A Tale of Two Teaching Experiences
Is Teach for America a brilliant way to bring Ivy League talent into some of the nation’s neediest classrooms? Or is it just letting them pad their résumés at the expense of inner city students?
By Kerri Allen
In 1989, an ambitious Princeton University senior had an idea. Inspired to bridge the educational gap in the United States, Wendy Kopp formed a pilot program where enthusiastic grads like her would flood inner city schools and clean up the proverbial neighborhood. She even gave it an imperative and patriotic moniker: Teach for America.
Seventeen years later, the $40 million operation and its 17,000 alumni are stirring up a maelstrom in the teaching community. Some argue that the program is an invaluable resource, recruiting the best college graduates from top universities to America’s neediest classrooms. Others contend that it’s no more than a feel-good stopgap between Ivy League campuses and cushy boardrooms. Maybe it’s both.
Applicants rate the 25 regions that TFA serves as “highly preferred” or “preferred.” This year, TFA placed 95 percent of accepted applicants in one of their highly preferred sites. Once accepted, a TFA fellow is enrolled in a five-week summer training institute. He or she takes various courses and clinics on education and teaches in a district summer school program under the supervision of veteran educators from the hosting school district and TFA staff.
Joshua Kaplowitz mailed out an application to Teach for America not long before graduating from Yale University in May 2000. Accepted into the program and assigned to Emery Elementary School, just a mile away from the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Kaplowitz has been very outspoken about his TFA experience.
“I wanted to do something service-oriented and give back a bit because of the privileged upbringing I had,” he says. With a degree in political science, Kaplowitz was initially considering a career in government.
“I thought I would want to be in Washington, D.C., anyway,” he says, “but I couldn’t work in politics there without seeing how people lived outside of the political enclave.”
Kaplowitz says he was excited to start work, but things quickly turned sour, as he documents in his article, “How I Joined Teach for America — and Got Sued for $20 Million,” which has been published by several media outlets.
He says the children were violent and he received little support from the school’s principal or the district’s TFA staff. But the experience took a turn for the worse when one student’s mother brought a $20 million criminal lawsuit for corporal punishment against Kaplowitz, the District of Columbia Public Schools and Emery’s principal. He says he put his hand on the student’s back to lead him out of the classroom when the student, who reportedly had been a discipline problem, asked to use the restroom. According to Kaplowitz, the student told his mother that Kaplowitz violently shoved him in the chest out the door of the classroom, injuring his head and back. After the parent sued, district police charged Kaplowitz with a misdemeanor count of simple assault. He was found not guilty after a six-day criminal trial. The school system settled the mother’s tort claim in October 2002 for $75,000.
Now in his third year at the University of Virginia School of Law, Kaplowitz says his few weeks of TFA training were not enough to prepare him for such a violent setting, and that none of his colleagues received the expected support from Teach for America. “If you’re having a bad experience with your principal, TFA is not equipped,” he says. “I got, ‘Everyone’s in a bad school. Everyone’s having problems.’ When it was clear that I was in a dangerous situation, they really washed their hands of me.”
But that’s just one story. And if Kaplowitz experienced a true TFA horror story, Lizette Suxo is an example of what can happen when the program works like it’s supposed to.
The New York City native taught kindergarten at Public School 156 in the South Bronx after finishing her degree at Bryn Mawr College. A high school graduate of the prestigious Dalton School in Manhattan, her educational experience was vastly different than that of the children a couple of train stops north. “I was slated to go straight to grad school to study history or sociology, but my undergraduate thesis advisor suggested I get some ‘real world’ experience first,” Suxo says. As a first-generation Bolivian-American, she felt comfortable with the advice of the minority professors on her Pennsylvania campus.
Despite the challenges, Suxo says she enjoyed her time at P.S. 156 so much that she decided to stay. “How could I leave? How could I be one less great teacher? I stayed two extra years, where I taught second grade,” she says. With her college dreams of an international law degree behind her, Suxo went on to receive her master’s in teaching in education leadership at Pace University. Today, she is a principal at the Achievement First Bushwick Charter Elementary School in Brooklyn.
“The Teach for America network is just wonderful. They continued to be my professional development network,” she says. “Now, as an alumna, I am still getting up-to-date information that I need. They recognized that it was not just about getting great teachers, but about creating leaders in education.”
The popular program is like an educational Robin Hood —
taking from rich Ivy League colleges and giving to the poor public schools. Endorsements come from many places and people, right up to the President of the United States. In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush said, “I am proud to stand up and talk about the best of America and Wendy Kopp. I hope young Americans all across the country think about joining Teach for America.”
They did. TFA received a record 19,000 applications this past June, up 9.3 percent from last year. They only place approximately 2,500 teachers annually, for an acceptance rate of just 13 percent. There are large Black and Hispanic populations in many TFA schools, and approximately 28 percent of the accepted teachers are minorities. By comparison, only 10 percent of the overall teaching profession is minority, according to the National Education Association.
As part of the AmeriCorps program, TFA receives hefty financial support from the government — usually. In 2003, the organization was expecting $14 million in federal funds. But at the 11th hour, the entire allocation was slashed because of an internal management glitch and additional funding cuts to AmeriCorps.
