A critique of Teach for America: is having the best of intentions good enough?

By Bianca Bruno

As many seniors are nearing graduation in May, they are forced to face something many privileged USD students have never had to deal with: an unknown future. Many of us have been conditioned from a young age to do well in school, go to a good college and get a good job. For those of us who want to affect social change through our work and careers, we face a selective and competitive job market. Social justice jobs are few and far between, especially at entry-level positions. However, there is one organization that is well-known for recruiting and hiring recent college graduates: Teach For America.

While this organization strives to close the achievement gap between student performance in low-income communities – usually communities of color – and wealthier communities, it has often been criticized for being a “quick fix” to a larger and pressing need for education reform. TFA has also been critiqued for infiltrating underperforming schools with under qualified teachers who would never be considered for teaching jobs in the more prestigious schools of wealthier suburban communities. More than that, it capitalizes on anxious soon-to-be college graduates with an advertising platform that publicizes itself as a resume builder, loan deferment plan and ticket into graduate school.

According to Elle Tozer, a Recruitment Specialist for Teach for America who strongly recruits from USD, the organization had applicants from over 2,600 colleges and universities in the U.S this year. In 2012, nearly twenty students joined the TFA corps from USD, which was an increase from 2011. This year there are seventeen students from USD who have committed to joining the corps with the final admission process ending on May 1.

USD students have many of the qualities TFA looks for in their corps members which, according to Tozer, includes believing in the potential of all students, demonstrated leadership ability, strong academic achievement, perseverance when faced with challenges, and respect for the diverse experiences of all people, among others. It goes without saying that many USD students do not come from the low-income communities to which they are sent to teach. They probably cannot relate to the experiences their students encounter and may struggle with remaining empathetic when there are state standards to be met and the focus is on academic performance. While this is not necessarily a shortcoming of TFA, but of state and federal educational standards, young corps members have only had a little over a month’s worth of formal training before being thrust into a classroom before receiving their teaching credential, which they work towards simultaneously while teaching.

Kelsey Perry, a senior who has been accepted into the TFA corps and will be teaching in San Antonio, Texas has career goals of doing educational policy reform or international peace organizing. She says she applied for TFA because she knew if she wanted to combat the bureaucratic problems teachers face in their schools, that having a firsthand account would serve her well. She has experience tutoring and is currently working with the YMCA’s PRYDE program for youth who struggle in school. She says that even if TFA alumni don’t go on to pursue careers in education, their experiences during TFA will inform the way they will live the rest of their lives.

“You will have different people and stakeholders who will go on and think about how their decisions will affect students,” Perry said. “You’re accountable to a vulnerable population when you do this kind of work.”

She also said that during the interview process she felt that recruiters didn’t really ask candidates if they knew what was going on with education problems today; she says many applicants don’t become invested in the issues until they’re going through the application process. She says that the best TFA candidates should be well aware of the problems in the education system.
“They can’t take anyone,” Perry said. “You have to be smart about politics and social issues.”

The best TFA corps members will be well versed on what’s going on in education today. Yet, even the best candidate cannot completely understand the students they teach in low-income communities unless they have lived through that experience. While TFA corps members change many lives for the better through their work with the organization, in order to make lasting changes to the education gap from within the community, one needs to have the cultural competency to do so.

A more relevant way to approach this issue would be to recruit strongly from colleges and universities within the neighborhoods and communities where TFA corps members enter the classroom. Undoubtedly, if this type of reform came from young people who had went through the same schools they went back to teach at, students would better identify with the teachers and see themselves in their teachers.
Another senior student who wishes to remain anonymous chose to drop out of the application process before his final interview because he realized that doing TFA would not only prolong his plans to go to medical school, but that he felt unprepared to take on the role as a teacher.

“I was shocked I got so far [in the application process] because I had no experience other than one semester of tutoring,” he said. “I have no credibility to be a teacher and I was concerned about the impact I would have. I didn’t feel I was ready for it and I would need to be better prepared.”

While he is confident in those USD students he knows who got accepted into the TFA corps, he feels that recruiters for the organization really push the benefits corps members receive for their two year teaching commitment, which can detract from the true purpose and intent of the program. This student came to the conclusion that while he wants to be involved with helping young people from low-income communities be successful in higher education, there are other avenues besides TFA that he can pursue.

Ultimately the work TFA does is good. No one can argue that well-intentioned young people with a passion for social justice won’t do good deeds in the classroom and community. However, many students go into this program with no career plans of being a lifelong teacher. They may want to do social justice work and TFA presents itself as the best opportunity available for recent college graduates.

Maybe if TFA invested in their corps members for longer, if they required that members receive their credential before they got in the classroom, more people could get behind this organization. But when it comes down to it, teaching summer school for less than two months can’t possibly prepare young teachers to go into the classrooms that need the most qualified and trained teachers.

Like many students at USD, I was recruited by TFA, but I never responded to the countless recruitment emails I received. My decision not to apply is mostly because I have no intentions of being a teacher. Myself and others who are without any intention of becoming involved in education long-term have no business being in the classroom. Despite their good intentions, applicants may want to reevaluate whether or not TFA is the best platform from which to pursue a career in social justice or advocacy work.

Teaching the next generation of students is not something to be taken lightly, and there are other means available to pursue careers in social justice.