Teach for America “Innovates Louisiana” by Leaving the Classroom
Teach for America (TFA) is a temp agency that staffs classrooms for usually two years per TFA recruit. Many of its alumni continue as *educators* by forming their own education-centered nonprofits or businesses, or by landing oft-elected-or-appointed administrative positions in education.
What TFA alumni overwhelmingly do not do is remain in the classroom as teachers. As a result, what an established TFA presence means to a school or a district is constant “teacher” turnover as TFAers leave the classroom after two years and others cycle in.
I attended the Network for Public Education (NPE) annual conference in Raleigh, NC, in April 2016. On one of my flights, I sat next to a TFA alum who did his classroom stint in East St. Louis several years ago. We talked for over an hour about his experiences with TFA, which he described as a “love-hate relationship.”
The way that our conversation began was with a discussion of our iPhones. Mine is old– and iPhone 4. He asked if he might compare it to his newer iPhone 6-something. I told him that I liked my outdated iPhone because my students are not tempted to snatch it.
He asked, “You’re a teacher?”
I responded that I am.
He replied, “I used to be a teacher.”
I suspected it right then.
I asked, “You used to be a teacher?”
“I was in TFA.”
TFA is certainly chock full of used-to-be “teachers.”
I asked him why he chose TFA. He said that he wasn’t yet ready to start law school (he has since completed law school and is a practicing attorney) but that he didn’t want to spend a year in Europe on his parents’ dime.
His comment about having a parent-financing option for living a year in Europe made me smile inwardly because it is so far from my reality.
One of his comments was that he suggested to TFA leadership that the two-year TFA stint be extended to three years because “the first year is a waste.” He said he didn’t know what he was doing and that he doubted his students learned that year. He did tell me that his test scores were impressive that second year.
He said that the TFA leadership did not seem to want to extend the commitment to three years because it requires more of the person committing.
I asked him about the wasted first year and pointed out that the issue of TFA churn would not be remedied with a third year– students would still often experience a fresh TFAer fighting through that “wasted” first year. He acknowledged as much and added that at least the students would have two good years to follow the wasted first year.
I asked about his internship experience– actual time before a class prior to being assigned to teach. He told me that there were four TFAers assigned to a class of 12 students enrolled in summer school. He noted that classroom discipline was never an issue since when he was in front of the class, there were three other TFAers to step in and handle discipline.
But he said that where he felt TFA dropped the ball in its five-week training was in lesson planning. He simply did not know what it would take to plan lessons week after week. But he made it through his two years, and he felt he had done a service by volunteering because many teachers at his lower-income school in East St. Louis did not want to teach.
He told me that TFA had prepared him for not only the teacher apathy, but also to not trust his principal. He added that they were right about the principal, who did not seem to take kindly to this TFAer. (He also said that since he was a temp employee, he was in a position to blow the whistle on this principal, who was padding enrollment numbers.)
I asked him about the apathy: “You say the teachers are apathetic even as you say the teaching situation was a hard one. Do you think that they could just be worn down?”
He agreed that it was a possibility.
I asked another, more pointed question: “Given that your narrow experience was with ‘apathetic’ teachers in one school, do you find that if you do not make an effort to catch yourself, you view all career teachers as being like the ones at the school where you spent your limited two years– that you are prone to globalize your limited experience to all career teachers?”
I quickly brought it home:
“Do you find that without catching yourself, you view me that way, as well?”
He said yes.
He also said that he viewed TFA as being too controlling from the top. I asked him if he were aware that TFA was facing recruitment problems for the third year in a row. He said he was not aware. I told him that supposedly, TFA is trimming its national hold and giving its regional offices more authority.
Before we departed, I asked him if in the future he would be willing to write a narrative about his TFA experience for my blog. He said yes. We exchanged information. I have not contacted him yet but will likely do so at some point.
What put me in mind if this young man and our in-flight conversation was seeing this TFA One Day Magazine feature on the marvels of the TFA presence in Louisiana and especially post-Katrina New Orleans.
What is missing from the feature is any interview with a TFAer who remained in the classroom as a career. The article opens by referring to one TFAer’s three generations of classroom teachers as “the family business.” This TFAer now operates a residential charter school.
There is also this impressive listing of post-Katrina TFA accomplishment:
TFA alumni and corps members, including those who had only been in their assigned schools for a matter of weeks, came back early [to New Orleans] to reclaim their lives and help with the recovery. Fifty corps members were assigned to help run disaster recovery centers. TFA alumni were among those who opened dozens of charter schools to meet the demand, attracting alumni from other areas to teach in Louisiana. In 2005, South Louisiana was home to about 80 alumni, most of whom were teachers. Ten years later, more than 1,100 alumni work in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and nearly all of them are involved in education in one way or another. Fifty-seven alumni lead schools or are system-level administrators. Seven of 10 students in New Orleans attend a school with a TFA corps member or alumni on the faculty. Many alumni are social entrepreneurs who created nonprofit organizations that support students and schools by addressing specific needs.
