Teachers Are Losing Their Jobs, but Teach for America’s Expanding. What’s Wrong With That? | The Nation


Teachers Are Losing Their Jobs, but Teach for America’s Expanding. What’s Wrong With That?

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Wendy Kopp

Wendy Kopp, Teach for America’s founder, has called it a “leadership development organization, not a teaching organization.” (Photo by Sebastian Derungs, courtesy World Economic Forum, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

One of TFA’s controversial moves has been to seek placements for recruits in wealthier school districts like Seattle’s, where teaching jobs—not teachers—are scarce. Scroggins told me last year that the nonprofit will go wherever “there is a gap along race and class lines in educational attainment.”

According to internal documents and federal grant performance reports, TFA’s growth also increasingly hinges on fueling the country’s thriving charter movement. The organization’s data show that one-third of its recruits now teach in charters (up from 13 percent in 2007), which are mostly nonunionized, privately run, and can receive millions in private support on top of public funds. TFA has funneled a growing constituency of brand-new recruits into charters in large urban districts that have recently laid off hundreds of experienced teachers, including Philadelphia (where 99 percent of corps members teach in charters), Detroit (69 percent) and Chicago (53 percent). Washington State only recently approved charter schools; the first will open in Seattle this fall.

Meanwhile, the cost of recruiting, training and supporting corps members—which is partly subsidized by taxpayers—has more than doubled over the past decade, from $22,000 to at least $47,000.  (TFA disputes this,  claiming that it has revised its method of accounting for these costs.) And informal data that the TFA used to track its teachers’ performance indicates that their students aren’t making as much progress as they were a few years ago.

Camika Royal, who joined the organization in 1999 and has worked for it in various roles since then, said TFA’s goals have changed over the past decade. “We used to talk about this as a group,” Royal said, “that if TFA’s doing its job, the organization would cease to exist.”

When asked if TFA uses charters as a mechanism to expand, spokeswoman Natalie Laukitis refused to answer either way, simply stating that TFA prioritizes “students, families and communities.”

When I joined TFA in 2008 after graduating from college, the organization set up a phone interview with a principal at a San Jose elementary school. I was hired for a second-grade position—sight unseen—before even starting the five-week summer teacher training. That year was one of record growth for the organization, which brought in 700 more recruits than the previous year, exceeding expectations. It also corresponded with the beginning of the recession that has since forced school districts to cut back on hiring and, in some cases, led to mass layoffs of poor and excellent teachers alike.

TFA still works in areas with legitimate teacher shortages. Rural schools in states like Mississippi have come to rely on the program to fill classroom vacancies. But demand for the organization isn’t keeping up with its projected growth, dropping off even in strongholds like Mississippi. In innovation grant reports filed with the Education Department, TFA cited “an extremely challenging placement landscape,” and later cut 700 spots from its 2013–14 recruiting goal.

Both supporters and critics of TFA are calling for more transparency before the organization expands further. “I’m really troubled by public dollars going to TFA at the same moment teachers are being let go,” says Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor of education and race theory at the University of Wisconsin.

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