Let's get the obvious out of the way first. Five weeks of training. My flightiest fifteen-year-old students have longer relationships. The gestation period of a guinea pig is longer. Phileas Fogg could not even get halfway around the world. And even the "five weeks" is overstating it, because as numerous TFA escapees have noted, a large chunk of that five weeks is not actual training, but simply being dumped in front of a faux class to flail away.
The go-to analogy here is "Would you hire a doctor/lawyer who had only five weeks of training," but we don't have to get that fancy. I wouldn't let a five-week plumber touch my pipes or a five-week mechanic touch my car. When I worked a summer as a catalog order phone sales rep, I was trained for two entire weeks, and closely supervised for another month. The only jobs where five weeks of training are adequate involve either "Do you want fries with that" or "Paper or plastic?"
Schools need it. Schools serving poor and at-risk populations need it even more. Those students need to know that their school is stable, dependable, and there for them every day. Stability is not enhanced by a teaching staff that turns over every single year comprised of teachers who are just passing through. School is where students should meet adults who care enough about the children to stick around for the long haul.
3. A Solution with No Problem.
Maybe once upon a time there was a shortage of teachers (and by "once upon a time" I mean 50-60 years ago), but there sure as heck isn't one now. I find unemployment figures from 6% to 9% for education, and the anecdotal info matches that.
I can believe that Wendy Kopp's mission was noble twenty years ago. But twenty years ago I was married to a different woman, and that's not who I'm going home to tonight. Today's world does not need the TFA solution from twenty years ago.
4. TFA (among others) Doesn't Understand Economics
There are, to be sure, districts that have trouble recruiting teachers. The entire state of North Carolina is doing its best to drive teachers away. But economics tells us how to fix the issue. Heck, we're all instructed in this issue every time some criminal CEO gets a raise.
If you want the right people for a particular job, you have to pay what the invisible hand of the market says you have to pay. If you can't get anybody to work for you shoveling fertilizer for minimum wage, you have to pay more. At the very least, you have to make the job more attractive.
People who squawk about attracting and retaining top quality highly effective teachers keep acting as if this is some mystery. It's not. If you want to get people to do a job, make it worth their while. That doesn't necessarily mean money-- people work for autonomy and a sense of value-- but it certainly doesn't mean you throw up your hands and grab some 22-year-old temp with no training.
5. So Discover a New Problem, or Else
Since no teacher shortage exists anywhere, TFA has massaged its message. Because how are they going to stay in business if they simply announce, "You know what? The teacher shortage of two decades ago is over. Problem solved. We can all go home now." Nope. Instead, TFA has quietly changed its mission to something else entirely.
In this, TFA reveals itself to be a status-quo loving institution just like any other. Because the number one mission of every hidebound dinosaur of an institution, the ironclad law of the institutional jungle, is Self Preservation. And TFA has arrived at that magical spot where the mission is "Say whatever you need to, but keep our directors employed and the money rolling in."
6. Its New Mission Is More Bogus That the Old One
Teach For America works to eliminate this injustice by finding, training, and supporting individuals who are committed to equality and placing them in high-need classrooms across the country. Through this experience, they become lifelong leaders for a better world.
Points for honesty-- we're not even pretending that TFA is aiming itself at education, really. Notice that "teach" doesn't appear anywhere except in their name. And we're going to find these special snowflakes and place them in a classroom-- what they do once they're placed there is anybody's guess.
TFA has repositioned itself as an engine for equality. Twitter is awash in TFA tweetage about getting black teachers in classrooms, and TFA has made "diversity" one of its core values. TFA is hustling like crazy to get black men into the classroom, and of all the ways in which TFA has rewritten/tweaked its mission, this is one of the least objectionable. But its mission remains the same-- recruit the elite, the people who are just better than everyone else, and give them some classroom experience. Just by placing these superior humans in a classroom with, well, inferior humans, the inferior humans will be elevated. Why? Well...
7. TFA Doesn't Understand Mobility
The average TFA body's success story goes something like this.
"I was born into a rich family and grew up in a rich neighborhood. My family's connections got me into a top private school, and connections and money made it possible for me to attend a select ivy league college. Now I'm going to go help poor kids get a good education, because the most important factor to getting ahead in this world is education."
Or: "I was born on third base, which makes me uniquely qualified to teach people how to hit triples."
8. TFA Has An Arrogance Problem
TFA has built itself around recruiting and retaining people who are Just Better Than Everyone Else. And then it devotes tons of internal communication to reminding its people that they are Just Better Than Everyone Else. Consequently, many TFAers do not play well with others. They enter schools convinced that the professional teachers who already work there are the problem, and should be ignored. The best schools, even the most not-too-bad schools, depend on collegiality and cooperation. When TFA says "team," they mean their team, not the public school team.
TFA knows they have a problem. Another core value that they've added is "respect & humility."
9. TFA Wastes the Good Intentions of Good People
Many, many TFAers join up for the very best of reasons with the very best of intentions. These are people who really want to help make the world a better place for children who face tough obstacles. Instead, they are made part of a program that sets them up for failure in the classroom and wastes all their good intentions on simply enriching TFA itself. Some of these people actually end up staying in teaching for good, and God bless those people. But how many more of those good people would still be teachers if they had actually gotten involved in, I don't know-- a teaching program.
10. A Classroom Is Not An "Experience."
The classic Onion column said it best. These are real live students with real needs and desires and hopes and dreams and needs. They do not exist simply so that some future Master of the Universe can say, "Hey, I once spent a year in a classroom with some poor people."
Here's one way to understand Being a Professional: when you are doing your job, it's not about you. At all. When you are a doctor in an operating theater, your personal wants and dreams are the least important thing in the room. When you are a lawyer in court, you leave your personal issues for the day outside. And when you are a teacher in a classroom, the very last thing you should be wondering is "What am I going to get out of this?"
Students are not there to provide you with an experience. You are there to provide them with an education.
11. TFA Isn't Very Interested in Teaching
In addition to those already listed, TFA's Core Values are Leadership, Team and Transformational Change. Nothing about teaching. They talk about leadership a great deal, about establishing a culture of excellence, about how it is all challenging. TFA is interested in how the experience will foster your leadership skills and make you a better person when you finally get to your real job.On TFA's website, the verb "teach" rarely appears. Beyond the official materials, there's a lot of talk about TFA as a great resume-builder. But not a lot of talk about teaching.
I had a student teacher once who struggled a great deal. What became clear was that he didn't really want to be a teacher-- he just wanted to be the smartest guy in the classroom. TFA materials remind me of him a great deal. No talk of teaching techniques, pedagogical approaches, breaking down materials into manageable chunks, developmental appropriateness. TFA's pedadgogical approach appears to be, "Arrive in classroom. Be awesome. Demand excellence. Watch education magically occur. Quit and go to grad school for MBA."
12. TFA Diminishes the Profession
TFA institutionalizes the very idea that teaching is so idiot-simple that anybody can do it. Well, at least anybody from among the elite. That feeds very nicely into the newly-reformed conception of teachers as Content Delivery Units. If the teacher's job is just to unpack the unit from Pearson's shipping carton and read the script to the students-- well, yes, if teaching were that simple, any idiot COULD do it.
Or if we decided that the only real job a teacher has is to insure good scores on The Test, well, most idiots could probably do that as well. In the end, TFA has solved its own first problem. If five weeks of training is insufficient to prepare someone to teach, well, then, let's ramp down the professional requirements of a teacher until it's something that you CAN be trained for in five weeks.