No mention about the number of the post-Katrina TFA rescuers who continue as classroom teachers in 2016 New Orleans.
The article mentions TFA alum and Louisiana exec director Kira Orange-Jones, who also happens to sit on the state ed board. Orange-Jones has not been in the classroom in years.
Here’s another “New Orleans is a TFA center” paragraph– but not the center of TFAers remaining in the classroom:
[Orange-Jones] rejects the charges by some that alumni and corps members are profiteers or carpetbaggers, pointing out that the organization has had a presence in South Louisiana for 25 years. It’s also the case that TFA has focused on recruiting corps members that will stay in Louisiana, including those who grew up or attended college in the area. About two-thirds of the alumni in Greater New Orleans were also corps members there.
It is inarguable that TFA alumni became much more visible and influential after Katrina and helped make it what some have called the epicenter of school reform nationally.
TFA does not remain in the classroom, but it remains in the area.
Of course, one cannot examine TFA presence in either New Orleans or Louisiana without considering John White. Here’s an opening statement that begs clarification:
John White (New Jersey ’99) was appointed to run the RSD in 2011, and was elevated to the state superintendent of education post a year later.
Actually, only three days after White’s being appointed to RSD, there was already talk of his being fast-tracked to state superintendent. Jeb Bush helped then-Governor Bobby Jindal with White’s promotion by getting the right folks elected to the state board in 2011 (Orange-Jones was one). Big money poured into the 2011 BESE election, and The Nation noticed.
As for TFA alum White: He has tried to “muddy the narrative” on not properly vetting voucher schools; launder voucher money; spend heavily on out-of-state contracts; secretly contract with inBloom;(more here), and pass off a voucher report with false stats. (For more on White’s dealings, click here.)
The TFA feature on New Orleans paints White as “staunchly defended the state’s college and career readiness standards against gubernatorial opposition.”
The “state’s” standards happened to be the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) which Jindal turned on but Jeb Bush did not– at least not immediately. Bush turned on CCSS, calling it “poisonous” in Iowa in August 2015.
CCSS must still be poisonous since TFA failed to name it in conjunction with John White. (TFA slips up and identifies CCSS by name later in the article.)
Then, there’s Sarah Usdin. TFA thinks it’s a selling point to showcase Usdin as “influencing policy” and then
remaining devoted to classroom teaching forming a nonprofit:
Sarah Newell Usdin (South Louisiana ’92) influences policy as an elected member of the Orleans Parish School Board, a position she ran for in 2012. But it was her founding of a nonprofit organization called New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) in 2006 that has had an even greater impact on the quality of education provided in New Orleans.
Who really believes that a steady supply of teachers who hardly ever make it to a fourth year in the classroom is good for students? Does TFA really believe this? Is their “One Day” really a saturation of TFA-alumni-founded charter schools and other nonprofits?
Must be, given that TFAers serve in the classroom for two years and then “meet the need” that they “see” by leaving that classroom. Consider the details on NSNO founder and school board member, former TFAer Usdin:
Usdin, who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, did not intend to make education her career after graduating from Colgate University; she thought her two years as a corps member would be but a stopover on her way to a career in another field. But, she says, she gradually recognized “how desperately education was needed to address the inequities and disparities” in Louisiana. As a teacher, she had seen that “the system was full of amazing educators who were very competent but who were working in a broken and irrational system. The good ones shut their doors and hoped for the best.” Students were being held back as well, by a lack of opportunity and low expectations. She saw the need for an organization that would help teachers focus on academic excellence.
The article continues with more former TFAers who left the classroom to improve teaching. (Huh?)
I would like to read the TFA feature on the numerous TFA teachers who taught in the years following Katrina and who are still teaching in New Orleans classrooms.
When Katrina hit, I was teaching at Ball State University. I wanted to return home because it was home. I did so in 2007. Since that time, I have been teaching at the same high school in St. Tammany. On May 09, 2016, I attended graduation. Though I teach sophomore English, I know many of the seniors who graduated because I taught them. I know many of their older siblings because I taught them, as well.
If I were a TFAer doing the usual two-year stint, I would not be around to see a graduating class comprised of students who had me as a sophomore teacher.
Staying around matters. It shows investment in the actual classroom and the students in that classroom.
Today I had one of my sophomores ask me, “Dr. Schneider, will you be here next year?”
I smiled and said, “That is my plan.”
He responded, “I’m going to come and see you even though I won’t be in your class anymore.”
I told him that would be fine and that my former students frequently pop in to say hello.
And so they do. It’s a non-test-centered component of community that a TFA temp cannot know.
Slidell High grads toss their caps (May 09, 2016)
Coming June 24, 2016, from TC Press: