Thursday, August 16, 2012

TFA and assumptions about poverty

I read a well written piece on Reuters today that I feel outlines many of my fundamental concerns with TFA.

*Before I begin on what might come off as “TFA Bashing” (but in my opinion is not), I should say that I take issue with what the organization has become and the agenda that I feel they are pushing, not with individual corps members who are  following their training and supervisors.  I have a number of friends who have done TFA (with mixed reviews) and I’ve worked with a handful of corps members and alums.  

That said, in the interest of full disclosure, here is my personal background with TFA:
I went to a small, “highly selective” liberal arts school where TFA recruited heavily. They employed students, typically NOT education minors (in the teacher ed program you majored in your subject and minored in ed.) to speak to classes and recruit students to apply to the program.  Knowing I had been involved with a number of mentoring and teaching programs, I got calls from the recruiters, but after I told them I was committed to student teaching and the “traditional route” they left me alone. 

From my graduating class of about 700 students (I know, small), 6 students joined TFA.  Of those six, 1 quit during institute, 2 left after their first year, and 3 completed their 2 year commitment.  Also, according to the most recent college alumni magazine one of those 3 is now “one of the youngest principals in the country” (which is a whole separate concern for me). 

While these six students were completing their summer institutes in urban districts around the country, I was applying to and interviewing at schools all over Philly.  At almost every school, they asked disappointed, “So you aren’t TFA?” As though doing my student teaching and being fully certified was some sort of black mark on my application. In spite of my frustration, I ultimately found a job working at an alternative school, so no harm done.  I offer this personal account to show that even for traditionally trained novice teachers there is an “us vs. them” dichotomy set up with TFA. 

Though I have a host of other concerns with the present iteration of TFA, one particular quote from Stephanie Simon’s piece on Reuters jumped out at me.  A 22-year-old recruit who will be teaching in LA said, “I’m here to tell these kids that they have potential. They’ve never been told that before”.  The second sentence really rubbed me the wrong way.  Though I don’t think this well meaning recruit intended to insult the population of students that they’ll be teaching in the fall, it certainly struck me that way.

 If I’ve learned anything from teaching so-called “dropouts” for the last three years, it’s that you can’t make any assumptions about the students, their families, or their experiences.  Saying that students have never been told that they have potential is an assumption that people make about kids in poverty (and their families) and these assumptions are dangerous.  See the criticism of Ruby Payne’s “A Framework for Understanding Poverty”.  Teachers and districts love people like Payne who offer a step by step outline for how to teach poor kids.  The reality, however, is that there are no step-by-step directions.  In her book, which served as a great counter example in my urban ed classes, Payne makes generalizations and assumptions about children in poverty that I found shocking and absurd.  Further, even if her assumptions held true, I didn’t find them to be particularly helpful to my teaching. 

I feel that in its rush to “prepare” recruits for the classroom, TFA has drawn on the work of people like Payne who offer quick fixes to working with children in poverty.  This approach leads recruits to make assumptions that could ultimately make their work in the classroom even more difficult and be potentially damaging to their students.  

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