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Hyper-accountability, Burnout and Blame: A TFA Corps Member Speaks Out

Guest post by Jameson Brewer.

The rhetoric of educational policy is an ever swaying pendulum from the conservative right to the progressive left. However, in reality, in the decades leading up to and the ten years following the passing of No Child Left Behind, it has been neoliberal policies and practices that have dramatically shaped the American education landscape. Perhaps this claim is best characterized by the onslaught of hyper accountability that traces its most recent roots to NCLB. The neoliberal practice of hyper accountability, specifically that of teacher accountability, has led to an increase of labeling (e.g., failing schools), cheating (Atlanta Public Schools), and burnout.

As a traditionally trained educator who graduated from college at the beginning of what is now being called the "Great Recession," I, like many other graduates, found landing a teaching job very difficult. In fact, over the course of two years, I was only afforded two interviews; both of which denied me jobs because the only teaching experience I had was my student teaching. So, in an effort to satiate my desire to teach I decided that I would apply to the alternative certification program known as Teach For America (or TFA).

I entered the program with an open mind, but grew concerned as I learned TFA's framework. At TFA's summer Institute, corps members are told that TFA has studied the characteristics and practices of good teachers for the last twenty years and that they now have the recipe for reproducing quality teachers. However, TFA is unknowingly working within a false sense of reality and thereby creates a recipe that fosters disillusionment and burnout. Corps members come to TFA with no pedagogical or methods training, no specific content training and are told that if they simply follow the TFA system and work really hard that success will be had. The naivety of believing that standardized formulaic teaching will always result in success in every classroom across the country is indicative of individuals who have no experience with pedagogy and it sets the stage for disillusionment.

What struck me as worrisome was TFA's Academic Impact Model (AIM). All incoming corps members are indoctrinated into this neoliberal and hyper accountability model for gauging student and teacher outcomes. The Academic Impact Model holds that at the root of every student's success or failure is solely a teacher. TFA's Academic Impact Model (described in this document) teaches its corps members that the foundational building block of student outcomes are a teacher's skills, mindsets and beliefs. Those skills, mindsets and beliefs are then manifested as "teacher actions." TFA then argues that all student actions in and outside of the classroom are informed by their teacher's actions. It is then student actions that cause academic success or failure. It is by the AIM that corps members are told to evaluate their worth.

During the summer Institute, every aspect of the corps member's classroom and what took place there is scrutinized. When students show progress it is celebrated only to the point of acknowledging that even more could and should have been done. When students misbehave or fail on an assessment, corps members are told to look to themselves as the culprit. Now, this summer "training" does not mirror the classrooms that await corps members in August. TFA cooperates with district summer schools at the various regions where Institutes are held. Corps members work in cohorts of two or four to team-teach an average class of ten students for less than an hour each. Anyone who has a child in public schools or those who have braved teaching in them know that this snapshot of teaching is nowhere close to the realities of our nation's most challenging public schools, with class sizes of thirty or more.

In general, TFA's practices and theoretical framework like the AIM would appear to be in violation with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, in claiming that teachers can cause effective learning despite the physiological, safety, belonging, and self esteem issues students face.

TFA posits that the external realities faced by students living in low socioeconomic households are irrelevant and play no significant factor in student achievement. TFA teaches its corps members that a good teacher can overcome the ailments of poverty within the classroom if only they follow the prescribed methods for teaching. This line of thinking is in direct opposition to the 1966 Coleman Report that held socioeconomic realities of students as the largest predictor of academic success. The TFA uses Steven Farr's book, Teaching as Leadership (2010), as an introduction to teaching. The book states:

this [Coleman] report fostered a perspective absolving teachers and schools from responsibility for students' success or failure, encouraging a disempowering tendency to look 'outside their own sphere of influence for reasons why students are not succeeding.

(Farr, 2010, p. 5)

To what extent can an educator eradicate socioeconomic challenges through a well written lesson plan? And further, to what extent should teachers be held or hold themselves accountable for the correlation between poverty and lower academic achievement? Even good attempts by good teachers fail at times. But that is not the message TFA speaks during fundraising events or the message it teaches to novice teachers with no background in pedagogy or methods. The organization sets its corps members up for failure and demands that corps members take full blame for failing schools. Perhaps the old cliche is true. Those who can...do. And those who can't...well, they believe they can and join TFA.

Update: Please see a response to the comment below from duke_solaris here.


What do you think? Is Teach For America holding its corps members accountable for results? Or are they setting them up for burnout?


Jameson Brewer is a traditionally trained educator (B.S.Ed. from Valdosta State University) who struggled to find a job teaching due to the recession. He is now a 2010 Metro-Atlanta corps member teaching high school social studies in the Atlanta Public Schools.

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