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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Teach(ers) for America need more training

    Matt Rolland columnist
    Matt Rolland
    columnist

    If you haven’t seen the hundreds of signs on the UA Mall or the fliers plastered in nearly every hallway, or been contacted by a recruiter this month, please allow me to be the first to tell you: TEACH FOR AMERICA APPLICATIONS ARE DUE THIS WEEK! Thanks to its marketing tour-de-force and widespread popularity, the Americorp-affiliated organization dedicated to fighting educational inequality in the United States has been impossible to ignore.

    This week, as dozens of admirable Wildcats prepare to join forces with educators across the country, it is important to reflect on the merits of TFA’s bottom-up approach to solving our country’s educational inequalities. While Teach for America’s mission is noble, its approach is flawed. Inadequately trained educators cannot reverse the problems of a broken system.

    Teach for America strikes a unique chord with this generation. Despite perpetually dismal voter turn-outs and historically low levels of military commitment, TFA enjoys an increasing popularity among college graduates. The numbers are staggering. Since 1990, more than 14,000 corps members have completed two-year commitments to TFA. In 2007 alone, more than 18,000 graduating seniors applied to be placed at an understaffed school. On campuses, the pervasiveness of TFA literature resembles the dogmatism of the most ardent war activists and anti-capitalist freeganists, with one notable exception: people seem to like it. While other radical social justice campaigns are pushed to the fringes of college culture, TFA fliers are kept on walls. Take that, Ron Paul.

    One of the greatest cultural impacts of TFA lies in this visibility. Thanks in part to TFA, students are increasingly viewing education as a worthwhile profession, aspiring to much more than the monotonic warbling of Charlie Brown fame. Corp members are encouraged to be dynamic, challenging and engaging. Idealism seems to be the driving factor in recruitment: the allure of influence and the opportunity for change.

    The result of this idealism is that students tend to approach teaching as philanthropy, not as a job where certain skills are demanded. Teach for America makes the dangerous assumption that creativity, idealism and lesson plans are the only required ingredients to become a teacher. However, anyone who has spent any time with an elementary school teacher knows that the greatest threat to education is not lack of inspiration but a surplus of spit-balls. TFA training to cope with unruly classroom behavior is woefully inadequate – students attend a meager five-week prep course during the summer. There is no substitute for experience.

    The signs that more preparation is needed are readily visible: 10 to 15 percent of corp members drop out before completing their required two years. Even though nearly 40 percent of TFA alumni leave the education sector altogether, many go on to hold prominent administrative and political positions. However, the question remains: is TFA doing as much as it can with its resources?

    Research on the effectiveness of TFA members is mixed. A study by Mathematica Institute, a well-respected policy research organization, found that TFA teachers’ successes in building students’ reading skills were comparable to their certified peers, while in math there was a slight gain.

    Still, almost all studies agree that corp members would benefit significantly from further training sessions. One solution would be to have new recruits observe a classroom the final semester of their senior year. This would give the students more experience in classroom management and put teaching skills ahead of the educational creativity of lesson plans.

    Many former TFA corp members complain of a lack of support from administrators at host schools. Teachers are thrown into chaotic systems that would make even the most experienced teachers close their books: chronic violence, disrespectful students, violent threats and lawsuits from parents. An alternative to this problem would be to focus corp members in particular areas at TFA-designated schools. Rather than send unprepared graduates in ones and twos to unsupportive schools, a predominantly TFA-staffed school would provide the trained administration and peer support networks necessary to create effective and positive TFA experiences.

    TFA alumni are a divided bunch on the issue of effectiveness. Half of them speak passionately about the cause and tend to carry fliers in their belts; the other half often speak quietly but consistently with frustration about their difficult experiences and crushed ideals.

    While it is encouraging to see students put actions to their idealistic aspirations, we must not forget that each job, even teaching, requires unique skills. Lesson plans and creative activities cannot prevail in an environment where fistfights are more common than bathroom breaks, and sexual harassment is rampant among fourth graders. Overlooking the specific skill-set demanded by education in the name of philanthropy will prevent Teach for America from achieving the deep change in educational inequality the admirable organization set out to fight.

    Matt Rolland is a junior majoring in economics and international studies. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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