In February 2011, Teach For America (TFA) wrapped up its 20th Anniversary Summit in Washington, D.C. Thousands of TFA teachers, alumni and supporters converged on our nation's capitol to celebrate, reconnect and hear then-CEO and Founder Wendy Kopp's vision for TFA's future. Unfortunately, instead of using that momentous occasion to announce the long overdue evolution of TFA's teacher preparation model, Ms. Kopp and her organization chose to double down. Gambling with and skimping on the educational opportunities of mostly Black and Latino children living in poverty, instead of providing the excellent learning resources our children need and deserve, including well-prepared teachers, is an insult and an injustice.
Currently, TFA systematically assigns brand-new teachers with only five weeks of summer school training to Black and Latino children in low-income communities. In addition, few TFA teachers remain in the classroom beyond TFA’s two-year requirement, depriving our children of experienced educators. These are bold injustices in a perpetually unfair education system that denies our children the critical resources they deserve and need to reach their full potential. The status quo educational inequity that assigns well-prepared teachers to middle class and wealthy White children and inadequately prepared teachers to our children must end.
Thousands of parents, students, TFA alumni, and members and allies of low-income communities of color are starting to demand better preparation for TFA corps members. Please join us in telling Wendy Kopp to reform Teach for America's model so teachers assigned to our communities receive at least a full year of high quality, school-based preparation before they assume responsibility for their own classroom and our children's education!
Unfortunately, instead of using that momentous occasion to announce the long overdue evolution of your teacher preparation model, you chose to double down on the status quo. The systematic assignment of brand-new teachers with only five weeks of summer-school training to Black and Latino children in our low-income communities is one of many bold injustices in an inequitable education system that continues to deny our children the critical resources they deserve and need to reach their full potential. In administering an inadequate preparation program, TFA perpetuates the status-quo educational inequity that assigns well-prepared teachers to middle class and wealthy White children and inadequately prepared teachers to our children.
In 2010, you announced an ambitious plan to double the number of corps members teaching in our nation’s lowest-performing schools—an ill-advised expansion boosted by a $50 million taxpayer-funded subsidy courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education. That is in addition to the many millions of tax dollars TFA receives annually from local, state and federal agencies, not to mention millions upon millions from major corporations and filthy-rich philanthropists, most of whom received the caliber of educational opportunities that many of our children can only dream about.
By 2015, you aim to prepare at least 25% of all new teachers in our nation's highest-need school districts--districts that, in most cases, enroll high percentages of Black and Latino children living in low-income households. Furthermore, through "Teach for All," your international spin-off, you are rapidly exporting your inadequate five-week teacher preparation model to low-income communities around the world.
Ms. Kopp, as long as TFA operates in our communities, with our children, using our tax dollars, we will hold you and your colleagues accountable for providing excellent teachers who are academically accomplished, well prepared, and truly prepared to commit to our families (instead of making a TFA-endorsed quick exit after two years, disrupting relationships and undermining stability).
To that end, we the undersigned parents, students, concerned citizens and residents of low-income communities of color, educators (including TFA corps members and alumni), business owners, elected officials, advocates, academics, taxpayers, and other education stakeholders, demand that Teach For America evolve to adopt an extended clinical model of teacher preparation of at least one school year, and a required commitment to teach for at least four years, in order to equip your teachers with the experience, knowledge and skills they need to better educate our children.
Specifically, we call upon Teach for America to:
1. Adopt a 12-14 month, clinically based teacher preparation model (which could begin with your current five-week summer preparation program) and require that all prospective TFA teachers commit to teach for a minimum of four years (including the full year of preparation) in the district in which they were prepared;
2. Redirect the enormous amount of federal funding (our tax dollars) you continue to receive from the U.S. Department of Education to planning and implementing the evolution of your five-week teacher preparation model to a high-quality, yearlong program (not rapidly expand your inadequate model in our communities);
3. Invest in research and development geared towards recruiting academically accomplished undergraduates and mid-career professionals, including increased percentages of Black and Latino candidates, who will commit to serving for at least four years in the districts in which they are prepared; and
4. Immediately stop exporting your current training model to low-income communities in developing nations. Children in those communities are just as valuable and worthy of well-prepared teachers as our children.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
It takes far more than five weeks of experience to achieve excellence in any profession. On average, it takes Teach for America teachers a couple of years to catch up to their traditionally certified peers. However, just as they are hitting their stride, most of your teachers leave the classroom. The oft-cited statistic that two-thirds of TFA alumni are working in other positions in or related to education is little consolation. Certainly, we need education advocates in a range of professions, and advocates with classroom experience offer an indispensable (though often disregarded) perspective. But every education advocate’s agenda should include well-prepared, experienced, highly effective teachers so more of our children are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to serve as the primary advocates for their own schools and communities.
It is also worth noting that a large majority of TFA teachers did not grow up in low-income communities of color. Recruiting a teacher corps that more accurately reflects the demographics of our student population is imperative, but we do not suggest that teachers from different socioeconomic and/or racial backgrounds cannot or should not teach low-income children of color. We do, however, believe that it takes far more than a few weeks of multicultural training to prepare one to deliver excellent culturally and community relevant instruction that draws connections between our children’s every day experiences and interests and broader national and global contexts.
Nearly all Teach for America alumni will tell you that they would have been considerably more effective in the classroom their first year had they received a full year of quality, on-the-ground preparation, working under a highly effective veteran teacher as they honed their skills and knowledge (see, for example, http://prospect.org/article/teach-americas-civil-war). Disturbingly, many of your alumni believe that, without significant pressure, your leadership team will never extend the five-week preparation model, even if it would significantly benefit our children. For our children’s sake, we sincerely hope they are mistaken. But several stubborn, our-way-or-the-highway statements over the past few years by your top brass, assuring the world that children from low-income households will continue to receive more of the same from TFA for years to come, suggest they may be right.
Clearly, the challenge of preparing teachers to serve low-income communities of color well is not yours alone—there are many other institutions, such as The New Teacher Project/Teaching Fellows and myriad university-based programs, that would better serve our children by adopting a rigorous, extended clinical preparation model offering intensive ongoing support. (The "urban teacher residency" model of preparation, now seeded in cities across the nation, provides a promising alternative that TFA should consider adopting or adapting.) But Teach for America, an organization that has received hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, that seeks to portray itself as the vanguard of educational equity and civil rights in low-income communities and communities of color, and that exclusively targets our communities, bears a heightened obligation to offer our children only the highest quality educational services.
To ensure our children their inalienable educational rights, the choice between academically accomplished teachers and well-prepared, experienced teachers must be exposed as a false dichotomy. TFA’s emphasis on recruiting teachers who have themselves succeeded in the classroom is commendable. Our children deserve teachers with strong academic skills, and certainly there are teachers working in our schools whose academic skills (and ability to impart those skills) are lacking. But if cultivating and recruiting academically accomplished new teachers who understand the value of a rigorous, extended clinical preparation program and a commitment to teach more than two years presents a major challenge, let us not lower the bar for preparation, but instead focus our resources and energy on more equitable incentives and supports such as free or heavily subsidized preparation programs, career ladders and improved working conditions.
We all are working toward that day you envision when “all children will have an opportunity to attain an excellent education.” But glossy rhetoric about "excellence," like its rhetorical cousins "educational equity" and "educational rights," is no substitute for the real thing. Even "good" and "improved" (the real deals, not just the rhetoric) are unacceptable--what they really mean is "good enough for low-income kids of color."
We hope you will join us by making sure the teachers you intend to place in our schools are properly prepared and evaluated before they assume responsibility for their own classroom and our children’s education.