Saturday, March 12, 2011

How America Got Suckered: Teach for America, The Inferior Product

We’ve all heard the saying – it takes seven times to hear something before you remember it.  Corporate education reformers are making sure we hear their messages multiple times in multiple ways. They are handing our communities inferior products on a silver platter.  And the reformers, who keep the platter, are saying, “Eat it. And like it.” 

Many Americans believe it’s lobster, when in truth, it is imitation crabmeat. The media is marketing these inferior products with gusto.  The politicians and billionaires stand and smile with Obama, while sharing an education reform business model that uses cut throat methods to slice and dice education in ways that fill the billionaires’ plates and leave our children with the scraps.  

We, as Americans, need to examine what they are dishing out and review these products with objectivity and common sense.  And, if we don’t like them, by all means don’t buy them.  We need to encourage others to step up and take a stand.  The American public is no longer complacent.  Madison, Wisconsin is leading the way and we are going to keep the drumbeat going.  Time is of the essence. 

So, I will say it again. Americans are buying an inferior product.  Corporate reformers are terribly concerned about getting a return on their investments.  Well, so are we.  Our tax dollars are now paying for the salaries of teachers who have had five weeks teacher training.  There is a lot of talk about the shortage of teachers in the urban areas and how Teach for America is a necessary band-aid during this crisis.  This reeks of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine – we have a crisis and the wealthy elite have arrived to fix it -  the TFAs are the only way! 

During this supposed crisis, which proclaims that our public education system is worthless, it seems we’ve forgotten to think calmly and use our common sense. I’ve been asking myself a few questions as I try to wrap my head around this anomaly that is The New Normal.  The inferior product during this induced crisis that I am currently questioning is the Teach for America program. I like to compare products and services, view the pros and cons, and see where I’m willing to bend or sacrifice, when it comes to my children and my community.

As I read about the Teach for America program my first red flag flew up when I read that the teachers within the TFA program are trained for a mere five weeks.  Here are a few questions I considered, as a taxpayer, while examining the value of the TFA program. After all, my tax dollars are funding the salaries of the final products of the TFA program.  Here are the questions, using comparisons, for my personal reflection:

Would I take my child to a medical doctor with five weeks training or a dentist with five weeks training?

Would I take my family car to a mechanic with five weeks training?

Would I allow my family’s house to be built by a homebuilder with five weeks training?

Would I take my child to a heart surgeon with five weeks training?

Would I hire a CEO to run my company if she had only had five weeks training?

Many Americans today are taking their children to a public school, where the child will spend his or her day receiving instruction from a teacher with five weeks training.  I find this incredulous.

The media, owned by the corporate education reformers, has convinced us that this is a good idea. They have called these teachers the cream of the crop. Young college graduates are joining the Teach for America program.  These individuals are well educated in other degrees and have a desire to work in our public schools for a two-year term. From what I have read, some are very excited about the prospect of teaching.

But I must ask, if you had to take your child to a doctor, would you prefer the enthusiasm of a doctor trained for five weeks or the enthusiasm of a doctor with eight years of training?

And let’s take it a step further.  Would you choose a family doctor who was only sticking around for two years?  I don’t know about you, but I really like to have a doctor who is going to stay in my community for the long term. I want my doctor to know my children’s history.  It’s also nice to have teachers who know a student’s history.  They can share the history with other teachers as a child grows; therefore, saving time and providing additional insight into a student’s needs.  When teachers stay at a school, it creates trust within the community.  Children living in poverty typically have seen many people come and go.  It is difficult to let your guard down and form bonds with people who might leave you in a lurch. 

So let’s talk about trust. How would you feel if you chose a doctor, and they told you she was highly qualified, when in truth, she only participated in a five-week training course? I think I might have to file a lawsuit if that happened to me.  Well, guess what? Teach for America teachers are labeled “highly qualified” and the schools are not required to tell you that the teacher has only had five weeks training.  Savvy marketing at its best. The corporate reformers love this. An inferior product labeled highly qualified, at a low cost. 

Denver, my home, is one of the cities in which the TFA program is running rampant.   TFAs are placed in our neediest schools.  George Will, Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post states, “Until recently - until, among other things, TFA - it seemed that we simply did not know how to teach children handicapped by poverty and its accompaniments - family disintegration and destructive community cultures. Now we know exactly what to do.”
When I read his statement, I was speechless.  The condescension and the backdoor racism astounded me.  The educated elite, with five weeks training, is swooping into our poverty stricken areas of America and they, single-handedly, are solving the problems of our poor and our needy.  However, before you get too excited, don’t forget, these elite may also choose to leave in two years, if they wish to return to their former lives, among the elite, of course.  They can spend two years experimenting on our poor and needy, wearing the label of highly qualified, and then they may choose to leave these schools in poverty stricken areas, where routine and relationships are paramount to the well-being of the children. And according to George Will, no one knew how to help our neediest schools until now.  That’s right, all of those teachers, with experience and teaching degrees, in the high poverty schools knew nothing. Really? I’m supposed to believe that?  I’m one of those teachers.
James E. Causey for the Sentinel states, “ appears that some of these Ivy Leaguers are using the program to help build a resume because many don’t stay in teaching.”  So, our children are being using as stepping stones as well? They are padding their resumes?  I’m not okay with that.  Are you?

