Maloney: Teach For America prioritizes students

As an often inspired and sometimes scared college graduate, I had the privilege of leading a 7th grade classroom in Philadelphia as part of Teach For America. Now, as an always excited and mostly overwhelmed graduate student and teaching assistant, I work with Yale undergraduates and do research on educational inequity. These two experiences give me a unique perspective from which to respond to Chris Lewine’s guest column, “TFA doesn’t prioritize teaching” (April 21).

Lewine obviously cares deeply about the educational system; I applaud his passion and join him in the call for a higher valuation of teachers in our country. He is absolutely correct in writing that “those of us considering going into education must explore our options” and that TFA isn’t for everyone. When I read the sentence, “The teacher is the single most important school-based factor that contributes to student achievement, and having an excellent teacher several years in a row can erase differences attributed to familial and socioeconomic backgrounds,” I cheered. But Lewine and I disagree when it comes to TFA’s mission and its impact in the classroom.

What is TFA? It is an important and efficient way to bring qualified individuals into the teaching profession in order to help end educational inequity. I don’t argue — and no one in TFA argues — that it is the only means of entering the classroom or ending the achievement gap. In fact, TFA works closely with other alternative teacher certification programs — New York City Teaching Fellows, TeachNOLA and the New Teacher Project, for example — to help supply teachers where they are most needed. The achievement gap will only be closed by all of us working together inclusively.

TFA most definitely is not “one specific, controversial approach to fixing our nation’s broken education system” — this being, according to Lewine, two years of teaching followed by a political career. Actually, corp members’ future career pursuits comprise a wide scope: as Lewine himself writes, “two thirds of corps members will stay in the teaching profession or go on to work for needed reforms within the field of education as policymakers, administrators and social entrepreneurs.”

In fact, I argue that TFA’s approach to ending the gap is as diverse as its alumni — we are teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers and homemakers. Each of us has a unique, specialized and long-term contribution to make toward ending the achievement gap. TFA’s push to elect alumni focused on educational reform and D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee have received a great deal of media attention lately, but it would be a grave mistake to think that all of us are focused on entering the political arena. Like most Yalies, I consider myself politically aware, but this hardly makes me a politician. And, even if 100 of us are elected to public office, don’t we want politicians who are focused on educational equity?

Lewine levels another charge at TFA: that the organization does not value teaching as a profession. Indeed, he argues that TFA thinks that “any smart person can teach” and that “teacher training has little value … [and] that teaching is not important enough to occupy more than two years of an Ivy League graduate’s time.” Because of the thousands of hours I have personally spent on my own teacher training through and because of TFA and the hundreds of hours I have spent interviewing prospective corps members for qualities other than “being smart,” I beg to differ.

The application process for the corps is structured so that we can look for qualities other than intelligence. We interview to find teachers who show persistence, achievement, ability to motivate others and respect for the local community. While research about the effectiveness of alternative certification is on-going, there is a great deal of published, peer-reviewed, easy-to-find evidence that suggests that alternative certification teachers are just as, if not more, effective than their counterparts entering from traditional certification

TFA focuses on teacher quality at all times by relentlessly training and developing teachers during the Summer Institute, on-going professional development over the two year commitment and the use of student tracking data to strive for higher achievement. As an aspiring researcher, I thought it was interesting that Lewine claimed that TFA wasn’t in the business of providing the best teachers, and yet failed to cite any evidence supporting his conclusion.

I, like the tens of thousands of other alumni, have devoted my life to erasing educational inequity in our nation’s classrooms because of my time teaching for America. I am no longer in my middle school classroom, but I will directly affect educational research and policy, not only through my own work, but also through the impact that my students (both 7th graders and Yale undergraduates) will have on the world.

TFA not only prioritizes teaching; it prizes effective classroom leadership in pursuit of an ambitious and audacious goal — that one day, all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

Patricia Maloney is a doctoral student in the Sociology Department and a Teach

for America alumna.


  • Jesse James Alred

    I AM a veteran teacher from Houston seeking a dialogue with current and past Teach for America (TFA) teachers regarding a pattern of TFA leaders and alumni promoting conservative ideas and profiting from close relationships with reactionary corporations, while presumptuously claiming to be a new civil rights movement.

    I first became aware of this when a former local TFA director, now a school board member, recently proposed to fire teachers based on test scores and opposed allowing us to vote to have a single union.

    The conservative-TFA nexus began when Union Carbide sponsored Wendy Kopp's initial efforts to create Teach for America.

    Union Carbide's negligence caused the worst industrial accident in history, in Bhopal, India. The number of casualties was as large as 100,000, and Union Carbide did everything possible to minimize taking responsibility.

    Ms. Kopp wrote in her book that she nearly went to work for the Edison Project, and was all but saved in financial hard times by its managerial assistance. The Edison Project, founded by a Tennessee entrepreneur, was an effort to replace public schools run by elected school boards with for-profit, corporate-run schools. Kopp's husband, Richard Barth, was an Edison executive before taking over at KIPP Foundation.

    In 2000, two brilliant TFA alumni, the founders of KIPP Academy, then joined the Bushs at the Republican National Convention in 2000. This was pivotal for Bush, since, as governor, he did not have any genuine education achievements. These charter schools do great service, but they start with families that are committed to education. They claim that they are improving public schools by offering competition in the marketplace, but they take the best and leave the rest. What sort of competition is that?

    Washington, D.C., schools Superintendent Michelle Rhee's prescription for improving schools: close them rather than improve them--and fire teachers rather than inspire them.

    TFA teachers do great work, but better schools are only part of the solution. Stable families are more able to be ambitious for their children than insecure, overworked and struggling ones. We need national health care, a stronger union movement, long-term unemployment benefits, generous college funding, immigration reform, trade policy, freedom for alternative lifestyles and reductions in military spending. Specifically, we need to enlarge the middle class by any means necessary.

    Our society has failed our schools by permitting the middle class to shrink. It's not the other way around. Economic inequality and insecurity fosters the achievement gap. It's not the other way around.

    Blaming teachers, public schools and our unions feeds corporate ideology and their power. Corporate domination of politics, and the weakness of counter-balancing forces like unions, are the obstacles to progressive change.

    Ms. Kopp claims to be in the tradition of the civil rights movement, but Martin Luther King would take principled positions--against the Vietnam War and for the Poor People's March--even when it pissed off powerful people. His final speech was for striking sanitation workers. His last book argued for modifying American capitalism to include some measure of wealth distribution.

    I would like a dialogue about what I have written here. My e-mail is Individual TFA teachers have a responsibility, because their work gives TFA leaders credibility. It's not the other way around.
    Jesse Alred, Houston, Texas