Teaching troubles: Northwestern’s ties to Teach for America tested as organization faces national criticism
By Lauren Caruba
After a frustrating class period trying to help her high school biology class take an exam on dysfunctional laptops – a new technological push by her school district – Emily Gao found herself yelling at one of her best students.
“She wasn’t trying to do anything wrong or anything bad – she just needed my attention for a second,” Gao (Weinberg ’12) said. “I just felt so shitty when I stepped back for second. Like, why are you yelling at this child?”
Despite five weeks of intensive training with Teach for America, which sends recent college graduates to teach in low-income communities, Gao confronted disparities between TFA’s training and her classroom. She was teaching a subject completely unrelated to her political science and human culture majors, in a different geographical location from her training city of Philadelphia, where she taught a small summer class in a high-performing charter school – very different from her Baltimore public school.
Gao wanted to be a prepared teacher. She wanted to better her students’ lives, but she had no textbooks, no curriculum and very little experience.
“I didn’t want to feel like I was making everything up as I went along,” she said. “Turns out I kind of felt that way anyways.”
Now in her second year of TFA, Gao’s challenges highlight the pitfalls of a post-graduate experience many NU students have historically sought out.
Although NU has enjoyed a strong relationship with TFA, in 2013 there was a rapid drop in the number of applications and participating graduates. The dip in NU’s participation with TFA coincides with growing national criticism of a controversial organization that has divided the education community.
Teachers as leaders
TFA began in 1989 as founder Wendy Kopp’s thesis statement at Princeton University, with the goal of addressing educational inequity by inserting young, motivated leaders into underserved communities.
Since then, TFA has ballooned into an enormous organization, with more than 32,000 alumni and corps members embedded in 48 regions spanning 35 states. This year, TFA received nearly 60,000 applications and added 5,900 to it ranks.
Following a rigorous, three-stage application process, TFA selects corps members – most of whom have no teaching experience – and puts them on a fast track to teaching in needy schools with a five-week summer training period known as “institute.” Corps members interview with schools before being hired for at least two years.
Endorsing a “teaching as leadership” philosophy, TFA pulls high-achieving graduates from top universities who exhibit seven core tenets, including exceptional leadership, organization and respect for diversity.
“It’s the belief that if you have some of those inherent skills, those are innate qualities,” said Eliza McNabb (Weinberg ’10), a TFA Chicago area recruiter. “I can’t really teach you to believe in the potential of every child. You either do believe that or you don’t.”
TFA attracts a certain type of idealistic college student, said Timothy Dohrer, director of the Master of Science in Education program and former principal of New Trier High School in Winnetka.
Many identify TFA’s recruitment strategy as its strongest aspect.
“It’s a way to get very enthusiastic people who want to work with kids in front of kids right away,” Dohrer said. “There are places where there is such a need for teachers just to be in the room with kids so that school can happen.”
The ‘thing to do’
Doing TFA has become a trend at elite schools nationwide. In many ways, the profile of a TFA corps member matches the typical NU student – smart, driven and interested in social justice.
NU has sustained strong ties with TFA for at least a decade. Brett Boettcher, associate director of University Career Services, said the University and TFA already had a good working relationship when he came to NU in 2000. Over the past 23 years, 603 NU alumni have participated in TFA.
Recently, NU has been a leader in supplying TFA with graduates. NU was the top contributor for mid-sized schools in 2012 and 2010, sending 63 and 57 graduates into the program those years and 49 in 2011. Ten percent of the class of 2012 and 11 percent of the class of 2011 applied for TFA.
The History of TFA and NU
Interactive JS Timeline by Cat Zakrzewski/Daily Senior Staffer
Hillary Hafke, former president of Students for Teach for America at NU, said TFA’s challenge and prestige appeal to NU’s “chronic overloaders.”
“A lot of the Northwestern students are like, ‘This is the thing to do,'” the Medill senior said. “It’s a very rewarding experience. It looks really good. Also, it’s kind of nice to know what your post-grad plans are in December.”
Numerous alumni said the TFA culture at NU, the career-oriented nature of the student body and having friends who had done the program contributed to their decision to apply. TFA also has a strong recruiting presence on campus, regularly posting flyers with application deadlines and organizing events with University Career Services.
However, NU’s participation in TFA significantly dropped in 2013. This year, NU sent only 33 alumni into TFA’s corps, dropping to 8th place for mid-sized universities. Only 7 percent of the class of 2013 applied.
