08/02/2012 03:29 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2012

Teach for America: What's the Purpose?

Before you read on, I have to warn you. This piece is not a critique of Teach for America. It's merely a question.

The two-year program that places recent college graduates into teaching positions at urban schools was initially started to fix a teaching shortage.

Teach for America is a nonprofit organization whose vision is that "one day, all children in our nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education" (Kopp 2001, 174). Its goal is to provide a corps of excellent teachers for inner-city and rural areas where chronic teacher shortages occur.

It's hard to have any objections to a program like this one. Reasonable class sizes are important to the quality of instruction, which is supported by research. In times of a teaching shortage, the only other option would be to allow class sizes to swell.

I truly do not understand why Teach for America sends recruits to cities like Chicago where 2,000 tenured teachers have been laid off since 2010. It seems that Chicago Public Schools could just fill the gaps with those teachers who have been fired by no fault of their own. Included in these lay offs are highly qualified veteran educators with multiple advanced degrees and many with National Board Certification.

I posed this question on Twitter, where I received responses both from educators who were certified through a University after 12-14 weeks of student teaching and those who received alternative certification through programs like TFA.

It troubles me to think that the teaching profession, which has traditionally been a gateway to the middle class for poor and working class children, is being scrapped to give temporary jobs to college graduates from elite institutions.

I am the first in my family to go to college. I made it through loans and working 2-3 part time jobs at a time. I graduated into a comfortable middle class life. I would hate to see this opportunity taken away from others.

Many responses were that TFA offers "choices" for people looking at programs. However, TFA limits choices for administrators. As districts report massive cutbacks, TFA is an attractive option. These are teachers who tend to leave after two years and never make it to the third year on the salary scale, and never attain the tenure that allows them the voice they need to advocate for their students.

Most of the pro-TFA tweets I received gave very esoteric answers for the need for TFA. Katie Bordner, a Chicago Teaching Fellows member, gave me a concrete answer.

I could definitely see a need for something like that. However, I still don't understand why that kind of support should take the place of pre-service education.

I suggested to Ms. Bordner that "traditional" programs can be fused with the new teacher support for a program that puts fully trained, certified teachers in front of students and nurtures them throughout the first two crucial years.

When I first started my career, I had to find my own mentors. I documented the process in this piece.

Chicago Public Schools had a program called "Golden Teachers," but the program was disorganized. My assigned mentor changed periodically as I tried to navigate the classroom. Eventually, I was assigned to a veteran teacher, Ms. Clay, whose advice was absolutely invaluable. However, it wasn't until months into the school year that I first had a meeting with her.

Where CPS failed, an organization could step in and connect new teachers with experienced vets. I should have been working with Ms. Clay on day one.

To align to its own mission statement, TFA could give support to new teachers who have already been trained and certified after a semester of student teaching.

TFA mentors tend to be TFA graduates themselves with little experience. My mentor lived in the community where we worked and had decades of experience. There are more teachers like her and TFA could connect them with struggling first and second year teachers.

I would hate to think that TFA existed not to improve schools, but to create an unstable workforce of compliant, cheap labor.