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An Open Letter to TFAers Tempted to Diagnose ADHD, Among Other Issues

May 18, 2014

Dear Teach for America (TFA) Corps Member:

In 1985, I graduated from high school. So did TFA founder, Wendy Kopp. She and I happen to be only five weeks apart in age.

In April 2014, I published a book. Kopp has her own chapter.

She attended college at Princeton from 1985-89. I also attended college, at Louisiana State University (LSU). I stayed for an extra two years and graduated in 1991 with a degree in secondary education, English and German.

I chose to become a teacher. Kopp chose political science.

It is 2014. For my entire professional career, I have been a teacher.

Kopp’s professional career has involved creating TFA, an arrangement whereby non-education majors like you make two-year commitments to teach. Many of you will later become charter school “founders,” principals and superintendents. With minimal classroom experience, you will call yourself “educators,” and TFA will boast that the majority of their recruits remain in “education.”

Some of you will drop out of TFA before your two-year commitment is complete. You will realize that teaching involves much more than simply a high college GPA and enthusiasm.

I realize that you have been indoctrinated to believe that career teachers are lazy, or that they are not capable because they did not graduate from the top five or ten percent of their class.

I also realize that you believe that the ultimate measure of learning is the standardized test score and resulting graduation rates (however the term “graduation rate” happens to be defined– four years? Six years? Nontraditional program?).

I know that some of you struggle with the idea of “using” teaching to pad resumes. Others view teaching as an ill to be tolerated for two years and end up resenting your experience, viewing it as a “waste” of your life.

I am no fan of the TFA program. I do not believe that five or six weeks of training– in a controlled environment, to boot– is in any way sufficient to prepare you for the classroom.

Teaching is a profession in its own right, and those who graduate from four-year colleges and universities with degrees in education– evidencing the long-term educational investment that testifies to an intent to stay– also risk not making it beyond the five-year mark.

So, to me, a program that sells you on five weeks of training as adequate preparation clearly does not have your best interest in mind.

I have written about Louisiana’s contracts with TFA. You are making quite a bit of money for that organization, an organization that also solicits millions in donations.

I am sorry you are being exploited for your youthful enthusiasm.

Allow me to address an issue of greater concern: The idea that TFA will try to “train” a subpopulation of its recruits to “become” special education “certified” (I use the term loosely), and to potentially (and mistakenly) believe that TFA has equipped you to professionally diagnose  and serve special education populations.

There is a March 2013 article that I read today in Huffington Post in which Matt Kramer, one of TFA’s two current CEOs, discusses his recent diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and how his education might have been improved had he been diagnosed during his formative years.

He then continues with a discussion of the high numbers of minority students classified as special education students. Given TFA’s frequent focus on gaps, it does not surprise me that Kramer proposes a new TFA “initiative” to help “close the gap” in the graduation rates of special education students.

What I find especially troubling is the lack of clear connection between his late ADHD diagnosis and wishing it had come sooner in his life and his announcement that TFA is now going to “train” select TFAers to “help” special education students to “reach their potential.”

Kramer clearly believes that one year of training for a two-year TFA stint in special education is just fine for all involved:

The communities where Teach For America corps members teach have a particularly high need for additional special education support, as Black, Latino and Native American students are overrepresented in special education courses nationwide. Special education diagnoses are sometimes used as a way to help kids get the support they need, but in these communities, generic diagnoses are too often used to rationalize the struggles of students who already face many other challenges. Adding to their challenges is the fact that, according to the Department of Education, 46 states face a teaching shortage in special education subjects.

Because over 10 percent of our corps work in special education contexts — and likely all 11,000 teach at least one student with some level of learning difference — we feel a strong responsibility to help create a culture of high expectations and tailored learning for special education students.

To aid in that effort, Teach For America is launching its Special Education and Ability Initiative to enlist and develop more leadership for the movement underway in America today to ensure that every child gets access to an excellent education, regardless of how they learn. Over the last 24 years, we’ve learned about the power of excellent teaching to change lives, and we’ve learned about the importance of ensuring that the leaders influencing the educational and related systems from every angle are grounded in the perspectives that come from teaching successfully in high needs schools. Nowhere are those lessons more important than in our work in special education. [Emphasis added.]