University President Morton Schapiro said he is proud NU students have historically done so well with TFA and views Kopp, who spoke on campus in April, as an “incredible visionary.” However, he said he does see credence in the argument that sending privileged college students into low-income areas is “the height of arrogance.”
“I suppose I am proud of it,” Schapiro said. “Not that I think TFA is 100 percent the answer, because I know too much about it, and I know too many kids who have done it, and I know their stories.”
A polarizing program
Olivia Blanchard does not have many good stories about TFA.
Blanchard, a 2011 graduate of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, detailed her struggles with TFA in a September article in The Atlantic called “I Quit Teach for America.” Like many NU students, Blanchard was drawn to TFA’s social welfare goals but found five weeks of training inadequate preparation for teaching rebellious fifth-graders at an Atlanta, Ga., public school.
“In many cases it promotes the problems that are causing the achievement gap,” Blanchard, who left TFA after her first year, told The Daily. “We’re taking teachers who have no experience, the least qualified teachers in our country, and we’re putting them with the kids who need the best teachers. On the face of it, that’s just illogical.”
As TFA gains traction, Blanchard’s article is only one of numerous national criticisms to emerge. A recent Slate articleurged professors not to write TFA recommendations, and most professional teaching organizations have said they do not support TFA’s model, Dohrer said. Despite TFA students’ strong performance on standardized tests, other research suggests good teaching comes with more classroom experience.
Many are also critical of TFA’s transformation from a service group into a political and economic entity. TFA lobbies for funding in Washington, D.C., and places alumni in congressional offices and school board positions. It receives between $2,000 and $5,000 per corps member per year from school districts and is subsidized by major corporate donors like Visa and The Coca-Cola Foundation.
As the job market recovers, education experts like Ellen Esrick, an instructor for elementary teaching in the Master of Science in Education program, are skeptical about TFA’s assumption that a teacher shortage still exists.
The situation is exacerbated when school districts cut costs by hiring inexperienced corps members over veteran, unionized teachers, she said.
TFA is much debated in sociology Prof. Karrie Snyder’s School and Society course. Regarding topics from TFA’s general teaching approach to its involvement with charter schools, students are often divided, she said.
Despite differing opinions, many still respect TFA’s overall goals and attempts to tackle difficult, systemic issues.
“At some point during this whole conversation, someone will say, ‘But at least these people are doing something – the organization and the students themselves,'” Snyder said. “We complain about all these things, but at least some group is proactive.”
A teaching crash course
Like Gao, Nicole Collins (Weinberg ’11) found the summer institute training program unreflective of her teaching environment.
TFA placed Collins on the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s reservation in South Dakota, where she continued teaching after her two-year commitment ended. Although it has since been added to institute, at the time TFA had no Native American-specific training.
“Some of the students were incredibly hostile,” said Collins, a former Daily cartoonist. “I was an outsider the first year. I wasn’t the best teacher.”
During institute – what Collins calls a “boot camp for teaching” – corps members are supervised as they teach summer classes for one hour a day for five weeks. TFA provides daily feedback, but it still only amounts to about 20 hours teaching very small classes before entering schools.
The rest of institute is spent in professional management training, learning how to create lesson plans, lead a classroom and “invest” in students. McNabb said TFA asks corps members to be “incredibly reflective” and learn about their personal identities during this period, adding that the organization constantly makes adjustments based on feedback.
Some found the setting to be an inaccurate portrayal of teaching: Corps members are only teaching “four or five really well-behaved kids” instead of a class of 30 or more, Collins said.
Because institute trains teachers for various grades and subject matters, it is inherently general, making it “kind of a joke,” Blanchard said. It was also very chaotic, she said.
Having been students for so long, many believe they can replicate good teaching, but Dohrer said a few weeks of training cannot replace years of experience.
“I’ve sat in 13 years – maybe more, if I’ve gone to college – so 17 years of classes, therefore, I must be able to do it,” Dohrer said. “What’s faulty about that premise is that I’ve been on a lot of airline flights, and I would never walk into the cockpit and say I could fly the plane.”
Others think TFA prepared them better than traditionally trained new teachers. Mike Binkley (Weinberg ’08), who taught high school physics in a San Francisco public school, said institute provided him with teaching fundamentals and management skills.
“We were definitely more prepared in terms of behavior management and being organized in the classroom,” he said.
Problems with placement
Janelle Henney (SESP ’13) wasn’t sure she was fully prepared to teach fourth- and fifth-grade special education students in a Pittsburgh public school for TFA.
Although she taught a special education summer class and attended tailored workshops during institute, Henney still wanted more individualized training.
