaotic school policies—need is short-term, poorly trained novices.
Why You Must Say No
This is just the tip of the iceberg of TFA’s role in the assault on teachers and public education. As people new to the world of education, it’s important to understand the context you are entering (see “Learn More About TFA”, bottom of page). Read what other TFA alumni have written, eloquently describing why they no longer support the organization. Investigate research on TFA, its effect on education, and the shoddy research they use to support their practices. Learn why TFA alumni and education activists organized against TFA last summer in Chicago. Follow facebook groups like Resistance to TFA. Listen when groups of college students launch anti-TFA campaigns on their campuses. Read about the school board in Pittsburgh, which recently rescinded a $750,000 contract with TFA.
This pushback has nothing to do with you personally. There have been multiple abuses already endured in the cities you are entering, which TFA exploits. How else are stakeholders supposed to respond as TFA takes precious resources from districts and states in budgetary crisis? Or as TFA steals jobs from experienced teachers and qualified, fully credentialed teacher candidates? Or undermines our profession with false claims that teachers need little preparation? Or partners with the very wealthy and politically connected forces wreaking havoc on our schools against the will of communities?
You new recruits did not create this current situation. But by participating in TFA you will become a part of the problem.
A Chance to Do What's Right
If you truly want to work with children as a teacher, give those future students the greatest chance possible by doing a full preparation program before teaching alone in that classroom. Those of us in the teaching profession welcome bright young beginning teachers with open arms. If you are not sure teaching is for you, volunteer in a school, tutor, participate in after-school programs. All children deserve a fully prepared teacher for every day of their educational careers. Please do not participate in denying them that right.
And please do not become a foot soldier for the corporate education reform movement. Do not partner with the very people trying to destroy public education for their own personal gain.
You have a choice to make. TFA may open doors to lucrative careers, help you get into prestigious law and graduate degree programs, even give you direct paths into high-paid jobs in the worlds of education, business, or politics. But are you willing to participate in the destruction of public education, destroy the teaching profession, and deny children experienced long-term educators?
Please make the right choice. And then join those of us on the ground fighting for real reform. We need your passion and drive.
Please, do not do Teach For America.
Special education teacher in Chicago
The commentary piece was inititially posted in Alternet: An Open Letter to Teach for America Recruits | Alternet.