Teach For America (TFA), an organization that recruits college graduates to teach in urban and rural low-income communities, has come under fire of late from collegiate and national organizations that threaten further protest if significant changes are not enacted within the program.
TFA was initially created to fill teacher shortages nationwide in the 1990s, but has since expanded its mission to diminish the achievement gap in schools nationwide. The organization’s website promotes its credo of education for all, stating that TFA is “leading an educational revolution in low-income communities across the country.” Despite this laudable goal, TFA has faced increasing controversy in recent years, especially with regards to its training of teachers and interference with public education values.
Members of the Harvard University Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) delivered a letter to University President Drew G. Faust on September 26 demanding that connections to the program are severed unless TFA implements several sweeping reforms by October 8. The protest is part of a larger national movement spearheaded by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), which avers that the organization devalues public education. USAS sent a letter to TFA executives, attacking it as “an organization that de-professionalizes the teaching career and displaces veteran teachers.”
The letter calls for TFA to make three substantial changes: the organization must send corps members to areas solely where there are teacher shortages, provide adequate training and support for teachers, and cut ties with corporations such as Exxon Mobile and JP Morgan Chase.
TFA Co-CEO Matthew Kramer has responded to both the USAS and Harvard protests, reasserting the mission of the organization and defending its core tenets of equalizing education. In his e-mail response to the USAS letter, Kramer addresses each criticism, stating that corps members apply only for open positions, corporate sponsors are choosing to invest in education and that training is being improved with the introduction of a program that gives college juniors another year of preparation. He concludes with the statistic “nearly 90% of our 37,000 alumni work in education or in low-income communities.”
With compelling arguments from both sides of the controversy, some Lynch School of Education faculty members were asked to weigh in on the issue. Megan Barry, a Graduate Programs Assistant and TFA alum, reflected that although she found teaching challenging, her time in TFA was a good experience overall. While she believes that the program “should recruit more people with teaching education backgrounds,” there is certainly something to be said for the goal of TFA: “they don’t want your zip code to determine what kind of education you get.”
Assistant Dean of the Lynch School, Audrey Friedman, also expounded on her thoughts on the program, stating not only that she feels that TFA does a disfavor to students by not ensuring they have qualified and well prepared teachers, but that to truly change public education, saying that “you have to change the infrastructural variables.” Essentially when it comes down to it, according to Friedman, “teaching is not a set of skills. It’s a way of thinking, a habit of mind… and not anyone can do it.”