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Reinventing Teach For America

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I've been getting a lot of questions lately about my position on Teach For America. After all, I'm a critic of the organization (examples here and here). But in my recent Ed Week conversation with Julian Vasquez Heilig—a fierce critic of TFA—I found myself making the case that TFA does more damage with their rhetoric than with their practice. In short, whereas Julian argued that the world would be better off without TFA, I wasn't willing to go that far.

The status quo, however, is clearly unacceptable. TFA has tremendous political influence and has strongly penetrated the public consciousness. And their message—that they are solving the problem of educational inequity by placing lightly-trained novices into classrooms—does a great deal to undermine the professional status of teaching. The organization, whatever its practices (which aren't always so bad, and which I've written about here and here), promotes the idea that teaching is a temporary stepping stone. And perhaps worse, TFA's marketing department actively fosters the misconception that learning to teach just isn't that hard.

So what would I like to see from Teach For America? 

Mainly I'd like to see their outward rhetoric come into line with their internal practices. Outwardly, they profess to be a silver bullet for the nation's schooling woes. Inwardly, they admit that novices can't be trained in five weeks; they admit that being smart and hardworking isn't enough to succeed in the classroom; they admit that training matters a lot; they admit that issues like race and class matter; and, every once in a while, someone with TFA will admit that they worry about unintentionally undermining the teaching profession.

I don't see that happening, though. TFA has become a power player in the world of education reform precisely because of its outlandish rhetoric. And even though TFA wasn't designed to undermine traditional teacher training (see the chapter on TFA from my book Excellence For All), many of TFA's backers are very much committed to that aim.

In lieu of that, I'd like to see TFA set its most ambitious goal yet...a goal far more ambitious than recruiting 10% of all Ivy League grads to submit applications.

To put it as simply as possible: I'd like to see TFA set a goal of recruiting all of its teachers from the alumni rolls of the elementary and high schools where it places teachers. And here's why:

First, if TFA set this as its goal, the organization would have to truly commit to recruiting teachers of color and from low-income backgrounds. Those teachers might not only be more likely to relate to their students, but they also might be more likely to stay in those schools instead of counting the days until they can leave.

And second, if TFA set this as its goal, they might actually begin to recognize how much investment struggling schools need in order to succeed. After all, if TFA were to recruit exclusively from the alumni pool of its partner schools, it would have to ensure that students at those schools were being well prepared for college and beyond. Consequently, that might expand TFA's mission beyond parachuting novices down for two-year tours of service, to actually begin addressing issues like poverty and systemic inequality.

So to all the TFA critics out there, here's my pitch: TFA isn't going away. Not in our lifetime. Why not, then, pressure them to do something like this—a reinvention that would convert their power and influence more productive?

And to TFA, I ask this: What do you have to lose?

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