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Chicago Public Schools Mon Jun 24 2013

Is Teach For America a Good Thing for Chicago Public Schools?

Chicago schools have seen reductions at almost every level over the past couple years. Cuts to teacher salaries, jobs, and benefits, student arts and athletics programs, and even entire school budgets have created a new austerity within CPS. Amidst all the downsizing, however, one educational element has been growing in stark contrast. Teach For America recruits are teeming into Chicago schools like never before.

Teach For America, a branch of AmeriCorps, is the largest school reform not-for-profit organization in our country. On a mission to improve education and break the cycle of poverty, TFA recruits elite college graduates, gives them about a month of intensive training, and places them in two year termed teaching positions at low-income schools across the country.

The program has been lauded by many for its success in drawing talented people into the field of education, and as former Chicago School Board President and current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "making teaching cool again." President Obama praised TFA corps members as "a generation of activists possessed with that most American of ideas -- that people who love their country can change it." In 2010, TFA was awarded a $50 million "scale-up" grant, to be paid over four years, through the U.S. Department of Education's Investing in Innovation competition. Their political support is almost ubiquitous.

But not everyone is as enthusiastic about the benefits of Teach for America. Here in Chicago, the program has come under criticism from the Chicago Teachers Union, community members, and even TFA alumni, who say TFA's rapid push to expand has betrayed its founding ideals.

When the organization was started by Princeton Alum Wendy Kopp in 1989, its original mission was to promote education justice by bringing talented teachers to schools who couldn't attract an adequate supply of qualified teaching applicants on their own.

A lot has changed in Chicago's education ecosphere since the '90s, however. Nowadays major budget cuts, layoffs, and school closings in Chicago have left an absence of vacant teaching positions. The added influx of TFA corps in the city means they now compete head-to-head for jobs with traditional teachers.

Since arriving in Chicago with 34 recruits in 2000, TFA's numbers have surged to a corps size of 500 this year, with over 1,700 alumni in the region.

CTU President Karen Lewis has been critical of the organization's growth for displacing veteran teachers, saying, "Obviously we're not under-served or understaffed or under-resourced in terms of teachers, and I thought that was the whole purpose behind TFA -- to provide teachers in areas that are under-resourced?"

In light of recent deep cuts to Illinois education budgets, there is considerable financial motivation for Chicago principals to replace experienced teachers with TFA recruits, who work for less than veteran teachers, particularly those with tenure.

Critics oppose the trend of replacing experienced teachers with TFA corps members who only receive four to five weeks of training prior to being thrust into some of the neediest schools in the city, and who come and go every two years. There's no continuity, no authority that students recognize, they say.

Teach For America has responded to the criticism by shifting promotional focus towards the higher quality of instruction their corps members bring to the table, insisting their recruits are more effective in the classroom than non TFA teachers.

But after almost two decades of sending their minimally trained elite college graduates into struggling schools across the county, the non-partisan data on TFA corp members' success is mixed at best.

In one of the most comprehensive studies on the matter, professors of education Julian Vasquez Heilig and Su Jin Jez found that TFA recruits generally perform equally to other non credentialed beginning teachers. TFA recruits did slightly better in math instruction than similarly situated teachers. However, Vasquez Heilig and Jin Jez's 2010 study found that TFA corps members performed less well than credentialed beginning teachers, and significantly less well than experienced teachers.

In the handful of instances where data does back up TFA's lofty claims, those positive academic results occurred in charter schools with vastly more resources than neighborhood schools, thanks to private wealthy donors.

Teach For America doesn't accept poverty as an excuse for low academic performance, believing instead that its elite recruits can come into any needy school and turn student performances around. Many critics have called that notion misguided and paternalistic.

Aside from TFA, most people agree that the effects of urban poverty run deeper than school. They can't simply be wished or worked away by motivated, well intentioned outsiders. TFA's refusal to see socio-economic class as a relevant factor in education reform puts all the blame for low student performance squarely on the shoulders of teachers.

Critics point to studies examining the complexity of low income urban education. They argue that just because students in low income communities struggle with academic success doesn't mean their teachers are failing them. The system is failing them. On a daily basis, Chicago students in low income communities face structural and cultural obstacles like segregation, homelessness, violence, hunger, and abuse that make traditional academic success very challenging, regardless of how good a teacher may be.

