Two Years for America

Confounded by the continuously growing complexities of the problems that plague our U.S. education system, I found myself feeling helpless late last week. In the portraits of dilapidated school buildings and insurmountable achievement gaps I have come across again and again, coupled with descriptions of the failure that seems to come with every effort to overturn the “broken system,” I began to wonder if anything will ever improve. I struggled to find a feasible way to feel like I could actually have an impact as an individual–struggling to make a difference in a web that has become so tangled and corrupt. The blame is spread from accusations of unmotivated and biased teachers, to students who refuse to try, to parents who are uninvolved, and to overarching cultural divides of socioeconomic status and race. So how does one girl–a fair skinned red head from a white upper class suburb in Wisconsin who now attends a white upper class college in Minnesota–begin to change the lives of kids who are swallowed up by the system?

Chewing over this question of purpose for how I will take everything I’m learning on this Hill and put it to use in the “real world,” I thought first of Teach for America. Idealistic and impressive, this program has been drilled into my mind as a courageous and meaningful way to spend 2 years before heading off to grad school and starting your real life. My impression of TFA plays in my head as one long scene from one of those uplifting education movies (think “Freedom Writers” or “To Sir, With Love”) where the bright young teacher steps into a classroom of seemingly hopeless kids and turns their lives around. I didn’t think about the shock those young college grads with 6 weeks of training and ambition to change world must feel when they are dropped into a classroom where 6-year olds have witnessed death, principals are not your friends, parents are hostile, and 40 students must somehow fit into 30 desks and pass a standardized test.

Despite my recent realizations of how deep the issues in education extend, I still saw myself as a potential candidate for this program. Talking with my parents and professors about where I see myself in two years, the name “Teach For America” was often casually tossed around. I would love to be a teacher. Creating my own major and working hard to avoid being tied into any one “track” during my college career, I made the decision not to pursue any sort of teaching degree right away. I always figured I could take care of my own education, pursuing graduate school and various career options before settling down to become a professor. However, after doing all of the research I have, working with elementary schoolers for the past three years, and thinking about what this country (and I as a part of it) needs to do to practice so much more of what it preaches, I want to get involved right away. This feeling of needing to feel that I will make a difference is what attracted me to Teach for America.

Encouraged by my independent study professor to do research on this controversial program and get to the root of its founding goals and principles, I began by exploring the Teach for America website (teachforamerica.org.) Page after page, this pride filled database spoke of the elimination of “educational inequality” and its disheartening reality that where a child is born determines the quality of his or her life and education. TFA recruits recent college graduates to break this cycle, and to teach for two years in urban and rural schools that have been labeled as “failing.”The alumni of TFA are paraded as leaders of large scale educational change–holding positions as superintendents and chancellors. Furthermore, the key finding and focal point of most articles across the website was the fact (stated in many different ways) that “Teach for America teachers are more effective than other teachers, including more experienced teachers and those fully certified in their field”(teachforamerica.org.) At first glance, this is a wonderful and impressive result of Teach for America. It shows how effective an intelligent, young, motivated, and idealistic teacher can relate to and inspire K-12 students who have essentially been lost and cultured to believe in their future failure. However, what does it say about the way we train and hire the teachers who are officially certified? The men and women who went into the field of education with the idea that this would be a lifetime career, and who remain in the system far longer than the majority of the TFA corps members who move on after two years? Why are they ultimately less effective than the rookies? Shouldn’t experience make you a better teacher? How do we bring back the ambition and motivation in these teachers to extend the youthful progress of TFA corps members after they leave? As many of those TFA alumni move on to take on roles of leadership or explore other areas of interest (law, medicine, etc.) any progress made reverts–left to start over again with each fresh young face.

Exploring the criticisms of TFA further with the help of every college student’s best friend Wikipedia, I was led to an editorial for the Minneapolis Star Tribune written in 2009 by Deborah Appleman, Carleton professor of Educational Studies. In a series of sentences that bite, Appleman points to Teach for America as an “elitist structure” where opportunistic college graduates are turned into heroes, and the stories of the children they teach are largely lost. These privileged youth enter schools believing wholeheartedly that they have what it takes to transform the lives of impoverished children and crumbling brick buildings that hold them for 6 hours a day. They go in believing that this is possible because they are the “best and the brightest,” but Appleman insists that they are “not professionally prepared to do so.”

