Letter from a Teacher to Superintendent Enfield and Seattle School Board: Please don’t outsource our jobs to TFA

Despite growing enrollment and schools that are bursting at the seams throughout the district, the Seattle School District is apparently under-reporting enrollment in a number of its schools for this fall, and subsequently planning to announce teacher layoffs on May 15. Waiting in the wings are Teach for America, Inc. recruits which the School Board voted 6-1 (Director Patu dissenting) to contract with last year (with very little public discussion), at an added cost of $4,000/head, for reasons that remain unclear. The truth is, many of Seattle’s schools are alarmingly overcrowded, and the district plans to reopen two more elementary schools in the fall. There is no reason to lay off teachers. Teachers will likely be called back in the fall, if they are still available. Where does this irrational process leave Seattle’s 20,000 fully trained teachers who are eager to work in our local schools? One teacher asks the superintendent and school board to tap the talent it already has. — Sue p.

Dear Superintendent Enfield and Seattle School Board,

I am an aspiring high school English Language Arts teacher in the Seattle Public School district, seeking a contracted position. I grew up in Seattle, attended public school in Seattle, and am dedicated to making an impact on Seattle’s students. I am not the first person who will tell you, from personal experience, that Seattle has no shortage of great teachers; currently there are thousands of teachers out of work in Seattle. A job was posted earlier this school year at West Seattle Elementary and over 600 teachers applied.

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“A job was posted earlier this school year at West Seattle Elementary and over 600 teachers applied.”

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However, despite this reality, on November 17th, 2011 at the Seattle Public Schools board meeting the board voted—after hearing one compelling teacher, parent and student testimony after another—to move forward with Teach for America contract negotiations. Not only will this cost more money for Seattle, a district in the midst of a tremendous budget crisis (according to the SPS website the state cut funds by $34.8 million for the 2010-11 school year and will cut $42.7-46.1 for the 2011-12 school year), but it will give what jobs are available to novice, nontraditionally qualified teachers, 80% of whom will quit the profession and abandon Seattle’s students after 3 years.

This is the most salient argument against bringing TFA to Seattle: there is no teacher shortage. In fact, there is a monstrous surplus of teachers who are dedicated to making a long-term career out of urban public education in Seattle, including myself. Most of us haven’t had the opportunity to show, in an interview setting, what we can do to support students and improve education at any of Seattle’s Title I schools. Some haven’t even had the opportunity to apply for a job at any of these schools because none have been posted in our areas of endorsement (including secondary English Language Arts, a core subject in which classes are overflowing and teachers struggle desperately to give students a personal, differentiated experience in a district where enrollment and class size continue to rise (see the “Guide to Understanding the Operating Budget – Detailed Report” dated November 2010).

Many highly capable, talented, energetic teachers—some young, some with up to five or six years of experience—have been RIFed from contracted positions. They weren’t offered contracts for this school year. And even more teachers will find out in May that they don’t have a contract for next year either. And contrary to the popular anti-“last in, first out” rhetoric, I find it hard to believe that the majority fit the stereotype of burned-out, do nothing, read a book at their desk while class runs amok, teachers. Most teachers are very good teachers, and all teachers are struggling to do their jobs well because of a fundamental lack of trust and support from the government and community.

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“If you want dedicated teachers who are committed to a long and storied career in urban public education, please talk to your pool of nearly 20,000 teachers before you outsource our jobs.”

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All I ask of Seattle’s school board, superintendent, principals and parents, on behalf of myself and every other enthusiastic, motivated, purposeful teacher in Seattle—employed or unemployed—is that we are given a fair chance to prove ourselves before our jobs are given away. If you want dedicated teachers who are committed to a long and storied career in urban public education, please talk to your pool of nearly 20,000 teachers before you outsource our jobs.

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“All I ask of Seattle’s school board, superintendent, principals and parents (…) is that we are given a fair chance to prove ourselves before our jobs are given away.”

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Teach for America’s main selling point is that it provides struggling, high poverty, urban schools with effective tools to close the “achievement gap” between white students and students of color. I completely understand why this message, when presented with glossy brochures and exuberant testimonies, sounds appealing to schools, parents and students who everyday are brutally confronted by failure despite a massive teacher surplus.

However, there are a number of reasons why TFA—well intentioned as it and its participants may be—will not come close to solving, addressing or even slowing the bleeding of low academic achievement in Seattle’s urban schools. In fact, TFA will remove what remains of academic opportunity in Seattle’s struggling schools by passing over qualified teachers in favor of unqualified ones. In order to address the complex and multifaceted issues of failure, Seattle needs to bring everyone involved in and affected by these troubled schools—parents, students, teachers, administrators, district staff, board members—to form a supportive, sustainable community. Change must start from within.

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“The Seattle school district is overflowing with qualified, passionate, desperate teachers who do not feel represented or supported by Seattle Schools’ leadership.”

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I could talk about how, while TFA claims to increase student achievement and help to close the “achievement gap” in urban schools, there is no convincing evidence of TFA teachers being able to do this under any circumstances. (While many research studies are posted on TFA’s website, they are not reliable, and there are at least as many recent studies showing that TFA teachers are less effective than traditionally certified teachers, new or experienced.) However, I don’t think it matters, nor is it particularly fair to the bright young people who dedicate two years of their lives to a very difficult job. What matters more than anything else is that the Seattle school district is overflowing with qualified, passionate, desperate teachers who do not feel represented or supported by Seattle Schools’ leadership. With even more RIFs imminent and morale at an all-time low, with absolutely no confidence in the leadership, with new teacher evaluation protocol bringing sweat to the brow of even the most talented new teachers, with new district, state, and federal requirements being heaped upon the already breaking backs of teachers, I have to wonder: are any teachers in Seattle in a position to do their best job? Is it any wonder that teachers are struggling?

What other systemic issues are at play in determining why one student is successful in school and another is not? I contend that a student’s achievement in school, or even a child’s success in life, has very little to do with the capability of any given teacher. This does not take any responsibility away from teachers to do the best job possible. Instead, I hope it focuses the role of teacher to a scope of influence that is reasonable. Can anyone help students achieve if neither students nor teachers are even given the opportunity to achieve?

Seattle owes it to teachers to support and respect them in their chosen profession, as it is a very difficult one, requiring much dedication and courage. We owe it to students to look at them as whole people—members of communities—without resorting to quantifying them with statistics. And we owe it to parents to support them in what is the most difficult and admirable of any job, one that nobody can quite adequately prepare themselves for, one that requires tremendous patience and encouragement.

If we are to achieve excellent and sustainable public education in Seattle, we need to look deeper and wider than what happens for fifty minutes inside any given classroom. In order to be successful education needs to be, if nothing else, a collaborative effort that engages teachers, students, families, communities and administrators. TFA will not help to improve education in Seattle in the short or the long term. TFA will heal our schools like a Band Aid on a broken neck.

Sincerely,

Sara H.

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