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.