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Education Tue Apr 22 2014

United Students Against Sweatshops Pushes to Kick Teach For America Off College Campuses

TFA forum
Chicago Teachers Union vice president Jessie Sharkey, former TFA corps member Jameson Brewer, UIC College of Education professor Rico Gutstein and Chicago teacher Katie Osgood speak out against TFA at a "Truth Tour" panel forum in Chicago hosted by United Students Against Sweatshops. (Photo/ Emily Brosious)

United Students Against Sweatshops, a national college student-organizing group, wants Teach For America to stop recruiting on college campuses.

Teach For America is a non-profit organization whose mission is to "eliminate educational inequity by enlisting high-achieving recent college graduates and professionals" to teach in low-income communities throughout the country for at least two years.

Last month, USAS launched a "TFA Truth Tour" to speak out against the organization at college campuses across the country and "expose the dark side of corporate education reform."

USAS National Student Coordinating Committee member Leewana Thomas said groups like TFA threaten public education.

"We will not stand by while corporate education reformers recruit college students into a deeply flawed organization that is undermining instead of supporting our public education system," Thomas said.

Jan Van Tol, a national organizer with USAS, said TFA is driven by a corporate agenda that doesn't treat teaching like a real profession.

"Public education is under attack by corporate-backed behemoths who pour millions into manufacturing a new pro-corporate education reform consensus on university campuses, propping up groups like Teach For America that treat teaching like a hobby, not a profession," Van Tol said in a press statement.

USAS is not alone in its opposition to TFA. Educators, activists and students around the country have begun voicing concern, even outrage, over TFA and its perceived connection to a corporate-driven education reform agenda.

The "TFA Truth Tour" stopped in Chicago last month for a panel forum at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Former and current Chicago educators came out to the panel to air their TFA concerns and grievances.

One of those educators was Katie Osgood. She actively blogs and speaks out against TFA and describes it as a "shady" organization that "lacks transparency."

Osgood taught for years as a special education teacher at a Chicago Public School. She now teaches kids with severe emotional and behavioral disorders at an in-patient psych unit in Chicago.

Osgood took aim at TFA's expansion into places like Chicago. She said TFA corps members displace career teachers when they expand into areas, like Chicago, where there are no teacher shortages.

She said TFA's deep ties to a corporate-backed movement to expand charter schools in Chicago troubles her as well.

This is an issue that other TFA critics, including the Chicago Teachers Union, have been similarly critical of.

Last September, executive director for TFA Chicago Jon Anderson responded to a blog post that accused TFA of quietly partnering with the charter movement and working to dramatically expand charter schools in the city.

Anderson took issue with the specific statistics that were referenced in the blog post but did not dispute the blogger's claim that TFA supports expanding charter schools in Chicago.

Anderson acknowledged that TFA alumni serve in leadership positions on "several high-performing campuses" in Chicago and said he would like to see more "great schools." However, he said TFA has a very limited role -- namely, the role of providing a source of educators -- in determining whether or not a school or network can grow.

He unpacked TFA's position on charter schools in a written statement:

"If there's an exposé to be written here, it's this: Teach For America is pro-great schools. In 2012, just over half of elementary students in Chicago's public schools met the state's bar for proficiency. And yet, across the city, individual classrooms and even entire schools are making real progress... In Chicago, that group of great schools includes a number of charter schools - places like the Noble Network. In 2012, Noble had nine campuses on Chicago's top ten list of highest-performing, non-selective public high schools."

Former corps members like Masharika Maddison see TFA's expansion as a necessary evolution, not a problem.

Speaking in a TFA promotional video "A New Mandate For Public Schools", Maddison describes a problem of "educational inequity" that runs along poverty lines in this country.

Despite these challenges, Maddison said TFA teachers are making amazing breakthroughs.

"Today, in a growing number of classrooms and schools, students are moving on to completely different trajectories," she said.

Maddison says TFA effectively provides quality education to children in low-income communities. Now, TFA is challenged to build on individual breakthroughs and translate that success across entire schools and districts, she said.

"For students growing up today, it takes leaders who channel their energy into ensuring their students have the opportunities they need and deserve," Maddison said. "It will take transformational leaders, working inside and outside of education - people with the conviction, insight and credibility that most often comes from teaching successfully in low-income communities."

Former Bay Area Corps member Masharika Maddison says TFA can, and must, provide excellent teachers to struggling communities.

Jesse Sharkey, vice president of CTU, is critical of that notion. Speaking at the "Truth Tour" forum, Sharkey said TFA's belief that enthusiastic, Ivy-league graduates can "fix" struggling schools in the toughest neighborhoods ignores real policy issues and teaches a sense of undeserved superiority to its corps members.

TFA tells its corps members that bad teachers are to blame for failing schools, Sharkey said. This perpetuates a sense of superiority based on privilege and social background within the teaching corps, he said.

"It's a very convenient excuse that people who have privilege anyway can tell themselves about why they can come into a large amount of inner city schools," Sharkey said. "But the poor qualities of schools are really caused by the behaviors of powerful people."

Like Maddison, Sharkey agrees that deep inequalities run along poverty and race lines in our public education system. But he says TFA is not helping erase those inequalities. If anything, its emphasis on blaming teachers distracts from real issues and necessary policy reforms, he said.

Sharkey said students and schools in wealthier communities excel while their poorer counterparts struggle largely because of resource imbalances, not bad teachers. Even great teachers can only do so much without the support and resources they need to teach the toughest kids, he said.

"When you ask the question of what it will take to fix our schools, to provide educational opportunity, you should start by looking at the deficits that schools have," Sharkey said. "I mean, it's not rocket science."

After 24 years in operation, TFA's overall effectiveness is still not entirely clear.

Some large studies, such as those done by independent research group Mathematica, show students with TFA teachers score at least slightly higher on secondary math assessments than of other new teachers. However, the studies showed TFA teachers were no more effective than other new teachers in elementary reading.

Another comprehensive review by the National Education Policy Center questions the accuracy of such studies. NEPC's review said it was not possible to draw conclusive results from existing research because many more factors must be included in any truly accurate comparison.

"The lack of consistent impact should indicate to policy makers that TFA is not likely the panacea that will reduce disparities in educational outcomes," NEPC reported.

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