Teach for America cannot fix education inequalities

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It’s that time again — Teach for America (TFA) is recruiting on college campuses nationwide, and the smell of the white savior complex is wafting through the air stronger than ever. As an organization that ironically attracts its corps members by reminding shiny, freshly-minted college graduates about the injustices of education disparities in this country, TFA has done surprisingly well for itself in attracting the best and brightest to its ranks. But as the quality gap widens between urban public schools and their (often) whiter, suburban and more expensive counterparts, it is puzzling, though not necessarily surprising, that school districts nationwide are still accepting so many TFA corps members with so little formal training. TFA favors the advancement of college-educated young adults at the expense of both inner-city schoolchildren and the qualified teachers that came before them.

School districts everywhere regularly struggle with blows to funding, and a seemingly harmless way of dealing with this is simply to hire cheaper educators. Twenty-two-year-olds with five weeks of formal training and a residual collegiate zeal to “be the change” are about as cheap as they come. So, struggling schools fire their certified veteran teachers and bring in TFA corps members to fill the void. This method makes some sense, given that TFA was founded in 1989 during the midst of a national teacher shortage. The problem is that it continues to operate this way, despite the fact that today, most states are producing far more certified teachers than there are actual classrooms to be taught, according to USA Today.

Perhaps the most maddening part of this is the amount of corps members who replace qualified teachers only to leave the profession shortly after completing their mandatory two-year service (or quit early altogether). Fifty percent leave after two years and 80 percent leave after three years, numbers which, presumably, are so high at least partially due to the fact that the majority of graduates who join TFA have little to no background in education studies.

Why, then, do so many plucky young graduates flock to the program if not to inspire change in the hearts of inner-city schoolchildren? To get ahead professionally, of course. TFA is a prestigious program (although less so in recent years as application rates have steadily declined) that impresses employers and graduate institutions alike.

Occidental graduates aren’t immune to the lure of the program — eight members of the class of 2013 were placed in classrooms all around the country. An Occidental Weekly feature from February 2015 highlighted the experience of several recent graduates pursuing careers in education, some through TFA. Reflecting on his departure from the program after two years, Peter Wright ’05 acknowledged he had goals other than teaching: to pursue education policy.

“I didn’t really picture myself as an elementary school teacher in the long-term,” Wright said.

I don’t mean to say that no one who enters TFA dreams of being a teacher, and ex-members like Peter are certainly doing their part to shape public education in other ways. But there are plenty of alternative programs that provide similar experiences without jeopardizing the careers of teachers or the education of students. City Year, an organization founded only one year before TFA, has a similar mission and structure but places corps members in the classroom alongside teachers instead of booting them out altogether. The program also provides tutoring, runs after-school activities and communicates with parents about attendance and performance. Unfortunately, City Year lacks the prestige of TFA because it presents itself far more modestly (and pays its members measly stipends compared to the full-time salaries boasted by TFA). Unlike TFA, the holistic approach to bridging the education gap taken by City Year puts the needs of the students first. The personal growth experienced by corps members is simply a naturally occurring byproduct.

“I chose to serve a year with City Year because it is not TFA,” a recent Occidental graduate serving with City Year said via email. “Like TFA, City Year is grueling work, exhausting hours and has its own problems with corps member retention … however, [we] do not have the responsibility of full day lesson planning. Essentially, when we make mistakes or find ourselves lost in the pressure, there are not anywhere from 25 to 150 students who suffer because of those mistakes.”

Criticism of TFA has been mounting in recent years, reflected in a steady decline of applicants since 2013. It’s an organization that creates a battalion of well-meaning but under-prepared college graduates and thrusts them into the minefield that is the American urban public school system, hoping to elicit real change. But TFA has become nothing more than a jumping-off point for high-achieving graduates, contributing to the de-professionalization of education and deepening the crisis of urban public education in America.

Charlotte Umanoff is a sophomore politics major. She can be reached at umanoff@oxy.edu.