Teach For America [TFA] and the State of Education

By David Greene, Fordham University Grad School of Education

It’s 8:30 am in a middle school classroom in the south Bronx, about 5 blocks from where I spent my teenage years. “R”, a 2nd year TFA corps member and I are in her classroom talking about her plans for the next period. We expect the kids to come up any second and get started.

Suddenly, two kids push open the doors panting, trying to catch their breath. “R”, figuring they were just being normally unruly 13-year olds, asks why they were running.

They tell us there were gunshots fired in a park half a block away where kids congregate before they enter the school. Then they sit and a couple of minutes later the class begins.

After class “R” tells me how scared she was and how her heart was racing uncontrollably for the entire class. She is amazed at her kids’ calm. “R” is from upper middle class suburban south Florida.

Barbara Veltri in her book, “Learning On Other People’s Kids: Becoming A Teach For America Teacher”) relates “J’S” story.

“One morning in the second month of school a fifth-grade girl is outside my classroom crying with family members: her big brother was shot by the police a few hours before. I was just out of “institute” and I had no bag of tricks. How did I know what to do?”

As a result of my direct work with cms in their schools and some basic research we can all do, it is clear to me that what the public and power brokers see and know do not match what goes on behind the TFA scenes.

Forget that Teach For America describes itself as a “national corps of outstanding recent college graduates of all academic majors and career interests who commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools and become leaders in the effort to expand educational opportunity.”

This is more the truth, as told by professor IRA SHOR of CCNY:

“TFA moves idealistic young folks into low-income schools with too little training when those kids need the most expert teachers, small classes, wrap-around services, and teachers who plan to stay from the beginning for the long haul as professional educators.”

TFA is more about money and power. Let’s start by following the money:

TFA has grown rapidly since 1990, with nearly 10,000 corps members reaching more than 500,000 students. Its budget, funded by a mix of public and private sources, now approximates $300 million, including a recent $50 million grant garnered from the US. department of education.

It is no coincidence that the same people who promote economic “freedom” and market forces, not equity, support TFA. They want to determine ed. Policy to gain profit. As Wendy Puriefoy (president of public education network) stated,” the market place of education is a big market. There is a lot of money to be made.”

The best examples are foundations like Eli broad’s, or the Walton family foundation, based on the philanthropic beliefs of Wal-mart founder Sam Walton. It is the single largest contributor to Teach For America.

Indeed, the upcoming film, Won’t Back Down” and the recently held “Teacher’s Rock ” concert Walmart is sponsoring to benefit TFA is a typical PR move to perpetuate the myth that TFA and parent trigger laws are reforming public education for the better.

Within the world of education foundations, Walton is synonymous with privatization and the promotion of vouchers for private schools.

How many American industries are left unexploited? To exploit the education industry, today’s robber barons are doing what they have done in others. Sidestep or crush unions, dissuade alternatives to their solutions, persuade politicians to do their bidding, and use media to successfully sway the public to their side.

In addition, TFA spends significant organizational time, energy and money on its alumni… Like Michelle Rhee. They are the source of the organization’s true political lobbying power. TFA puts them in positions of power. Leadership for educational equity (lee) is a 501(c) (4) nonprofit organization that was launched in 2007 to inspire, train and support Teach For America alumni and corps members to pursue public leadership by providing or connecting them to high impact volunteer and career opportunities in politics, policy, advocacy, and elected office.

Are we willing to lobby back in every statehouse? In every city hall? At every school board meeting? In congress? At the white house?

“Temping” is a word I’ve been using to describe what school districts now seem to want to do first using budget crises and taxation issues as excuses, then making the changes permanent.

They want to have a “temporary” corps of unqualified teachers who will last no longer than five years.

They want to make more teachers quit prior to vesting in pensions to reduce long-term pension costs.

They want to cut salary costs by decreasing the number of veteran teachers and replacing them with new teachers with a higher turnover rate within 5 years, and in TFA’s case 2 years.

Examples abound:
In Washington, D.C. former TFA corps member and schools chancellor Michelle Rhee laid off 229 teachers, but only six of the 170 TFA teachers in the system.

Boston planned to lay off 20 veteran teachers and replace them with TFA corps members until the union filed a complaint, according to an article in USAToday.

The charlotte-Mecklenburg school district laid off hundreds of veteran teachers but spared 100 TFA cms.

Dallas brought in nearly 100 new TFA cms, even though the district had laid off 350 teachers in the 2008-09 school year.

Huntsville Alabama, even with research showing its flaws, contracted with TFA via a $1.7 million contract to provide 170 teachers over the next four years.

In Detroit, the local education authority plans to bring in 200 Teach For America corps members after nearly a score of Detroit public schools are closed and hundreds of veteran teachers let go. TFA wants to start all TFA schools to replace those schools.

Montgomery ala is replacing fired veteran teachers with young teachers from TFA. This is but a short list.

TFA’s current labor policies have turned it into a source of “replacement labor” and into the role of union busting.

Are we ready to fight?

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I taught HS Economics for years. What we buy with our limited resources comes down to the laws of supply and demand, scarcity of resources, opportunity costs, and the values we use to decide what we would rather have. What we give up to get what we want more are our opportunity costs.

For a school district, the public determines that decision. The public tells the districts they want lower taxes. The public says teachers are good people, just overpaid and underworked. The public says they dislike the teacher pension plans our unions have fought for. The public generally thinks anyone can teach, even TFA novices right out of college with no training.
Yet the public also wants better education.

The problem is they value short-term economic solutions more. Their demands for lower education costs makes better education the unfortunate opportunity cost. If the public instead, tells district school boards they no longer want the less expensive education.
~ David Greene