Libresco: Train for America

Apocalypse Next

During the hustle and bustle of shopping period, it’s easy to forget that we have decisions to make aside from choosing classes. But, in a few weeks, all of the frantic chattering about seminar admissions will give way to discussion of summer internships and jobs. The seniors who kept us out of seminars will no longer be envied but pitied as they face the daunting prospect of finding jobs.

This may be a strange time of year to urge seniors to turn down prestigious jobs, but, if they start their search now, Yale seniors who have been accepted to Teach for America may still have time to find alternate employment for next year. For their own sakes, and for the sake of the teaching profession, they should.

Teach for America is the largest single employer of Yale students after graduation. While other teacher preparation programs are based on a year of coursework and student teaching, the organization gives recruits a five-week crash course in teaching methods and then throws them into some of the worst schools in the country without a support network. The program recruits students who are interested in teaching and community service, but instead of preparing them adequately, gives them such a guelling experience that over half of its teachers leave the profession after their two-year contracts expire. One in 10 do not even complete their contracted terms.

The revolving door nature of TFA placements makes it impossible for recruits to make lasting change in the failing districts where they work. Two years in a district is not enough time for a teacher to innovate, build up collaborative relationships with other teachers or challenge the school administration.

Advocates of TFA have sometimes defended the group’s poor retention rates by pointing out that many of its graduates go on to work in school policy or administration. This is not a reassuring statistic. These TFA graduates lead school districts without an understanding of the experience of the majority of teachers or substantial experience in the classroom.

Teach for America does more than just hurt the young adults who participate in the program, though. It also harms the teaching profession. TFA’s training structure reinforces the idea that teaching is not a skilled profession. Too many people enter the teaching profession because they “like kids” or because they feel that they must understand how to teach since they went to school themselves. These are not qualifications to teach. Perpetuating the idea that all teaching requires is enthusiasm and good intentions demeans the profession and encourages people who are neither prepared nor qualified to enter.

Students in Yale’s Teacher Preparation program take classes on teaching methods, shadow successful teachers and learn strategies for helping students with learning disabilities or for whom English is a second language. These students are better qualified to face the challenges of teaching and be leaders in education.

The programs created by TFA alumni are flawed in a way that reflects the skewed teaching experience they draw on. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), one of the best-known TFA creations, relies on constraining teachers to work within restrictive scripts, some of which specify schedules for the entire day and give the teachers lines to read when discussing stories with the class. This approach makes sense if teaching is thought of not as a skilled profession but as a task so simple anyone can walk in an do it. Although KIPP schools appear to outperform some public schools, these gains are more easily attributed to high dropout rates, which remove struggling students from the statistics and the self-selection bias of only including those students who were placed in the program by their unusually active parents. Instead of offering collaborative teaching and room for creative thought, KIPP creates an assembly line that underestimates the power of innovative teachers.

The enthusiasm of TFA recruits is laudable, but this is not the correct route to make change. TFA is right to try to raise the profile of teaching, but it would be much more productive for the federal or state governments to institute a GI Bill for exceptional teaching candidates. A prestigious loan-forgiveness program could recruit on campus, just as TFA does and place exceptional students in Master’s programs for teachers and then into schools. Trying to hide the tremendous work required to become a teacher by offering an exclusive fast track to the classroom, however, does teaching, teachers and students a disservice.

Leah Libresco is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.