Is 'Teach For America' Profiting From the Use of Poor Kids?

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Ben Cohen
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Mark Naison, a professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University does not believe the highly respected 'Teach For America' organization is living up to its own ideal about educational equality. 'Teach For America' recruits new college graduates, gives them a short, intensive training, then places them in some of America’s toughest schools, with only a two-year commitment. Naison penned an article (written over a year ago and republished in the Washington Post) that highlights the hypocrisy in the organization that has a remarkably low acceptance rate for non-ivy league schools, and often acts as a training tool to go into much higher paying careers afterwards. Writes Naison:

I did a little research and found that Teach For America had accepted only four of the nearly 100 Fordham students who applied.  I become even angrier when I read in The New York Times that TFA had accepted 44 of 100 applicants from Yale that year....Several years ago, a TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.”  The message of that flyer was: “use teaching in high-poverty areas as a stepping stone to a career in business.”  It was not only disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it effectively advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume-padding” for ambitious young people.

There are many truthful elements to Naison's assertions. A cousin of mine worked for the British equivalent, 'Teach First' and spoke to me about how it was marketed to him. He told me that many of the other participants on the course were looking to go straight to the city after doing the mandatory two years. Banks look for people able to withstand incredible pressure, and working in some of the country's toughest schools is seen as good preparation for the furnace of the financial industry. There is of course another side to the story - my cousin stayed for several years in the tragically failing school he was sent to, doing what he could to raise standards and provide the kids with a first rate education. He remains in teaching to this day, and will, I'm sure, remain an educator for the rest of his professional life.

But while some poor kids may benefit from being taught by ambitious go-getters, ultimately many are left behind when the lure of serious money takes 50% of their teachers away. This troubling fact reminded me of the time I taught English in Ghana when I left high school aged 19. Looking back, it was an experience I feel was actually pretty disingenuous and not particularly helpful to anyone other than myself. I taught  in a small school in Accra, with no training and no instructions. I was told to come up with some lessons plans for the kids (aged from 6 - 14), and went through some of the student's workbooks to see what some of the previous volunteers had been doing with them. I was shocked by what I found. There were random assignments with no particular purpose (mostly patronizing questions on books they had the children read) and completely arbitrary grading. Mostly, it appeared the volunteers before me had given the kids high grades for everything they had turned in. Flipping through the books, I'd see comments like, "Wonderful work Falila! 20/20!" and "Great job Kwame. 55/55!! Keep up the fantastic work!!" over and over again. This was coupled with gold stars the volunteers had bought back in England to stick all over their student's books. It wasn't that all the work was bad (like any class full of kids, it was mixed) it was just meaningless. Typically, some of the kids had plagiarized each other, yet they still had gold stars plastered all over their work and words of sickly sweet encouragement. It was completely condescending and utterly pointless. While the volunteers got to tell everyone they 'taught kids in Africa' the kids themselves hadn't actually learnt anything.

I didn't really know what to do, so decided to read some classic English children's tales (Roald Dahl's work featured heavily in my curriculum) and had them do character analyses and comparisons between the different stories. I also got them to write short sequels and had them invent new characters to introduce to the plot. I sent the kids out of the class when they misbehaved and gave them zero when the copied each other's work. Given I'd pulled the exact same crap back in school myself, I knew what they were up to and could pretty effectively keep them in line.  Over all we had fun and I got on well with the students and I like to think I helped them out a bit. But I was only there for 3 months, and I left to go to university back home in England and never saw or contacted them again. I wasn't exactly invested in their success and didn't think that much about it after leaving.

In English upper middle class circles, this is all par for the course. You go to a posh private school, join the debating/photography/elderly volunteer club, do well in exams, take a year out to help poor African kids, go to university, apply to jobs and tell possible future employer you 'taught English in Africa', then get a job in the city with lots of white people.

I can't help think that the program I had enrolled in was one big scam to make money from students who wanted to let everyone know how productive and ambitious they were. Everyone won except from the Ghanaian kids themselves who were subjected to rotating teachers with no training and no interest in their long term success.

Organizations like 'Teach For America' are heralded by Obama and other elites as the future of education, making them extremely fashionable. But in many ways they are essentially doing the same thing as the thousands of rip off 'gap year' organizations that purport to be helping those in developing countries. Says Niason:

The most objectionable aspect of Teach For America — other than its contempt for lifetime educators — is its willingness to create another pathway to wealth and power for those already privileged in the rapidly expanding educational-industrial complex, which already offers numerous careers for the ambitious and well-connected.  An organization which began by promoting idealism and educational equity has become, to all too many of its recruits, a vehicle for profiting from the misery of America’s poor.

A harsh assessment, but while shipping privileged graduates into poor areas might save some from educational disaster, when the incentive is to further your own career path, helping the disadvantaged is simply a byproduct and not a goal. And that is not what education should be about - as any good public school teacher will tell you.