Undeterred, TFA raised enough funds to provide their members with the $4,725 education grant they had been promised. Teach For America remains an AmeriCorps program, and 2003 was the only year that a federal grant was not supplied.
The commitment lasts two years, but not everyone can hack it. Of the 2004-2006 TFA corps, 12 percent left before finishing the second year. Kaplowitz left after his first year, saying the level of uncontrolled violence among the children was increasing with every passing day.
“My classroom became more of a gladiatorial venue than a place of learning,” he wrote in the Winter 2003 edition of City Journal magazine. “Fights broke out daily, not just during recess or bathroom breaks, but also in the middle of lessons. And this wasn’t just playful shoving. We’re talking fists flying, hair yanked, heads slammed against lockers.”
Nicholas J. Ehrmann was another 2000 TFA corps member at Emery Elementary School, but he did not share Kaplowitz’s reaction to the environment. “We responded in different ways,” he told City Journal in response to Kaplowitz’s provocative article. “Some teachers channeled their anger to ensure that their students realized significant academic gains despite the chaotic conditions. Two TFA teachers that year were finalists for the Washington, D.C. First Year Teacher of the Year Award.”
Amy Black was a 1997 corps member and, in 2005, became executive director of TFA’s Washington, D.C. branch. She says, “In the six years since those articles were written, we haven’t seen another Kaplowitz. We have seen scores of corps members like Ehrmann who find ways to do whatever it takes to succeed — many of whom are still teaching or running schools.” TFA’s Vice President of Communications Josh Taylor adds, “His experience was not representative of the vast majority of our 12,000-plus alumni, who would not trade their experience for the world.”
Despite his experience, Kaplowitz agrees that Teach for America provides an important service, and a high percentage of their teachers stay in the profession. “Even those who leave after one or two years are going to be leaders in whatever they do. Now they know what inner city schools are like, and they are aware of the problems and want to resolve them,” he says.
But many seasoned educators hold a less enthusiastic opinion of Teach for America. Dr. Connie Titone, chair of the department of education and human services at Villanova University, for example, has her reservations about the program.
“I think that they actually think, or thought at the beginning, that the program would infuse our poorest schools with an energy that would help the children and the nation,” she says. “But these teachers have little day-to-day support and little time to learn, so their learning is gained at the expense of the poorest, neediest children, usually urban, usually African-American and Latino. It does not help the teaching profession or the children who need it most.”
Titone says her antipathy towards TFA has been formed from her personal experience with teachers in the program.
“My former students from Villanova call me when they get overwhelmed in the classroom and are desperate for ideas, support and specific suggestions about what to teach and how to handle the young people,” she says.
Many of her students go into TFA with the larger plan to attend a graduate program in policy or leadership — rarely do they intend to become certified teachers. Overall, however, 66 percent of alumni do end up working in or studying education full time.
Titone’s opinion is one that Kaplowitz — despite his traumatic experience — disagrees with. “At the end of the day, Teach For America is a net positive for inner city schools,” he maintains.
School principals seem to side with Kaplowitz’s assessment. A 2005 study by Kane-Parsons & Associates found that 74 percent of the 395 principals polled considered Teach For America teachers more effective than other beginning teachers, and 63 percent found that TFA instructors had a greater impact on student achievement than the overall teaching faculty. Another survey statistic stands out as either a testament to TFA or a slap to the overall condition of teacher training in America. Almost all principals (95 percent) reported that TFA members’ training is at least as good as the training of other beginning teachers. With only five weeks of training and no advanced degrees in education, Teach for America teachers would presumably be far less qualified than those coming out of “traditional” teacher training programs, institutions and universities.
Dr. Margaret Crocco, professor of social studies education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, has that very concern. “I don’t mean to malign Wendy Kopp at all. [The TFA marketing] seems to suggest that people can be most successful after a crash course and a couple of months teaching, whereas well-trained, seasoned teachers haven’t been able to,” she says. “It suggests that the only thing that’s important in a teacher is how smart he or she is, and there you have a philosophical difference.”
Crocco says she believes that TFA uses bright undergraduates to fix the “bleeding wound” of urban education. “I think it has done an incredible marketing effort. It’s Madison Avenue at its best.”
Dr. Katherine K. Merseth, a senior lecturer and director of teacher education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, echoes that sentiment.
“TFA does an excellent job attracting capable individuals into teaching. Their recruitment mechanisms and the caché of their name is impressive. Unfortunately, the training and support that corps members receive does not measure up to these standards,” she says. “To teach children well who are often disadvantaged is a most challenging, non-trivial task. Presuming that a five-week summer training program is sufficient is arrogant and an insult to these capable individuals who wish to teach. Further, it may result in inadequate instruction of those children who need the best possible teaching.”
According to a 2004 study by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., students of Teach For America teachers produce higher test scores in math than students learning under other teachers, including veteran and certified educators. Students do not test higher in reading or other subjects with TFA instructors. The full study is available at www.teachforamerica.org/assets/documents/mathematicaresults_6.9.04.pdf.
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