COHEN: Celebrating mediocrity

The University’s lionization of Teach for America fails to attend to the organization’s weaknesses

On September 13, UVA Today ran a laudatory article about U.Va.’s place as a “top 10” Teach for America (TFA) corps contributor. The celebratory article gave me pause, as it continued to stoke the heroic one-dimensional narrative of TFA as the cure-all to urban public education in the United States. TFA is not a solution and U.Va. should exercise caution when trumpeting a program that has had such mediocre results.

Certainly, some TFA corps members have a transformative experience. For these lucky few, TFA is revolutionary — both personally and for the young learners under their care. TFA’s mission to lure energetic and passionate graduates of top-notch colleges and universities into public education is beneficial to urban schools. On the surface, the program appears to offer an antidote to the nation’s educational crisis, but in reality the program’s model, structure, and impact leave much to be desired.

TFA places brand-new teachers in some of the most poorly performing districts in the country. I have nothing against this practice, but rather condemn TFA for allowing these young teachers to flounder without proper professional development or support. Wendy Kopp’s organization pledges that its teachers are well-prepared and ready for the stark realities that they face. On the contrary, TFA’s institute is a crash course in lesson planning, behavioral management, and pedagogy. It is a foolhardy assumption to believe that anyone can become a competent teacher with only a summer of training.

It is commonplace for TFA corps members to cycle out of teaching after their two-year commitment is up. This rotating door continues to feed the achievement gap. Just at the moment TFA teachers are beginning to get their sea legs as educators, the vast majority leaves to begin other careers. Exhausted and burned out by the difficult task of learning on the job, TFA must replace their now-amateur teachers with a slew of rookies.

Over the last few months many TFA veterans have published diatribes against their former employer, condemning the organization for its lack of professional development and support, the antipathy it has fueled between corps members and established teachers, and the basic claim that TFA hurts young students by placing rookie teachers in environments that require experts. TFA is a powerful corporation but slowly voices are piercing through the silence to question the organization’s practices and philosophies.

It is a testament to U.Va. that a program as competitive as TFA hires so many graduates of this institution. With that said, U.Va. would be well-served to take a vocal stand against TFA’s organizational practices. U.Va. has the opportunity to be a leader among its peer schools in a progressive educational reform movement — to continue to push its undergraduates into teaching careers but into alternative programs that provide them with legitimate training and support (teacher residency, Masters in Education, etc.). I urge U.Va. to see beyond the glitz and glamor of TFA statistics. U.Va. should craft a community-wide culture that continues to glorify teaching but pushes beyond the TFA paradigm.

Benji Cohen is a second year in the history Ph.D. program studying the history of urban public education. Before enrolling at U.Va., he taught high school social studies.

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