THE BLOG
10/31/2013 09:47 am ET Updated Dec 31, 2013

Boo! It's Teach for America!

With the amount of negative press Teach for America (TFA) has received recently, you'd think the scariest thing American children saw this Halloween is a corps member wearing her TFA hoodie.

TFA critics claim that the organization decimates unions, places under-prepared teachers into low-income schools that really need the most competent teachers, and creates a charter movement that succeeds by expelling all the miscreants. Above all, TFA allegedly serves as a band-aid that fails to cure the societal ills making teaching in low-income schools so difficult.

Catherine Michna, a postdoctoral teaching fellow, calls TFA "union-busting organization." However, the National Education Association, the biggest teachers' union in the U.S., stated that "no evidence suggests that the TFA contracts are being used to reduce teacher costs, silence union voices, or as a vehicle to bust unions." As a TFA alum, I joined a union in my first year because it made sense to me to be part of an organization that advocates for teachers.

What may scare some union members may be that TFA believes in teacher accountability. Teachers should be held accountable for how their students perform on standardized tests. Sometimes this test-driven accountability translates into principals firing low-performing teachers and school districts shuttering low-performing schools. Critics would argue that instead of firing the teacher, she should be given more support. Instead of closing the school, it should be given more money so that students, teachers, and the administration get the succor they need to improve. But there must be a middle path between offering endless support and handing out test-oriented pink slips. Surely both unions and TFA want to promote good teachers and help struggling ones so that all kids get the education they deserve.

A Harvard student recently wrote that "TFA drastically underprepares its recruits." In hindsight, I would have to agree that I was underprepared. I wish that I had more training in classroom management, more time as a teacher's assistant. When I got my placement, I thought that it couldn't have been a better fit for me. As an immigrant with experience teaching immigrant kids and co-directing an ESL program for adults, I was about to teach middle-school ESL reading and language arts. What could go wrong? I did not factor in several key things. I had rarely taught large groups of kids from households where neither parent went to college. I assumed all kids wanted to learn. Most importantly, I had very little training in classroom management of a low-income population. To summarize, I was handed my head on a platter very early on. Thankfully, I did see many of my students succeed, but I felt like a failure on a daily basis.

Here is the scary part: With just the five-week intensive summer institute and diligent ongoing support, research has shown that TFA corp members on the whole are more effective than other first-year instructors in promoting growth in math and reading for grades 3 through 9. Another recent study even points to TFA members being more effective in teaching secondary math than other teachers. How could this be given the very limited preparation corps members receive in comparison to someone with an education degree or even a Master's in education just entering the profession? Clearly, TFA is doing something right in selecting, training, and supporting its members. Or, education schools have some 'splaining to do. Here, I have to note that I attended a great education school while teaching and one of the best education schools in the country for my graduate work AFTER my two-year commitment. I sorely wish that I had known what I learned in grad school BEFORE hitting my head against the wall teaching kids. We also know that TFA has actually been adapting its training to look more and more like traditional teacher preparation programs, so it must realize that it has a lot to learn, too.

The scariest part is that U.S. kids are still far behind our own Common Core targets, even with TFA and many stellar education schools. Let's take the New York City example.

In NYC, only 30 percent of students in third through eight grade passed the standardized tests in English, and a sobering 26 percent passed in math. Moreover, the achievement gap persists. Whereas 61 percent of Asian students and 50 percent of white students passed the math exam, only 19 percent of Hispanic students and a staggering 15 percent of black students passed. Only 3 percent of ESL learners passed the English exam.

Except Success Academies, TFA's charter school partners, also had abysmal passing rates. The problem with Success Academies is that it really does kick out the kids who are not getting with the program. The suspension rate at their oldest school is 22 percent, much higher than the 3 percent average in that region. I guarantee more of my students would have passed their standardized tests if I could have just suspended the ones that chronically misbehaved.

But I like that at Success Academies, TFA newbies are placed into teaching assistant positions their first year. I wholeheartedly agree with this. How much pain to me and my students would have been avoided had I had more time as a teaching assistant? At a time when out-of-school factors such as poverty are growing worse in the some of the states with the lowest results on standardized tests, we really need to come together as a country to figure out how to move forward. Education schools have so much to teach us, but there is much to learn from TFA's big goals as well.

We know that teaching is primarily a female profession, and females excel at compromise and at getting things done. A recent article points to female senators playing a decisive role in ending the partial government shutdown. We know we can come together on significant issues to figure out a way forward that is more comprehensive, addressing not only teacher and administrator quality, but also the pervasive poverty that is making teaching -- something innately difficult -- even harder to do well. Transitioning from Halloween's spirit of fear to a feeling of Thanksgiving, let us be grateful that we have so many people wanting the best for our teachers and for our kids. Let's move past the blame game of Unions=Bad, TFA=Even Worse, to recognize the best of both organizations and work together to improve academic outcomes for our children.