In 2010, the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) charter school was the first privately managed Chicago charter to officially partner up with TFA, who agreed to supply 25 corps to fill 25 teaching openings at the school. CTU blasted CPS for hiring the TFA recruits on the heels of laying off hundreds of veteran teachers, 600 of whom were still looking for jobs.

Not only are TFA corps members increasing their presence in Chicago's charter schools, but many charter principals and founders are themselves TFA alumni. This is thanks largely to TFA's 2006 School Leadership Initiative, which set out to increase the number of TFA alumni in school leadership positions by "fostering structured relationships with district, charter, and graduate school partners." As part of that initiative, Harvard Graduate School of Education in partnership with TFA and CPS crafted the Principal Leadership Pipeline, outlining a "fast-track path to school leadership" for TFA alumni to "become principals in targeted areas within Chicago Public Schools."

In the wake of the Chicago School Board's recent decision to close 50 schools and axe school budgets, this rise of privately operated charter schools is being met with increased opposition in the city.

When asked why so many successful TFA alumni opened charter schools rather than working for reform within the public schools, TFA founder and CEO Wendy Kopp praised charter schools for "giving educators the freedom and flexibility that they need to attain results." She has referred to her critics and critics of charters as defenders of the status quo.

Karen Lewis slams TFA's partnership with charters for feeding the momentum to shut down neighborhood schools, fire career teachers, marginalize the teacher's union, and turn more schools over to privately managed charters, many of which have been conveniently opened TFA alums. She says that impetus exacerbates the violence, disenfranchisement, and divestment in our city's low income communities.

TFA's influence on charter proliferation has alarmed many at a policy level as well. Groups like the Education for Liberation Network point to TFA's political connectedness, their deep pocketed policy lobbying efforts, and their top down push to privatize public education, as factors that have contributed towards Chicago's political embrace of charters. Education activists and privatization opponents have organized a summit at this summer's Free Minds Free People 2013 Conference in Chicago to address the TFA/charter problem.

Teach For America's "vision for Chicago is to be the catalyst for system-wide change." With strong political support, 500 active corps members, more than 850 alumni teachers, 60 alumni principals, and 49 alumni assistant principals, there is no doubt TFA is helping lead an educational revolution in Chicago's schools. But a grassroots, progressive revolution it is not. This could only be described as a top-down revolution; a bourgeois revolution. One that is helping to privatize education, an essential public good.

Intentionally or not, TFA has bolstered conservative education reform pedagogy by perpetuating the belief that teacher's unions are stalling quality education reform; that bad teachers are to blame for low student achievement; that economic inequality is an inconsequential factor for education reform; and that education reform is best left to private entities.

Why would tens of thousands of bright college graduates with altruistic ideals enlist as soldiers in this conservative revolution? Gary Rubinstein, a veteran teacher, TFA alumni, and prominent critic of the program explains his motivations as many do:

"It sounded exciting. For once, I'd be doing something 'real.' I'd be doing something valuable for society. I'd be making a difference."

Rubenstein laments that these days, TFA corps don't understand the negative impact of their participation in the organization because TFA itself doesn't accept the veracity of those consequences. It's spearheaded the largest liberal education reform movement of our time without asking the big questions.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. That is Teach For America's unfortunate irony. In its mission to enact progressive education reform and eliminate the cycle of poverty, it has advanced a conservative agenda that seeks to privatize education, undercut teachers unions, and fuel the decline of the American labor movement.

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Sam / June 24, 2013 1:03 PM


Very brave and well-done! Preach.

-An old ETown/XC pal

Irwin Irony / June 24, 2013 1:05 PM

Is it a failed attempt at irony that you have not one but two grammar errors in THE SAME sentence in this piece?

The program has been lauded by many for it's success in drawing talented people into the field of education, and as former Chicago School Board President and current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "making teaching cool again".

Wrong it's (not the only instance in this article, sadly) and punctuation goes INSIDE the quote.

I don't know if my comment is more douchebaggery or more asshattery but it destroys your credibility as a writer when you fail to follow the most basic of grammar rules.

