Panel Highlights Teach for America Controversy


Author: Marjorie Camarda

Last Wednesday night, October 24, students gathered in Johnson 200 for a Panel on Race, Income and Education. The event was organized by Nina Braynina (senior), who also moderated the discussion. The panel was comprised of Assistant Professor and Chair of the Oxy Education Department Mary Christianakis; Associate Director of Pearson Education Tim Tatsui; and Dean of Curriculum and Instruction at KIPP L.A. Prep School Vanessa Garza.

Discussion centered on what the panelists called the “achievement gap,” which states that minority students are far less likely to graduate from high school than their “Caucasian” peers. This is a nationwide problem, but—as the panelists explained—in Los Angeles it has escalated into an epidemic. According to Christianakis, some of the city’s high schools that serve mostly minority communities, including Hollywood and Verdugo Hills, have graduation rates below 30 percent.

Christianakis identified a “scientific racism” that is often used to explain this phenomenon, including the belief that speaking a language other than English in the home inhibits classroom performance and the belief that Black and Latino values are incompatible with the values of the school system. “At a very simple level, [this] is institutionalized racism,” Garza said.

All three panel members agreed that the problem is a complex conundrum, and identified several problematic elements in the current educational system. Tatsui condemned the implicit acceptance of the dropout rate. “We are counting on [gang members, drug users and teenage mothers] to leave. There is an acceptable loss ratio . . . We don’t have the capacity to retain.” He criticized the Los Angeles Unified School District for creating an environment where certain students are expected to fail.

Christianakis called for “radical institutional reform.” She said the root of the problem lies in the distribution of teachers, noting that teachers with the least training are often sent to low-income minority schools that need the most attention. The only way to rectify this, she said, is through “teacher equity.” “When we don’t invest and give the very best . . . to our hard-to-place schools . . . we tell them that they are not worth as much as the high income students,” she said.

During the second half of the evening, discussion turned to the Teach for America program (TFA). TFA recruits college graduates from all academic fields and provides them with five weeks of intensive training as well as mentoring when they first enter the classroom. They are then placed in schools across the nation, where they teach for a minimum of two years. Members who fulfill their two year commitment receive loan forbearance on many of their student loans.

“TFA is a cheap and easy huckster way of recruiting,” Christianakis said. “It’s a little culty.” Garza, a former TFA corps member, explained that had it not been for TFA, finances would have prevented her from ever becoming a teacher. Christianakis responded by saying that the program’s arrangement produces under-trained teachers, and it is the students who pay for this in the end. “I took a loan,” she said. “I took the hit. Because my students, in the meantime, didn’t suffer.”

Partway through the discussion, Oxy alumni Shira Blatt (’07) and Megan Reeves (’07), arrived. Both are currently employed by TFA. Blatt said she had been scheduled to moderate the discussion but had to change her plans last minute due to a “previous engagement.” Blatt and Reeves defended TFA from criticism. They asked to speak to the audience, saying that they had meant to be part of the panel. Christianakis observed that their names were not in the program and they were not part of the panel.

Commenting on this exchange, student Jennifer Lopez (senior) said, “I felt like the two TFA people were attacking our professor.”

Though Christianakis encourages more discussion on campus, she called the panel “a sell job for Teach for America” gone awry. She noted that in addition to the two TFA recruiters “planted in the audience,” both her fellow panel members had participated in TFA and Braynina is employed by TFA as Occidental’s Campus Campaign Coordinator. “I think there was an attempted ambush that backfired,” she said.

Braynina did not respond to emails regarding the panel discussion and Christianakis’s comments.

Despite the ideological clashes made apparent during the discussion, one unanimous consensus was that L.A. schools are in a state of crisis and that their teachers have a tremendous task on their hands. Tatsui demonstrated this in recounting the moment he realized teaching was his vocation. “I just started crying,” he said. “[I felt an] overwhelming, unbelievable sense of responsibility . . . because I knew there were 20 first-graders waiting for me the next day.”

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