Who Will Speak for the Children; How 'Teach for America' Hurts Urban Schools and Students

Article excerpt

With its inadequate training of recruits -- many of whom will teach in urban schools -- and its disregard for the knowledge base on teaching and learning, `Teach for America' continues a long tradition of devaluing urban students and deprofessionalizing teaching, Ms. Darling-Hammond charges.

IN THE MAY 1994 Kappan, Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America (TFA), responded to a critique of her program by Jonathan Schoff, one of TFA's former corps members.[1] Schorr's article had recounted his experience as one of the eager young recruits into TFA -- fresh out of Yale University, with no preparation (but great interest) in teaching, trained in an eight-week summer institute, and plopped into a classroom in Los Angeles. He admits:

I -- perhaps like most TFAers -- harbored

dreams of liberating my students

from public school mediocrity

and offering them as good an education

as I had received.

But I was not ready.... As bad as

it was for me, it was worse for the students....

Many of mine ... took long

steps on the path toward dropping

out.... I was not a successful teacher

and the loss to the students was real and

large.[2]

Addressing the prospect that TFA-trained teachers might become part of President Clinton's new national service program, Schorr observes that "just eight weeks of training ... may be long enough to train neighborhood clean-up workers or even police auxiliaries but [it isn't] enough for teachers." He concludes that "a quick course and a year in the classroom without the support to make that year successful is a waste of the enormous potential of a young, energetic teaching force."[3]

Kopp claims that, while TFA had problems initially, improvements and new plans laid out in her application to the President's Commission on National and Community Service promise "an approach to teacher development that ... could make a real contribution to the field as a whole."[4] Yet Schoff 's concerns about the training he received in 1990 have been reiterated in a recent evaluation of the 1993 TFA summer institute and by many faculty members and recruits who have participated in the training over the past several years.[5]

The "new" program being launched this fall is no better. Conducted through an offspring organization called TEACH!, which was created when TFA began to fall under increasing criticism and into debt,[6] the new approach offers no systematic curriculum, no continuous faculty, no guaranteed resources for student learning, and no quality control over school placements, mentoring, or assessment. The proposed "outcome-based" assessment system for TEACH! continues the TFA tradition of fostering simplistic approaches to teaching that have little or no grounding in knowledge about how students learn or what teaching strategies may be effective and that offer no prospect of helping recruits meet professional standards of practice. What TEACH! does offer, however, is to relieve states and districts of the burden of quality control. TEACH! promises to recruit, prepare, select, assess, and license teachers. As Kopp explains, "The states in which TEACH! operates will recognize it as an approved route to teacher certification."[7]

This sweeping promise -- issued by an organization that has produced recruits so poorly prepared that they have been removed from classrooms even where shortages of teachers exist and that has refused to allow a full and independent evaluation -- presents a direct challenge to those who are seeking to raise standards for teaching. It is especially disturbing to those who are concerned about the well-being of children in the poor rural and urban districts that targeted. Thus far, the debates over TFA and similar programs have scarcely considered the impact on the children in these schools. It is time for us to focus or them. In this article I examine TFA's track record, training, assessments, and operations in terms of their capacity to ensure that TFA-trained candidates are adequately prepared to meet the needs of their students. …