KatieO / June 24, 2013 6:27 PM

Teach for America has gone far past being unnecessary into the realm of dangerous. TFA seeks to expand into the very neighborhoods experiencing mass school closings, layoffs, and budget cuts: They practice disaster capitalism at its worst.

TFA also shares an inappropriately cozy relationship with the appointed Chicago Board of Education (Andrea Zopp spoke at TFA's induction last week and the newest BOE member Deborah Quazzo was on TFA's Chicago Board.) CPS starves schools, closes schools, lays off teachers, and slashes budgets all while giving principals large incentive to hire TFA-type, novice teachers to save money with the new "per-pupil budgeting". These people pushing TFA would never stand for their own child or relative to be taught by an uncertified, inexperienced novice with only 5 weeks of poor training, but encourage it for "other people's children."

All of Chicago's children deserve fully prepared teachers. Instead, TFA seeks to grow their money and power instead of putting Chicago's kids first. TFA needs to leave Chicago. #GoAwayTFA

Andrew Huff / June 24, 2013 11:46 PM

@Irwin Irony: Well, at least a little asshattery, since grammatical issues can easily be fixed. And now they are.

Irwin Irony / June 25, 2013 11:39 PM

@andrewHuff B-/C+

Not all fixed yet....

"...expand has betrayed it's founding ideals."

Read the posts out loud slowly, replacing the contractions with words and if you say "it is" when you mean the possessive, stop and think.

We now return you to your regularly schedule asshattery.

Andrew Huff / June 26, 2013 11:27 PM

We now return you to your regularly schedule asshattery.

Something about glass houses and stones...

Andie / June 27, 2013 10:21 AM

Great article Emily. I remember learning several years ago that TFA's biggest internal goal is to outfit future business leaders with public school experience -- that this would make for more thoughtful, well-rounded, less-sheltered CEOs. At the end of the day, that's their goal -- and if turning education more and more into a business means more and more of their alumni have jobs, all the better for them. But our schools and kids suffer because of it.

Julie Hallums / June 28, 2013 1:13 PM

This spring, I wrapped up my 10th year teaching in Chicago Public Schools. I began my career as a Teach For America corps member and am now a National Board Certified Teacher and one of the 1700 Teach For America alumni that call our city home. Every day, I work side by side with educators from all backgrounds in the interest of our students and so I’m sorry to see the kind of false divides this piece puts forward. Our highest-need schools need as many excellent educators as we can provide. I’m glad Teach For America provided a path for to my career in teaching, just as I celebrate the paths my colleagues took to find theirs.

Stephanie Medina / June 28, 2013 4:58 PM

The depiction of TFA as a “bourgeois organization” discounts stories like mine. I’m came to CPS through Teach For America and am a person of color who shares my students' cultural and socio economic background. What’s more, this article sends the wrong message by pinning teacher against teacher. Whether from TFA or not, we are all working towards one common goal. Perhaps energy should be spend on how do we do the best we can with instruction in the classroom and not at pointing the fingers. As a corps member and alum, I certainly received support from TFA but I humbly also learned a great deal from non-TFA colleagues.

C. Patrick Erker / July 2, 2013 2:26 PM

The path to equity is littered with roadblocks. It’s a shame to add another--adults bickering over whether it’s a good idea to bring passionate, hard-working, young people into classrooms where they will spend at least two years (most TFA corps members stay on past their commitment) partnering with students and families to open up the doors of educational opportunity.

Dan R / July 3, 2013 2:33 PM

Until you can fire underperforming teachers with greater ease, CPS will have to find backdoor ways to bring about change.

andrea hill / July 19, 2013 5:31 PM

Not all TFA corps members are "minimally trained," Many TFA corps members are college educated TEACHERS who chose this path for more classroom freedom. I chose not to be a union teacher. I prefer a privatized education system with freedom to to teach to every exceptional child in ways that only a teacher child relationship can dictate, not a union.

R Batra / July 24, 2013 1:26 AM

Emily, there's another error in the first paragraph. "Teeming" is used incorrectly. The sentence should read "Chicago schools are teeming with Teach for America graduates". "Teeming into" is not the correct usage.

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