More than 50% of TFAs leave after two years, and more than 80% leave after three years according to the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice.  I applaud those TFAs who stay and teach in the classrooms.  However, because many TFAs leave, schools have additional costs needed for recruitment and training.  Read the study by the Great Lakes Center for more statistics; there are plenty of them.  Regarding testing, I have seen pros and cons on test results with TFAs.  TFAs are very focused on teaching to the test; they need test scores to go up to prove the success of the TFA program.  More teaching to the test to prove corporate reform success - not for the good of the student - but for the good of the business.  The children are sacrificial lambs. 

TFAs are increasing in number.  They are spreading everywhere as charter schools pop up like McDonalds across our country.  Most TFAs have no previous experience as teachers, therefore, they can be paid less than the teacher with twenty years in the field.  They are highly desirable to corporate reformers starting charter schools. I have no malice for the young men and women who have joined the TFA program.  I am sure some of them have good intentions.  However, we cannot pretend that a graduate of a five-week training program is a quality product.

The TFA program produces an inferior product, and it is marketed with gold and glitter by the corporate reformers who can afford to spread the word.  Google “cream of the crop and TFA” and just see what comes up.

Teachers, with experience, are crucial to our country’s education system. It is the teachers with experience who are able to assess, evaluate and plan for the needs of every individual student, just as a surgeon who has experience with a particular operation, can assess, evaluate and plan the best strategy for each individual patient.

Experience creates effective teachers.  A teacher’s first three years of teaching are typically the least effective years of their teaching.  Moreover, if the teacher leaves when the two-year contract has ended, it appears we have sacrificed students' lives in an attempt to try out a well-marketed, cost effective product.  If we want to get cold and calculated, it sounds likes a poor investment of tax dollars to me.  You would think we would know better by now.  We’ve all stood in a department store aisle and asked ourselves, “Do I want to invest in the product that lasts ten years or buy the cheap product that will be broken in six months?” 

However, there is a big difference here.  When I’m pricing out a dishwasher or a washing machine, a child’s life is not at stake. 

A child bombarded by teachers with no training and teachers that come and go - well, simply put, this child may get lost along the way.  If the light goes out in a child’s eyes early on, it can be very difficult to find it again.  If this child is living in poverty, which is now reaching almost 25% of America’s children, this child needs the consistency of experienced teachers who plan to stick around. They do not need to be guinea pigs for an experiment by the elite.  I, for one, am not willing to sell these children an inferior product.  They already have too much on their plate, and it is not lobster.

The corporate reform marketing for Teach for America is glossy and is repeated in every form of media available. I don’t rely on glitz and glamour.  I rely on my common sense during this supposed education crisis.  Nationwide, teachers are being fired due to poor student test scores in poverty-ridden communities.  Nationwide, these experienced teachers, who had relationships and understandings of the culture and the school community, are then replaced with young college graduates from elite communities.  The more the media promotes teacher bashing, the more our experienced teachers will leave the public school system, either by choice or by dismissal. When I criticize the TFA program I find that people respond as though I just insulted their mother; the media is doing a bang up job of causing the public to forget common sense.

However, everything changes when I ask people questions regarding products and services that might affect their own children.  When I ask if they would send their child to take piano lessons from a teacher that had only played the piano for five weeks, they look at me, laugh and say, “Of course not.  Are you crazy?” 

If I ask them if they would take their child to a swimming lesson with a teacher who had been swimming for five weeks they roll their eyes and say, “Peggy, of course not - that would be dangerous, and why would I pay for my child to take lessons from someone who just learned how to swim?  What could they possibly teach my child?  They have no experience!”  I respond with an extra enticement, “Okay, but, what if the teacher went to Harvard?  Would that help?”  The response is laughter.

If I ask them if they would pay to have their child taught ballet by a ballet teacher who had only five weeks of training they say “No!  That is idiotic. Why would anyone waste their money and their child’s time doing that?”

I don’t know

I don’t know why experience seems to count in every profession except teaching in the public schools. 

I don’t know why we are okay with spending our tax dollars on the salaries of teachers who have not gone through extensive teacher training programs.

Why would we pay tax dollars to have our children take instruction from someone who doesn’t know what they are doing? 

