Teach for America’s Critique of Traditional Certification

Ever since its formation, Teach for America has been embroiled in controversy. It has brought thousands of young, talented non-teachers into some of the toughest classrooms in the country, many of whom have chosen to remain in education in some capacity. But if its detractors are to be believed, the organization steals jobs from deserving teachers, cheapens the teaching profession, and serves as merely a career stepping stone for many purely self-interested college graduates. Yet it continues to expand, with 9000 corps members across the country teaching around 600,000 students.

I’m not going to insert myself into the omnipresent debate concerning the problems with TFA corps members leaving teaching, or how effective they are compared to “traditional” teachers. All I can say is that, as a corps member myself, I have been consistently awed by the drive of my colleagues to improve and become exceptional teachers. The students of the city are fortunate to have many great teachers in the classroom that wouldn’t have been there without TFA.

But TFA’s most important impact, in my view, is beyond these individual classrooms. It has questioned the unnecessarily lengthy, expensive, and bureaucratic traditional path to certification.

Before starting teaching, I was forced to go through the arduous process of becoming “highly qualified,” which I somehow managed before I actually started teaching. (To be honest, despite my credential, the only areas in which I could have definitely called myself “highly qualified” in the realm of education were sending checks to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, signing forms, completing checklists, and not having a criminal record.) The extent of the bureaucracy was comical.

Yet I was lucky: without TFA to help guide me down the rabbit-hole, I would have never been able to secure that certification, and so wouldn’t have had the opportunity to teach in a high-needs school. I have some incredibly smart, talented, and compassionate friends that wanted to start teaching after graduation but were unable to because they weren’t accepted into TFA or similar programs. In this country, if you want to teach, you basically need to major in education in college or be lucky enough to grab a slot in a fast-track cert program. This is a huge disservice to our students.

Now, I’m not saying that TFA’s teacher training system–centered on a 5 week summer crash course called “institute”–is perfect. I did learn an incredible amount about teaching in that amount of time, but my first few months were arduous, to say the least. (I consider it a blessing for my long-term mental health that my brain decided to erase September through November of that year from my memory.) But there is no amount of training that would have totally prepared me for that first year. Indeed, in teaching you learn primarily from experience. I made (and continue to make) many mistakes when I teach, and I continue to learn from them. The intangibles possessed by great teachers–presence in the classroom, effective communication with students–are built with experience.

Yet the traditional system of teacher education and certification doesn’t recognize that fact.     Undergraduate education programs, besides being widely regarded as one of the easiest college majors, require way too much sitting in classrooms and not enough standing in front of them. Their length and cost only serve to restrict and insulate the teaching profession, and for no good reason: Teach for America corps members are at least as effective as teachers coming from traditional certification programs.

Considering the educational crisis in this country, we should be trying to encourage as many people into the teaching profession as possible–a task made impossible by a certification system that is heavy on bureaucracy and light on helping kids. Teach for America has forced us to question the wisdom of that vestigial limb of the educational status quo.


6 thoughts on “Teach for America’s Critique of Traditional Certification

  1. John Young

    someday it will become evident that TFA is actually the “dreaded” status quo.

    Best save that invective for something that really is.

  2. Katie Osgood

    If you want to talk about the teaching profession, then let’s look at models that work. Finland uses a five year BA/Masters plan which they fully subsidize costs for great candidates. Japan also uses full BA model. I taught in a Japanese high school for many years as an assistant teacher. The Japanese would never dream of placing an uncertified teacher without full training and practical experience in a classroom.

    Oh, and by the way, it was so easy to get that bureaucratic piece of paper for your teaching certificate, in part, because Teach for America lobbied Congress to keep it that way. The “highly-qualified” stipulation in No Child Left Behind was created to try and equalize the unequal distribution of under-trained, and uncertified teachers who were disproportionately placed in low-income schools of color. TFA, to protect its own interests, got legislation passed to get around this clause and thus opened the flood gates for terrible, alternative cert and virtual teacher certification programs to proliferate. That legislative decision is currently being overturned in the court systems.

    TFA is directly responsible for weakening teacher education in a time when we should be vastly increasing the time and quality of our teacher education programs. And then they spread the myth that teacher preparation does not matter while comparing themselves with other poor programs. When compared with high-quality teacher education programs, where graduates complete hundreds of hours of observation in multiple settings and grade-levels, with 1-3 quality student teacher placements under the guidance of master teachers, teacher education matters greatly!

    At the end of the day, education degrees should be treated like a medical or law degree, but because it is a majority female profession as well as a profession with many working-class-background women of color, it is given little respect. Make no mistake, that lack of respect speaks to an inherently racist, sexist, and classist attitude towards teachers which unfortunately TFA perpetuates.

