Time to Team Up with Teach For America
“I do not know very much about painting, but I know enough to know that the Art teacher did not know much about it either and that, furthermore, she did not know or care anything at all about the way in which you can destroy a human being. Stephen, in many ways already dying, died a second and third and fourth and final death before her anger.”
So wrote Jonathan Kozol in Death at an Early Age, the 1967 exposé of American public education drawn from the author’s hands-on work as a substitute teacher. Forty years later, I hear echoes of the young Kozol in regular e-mails from my recently graduated Georgetown University students who are teaching in public schools all across the country.
For example, last year Kristen Hutchens recounted a time when a 7th grader named Hernando stood up in her Washington Heights classroom and shouted, “School is for white people,” a plaintive cry given the 49 percent high school completion rate for New York State Latinos. Hanseul Kang described Native American high school students in Thoreau, N.M., who couldn’t care less about failing classes given the endemic poverty engulfing them. Emily Conger wrote about how it took her the good part of each morning just to calm down the chronically angry Baton Rouge first-graders she was trying to teach.
Kristen, Hanseul and Emily all worked in Teach For America (TFA), the 16-year-old program through which can-do college graduates teach some of America’s neediest public school students. In the last three years, more than 30 young Georgetown graduates I’ve taught or mentored have taken this path. All have been challenged very deeply in multiple ways. As I hear about their work, the victories and the struggles, the problems they see and the personal limitations they feel, it has become clear to me that now is the right time for higher education and Teach For America to work together in a more formal partnership.
For higher education, a new relationship makes sense for a number of reasons. TFA has an outstanding and altruistic mission. It has achieved demonstrably powerful results while maintaining a commitment to continuous evaluation and improvement. With a growing force of 4,400 idealistic graduates preaching and embodying the power of college in underserved communities across the country, TFA may help higher education address one of great challenges of our future -- the shocking reality that only 1 in 17 children from families earning less the $35,000 per year will earn a college degree by age 24.
Teach For America is also important for higher education because of the impact it's having on many campuses right now. With 19,000 applicants last year, the organization is clearly connecting with our students’ personal and civic values. At Georgetown, 8 to 9 percent of last year’s graduating seniors applied to TFA -- more than applied to medical school. As a result, TFA is the No. 1 employer of members of our class of 2006. We need to take this phenomenon seriously and see how we can support our students’ aspirations.
We also need to take seriously the complexity and difficulty of the experience our students have once they get started in TFA. The young women and men who write to me describe the first year as a baptism-by-fire in which past achievements count for nothing, and success, writes former San Jose teacher Joanna Belcher, requires “every ounce of energy and intellect.” As brand-new teachers, they have to figure out how to teach and how to maintain order. They often need to create materials and even curricula from scratch. Most of their students test well below grade level; some have trying or desperate needs.
And then there are the dilemmas: What to do when students won’t even try to cooperate? When school lunches taste so bad that hungry kids won’t eat them? When the children see broken-down buildings as symbols of how little society values them? Hard-working and sleep-deprived, obsessed with helping their children, my former students brood over such questions and sometimes chastise themselves for not making a fast-enough impact.
As I listen to young people who I’ve taught and know well, even as they struggle, I see so many different ways that they’re growing. In Roma, Tex., Steve de Man showed the initiative to raise $42,000 to bring two groups of 40 middle school students to visit the nation’s capital. In the Mississippi Delta, Mike Griffin demonstrated the flexibility and perseverance to teach extremely well after being assigned to a new school midyear. Nicole Benvenuto and Grace Tse were able to see the beauty in individual victories. Joanna Belcher learned to draw upon the resources of others at her school to become an even better teacher.
Elena Romerdahl found a hero in her New York City principal. Marya Murray Diaz developed an intellectual love for critical pedagogy and its implications for her outreach to working class parents. Last summer, Joseph Almeida described how his fifth grade class in Washington Heights gained 1.5 years in reading growth and also exceeded its 80 percent math content mastery goal, concluding, “It was incredible to see their transformations and the power that the acquisition of knowledge had on their self-esteem and continually improving academic performance.”