“It just seems like it’s one big whirlwind of information that they’re throwing at you that they hope will stick,” Henney said. “I was worried about being ready by the end of institute.”
Placing inexperienced TFA corps members in special education situations is a major critique of TFA’s placement because children in special education programs especially require highly qualified, experienced teachers, experts say.
“I know that at this moment I’m not an adequate teacher for my kids,” Henney said.
TFA experiences vary widely based on geographical location, grade level and administrative resources. Some schools have TFA networks, but others do not.
Many also take issue with TFA’s strong ties to charter schools, alternative schools that focus heavily on test scores and make up a third of all TFA placements. A SESP graduate who asked to remain anonymous had philosophical issues with her particular charter school, creating tensions between her and school administrators.
At her charter school, the SESP graduate said she had very limited control of her classroom because “everything had to be run by someone else.”
“There was a lack of creativity in teaching, and it was more of a drilling-information-into-the-students model,” she said. “It was inflexible.”
When she approached her TFA manager with her concerns, the manager was more concerned with getting her to finish her first year than working to find an alternative second-year placement, the SESP graduate said.
Given the choice of remaining at that school or dropping out of TFA, the SESP graduate chose the latter. Under different circumstances, she likely would have continued teaching, she said.
McNabb said 92 percent of corps members return for their second year, a statistic the SESP graduate asserts does not accurately represent the actual dropout rate.
A “huge stigma” surrounds those who leave TFA, Blanchard said, and people are tentative to talk about it.
“That’s just inappropriate,” Blanchard said. “If you leave an organization, I don’t think that you should fear the backlash from people.”
‘The most challenging thing I’ve ever done’
Corps members enter America’s most disadvantaged communities, which can be physically, mentally and emotionally taxing.
Collins’ biggest challenge her first year was dealing with mental health issues, something she said TFA should better address. TFA can be a major culture shock, she said.
“You’re throwing a bunch of college grads into a stressful situation and you’re far away from home,” she said. “(There are) corps members who are depressed or downtrodden.”
McNabb said TFA offers extra support during the first few months because “there is no substitute for being alone in a classroom with 32 first-graders for eight hours.”
Corps members regularly “give up sleep, eating, personal sanity to make their classrooms better for their kids,” Gao said. Trying to become a good teacher in two years requires around-the-clock effort, Binkley said.
“It doesn’t teach you how to make a very sustainable day-to-day career,” he said. “Everybody works incredibly hard in the program, which is great, but I know a lot of people get burned out too.”
More would stay in education if TFA promoted a healthy work-life balance, Binkley said.
But TFA does not promise to produce life-long teachers. Rather, its goal is crafting leaders to carry the fight for educational equality into other industries.
“We are looking to change things for the 16 million kids growing up in poverty, and that’s not something we seek to do just through the short term, which is putting teachers in classrooms for two years,” McNabb said.
TFA is a highly variable experience. Many corps members have overall positive views of their time with the organization. Even those who struggle recognize the value of their time as teachers.
“I would characterize it as something that has been the most challenging thing that I’ve ever done,” Gao said. “More challenging than I ever would have expected it to be. But also the experience in my life that I learned the most from.”
As the debate surrounding TFA continues, those in education and academic circles worry about its impact on students.
Some are concerned that students taught by corps members are being shortchanged.
“If they’re just thrown into a classroom without that preparation, I’m not sure we’re doing a good service to the students,” Esrick said.
There are also questions about TFA’s broader implications for American education and teacher certification. This summer, NU ended its alternative teacher certification program NU-TEACH, and in 2015, Illinois will require all teachers to pass a state assessment akin to a Bar examination for education, an obstacle for TFA, Dohrer said.
TFA isn’t going away anytime soon, but corps members say improvements are possible, like expanding the two-year commitment and developing lifelong teachers rather than leaders. Blanchard said TFA could better train corps members if it shrank, but the organization is focused on expansion.
McNabb said TFA is set on helping corps members “figure out how their identity informs who they are as leaders, how they interact with the community they serve.”
A co-mentoring or assistant teaching model would introduce corps members more gradually to teaching, Esrick and Dohrer said. In traditional education programs, aspiring teachers spend significant time observing and student-teaching before taking over a classroom.
Despite differing approaches, traditional educators and TFA can still work together, Dohrer said.
“We’re in a really wonderful period right now of revolution in teaching and learning,” he said. “It’d be great to have all of us at the table talking about how can we better improve teaching and learning in our schools. And TFA can be a great partner in that.”