  3. Jacob W Post author

    Katie – Though Finland’s model is impressive–and certainly worth aspiring towards–there are a number of fundamental differences that make it basically impossible to just implement here (https://skepticspolitics.wordpress.com/2012/07/02/philly-aint-helsinki-debunking-the-u-s-finland-education-comparison/). The model of education degree programs as rigorous, selective, and effective, though worth exploring, is simply not present in the US at the moment. We need to “trim the fat” from undergraduate and graduate education programs, and TFA has highlighted that truth. A slightly different perspective on the issue: http://t.co/i6NDgtoD

    Thanks for reading,

  4. Katie Osgood

    Fine with me, let’s trim the fat. But let’s start with programs like TFA and the others alternative cert programs/online programs which do not offer extensive and multiple experiences in the classroom under the guidance of a master teacher (not someone who completed their 2 year TFA stint, but someone with 10+ years in the classroom.) I argue with Paul Bruno on twitter often and I think he’s way off base. So does the Ninth Circuit Court in California which ruled: “A federal appeals panel yesterday re-affirmed its September 2010 ruling that the U.S. Department of Education unlawfully diluted the standard of teacher owed every student in the country under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) when it issued a 2002 regulation classifying teachers in training as “highly qualified.” http://www.publicadvocates.org/press-releases/ninth-circuit-reaffirms-ruling-that-trainee-teachers-not-intended-as-highly-qualified It also says that GRADUATES of the program are just as effective, but those who have not yet completed the training program ARE NOT AS EFFECTIVE as fully-certified teachers.

    Some more food for thought: http://jacobinmag.com/2011/12/teach-for-america/ TFA is a huge boost for its own recruits, but dilutes the respect of teaching for all other teachers who choose to make teaching a career.

    I am a special education teacher, and I understand TFA places around 20% of its recruits in special education. This is ABSOLUTELY unacceptable. Especially in Sped, strong teacher preparation is highly correlated with better outcomes for the fragile students with special needs.

    I would also add that the problem is not with our (quality) teacher education programs, but with our classrooms. Ridiculously underfunded schools with large class sizes, few resources, and few support staff make for an incredibly difficult teaching and learning environment. But instead of dealing with the fundamental problems of grossly unequal school funding, policymakers use TFA and the false, racist, classist,and sexist narrative around “teacher quality”, to ignore funding issues and instead fill the schools most in need with the least prepared teachers. In Chicago, the quest for “highly-effective teachers” has resulted in the mass firing of older female teachers of color. (In 1995, 45% of Chicago’s teaching force was Black, today it is 19%.) Teacher quality rhetoric is inherently racist and classist in its identification of “great candidates”.

    Lastly, if Teach for America provides such a quality model, why are schools in affluent communities still only hiring fully-prepared, credentialed teachers from traditional education programs? In my opinion, what’s good for the children of the elite is good for children in low-income areas.

    1. Jacob W Post author

      Katie – I don’t disagree with your claim that there are deeper problems in the system, namely school funding inequality. I think where we differ is our perception of the feasibility of actually addressing those funding issues. I am of the belief that smaller reforms (school choice, tenure reform, etc.) can improve outcomes for kids, and so are worth pursuing. That’s not to say that they are “silver bullets”–they definitely are not–but even helping a few kids is worth it. A radical redesign of our school funding system, while it would be great, is simply not politically realistic at the moment, and it is a disservice to kids to continue to push for that while actually accomplishing nothing. Of course, many people disagree with that, but I am a pragmatist and I guess that’s just how my mind works.

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments.


  5. Katie Osgood (@KatieOsgood_)

    Not only are school choice and tenure reform not silver bullets, but they are damaging to education. While education reformers focus on side-issues like teacher quality (I would include tenure in this category) and choice (charters), they distract the public from the larger conversation about equity and racism. In Chicago, where we have had these types of “reforms” foisted on us for over 15 years, we see increasing racial and economic segregation, racist and unfair hiring/firing policies, and even worse school funding disparities as charters siphon money away from neighborhood schools. I worked in one of the schools being sabotaged for closure and it was cruel how schools are being deliberately underfunded to justify closures, turnarounds, and new charters. And our appointed Board of Education and Mayor’s allies all just happen to profit from these decisions. It’s wrong. I encourage you to read the work of Dr. Pauline Lipman from Univ of Illinois-Chicago who has done extensive research around the reforms in Chicago and how they are aligned to business plans aimed to displace low-income people of color and genetrify specific neighborhoods. Also, read up on the community group called KOCO (Kenwood Oakland Community Organization) and the work they are doing to force a moritorium on racist school closings.

    And of course, the Chicago teachers strike is a perfect example of what it looks like to fight for equity and against bad education reform policy. Going on strike to draw attention to the mass disparities seen in Chicago’s schools proves that a fight for equity is not only possible, but it is necessary.

    I don’t know how Teach for America ended up on the wrong side of the battle lines, but I wish that individual corps members would rethink the ed reform rhetoric and ally with the parents, students, and teachers who are already fighting for educational justice. There is much we can do right now to force more equitable school funding as well as the long-term battles that must be fought. But corporate education reform takes us in the wrong direction.

    If you are interested in learning more about the fight in Chicago and what we are (pragmatically) doing to increase equity, let me know. It is possible.


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