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Why Teach for America Isn't Welcome in My Class

A Fordham University history professor exposes the cynical and elitist underpinnings of the celebrated "Teach for Awhile" program.
 
 
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Photo Credit: gualtiero boffi | Shutterstock.com

 

Every spring, without fail, a Teach for America (TFA) recruiter approaches me and asks if they can come to my classes and recruit students for TFA, and every year, without fail, I give them the same answer: "Sorry."

Until Teach for America becomes committed to training lifetime educators and raises the length of service to five years rather than two, I will not allow TFA to recruit in my classes. The idea of sending talented students into schools in impoverished areas, and then after two years encouraging them to pursue careers in finance, law and business in the hope that they will then advocate for educational equity really rubs me the wrong way.

It was not always thus. Ten years ago, when a Teach for America recruiter first approached me, I was enthusiastic about the idea of recruiting my most idealistic and talented students for work in poor schools. I allowed TFA representative to make presentations in my classes, filled with urban studies and African American studies majors.

Several of my best students applied, all of whom wanted to become teachers, and most of whom came from the kind of high-poverty neighborhoods where TFA proposed to send its recruits.

Not one of them was accepted!

Enraged, I did a little research and found that Teach for America had accepted only four of the nearly 100 Fordham students who applied. I become even angrier when I read in the New York Times that TFA had accepted 44 of 100 applicants from Yale that year. Something was really wrong if an organization which wanted to serve low-income communities rejected every applicant from Fordham, students who came from those very communities, and accepted half of the applicants from an Ivy League school where very few of the students, even students of color, come from working-class or poor families.

Since then, the percentage of Fordham students accepted into Teach for America has marginally increased, but the organization has done little to win my confidence that it is seriously committed to recruiting people willing to make a lifetime commitment to teaching and administering schools in high-poverty areas.

Never, in its recruiting literature, has Teach for America described teaching as the most valuable professional choice that an idealistic, socially conscious person can make. Nor do they encourage the brightest students to make teaching their permanent career. Indeed, the organization goes out of its way to make joining TFA seem a like a great pathway to success in other, higher-paying professions.

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Five years ago, a TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said, "Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School." The message of that flyer was "use teaching in high-poverty areas a stepping-stone to a career in business." It was not only profoundly disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in "resume-padding" for ambitious young people.

In saying these things, let me make it clear that my quarrel is not with the many talented young people who join Teach for America, some of whom decide to remain in the communities they work in and become lifetime educators. It is with the leaders of the organization, who enjoy the favor with which TFA is regarded by captains of industry, members of Congress, the media, and the foundation world. They have used this access to move rapidly to positions as heads of local school systems, executives in charter school companies and educational analysts in management consulting firms.