07/11/2011 05:09 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2011

Let Me Tell You About Teach for America

In the interests of full disclosure, as a professor of education and former elementary teacher, I do not support the TFA organization for a variety of reasons. I've been critical of them before on this very site. In light of the recent squabble between the National Education Association (NEA) and TFA, I've witnessed an uptick in scrutiny of the alternative certification program.

Even so-called "progressives" defend the organization by underscoring the rigor of the preparation they received as "corps" members and tout the support they receive once in the classroom. Call me ignorant, but I fail to see how their preparation compares to what I do with undergraduates in elementary education. Over the course of an academic year, my students spend hundreds of hours teaching and observing in classrooms, in addition to a four-week full-time stint during the spring field experience. I guess traditional teacher education doesn't have the cachet of TFA right now.

Rather than get into the conventional tit-for-tat that occurs when discussing TFA, I just want to share a couple of very brief anecdotes followed by a few questions. I have limited experiences working with TFA persons from which these anecdotes derive. I don't claim that this is representative of the entire organization and its members, but I'm starting to see some patterns here that appear more than coincidence.

Currently, I'm teaching for a summer program in a, shall we say, less traditional public school? Let's leave it at that. I've discussed previously the need for faculty members in education to get back into teaching shape. From time to time, I hear my students gossiping amongst each other what teachers are leaving and who's staying. From the way they discuss this, it seems like it's a traditional phase of their summer. In fact, these kids possess way too much information about who's leaving and for what reasons. More recently on a field trip, I overheard a conversation between an adult and a few children identifying as many as five teachers who are leaving the school. This is not a very big school, with perhaps one classroom per grade level, some might have two.

All right, second story. So, from my experiences, teachers collect a boatload of stuff. In fact, it's rare that an educator will throw something away, not even old newspapers or magazines, for fear that one day it might be useful in the classroom. I've collected over the years hundreds of novels, picture books, curricular resources, and art supplies likely worth thousands of dollars. I still purchase children's literature. Every teacher has their unique style of organizing a classroom and its materials and that teacher will acquire materials over the years to fit their style. I like to think of it as building a long-term classroom infrastructure, where each purchase is an investment in future classes.

What I see from classrooms with TFA members is a lack of this long-term investment in teaching infrastructure. There's an underwhelming amount of care and organization of the space. Basic collections of supplies consistent with elementary education, like markers, crayons, chart paper, scissors, and so forth are absent. A lot of things are broken that should be replaced. Missing are collections of books and literature demonstrating a culture of reading. You'll more likely see only collections of Open Court anthologies or other leveled readers consistent with a highly scripted curriculum. You also won't see a collection of furniture that makes the space warmer and more inviting. I used to have a bunch of beanbag chairs, plastic recliners from IKEA, lamps as an alternative to fluorescent lights, posters, and all sorts of stuff to set a certain tone in my classroom. In a TFA world, I just don't see this.

Now that these anecdotes are out of the way, let me conclude with a few questions for readers. What message does this send to students when so many teachers come and go? Kids in these kinds of schools are not easy. You have to get in their heads, find out what makes them tick, and really hook them into learning. All that effort to do so and you bail? Everyone has their reasons, none of which are my business. But still: these kids need rocks and not a bunch of rolling stones.

Regarding my second anecdote, schools, classrooms, and children benefit from a long-term investment in their learning environment. They benefit from a consistency in routines and policies from one year to the next. In light of short-term contracts and relatively high turnover, what's the incentive then to develop this teaching infrastructure?

I have boxes of art supplies and hundreds if not thousands of books on bookshelves or in large 20-gallon tubs in my parents' garage back home. If you know you're out once your contract is fulfilled, then am I right to assume that you have no real motivation to carry the life of a teacher to its fullest extent? Why take care in assuming the identity of a teacher if that means you'll collect a bunch of stuff you'll end up having to trash or give away when your teaching is up?

Ultimately, I'm trying to be sincere when I question TFA. I just can't see its long-term benefits to education and the teaching profession. Even as a short-term stopgap measure in high-needs areas, I think it's doing more harm to teaching than good. And over time, this will mean more harm to students as well. What do you think?