One of my favorite stories concerns Sophia Pappas, who entered in 2003. Right from the start, her Newark elementary school principal complained that he didn’t want her, and in October she was summarily fired. With rent to pay and no other job, she spent the rest of that year working in TFA’s New Jersey office. Many would have decided to move on at that point, but instead Sophia chose to start over the next fall teaching pre-K at a different school. For the next two years she taught brilliantly and immersed herself in her students’ lives, winning teaching awards. Having now completed the two-year TFA term, Sophia is staying at her school for at least one more year before starting graduate study in education policy.
As a professor, I love the fact that TFA believes in my students, and it lifts me to watch those I have taught rise to its demands. There’s no question that some of the formative experiences they have in the program will shape them for a lifetime, the way Jonathan Kozol’s shaped him.
That said, when I reread the e-mails I get from the front lines, it’s clear that some beginning teachers could use more preparation and more intensive on-going support. I have especially heard this from first-year teachers placed in special education or limited English proficiency classrooms. Such problems are compounded when new teachers get assigned to schools where the administration can’t support them or may not even want them.
While these difficulties affect a minority of Corps members, they could worsen with the organization’s plan to expand from 4,400 teachers this year to 7,500 in 2010. This is another reason why higher education needs to sit up and take notice. Frankly, these growth plans only make sense if the organization can recruit and support an even larger cohort of exceptional graduates determined to transform young lives. I’m not sure TFA can do this alone -- which brings me to some of the ways higher education might reach out in partnership.
First, we should help more undergraduates qualify themselves to be accepted -- not because we necessarily prefer TFA over other options, but because significant percentages of our seniors clearly do. We might expand community-based learning courses, student research opportunities, and leadership development programs. We might partner with TFA to help undergraduates learn early what it will take to get selected -- maybe even by giving them teaching internships with current or former Corps members. We also should evaluate our current university-run youth programs to make sure they’re in sync with the schools’ curricula and benchmarks. There’s no reason we can’t teach college students how to develop work plans to bring the children they’re mentoring up to or beyond grade level; maybe TFA and its leading feeder campuses could work together on this and thereby strengthen the applicant pool.
Second, as the Princeton University English professor Jeff Dolven has observed, colleges and universities could make a big impact by extending new resources to our teaching alums -- all teachers, not just Corps members. Perhaps we could provide access to free or reduced cost textbooks, class materials, library resources or summer courses. We might identify professors willing to serve as intellectual mentors or discussion leaders for chat rooms. We could certainly bring these teachers together for workshops, symposia, or opportunities to reflect and reconnect. The first year of teaching can be so bracing, and so lonely. Creating networks for problem-solving, dialogue, and dreaming is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.
The idea of working with TFA will be controversial in some quarters of higher education, because the model has its detractors. Some question whether freshly minted college graduates are the best fit for the high-stakes classrooms of distressed school districts. Another concern is that the two-year TFA term requires struggling schools to spend too much time mentoring new teachers and managing turnover. A third is that the program is growing too quickly.
These are fair and important concerns. TFA has good answers to each of them, pointing to students test scores, principal satisfaction and the high caliber of recruits. I would argue -- and I’m confident TFA would agree -- that these are perennial quality issues and not one-time questions to resolve. So, a third area of potential collaboration might be the establishment of a new TFA advisory board of faculty, alumni, students and university leaders to look at such issues, year in and year out, and bring the resources of universities to bear on those areas that give concern.
Higher education, Teach For America, and the schools that TFA serves have a lot to gain from a new partnership. Of course, thousands of our own students and alumni already know this. This generation of young graduates has responded to the American ideal of equal educational opportunity with a sense of urgency, and don’t want the children sitting before them, right now, to die at an early age. Our teaching alums remind us that creating opportunity for children is everybody’s job.
Daniel R. Porterfield is vice president for public affairs and strategic development and an assistant professor of English at Georgetown University.
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