by David Safier
I've heard that Sunnyside School District is working with Ed Supe John Huppenthal to bring a group of Teach For America (TFA) teachers to the district. My understanding is, Huppenthal has promised to help Sunnyside with the initial costs to sweeten the deal. The latest version of the state budget includes $500,000 for Teach For America, which gives Huppenthal some walk-around money to peddle his wares.
Full disclosure: The Sunnyside/TFA connection is rumor-mill information, but the rumors are pretty well substantiated.
Teach For America already has a presence in other areas of the state, but currently it has no southern Arizona beachhead. Sunnyside would be the first. Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo likes to stay in Huppenthal's good graces, which may have something to do with his willingness to accept the TFA program.
My understanding is, Huppenthal's people approached TUSD with a similar offer, but it was rejected.
Teach For America is a controversial program. It's promoted by advocates for the conservative/corporate "education reform" movement, people who are big on high stakes testing, charter school expansion and de-professionalizing of teaching. It's criticized by progressives who are advocates for well-funded public schools and well trained, experienced teachers. Like most facets of the "education reform" movement, TFA is phenomenally well funded, with $500 million in assets and a $250 million a year revenue stream, a mixture of public and private money. The organization has lots of friends in high places — rich donors as well as legislators at the state and national levels.
Here's how Teach For America works. College graduates are recruited to teach for two years, often in schools with low income, mostly minority students. When they're accepted, they attend a five week summer boot camp. That's all the preparation they receive to work under some of the most difficult teaching situations in the country. TFA says the new recruits are trained by experienced professionals, but in fact the trainers are often TFA teachers with two years of classroom experience.
Once school starts, the new teachers are pretty much on their own. They get some help and guidance from TFA staff, often not much, and many of them reach out to more experienced teachers in the school for help, though that can be problematic. TFA recruits are given the impression that they're educational missionaries sent to save students from failing teachers working in failing schools. So when they find themselves overwhelmed by the task of dealing with 30 to 40 difficult-to-reach students, they have to overcome their initial disdain for their fellow teachers and reach out for help, and the more experienced teachers have to overcome their resentment toward these untrained recruits who think, or began by thinking, they know all the answers.
It shouldn't be surprising that many of the TFA recruits feel woefully unprepared for the classrooms they step into with only five weeks of summer training to guide them. Many of them are highly successful students from some of the country's best universities, meaning they have good educations and are generally hard workers, but the worlds they step into when they enter their new classrooms are foreign to them, as is the role of being a teacher in a K-12 school. Some experience feelings of inadequacy and failure at a level they've never known before and are devastated. Many leave long before their two year commitment is up. Few remain in the classroom for more than a few years.
The program has been referred to disparagingly as "the TFA temp agency," "educational tourism" and "drive-by teaching." Of course, its supporters deny this and trot out glowing success stories and questionable statistics to lure in more donors, legislators and school districts.
How effective are TFA teachers in the classroom? It's hard to measure, and the few reasonably objective studies are ambiguous. The best answer is, TFA recruits are either a bit worse, about the same or a bit better than similarly undertrained, inexperienced teachers. Since they tend to leave the classroom after a few years, their skills don't have a chance to mature. Before they reach what would probably be their best years of teaching, they're gone.
Like so many of today's programs which are supposed to save our schools from failure and turn our children into educational world beaters, TFA mixes some good ideas together with a heavy dose of smoke and mirrors. The program is more destructive than constructive, more focused on dismantling our system of public education than improving it.
There's lots more to say on the subject of Teach for America. Depending on the level of interest and comments, I may write more in future posts.