Thus, I am left with this question:

Is TFA going to put its young, idealistic recruits in the position of not only attempting to “serve” special education students but also to 1) serve as catalysts for “identifying” disorders such as ADHD in the regular education population and 2) to attempt to “un-diagnose” special education students or dangerously push a vulnerable population beyond limits determined by true special education professionals?

Before I proceed with my advice to you, allow me to address the issue of my credentials and experience. I want you to absorb what I am writing to you and not to dismiss me as “one of those lazy, less intelligent, less capable teachers” you have been drilled to believe must populate public school classrooms.

First, let me warn you that I have only ever attended public schools and state universities. I have never participated in an honors program, and I was not required to take standardized tests except in elementary school.

I graduated from LSU in 1991 in the top five percent of my class. I do not know my exact ranking, but I do know that it was in approximately the top 100 out of 2000 graduates. In 1998, I graduated with a masters degree in guidance and counseling from the University of West Georgia. My GPA was 4.0. I continued on for my Ph.D. in applied statistics and research methods with a counselor education concentration at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC). My UNC GPA was 3.96; in four years, I earned all A’s except for one B. I have 50 hours in professional counseling beyond my masters and am license-eligible as a counselor practitioner in Colorado. I am certified as both a classroom teacher and school counselor in Louisiana.

I have taught for 22 years (19 full time) in grades 7 through graduate school in three subjects (English, German, statistics) in four states (Louisiana, Georgia, Colorado, and Indiana). I have taught in regular and alternative education classrooms.

And because you have been told that this means something, let me add that I have been rated as a “highly effective teacher” based upon both administrative observation as well as student test scores. (Rating me via my students’ test scores has less to do with me and more to do with the students scheduled into my classes– including their backgrounds, intellects, and work ethics.)

So, now that you know that I fit even the TFA definition of an “effective” teacher, please listen to this advice:

No matter how it might seem, this “year of extra training” in order to promote “a culture of high expectations” in special education classrooms places you on dangerous and shaky ground, for it falsely assures you that you are prepared to offer a safe, non-exploitative, quality education to America’s most vulnerable students.

Do not presume that a single year of “training” positions you to diagnose or un-diagnose members of a special population.

For all of my credentials and experience, I do not presume to diagnose students.  Furthermore, I never tell students or parents, “You/your child has [diagnosis].” I follow district procedure and offer my observations as a classroom teacher to our school counselors and psychologists, and I do so with years of counseling training and teaching experience to draw from.

My educational background, which includes a grounded knowledge in developmentally appropriate practice (“grounded” meaning years of study), combined with my decades in the classroom, allows me to read and understand my students well.

I did not achieve my professional skill via a seminar, or a year of training, and certainly not in isolation from my career as a teaching practitioner.

Do not place yourself in a position to damage the vulnerable via a naivete exacerbated by an inflated ego.

You could harm students. You could be harmed by students. You could be held legally responsible.

Do not mistake enthusiasm for invincibility.

If you really want to assist special needs populations, make the appropriate investment. Return to school and treat your decision as an honest, long-term career move.

Make informed decisions.


Mercedes Schneider


  1. This is chilling. To think that TFAer’s will now be trained to have a “strong responsibility to help create a culture of high expectations and tailored learning for special education students”
    on a vunerable population with little to no voice to object. Shameful.

  2. jo- retired diagnostician and secondary level sp ed educator permalink

    excellent… nothing more to be said….you said it so eloquently and succinctly. Hopefully these TFA people will listen to your advice & recommendations

  3. 2old2tch permalink

    As a former special education teacher in one of, I’m sure, many states who are trying to “redefine” special education, I applaud your letter.

  4. Hannah permalink

    Oh good grief! TFA’s going to sic newbies onto our special needs students now? I thought our kids had the right to a Free, Appropriate, Public Education… someone with as little training as a TFA’r is NOT appropriate to the education of a special needs student!

  5. Karla Barham permalink


  6. In addition, MANY TFA’s get choice classes (all honors). In some schools, TFA’s have actually “weeded out” students that would not score well in order to boost their scores. I have seen TFA’s cry in class, throw tantrums — most are TOTALLY unprepared for classroom teaching.

