Friday, September 19, 2014

An Open Letter to My Alma Mater Re: TFA

Dear Allegheny College:

I was reading your latest alumni email with its nice batch of "Hey, you're great" quotes. It was nice in the usual boostery way, but when I saw an endorsement from Teach for America, it brought me up short. I'm sad to see Allegheny link itself to TFA. Let me explain.

I came to Allegheny in 1975. I enrolled because the school was not too far from home in NW PA, it was a comfortable size, it was a liberal arts school, and most importantly, it offered a stand-out non-traditional education program.

Let me deliver a rough reminder of how that program worked, because I doubt that many folks there remember it. My major was actually English-- Allegheny believed that Step 1 in becoming a classroom teacher was being an "expert" in your subject area. When it was time for student teaching, I had taken only a few ed courses, but like my cohort, I lived in the college's block of rooms in downtown Cleveland, where the college maintained a field office. As we student taught, we took methods courses at that field office in the evenings (down a floor and up the hall), including a course that we took from the professor who supervised our field work. He saw us in the classroom for about one to three hours about once a week, while we student taught in urban districts that challenged our small town selves to the max.

About two days after I had my diploma, I was in classes for my MA in Education, balanced with looking for a teaching job within forty miles of that field office. I needed to be there because the same professor who saw me through student teaching would supervise me through my first year. The state of Ohio issued a provisional teaching certificate, and while my school district considered me a teacher, the college considered me an intern. I took courses at that same field office, and was observed, less often, by the same man who had watched me student teach and who was familiar with my style, my strengths and weaknesses, my ongoing issues.

Few teacher prep programs provided such an intense level of subject matter study combined with serious mentoring, support and methods instruction that is directly responsive to the real situations the teacher is facing. Allegheny did not provide a traditional teacher background; it provided something far more.

So how the heck did you end up in bed with Teach for America?

I suspect that you may have been attracted by the social justice sales pitch. Teach for America has cycled through several versions of what its mission is supposed to be, but they have all been centered on some vision of social justice. And yet none of those visions have been rooted in reality.

Fix the teacher shortage? There isn't one, actually, and in places like Chicago, New Jersey and Cleveland, actual teachers are being shown the door to make room for TFA recruits. In New Orleans the district actually lost a lawsuit for summarily firing 7,500 teachers, many of whom were replaced with TFA bodies.

Improve high-poverty schools? One of the problems of high-poverty schools is a lack of stability. How exactly does it help to bring in people who have no intention of sticking around for more than a few years?

Teacher diversity recruitment? Studies of the teacher pool show that we do not have a diversity recruitment problem. Minority teachers are actually entering the field at higher rates than white teachers. The problem is that they are also leaving the field at a faster rate than white teachers. And remember those thousands of unjustly fired NOLA teachers? Three quarters of those were black.

There are additional problems with the TFA model. Most notable is the frontal assault on professionalism. Allegheny has been a pre-professional college for decades. Most of my fellow freshmen were pre-med, and the ones who weren't pre-med were pre-law. I can't imagine Allegheny ever supporting a program predicated on the notion that with five weeks of training, any undergrad would be good to go for providing legal or medical services out in the world. Allegheny's teacher program only allowed undergrads to become teachers with the understanding that they would be heavily supported, carefully supervised, and required to complete graduate-level studies of education within five years.

But TFA is founded on the notion that teaching isn't really so hard-- any smart person can basically walk into a classroom and do just fine. This is turn has dovetailed with the agenda of those who want to turn teaching jobs into high-turnover, short-term, easily replaced and therefor low-paying positions. Additionally, TFA buys into and sells the notion that the only measure of educational achievement is standardized test scores, as if raising those scores is the only important work that a teacher does.

Why would Allegheny support a program that claims that any reasonably bright college grad with no educational training beyond a five week summer session is ready to fly solo in a classroom?

Admittedly, fair Allegheny, you and I have had words yonder on the hill, most especially back when you gutted the education program that produced me. There were some nice-sounding words about ending one of the most forward-thinking and sound teacher training programs in the country, but the bottom line appeared to be the bottom line-- it was an expensive program to run (the word on Cynic Street was also that teacher alumni don't contribute the kind of big bucks that doctor alumni and lawyer alumni do).

TFA may well have started out with the best of intentions, but today they have become the shock troops in the push to dismantle public education and de-professionalize teaching. I am very sad to see Allegheny on TFA's list of top supporters, and even sadder to see Allegheny bragging about that connection. Read some of the TFA critics, such as former TFAer Gary Rubinstein, or look at why Pittsburgh schools terminated their TFA contract. It's an unfortunate choice, a bad choice, and I urge you to do your homework and drop your connection to the TFA program.

Sadly, I have no large piles of money to threaten to not give you, but I would gladly talk to campus leadership about this issue further if anyone wishes to do so. My alma mater, you can do better than this.


Peter Greene, '79

1 comment:

  1. Are there any places anymore that offer a similar program with such extensive support. I would imagine the percent of people who lasted beyond their first years must have been much higher.