Brendan Lowe, a Teach for America corps member who spent his two years at a high school in the South Bronx, critiqued TFA from the inside in a poignant post on his blog “Mind the Gap: An Insider’s Critique of Teach for America.” Here, he acknowledged his pride in the program’s ability to offer a sort of shock to the education system, but emphasized that it is not the ultimate solution. He organized his response by addressing the 4 major critiques of TFA:

1) [Members] are inexperienced and ineffective educators

2) [Members] leave after two years

3) [The organization] is a stopgap solution

4) [The organization] has a holier-than-thou attitude

Balancing his own criticisms with recognition of his own meaningful experience with Teach for America, Lowe ultimately agrees that each of these 4 common arguments against Teach for America hold water. In closing, he offers a suggestion: “Going forward, TFA would do well to push its alumni efforts as much as possible, thereby getting effective leaders into positions of power and creating the kind of profound changes that will, in time, eliminate the need for such an organization to exist in the first place” (Lowe.)

Though I understand the logic of this solution (and have thought about eventually trying to fill one of these positions of power in order to create change) I think that there is something to be said for a solution that involves keeping Teach for America corps members in districts longer. Perhaps the largest problem I have with the organization is that so many applicants leave their troubled classrooms after only two years. What if these college graduates signed a longer contract? What if they were able to work first on changing the broken systems of their classrooms, schools, and districts, before moving on to conquer the country? To me, it seems that a large part of the reasoning for why our constant efforts to reform the education do not succeed is that those in positions of power haven’t experienced all levels of complexity. What if we paid TFA members more to continue teaching in their assigned schools–sponsoring their grad school educations, certifying them officially with education degrees? This happens to some degree already, but I think that more could be done to promote longevity.

Overwhelmed with conflicting data and confronted with countless other sources to explore on the topic, I decided to search for something more anecdotal–discussing in depth a personal journey with Teach for America and the impact of one corps member. In “Taught By America: A Story of Struggle and Hope in Compton” by Sarah Sentilles, I found exactly that. Self described as a “blonde 21-year-old white woman from Texas with almost no teaching experience,”(xiii) Sentilles was a 1995 Yale Graduate with a literature degree. She saw Teach for America as a respectable break between degrees, and “something I wanted to be able to say I had done not something I actually wanted to do” (xiii). Taught By America is the story of how a mere impressive time filler became a new lens through which to live life. In 5 chapters of beautifully written descriptions of daily classroom struggles with everything from construction paper to child services, the triumphs of innovative lesson plans and the pitfalls of standardized tests stacked against children in underfunded and poorly run schools, and the unique lives of a handful of incredible Compton 1st and 2nd graders, Sentilles explores the roller coaster of highs and lows that is the Teach for America experience. She talks of all she did not know when she first stepped into her classroom of overturned desks and broken pencils (echoing closely many of the topics covered in the Courageous Conversations book study of my home town),and the journey she went through to finally decide that that she needed to make a radical change in her life. Leaving after her two years at Compton to take part in a theology graduate program at Harvard, Sentilles returned to Compton 7 years later only to see that it was largely the same. In an experience all too similar to that of Jonathan Kozol and the film maker of Waiting for Superman, Sentilles became familiar with all of the problems of the education system, tried her hand at changing them, and returned only to find that the status quo is a beast not easily defeated. Afraid that she utterly failed her former students, Sentilles sought to find them once more–combing the classrooms of high schools and phone books to meet with them again. What she found was largely depressing. They remained swimming against the current–struggling to survive in a system and society that expected them to fail. In publishing her book of their stories as still optimistic and hope filled 6 and 7 year olds, Sentilles “believe[s] that something else is possible for [her] and these children. [She] hopes that [her] life, lived with integrity, lived awake and engaged, lived with these children in [her] heart and mind, [will] do more good than harm…[she] will keep at it, knowing other people are keeping at it too, and hope that something good and just might emerge” (192). Her hope is my hope. Reading her story, and brief accounts of both sides of the TFA debate, I believe that if I were to participate in the organization and all that it entails, I would do it from the standpoint of complete investment. The obligation would not end in two years, it would last a lifetime. Those children would become my children. Their stories would become my story. I would spend years fighting for them, just as Sentilles made an effort to do. There are issues with the organization, it’s true, but I don’t think that means it isn’t worthwhile. For now, I’ll see where the next two years take me.

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2 Responses to Two Years for America

  1. The TFA detractors sound like they applied but weren’t accepted. A difficult program needs to be elitist to attract applicants because difficulty in itself does not make a program elite. For example, many graduate schools toss paper after paper at the student, thereby creating a difficult mountain of work for the student, but this not mean any employer considers graduation from such a program to be a worthwhile achievement. And of course, many difficult jobs (teaching, firefighting, dishwashing) would scarcely be considered elite jobs despite their critical role in society and the tremendous amount of trust placed in the worker. (Although the background checks for dishwasher are usually less stringent than for other positions, dishwashers are in a huge position of trust due to the role they play in public hygiene.)

  2. Pingback: Audacity and Humility: Becoming a Participant Observer in Students for Education Reform | growingupinamerica

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