THE BLOG
07/24/2013 09:45 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

Why Are We Burning Teach for America at the Stake?

In the last few months, the non-profit powerhouse Teach for America (TFA) has incurred heavy criticism, much of it coming from alumni.

In one blog post, special education teacher Katie Osgood urges new TFA recruits to quit. In an interview, a former TFA corps member and staff member describes her disillusionment with the organization that led to her resignation. And in Chicago, a city rife with layoffs in its public school system, an anti-TFA summit took place earlier this month.

Critics of Teach for America have been especially vocal regarding TFA's summer Insittute, a five-week crash-course in education for its recruits, many of whom have no background in teaching. For the five weeks of Institute, the new recruits learn to teach by teaching summer school classes under the supervision of a veteran teacher and TFA staff.

A litany of anti-TFA activists have come to the same conclusion: that summer Institute does not effectively prepare its corps members to take on the role of teacher in America's most troubled cities; thus, TFA teachers, with their lack of sufficient training, are not the people who should be in urban classrooms.

Quantitative research on this matter varies wildly. Some studies suggest that novice TFA teachers are not as effective as their credentialed novice counterparts. Yet others conclude that Teach for America teachers, many times, make the same impact -- no better, no worse -- as that of traditionally-trained teachers in urban communities, and that middle school math classrooms with Teach for America teachers at the helm make more significant gains than classrooms of traditionally-trained teachers.

Since research is so contradictory regarding teacher preparation, there is clearly a more reliable determinant of a success of a teacher: the personality, commitment, and the work ethic of the individual teacher, rather than the certification route they took to become a teacher in the first place.

And while I understand that five weeks leaves much to be desired, I maintain that nothing -- absolutely nothing -- prepares you for teaching in an urban classroom except for, well, doing it every day.

My background is relatively rare in that I experienced both training models. There are a few of us in Teach for America who were going to be teachers anyway and wanted to do so with the collective moment of TFA.

I majored in English and minored in education in college, spent all four of my college years working in Philadelphia classrooms, tutored students with special needs, completed a semester of student-teaching in a high school classroom in Philadelphia, emerged fully certified, and subsequently joined TFA, completing TFA's summer Institute program. Then, I began work on a master's. All that, and when Teach for America placed me in a high school English classroom in a Philly charter school, I still felt woefully underprepared for my students' unique personalities, learning needs, and school climate.

I learned on the job, and I'm still learning on the job, and any veteran teacher, TFA or not, will tell you that they primarily learned through authentic experiences in their years of real, day-in-and-day-out teaching.

Children are largely indifferent to whether you've studied Piaget, Skinner, or Diane Ravitch. They are, however, very attuned to the level of commitment, compassion, and persistence a teacher is willing to demonstrate.

Learning to teach well in an urban community requires resourcefulness and constantly educating oneself along with one's students; it requires tenacity, patience with kids and with oneself, the ability to get out of bed the morning after a really terrible day, the willingness to constantly develop new approaches to a problem, and a consistent desire for feedback from the best. Some might say it also requires a specific disdain for sleep and an almost maniacal need for organization.

Urban teachers roll a boulder up the hill of systemic poverty. More than anything else, it matters that one keeps rolling.

Not many of the aforementioned qualities are explicitly taught in traditional teacher-prep programs, but they can be recruited, and Teach for America spends an inordinate amount of time scouring college campuses for people with these qualities.

And these successful people want to join. With an acceptance rate hovering at Ivy-League levels, Teach for America makes urban ed appealing and almost downright trendy to the most successful college students in the country. It garners national attention on an issue that is often entirely ignored by politicians and the general public.

Placing new teachers in urban classrooms is never an ideal solution. Sure, in a perfect world, we would be staffing our city schools with the most experienced and highly effective veteran teachers there are, but the world is far from perfect, and most city school districts are even further so. Long-term retention rates reveal that it is nearly impossible to retain good, veteran teachers in schools that are the lowest-paying, most disorganized, and most tumultuous. And even in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, many more good, veteran teachers with many years of exeprience leave of their own accord than are laid off.

City schools don't have many resources, but with Teach for America, we do have some: a pipeline of capable people who care desperately about urban ed, corporate sponsorship, a whole lot of energy with very little cynicism, and national attention.

The critics should be encouraging corps members and alum to speak up to their regional and national staff, not to quit or leave altogether. TFA has new leadership this year under co-CEOs Elisa Villanueva Beard and Matt Kramer. They have just finished a "listening tour," during which they spoke to over 1,300 professionals involved in every level of education. If ever there were a time to stop TFA in its tracks and compel it re-evaluate its approaches, it's now.

As long as Teach for America commits to harnessing its power appropriately -- and this can be ensured by TFA staff, networks of charter schools, and the districts themselves -- then the answer is to force it to change and grow, not to snuff it out entirely.

No one lauds Teach for America as the perfect solution to the vast inequities of urban education. It's not perfect, but it's what we have.

And any urban teacher worth his or her salt knows that you work with what you've got instead of whining about what you don't.