A grassroots student organization called Resist Teach for America has some UA students questioning whether the program is appropriate for them.
Students United for Public Education, a group that fights for higher educational standards in public schools, started a campaign called Resist Teach for America that asks Teach for America to reform its model, which recruits and trains college students and allows them to teach around the country in cities that have a deficit of teachers. Eight universities across the country have already pledged to not allow Teach for America to recruit students on their campuses. The UofA is not one of them.
SUPE began campaigning last year, but the movement gained national attention after making #resistTFA a top trending Twitter topic Feb. 20.
“TFA promises ambitious college students that their hard work and good intentions are a crucial component of what it will take to fix the crisis within our education system,” according to the SUPE website. “Yet, as numerous TFA alums and professionals have made increasingly clear, rather than fighting inequality, TFA actually promotes it. It acts as a political force in its own right to push a vision of public schooling that further damages an already broken education system.”
Unlike the traditional Master of the Arts in Teaching program, Teach for America members are not required to have a degree in education in order to teach, according to SUPE. Instead, the organization assists them in getting the appropriate certificates, depending on what state they are being placed in, during the five-week training program.
However, Teach for America continues to train its corps members throughout their two year commitment, said Katlin Gastrock, a spokeswoman for Teach for America.
“We’re disappointed to see an organized effort to undermine the work we’re doing to make sure students get a great education,” she said. “At the end of the day, we have the same goals as the folks behind this campaign.It’s distracting from the real issue we could be collaborating on.”
Yet some educators still disagree with the organization’s practices.
“If the goal is to get teachers, or those acting as teachers, into high-needs classes, we should be recruiting recently retired, highly skilled, strongly motivated career educators to work in such schools,” said William McComas, a graduate coordinator for the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. “It makes no sense to deliberately recruit the least skilled individuals for service in the most challenging environments.”
SUPE claims the teaching preparation given to members is contributing to high teacher turnover rates and could be resolved by changing the Teach for America contract commitments. While students currently train for five weeks and sign a contract to teach for two years, SUPE wants the contract to change to one year of training and a five-year commitment.
“If TFA insists on its current training and commitment time frame, the least they can do is place corps members as teacher’s aides,” according to the website. “This may likely lower the prestige and attractiveness of the program and decrease its corporate donations, but it will benefit students by lowering the student-teacher ratio, allowing for more individualized attention and less strenuous working conditions for teachers.”
However, Gastrock said many teachers choose to stay in their classrooms once their two-year commitment ends.
“Students begin their teaching experience as corp members, but decide to continue on in this profession,” she said. “Two-thirds of our alums work in education.”
National Impact Evaluations seem to disagree with SUPE’s ideas. Mathematica Policy Research studied how teachers who were trained through alternative certification routes, such as Teach for America, impacted student success. They found that students taught by alternatively certified teachers scored higher on tests.
“We see lots of studies that validate our results, and we know we can always get better,” Gastrock said. “We are committed to constant self-reflection, and that’s part of the way we work. We know there’s a lot more work to be done to ensure kids get a great education.”
Teach for America studies show that 90 percent of teachers who are trained through the organization and are placed in high-poverty areas return for a second year. Eighty-three percent of traditional, degree-holding teachers who are placed in high-poverty schools return for a second year.
Yet SUPE claims the stories of students and Teach for America alumni are overshadowed by the organization’s marketing and recruiting strategies.
Some students and professors at the UofA have taken sides in this debate.
“Every student and every school deserve the best educators society can provide,” McComas said. “Poorly trained, but sincere individuals who stay in schools for a year or two until they realize that they don’t know what they are doing are of little help to anyone. We must all realize and be very concerned that Arkansas permits individuals to teach with less practical training than is required by those who would enter cosmetology as a profession. Yes, we need fast-track programs to get worthy individuals into the teaching profession with necessary pre-service experiences, but we must stop the TFA and other ‘alternative’ nonsense immediately. There is no alternative to a good teacher, and these programs help no one.”
Some students agree with him.
“I absolutely don’t think that five weeks is enough time,” said Katie Phillips, an education major. “I’ve been taking ESL classes for the past two years, and I have to take more next year. Even after that, it’s still going to be a learning process once I actually get in the classroom. TFA tends to put these new teachers in classrooms where a lot of the students can’t read, write or speak English. I understand the point of TFA, and it could be a good thing, but as someone who’s being trained to be a teacher and being trained to teach English as a second language, it’s too much knowledge to be compressed into five weeks. Getting a certificate in that amount of time means that these teachers aren’t spending all their time doing classroom training, either. It means they’re also learning what they need to pass the certificate program. That cuts into some of the training that the TFA recruits could be using to observe other teachers.”
Others think that despite the problems with the program, low-income schools are benefiting from the enthusiasm new teachers tend to have for education.
“In towns like Fordyce, Ark., schools are low income and have a lot of minority students,” said Kaitlin Martindale, a pre-MAT student. “The schools struggle to hire new teachers, so programs like Teach for America put teachers in the classroom who are young, energetic and excited to be there.”