This week brings us to the midpoint of the fall semester, and with it, the usual stresses of mid-terms. For seniors, the end of the first quarter of our last year symbolizes a greater stress — graduation and the need for a plan. As parents, peers and professors frequently remind us, we all need a plan: a job, a spot in a graduate school, a novel to write, something, anything. As the pressure mounts, many seniors turn, as they do every year, to the plan that guarantees to impress at parties, that appears selflessly heroic without demanding any serious risks or commitments: Teach For America.
p. TFA is enormously popular at the College. Last year, 62 students applied. A recent interest meet-ing attracted 65 students, 15 of whom have already applied for the first of the four applications deadlines.
p. “We have a lot more people registered and interested than we’ve had before,” Matt Reamy ’05, a Recruitment Director for TFA, told me. “In years past we’ve had as much as 10 percent of the senior class applying.” Those applicants generally come from all fields of academic study, though students studying education comprise less than 10 percent, and students of the College’s graduate school of education have yet to participate.
p. TFA takes college graduates and, after a few weeks of instruction, places them as real teachers in real schools in low-income districts. The participants, who bypass the years-long process tradi-tionally required to become a certified teacher, teach for two years at their school.
p. TFA’s goal to halt the “educational inequality [that] persists along socioeconomic and racial lines,” according to its website, is certainly a noble one. But good intentions are not always enough, and, in the long run, TFA may be effective at little more than boosting the egos of its participants.
p. The number of scientific studies on TFA’s effectiveness is enormous: not only because it involves education, an issue of significant interest, but because TFA’s founder, Wendy Kopp, is an incredibly skilled public relations maven, having turned her self-declared “triumph” into both a book deal and a speaking tour.
p. The findings of those studies appear somewhat conflicted: some report TFA teachers are effective, others ineffective. School principals generally say that TFA teachers are “as good or better” than their certified faculty. But a Stanford University study of student achievement tests shows TFA teachers as less effective then their peers, perhaps indicating that TFA teachers are more skilled at impressing principals than educating students.
p. This is not a great surprise, given that TFA tries to educate would-be teachers in only a few weeks. Normally, teachers are required to earn certification over years of education, and then to prove their competency by passing two exams, the Praxis I and Praxis II.
p. TFA’s attrition rate is also problematic. According to a 2006 Newsweek article, “between 10 and 15 percent of [TFA participants] drop out before completing the required two years,” forcing their host schools to scramble for replacements while the students go without. Even if they do fill out their requirement, only one in three TFA teachers stay on at their school after those two years. 38 percent of TFA alumni do not work in education at all, and many of those who do leave the classroom for administration.
p. The problem is one of attitude. It is the class-driven noblesse oblige concept that, because we are privileged, we must condescend to the lower classes with bit of charity. It is the paternalistic belief that economically troubled communities cannot educate themselves and need college kids from suburban, mostly white neighborhoods to do the job for them. It is the subtle racism of lowered expectations.
p. Education, it assumes, must be imported in the form of privileged college kids who don’t want to take the time to get properly certified, but are just looking to do a few months of crusading before returning to the safety of the gated suburbs and that corporate career.
p. It is important to know that TFA is not a charity: participating schools pay TFA teachers just as much as other teachers, and out of their own budget. You take the place of a teacher who is probably more qualified and who is almost certainly a part of the very community in need.
p. Eschewing certification, though serious, is not Teach For America’s greatest fault: it is losing sight of the needs of the communities — not just the classrooms — and believing that it can all be healed by parachuting in a few white college kids for 20 months at a time.
p. If you really want to help, and I hope you do because the problems are real, there are other ways. If you just want a resume-padder or a good story for cocktail parties, join the Peace Corps.
p. __Max Fisher is a senior at the College.__