Even if the teacher was kind and passionate, I simply would not choose to have my child take any instruction from anyone with only five weeks training in any field.  I care about my children, and my community's children, too much to allow that. Does the American public really believe that these billionaires care about our children?  Where is our common sense?

Contrary to what appears to be popular belief in this country, experienced teachers with teaching degrees actually know a lot about teaching and children.  I want my tax dollars to support teachers with experience, teachers with teaching degrees and teachers who are in it for the long haul. We must start listening to teachers, not billionaires, and quit buying inferior products from corporate reformers who buy labor for cheap and profit from our schools under the guise of foundations.  Corporate reformers are keeping their message in front of the media, but our voices are getting louder.  Cheap labor has no seniority, therefore, TFAs are less likely to speak up; the corporate reformers like this.  The more TFAs they can get in the system the more power the corporate reformers have.

However, there is good news. There are more of us voicing our opinions in multiple ways and multiple times. Join Saving our Schools March and Parents Across America to hear these voices. Many Americans see the K-12 market that has become the billionaire’s playground for profit.  And play they will, with a nod from our President. We are shaking our fist in return.  I will say it again, corporate reform style, the Teach for America program produces an inferior product.  I came to that conclusion using my common sense.


  1. You tell 'em, Peg. Thanks for assembling a good, concise, from-the-parent-heart list of unassailable reasons for getting off the TFA bandwagon. Plaudits.

  2. Hmmm, I'm not convinced. The reason is three fold.

    First, the retention rate of traditionally trained teachers is abysmal. Local experience is little different than the stats you present from TFA. I concede nationwide stats may be different, but lets say its 3 or perhaps 4 years instead of two. If one considers the future where tenure goes away and compensation drops, it doesn't seem unreasonable that the retention rates will become nearly identical.

    The five weeks of training in a given field can also apply to traditionally licensed teachers, not so much in the realm of pedagogy but in subject breadth and depth. The most obvious case where this occurs is in the domain of music educators, and its one that is not easily remedied. I had a sum total of 4 weeks of double reed coursework at uni, same as my peers who would go on to teach in the public schools. It takes years for a music educator to become proficient at all of the instruments they are called upon to teach... and students will suffer until their teachers reach a given level of mastery. The same can be said for most subject areas...mastery of the subject area takes time.

    Experience likewise doesn't count in medicine, nor aviation... Ie a 1st year resident in a hospital putting in 120 hour work weeks (all the while documenting 80) with a minimal of supervision is not going to be very sharp. Likewise, the commuter airline pilot who has to sleep in a crew lounge with the lights on as they cant afford a crash pad is not going to be fully on their game either. Its not just the corporate types trying to skim off profits, its that the average Joe feels such is all they are willing to pay for, and the value provided by such is adequate.

    The answer to all of this would include things like apprenticeship, ie the pairing of grey beards with n00b's for the first few years... but when society is convinced the status quo is too expensive, the mere mention of additional costs is anathama.

  3. This was my response to a teacher who reposted this blog to Facebook:

    With all due respect Bevlee, that was probably the least scholarly approach to a scholarly subject that I have ever read. Hidden in all the diatribe she may have a point, but she gave virtually no evidence for it. She kept banging the same drum about the lack of training, but when she got a chance to compare outcomes all she could say was "Well, they teach to the tests." - implying that the outcomes are comparable. Yes, the first three years for a teacher are the least effective, but they are that way for all teachers - and with all of the evaluations and observations in the early years they must show some competence. And yes, there does seem to be a high drop out rate, but she never gave the drop out rate for college trained teachers, so I have nothing to compare it against. It does seem that 20% of them decide to change their careers and go into teaching long term, and in the most needed locations at that. That doesn't sound like a terrible investment. I am only saying, that as a teacher you do yourself a disservice reposting something so unscholarly on the subject. There has got to be something out there that makes a better case (if not, it's time to re-evaluate your position).

  4. Hi Bob,
    Thanks for your comments. I purposely chose not to write about TFA with a scholarly perspective, so you are completely correct in that respect! There are many studies on TFA out there and you are welcome to google them if you are interested in looking at the pros and cons of investing in TFAs. However, education is not a business - it is about children who can not be quantified. My goal was simple - rely on common sense - rely on our own "spot on" parental instinct. Parents in Seattle recently said something that sent chills down my spine (they are opposing the TFA recruits headed to their public schools). They said to Gates, Broad and the other billionaires, "You cannot have our children." Indeed they cannot. Nothing scholarly about that statement but it says it all. Our children are not available for the experiments of the wealthy who have trampled on our public school system. I do not need any statistics, or any scholarly articles to tell me this - I need my common sense.

  5. Commerce now teaches, and possibly, believes that product and service quality no longer matters, and is all too keen to take short term profits rather than grow companies. All companies have little integrity, making them all fly by nights who could care less about collateral damage. This isn't by accident; hoe could it be?