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Teach for America, Inc. was the brain child of Wendy Kopp while she was an undergraduate at Princeton in the Woodrow Wilson  School of  Public and International Affairs. TFA, Inc. has turned into a multi-million dollar business. Wendy Kopp does not have a degree in education and from what I have been able to unearth, has no experience teaching in a classroom.

It started out innocently enough, or so it would seem, as an effort based on the Peace Corps model to provide schools with temporary teaching staff. Teach for America recruited graduates fresh out of college and with five weeks of training, placed them in schools in small southern towns and rural areas for two year stints where teachers were hard to come by. Something was better than nothing as far as those school communities were concerned. Since then, because the labor is cheap, TFA became the darling of the charter school industry. No unions had to be involved with charter schools and the recruits would gladly do what they needed to do to fulfill their two year stints, have their loans waived during that time and receive a $5,000 “stipend” to pay off past educational debts or pay for their educational pursuits in the future, whatever that might be. It was perfect for the charter schools because these schools are required by state law to maintain a certain level of achievement as shown by test scores. TFA, Inc. recruits teach to the test and there is little concern about learning how to manage “low-performing” students or students with special needs because the charter schools ensure that those students  are either not admitted or are quickly shown the way out of the door. Now, they are here in Seattle trying to justify their existence with the financial aid of Bill Gates to the tune of $2.5M to support TFA, Inc. in opening an office in the Puget Sound area.

First let’s look at the broader picture in Seattle and this will hold true for many cosmopolitan areas in this country. In Seattle we have two universities that have colleges of education, Seattle University and the University of Washington. Both colleges enjoy excellent reputations for preparing students to become teachers. Needless to say, there is no shortage of qualified individuals who are eager to begin their careers here in Seattle. I personally have spoken to many teachers who are waiting to hear from Seattle Public Schools after providing their resumes and proof of certification. These teachers have had the experience of student teaching for one or two years, know how to develop lesson plans and want to make a commitment to our community to work with our students over the long haul. They’re prepared.

No matter how smart a TFA, Inc. recruit is or where they went to school or what they studied or how excited they are to be working, they will not be prepared to develop lesson plans, manage classrooms and the issues that come up with individual students as well as teach and it’s not fair to place this burden of their inexperience and lack of training on the students or school staff.

This is not quality teaching that the proponents of Race to the Top and all things corporate reform are clamoring about. This is inadequate when compared to what a student deserves when walking into a classroom on the first day of school.

To highlight the dumbing-down aspect to TFA, Inc. as well as how it is de-professionalizing the realm of educators and education, all you have to do is see what has occurred at the University of Washington in their College of Education. Dr. Tom Stritikus, Dean of the College of Education at UW and former TFA recruit, announced last week that UW would be sponsoring Teach for America recruits after their 5 week stint of training off-site. The program at UW will be provided to TFA recruits as a one year fast track to certification. These recruits will then be certified and ready to teach our kids. Right. This announcement last week created such a furor at UW that Dr. Stitikus had a forum last Wednesday to meet with students and faculty on this new program. Students could not understand how UW could have two programs side by side, one for TFA recruits for one year and on the other hand offer a Master’s degree in education and then have both candidates on equal footing in terms of who Seattle Public Schools could hire. What a scam. This is truly scamming the system.

Dr. Stitikus did not back down from his decision but he offered a compromise. That’s right, he hadn’t compromised the system enough, he was now going to do major damage to the profession of education through his alternative solution.

He is now offering the graduate degree candidates the alternative of a fast track last year of education by allowing them to go to summer school and therefore be certified by the end of the summer and with that the opportunity to be hired for teaching in the Fall. Talk about a slippery slope. What next Dr. S? Why bother having a school of education at all when a factory will do? Going this route, Dr. Stritikus is pulling the leg out from a proud tradition of teaching professionals in this country. And what does it say about education in general when a dean of a college of education obviously doesn’t really think that education, even of his own students in preparation for their future, is that important?

And another question begs to be asked. What exactly does the PhD that Dr. Stritikus earned at UC Berkeley mean then? If degrees now do not matter, if more education for preparation for your chosen profession does not matter then what is the value of his degrees now? Continuing down that road, one could say that a former CEO of a company could “manage” a school of education or a certification mill rather, just as well as he can. And you know what? That’s exactly what people like Eli Broad of the Broad Foundation and other corporate privateers believe. Dr. Stitikus is now making the case for them and devaluing himself in the process.

Is this what our students deserve? Unprepared teachers with no depth of knowledge on child development or different approaches to education, no tools from which to draw upon?

And who is paying for this $8,000 cost per student to fast track these recruits into our public school system?

This process is not cheap. On top of the salaries that these recruits will receive when teaching, Seattle Public Schools has agreed to pay $4,000 per recruit per year to have the, what “privilege”?, of having these recruits teach our children for two years. Bargain? I think not.

So far “anonymous donors” have offered to pick up the tab for Seattle by way of the Seattle Foundation which receives funding from Bill Gates. Our schools would be so much better off if we could use those funds instead to rehire teachers and counselors who are qualified, have more to offer than “art on a cart” to many of our students, have the funding so that all schools can again have full-time librarians, enrichment programs for all schools and enough money to pay for the millions of dollars in maintenance backlog that has accrued over the years to make our schools safe.

Unless it’s another “anonymous donor” picking up the tab of each recruit to be sent through the UW mill, it will be coming out of our pockets and does that make sense? Does any of this make sense?

As parents, the best action is to speak to your principals and let them know what you think. They will be the people responsible for hiring teachers in you school. The next contact to be made would be to our interim superintendent, Dr. Susan Enfield (206-252-0180), superintendent@seattleschools.org, who sponsored the effort to get TFA, Inc. approved by the school board. She was the Chief Academic Officer at the time and it was under the direction of our former Broad-trained superintendent that she lead the charge but she is now ultimately responsible for allowing TFA, Inc. recruits into the classrooms. Dr. Enfield, if she wants to, could put pressure on the principals to hire TFA, Inc. recruits so your input to her as parents is crucial.

Will Bill Gates ultimately be responsible for dumbing down our educational system with TFA, Inc. as his tool? The irony is that his vision for education in this  country is far from the reality of what he is creating and he doesn’t even know it.

Dora Taylor

Post Script:

For another viewpoint on preparing teachers, see:

The Service of Democratic Education by Linda Darling-Hammond.

For additional information on Teach for America see:

Teach for America: A False Promise

Teach for America: A Review of the Evidence

Learning from Other People’s Kids: An Important Book on Teach for America