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Teach For America Corps Members in Dialogue: Can this Model Work?

Yesterday this blog featured a guest post from a current Teach For America corps member, Jameson Brewer. The following comment was posted by another TFA teacher. A response from Jameson Brewer follows.

As can be expected from a Corps Member, this is a reasonably accurate depiction of TFA's Institute and AIM, with one caveat. In my experience as a CM, TFA pushed CMs to focus within their "locus of control" and work relentlessly to pursue academic achievement for our students. The way I saw it, TFA didn't tell us to ignore socioeconomic challenges (to do so would be terrible) or to call call these challenges "irrelevant." Rather, TFA doesn't believe that socioeconomic challenges are an excuse to justify the achievement gap, and believes that good teachers and good schools together can close the gap in spite of socioeconomic challenges.
Is it more difficult to teach in a school where students are plagued by socioeconomic challenges? Of course! It's much easier to teach middle-class (mostly white) students in the suburbs who are already at/above grade level than struggling (mostly minority) students in the inner city. But socioeconomic challenges aren't insurmountable, and the students in these communities can and do outperform their more affluent peers when placed in good schools with good teachers.
Countless TFA and non-TFA teachers prove this to be true in their classrooms every day. You can read Rafe Esquith's "Teach like your Hair's on Fire", or watch Stand and Deliver or Freedom Writers for evidence of excellent teachers closing the achievement gap that have nothing to do with TFA. Do some TFA CMs burn out? Once again, of course! TFA or no, inner-city or no, MANY first-year and second-year teachers burn out.

duke solaris

Response from Jameson Brewer:

I agree with Kovacs and Christie (2011) that The term "achievement gap...is an oversimplification of a [more] complex issue" (p. 152). In fact, their work argues that the achievement gap has nothing but widened over the last decades (including those that TFA has been involved) due to the growth in societal "gaps" that are the underlying issue of the so called "achievement" gap. Further, Darling-Hammond (2010) and Ladson-Billings (2006) point out, a more proper term for "achievement" gap is "opportunity" gap. Kovacs and Christie (2011) point out that the rampant incarceration, homeowner, healthcare, earnings and poverty gap are the real causes of the "achievement" gap (p. 159). Peter Sacks (2007) argues that,

The unavoidable policy implications are that good schools can go only so far in raising the achievement levels of disadvantaged children and that attacking the problem with policies that improve the social and economic conditions of individuals and families will be more effective than creating policies aimed just at schools. (Sacks, 2007, p. 14)

As for TFA's "locus of control," it is always used in conjunction with "Diversity" sessions, which are designed to aid CMs as they grapple with being more affluent and typically more "white" than the students and parents they serve. The other use of the term comes from the old "corps values" of respect/humility whereby a CM shouldn't argue with an administrator about issues and school-wide decisions "outside of their control." Without being able to quote directly from the materials (internal use only), CMs are to acknowledge that there are things "outside of their classroom" that they cannot control; however, they are to try and expand their locus of control. But, CMs are told that what happens inside of their classroom is within their control and therefore they should take ownership of that. TFA needs to do a better job of articulating how issues outside of CM control impact student achievement. As of now, the opposite is true. It is my belief that many CMs develop, from TFA that is, a belief that socioeconomic factors are irrelevant if there is a good teacher in the classroom. Steven Farr (2010) who writes for TFA argues that,

Highly effective teachers first seek root causes [for student failures] in their own actions. Because they see themselves as ultimately responsible for what happens in their classroom, they begin with the assumption that their actions and inactions are the source of student learning and lack of learning. (Farr, 2010, p. 185)

As you mention, the teacher in Freedom Writers did this very thing, that is, attempt to expand her control. She took on 2 or 3 additional jobs to have extra money to act as a surrogate parent for her students. And what happened? She sacrificed her family (her husband divorced her) and her balanced life. How could this be good for her, her family, or even her students? Certainly the film is moving as it is based on a true story; but, where are the other classes she teaches? Like CM's introduction to teaching, that is in a small classroom, the film is not an accurate depiction of what goes on in a school.

I saw a Corps Member Advisor (CMA) yelling at a CM to the point of tears blaming the corps member for her students not brining pencils to class. The CMA told the CM that she (the CM) clearly had not "invested" her students into learning, otherwise they would have brought a pencil. This is a good example of TFA teaching CMs to "expand" their locus of control while shouldering blame for failure.

The issue of burnout is dramatic within the corps. Not only are CMs quitting (only 88% of 2010 corps members started their second year) but so many that do not quit hate their lives. I think when corps members go weeks without communicating with their family members (Veltri, 2010), days without bathing or eating (Brewer, 2011), that is a serious issue. I think it is obvious that TFA's framework can be very dangerous as CMs work "relentlessly," as you and TFA call it, to the point of jeopardizing their health. This cannot be good for them or their students. Even Wendy Kopp has expressed concern over this issue. Kopp (2011) states that, "it is impossible to imagine hundreds of thousands of them [teachers] sustaining the requisite level of energy and devoting the requisite amount of time not just for two years but for many years, and on a teacher's salary to boot" (Kopp, 2011, p. 34).

What do you think? Does the TFA approach increase burnout by asking Corps Members to shoulder too much blame for issues in their classrooms that are beyond their control? Or is this an appropriate part of becoming an effective, responsible teacher?


References:

Brewer, T. J. (Unpublished master's thesis 2011). Accelerated burnout: How Teach For America's academic impact model and theoretical culture of accountability can foster disillusionment among its corps members: Georgia State University.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). The flat world and education: How America's commitment to equity will determine our future. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Farr, S. (2010). Teaching as leadership: The highly effective teacher's guilde to closing the achievement gap. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kovacs, P. E., & Christie, H. K. (2011). The Gates' foundation and the future of U.S. public education: A call for scholars to counter misinformation campaigns. In P. E. Kovacs (Ed.), The Gates Foundation and the Future of U.S. "Public" Schools (pp. 145-167). New York: Routledge.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3-12.

Veltri, B. T. (2010). Learning on other people's kids: Becoming a Teach For America teacher. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Kopp, W., & Farr, S. (2011). A chance to make history: What works and what doesn't in providing an excellent education for all. New York, NY: Public Affairs, Perseus Books Group.

Sacks, P. (2007). Tearing down the gates: Confronting the class divide in American education. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

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