  7. SLPM permalink

    One IEP meeting where they’re shredded by the lawyer/advocate sitting across the table and the blinders will come off for sure. Wonder if the TFA contract will include an exculpatory clause for the district’s due process costs where they will be automatically exonerated from any wrongdoing.

  8. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    Do not mistake enthusiasm for invincibility. Perfect. I hope this goes viral, especially among professionals the special education community and the army of people who worked hard to get IDEA enacted. TFA is really clueless. They are super vulnerable to legal action on a large scale

  9. KrazyTA permalink

    As a former SpecEd TA, I applaud your posting.

    But think of the times we live in, when to state simple truths in clear language is a sign of defiance of the education establishment and their enforcers.

    Thank you for all your efforts.

    And please take care of yourself too.


  10. Years ago I had a temporary assignment at a high poverty school in Phila., teaching a class of what we now call special ed kids. I was pretty good at whipping the kids into shape. Their behavior among the other classes improved considerably. The principal offered me a permanent gig. I had spent several lunch hours sitting at the desk reading the backgrounds of every child. Each file was more chilling than the ones from the previous days. The hubris of TFA, thinking that the low achievements of these kids is predicated on poor teaching, which they of course can trump, is unsupportable and so meanly vicious that it is impossible to wrap at least my arms around it. BTW, I turned down the job, knowing I didn’t have the training to make even a small difference in the trajectory of their lives.

  11. Psychotropic Medications: RS 17:436 (1991) prohibits teachers from making recommendations for students to be administered psychotropic drugs; specifying or identifying any specific mental health diagnosis for a student; and using a parent or guardians refusal to consent to administration of a psychotropic drug or evaluation, screening or examination as grounds for prohibiting the student from attending class or participating in any school related activities.

    A big no no! I myself would not attempt to teach special needs children without the additional training and certification although I have 17 years experience, masters and certification in gifted special education.

  12. Harlan Underhill permalink

    Marvelous. Especially, “Do not mistake enthusiasm for invincibility.”

  13. john a permalink

    After thirty plus years working in Special Education, reading Mercedes’ “Letter to TFAers…”, I fear that increasing numbers of students with special education needs will be subject to TFA educational/teaching ineptitude: the TFA ‘instant teacher’ program.

    There is no doubt that students are over identified as having of special need, especially in urban/minority public schools due to the limitations of regular education teachers to make appropriate modifications and accommodations to curriculum and teaching strategies.

    My point is that providing appropriate education for students with severe learning needs (be they labeled as ‘special education’ or not) demands a high level of skill, training, experience and resources). For TFA to even consider placing inexperienced kids into diagnostic and remedial teaching positions with our most educationally compromised kids reaches the heights of monumental ignorance and hubris, not to mention education malpractice, which of course, is not a legal concept, but a useful descriptor,

    All I can say is “suffer the children”. The only way to stop TFA from harming kids is to choke off the supply of college graduates who enlist in TFA. The trick is to get Mercedes’ letter out to potential TFA enlistees.Unfortunately, with all due respect, I don’t think that those potential enlistees, to their detriment, read this blog.

  14. Elaine Huff permalink

    Since being a student in schools while one is growing up makes one a teacher, having been diagnosed with ADHD makes one a doctor, right?

  15. Old Teacher permalink

    As someone of similar background, 20 + years in the classroom, an MA in Psychology, a former profiler, I am now in graduate school for special education. I would not presume to do what these people are attempting. Teachers, even special education teachers, do not, in isolation, “undiagnose” anyone. A team assesses the situation and provides support for children to work towards as much independence as they are capable of. 504 plans and IEP plans can follow a student to college. Perhaps a few lawsuits making TFA a fiduciary and co dependent will bring them to heel. They understand money!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. A Warning to ‘Teach for America’ Noobies from Mercedes Schneider concerning special-needs students | GFBrandenburg's Blog
  2. McCrory’s Democrat Common Core Advisors | Lady Liberty 1885
  3. Great Schools for America | Yet another open letter to TFAers
  4. Veteran educator voices concern over TFA’s special ed initiative | Reconsidering TFA

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