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Teach for America's Public Relations Machine

I've got to hand it to Teach for America. No matter its mixed track record of achievement, it continues to get fawning coverage by the media ("Deferring Six Figures on Wall Street for Teacher's Salary," The New York Times, Jan. 3). I assume that's because graduates of elite colleges who shun lucrative offers from the private sector to teach in the hardest-to-staff schools are supposed to deserve high praise.

If I'm right, what does that reveal about our values? Are we supposed to be grateful for the sacrifices they are making? Or is that more important than the effect they have on students? Since I've already weighed in on the latter ("Top Collegians Won't Solve What Ails Classrooms," The School Administrator, Sept. 2008), I'll confine my comments to the former.

From its beginning in 1990, TFA always conveyed a sense of noblesse oblige to my way of thinking. As an Ivy League graduate, I know that the cachet of a degree can open many doors. But teaching should not be primarily a form of giving back, especially when it means teaching at inner-city and rural school with disproportionate numbers of disadvantaged students. I say that because it implies paternalistic arrogance toward the students being saved. TFA's two-year commitment underscores this feeling. Instead, teaching should be a professional career choice.

Some readers will no doubt respond that I'm giving missionaries a bad name. On the contrary, I have the highest regard for the work done by Albert Schweitzer and others. But they are not fundamentally teachers. As a result, the judgment made about them should be different from the judgment made about classroom teachers. Idealism and dedication, of course, are not limited to missionaries. The teachers I know have elements of both. The point is that missionaries and teachers have different goals.

The protracted recession has caused many graduates from top-tier schools to put their real career plans on hold and take their knowledge and skills to the classroom through TFA. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they perform as well as, or even slightly better than, traditionally certified teachers. To the extent that such performance helps students who otherwise would be shortchanged, I commend TFA. But let's not forget that there is hubris associated with TFA ever since it was the subject of Wendy Kopp's senior thesis at Princeton.

No amount of public relations spin will change that impression.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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