Achievement Gap

Hey TFA Haters, What’s Wrong With a Little Idealism?

My daughter is the kind of college senior Teach For America (TFA) loves to recruit. A student of color at a top college who is deeply interested in working with children, committed to social justice and educational equity, with a work history that suggests she has the right temperament and leadership skills to face the challenges she will encounter in an urban classroom. I don't know if my daughter will be a teacher for two years, or five years, or for most of her career. It’s safe to say that’s impossible to predict for any 22-year-old (or any 42-year-old, these days), regardless of their major in college. I do know that if she becomes a new teacher, she will work her ass off, she will struggle, she will stumble—because that’s what happens when you launch a career and don't know what you’re doing yet—and she will evolve in some remarkable ways. But my daughter is not the kind of young woman that TFA-haters like Julian Vasquez Heilig and T. Jameson Brewer want in urban classrooms, because I guess they don’t want bright, idealistic graduates of color teaching children in hard-to-staff schools. They don’t see the value of young people who are, according to one  Harvard study, more inclined to believe that the achievement gap between wealthy and disadvantaged students is “a solvable problem.” Nope, they’d rather leave those new teaching jobs to the “professionals”—22-year-olds ( 80 percent of whom are white) who have been churned out of cash-cow education schools in state colleges, where  the average bar for success is notoriously low and the path to licensure is shockingly uneven and largely inadequate.

The Conspiracy

Vasquez Heilig and Brewer’s kneejerk and nonsensical criticism turned up in an otherwise illuminating and nuanced series of articles recently published in Education Week, “New Realities: TFA at 25,” which looks at the evolution of a highly influential educational organization celebrating its 25th anniversary next month. Vasquez Heilig, an education professor at Cal State Sacramento who consistently sacrifices academic rigor to defend his flailing establishment, offers this indictment:
You can set down 100 studies in front of me and try to convince me they are good for society, but the wealthy would never let their children be taught by TFA or by alternative [teaching] routes. Never.
Perhaps Vasquez Heilig is speaking for himself and his other wealthy friends, but this is pure malarkey. Elite private schools—which teach a fair share of wealthy children and are freed from the licensing restrictions that hobble many public schools—are packed with teachers who come from so-called “alternative routes” because they offer real-world experience and subject expertise (not just an education degree). And in my well-resourced public schools, one of the best teachers my daughters ever had came from an “alternative route”—and I’d trade just about any TFA teacher for my daughter’s high school Algebra II teacher, who is paid $135,000 a year to teach his students how to hate math. Then there’s Brewer and his refrain:
They’ve bought into the myth of meritocracy, the myth of the failed school, and that they need to fix the bad teachers and get into elected positions to spread vouchers, spread charters.
I’ve taken Brewer to task before for  misstating the obvious, but seriously? Failed schools are now a myth? How else would Mr. Brewer describe  the 1,400 high schools that graduate fewer than 60 percent of its students? Or the hundreds of schools where only a fraction of students learn reading and numeracy at grade level, year after year after year? Mr. Brewer, a former TFA corps member trying to build an academic career out of TFA bashing, is like many in his cabal of conspiracy theorists and status-quo defenders—quick to blame poverty and family dysfunction for academic struggles, loathe to hold responsible teachers and schools who either can’t see or squander the promise of their most vulnerable students.

When It All Falls Down

Here’s where his conspiracy theory falls to pieces: You have to buy into the idea that TFA is recruiting these 22-year-olds as political operatives to promote charters and vouchers—to carry out the nefarious aims of billionaire funders to destroy public education as we know it. Or at least swallow the notion that TFA, its approach and its corps members, can be simplistically reduced to “the standard neoliberal reform rhetoric of ‘Work hard, get smart’ and ‘No excuses,’” as Brewer describes in a  book review he penned about his own book and a second collection of “counter-narratives” from critical TFA alum. Brewer’s back story is instructive here. Brewer completed a traditional ed school program at a state college in Georgia, spent a year as a sub, and joined TFA “to find a teaching job during the height of the Great Recession.” The anti-TFAers would have us believe that as a traditionally trained teacher, Brewer would come in far more prepared than his fellow corps members and far more committed to a career in teaching, but he jumped ship after he completed his two-year commitment in an Atlanta high school— sooner than 60 percent of TFA corps members who continue teaching past two years—and he hasn’t returned to K-12 teaching. No shame in that, Mr. Brewer, because as we all know teaching is an extraordinarily hard profession—and not everyone is cut out to be a teacher or thrive in an urban school. But let’s at least acknowledge the hypocrisy of criticizing corps members as dilettante resume builders who are not truly committed to teaching. The attrition rate for traditionally trained teachers in their first five years (like yourself) is also too high and equally destabilizing for hard-to-staff traditional schools. It’s also interesting that Brewer’s “counter-narratives” focus not on the struggles of their most at-risk students but rather on the hardships reported anecdotally by the corps teachers—physical fatigue, alcohol dependency, weight gain, anxiety, “strained relationships” and even “vicarious traumatization.” Writes Brewer:
(Corps members) worked hard and still experienced both significant failures and unexpected negative life changes.
Puh-leese. Not to be insensitive here, but how is this different from the start of any other challenging career, when you’re in over your head and so much is at stake? I’ve seen corps members in classrooms, I’ve worked with alumni, and I’ve read the studies Vasquez Heilig loves to discount. I’m a supporter, but I’m not blind to TFA’s flaws. Nor is TFA blind to TFA’s flaws. I’ve been cheered by just how honest my daughter’s recruiters have been about the organization’s controversies and the challenges she will face if she accepts her assignment. Maybe I’m idealistic, but I’m proud of my daughter’s idealism. I want her to do meaningful work, make a difference, and yeah, change the world.
Tracy Dell’Angela
Tracy Dell’Angela is a writer, education nonprofit executive director and a mom passionate about education improvements. Previously, Tracy was Director of Outreach and Communications for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. She came to IES from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, which produces research that ...

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