Is there an exit strategy? Asking questions about TFA

An education blog recently published an open letter to new TFA corps members that is causing quite a stir. Here’s how Katie Osgood begins her message:

Dear New TFA Recruits,

It is summertime, which for those of you newly accepted into Teach for America, means you are enduring the long hard days of Institute.  I congratulate you on being accepted into this prestigious program.  You clearly have demonstrated intelligence, passion, and leadership in order to make it this far.

And now I am asking you to quit.

Ms. Osgood’s letter goes on to outline her reasons why TFA corps members should quit, which include the claim that TFA makes educational inequalities worse, not better; TFA is backed by naughty/suspect donors; and TFA is in bed with conservative charter movements. Now, some of these claims are a bit extreme, and Ms. Osgood’s position on the value of traditional training could use a little leavening; that is to say, whatever the limitations of TFA training, we can hardly pretend that our schools of ed are turning out teachers who are all perfectly prepared to take on the challenges and needs of students–much less students in areas of even greater need.

Now, it’s been almost 10 years since I joined TFA (Houston ’04) and started what has been a serious engagement with the issues facing low-income youth in education. My experiences were transformative, as have been those of most of my fellow corps members, and it’s easy (and inspiring!) to focus on the success stories, which are many.

But maybe all the focus on individual successes is causing us to overlook systemic problems. Ms. Osgood’s letter provides an opportunity to correct that and ask: Regardless of how successful individual TFA teachers are/become, regardless that many TFA teachers stay in teaching, regardless of their continued contributions in other sectors, is TFA hurting the children it seeks to serve by creating greater instability in schools that most need a stable and capable teaching staff?

I’m not ready to accept this post’s claims, but I have found myself mildly alarmed by the proud announcements of ever-expanding numbers of TFA CMs and placement sites. What, I’ve begun to wonder, is TFA’s exit strategy? TFA has always stressed the quest for long-term solutions in education as much as it has touted the effectiveness of its teachers in spite of their relatively short-term mandatory commitment to teaching. But is the mission of the organization strong enough to envision its own obsolescence? What is the long-term plan for TFA, and are its ties with the charter-school movement becoming problematic?

TFA teachers and alums should consider their work carefully in the context of the national education “crisis” (one that has been going on for more than half a century), seek as mentors all kinds of teachers, and do what every teacher ought to do each day: seek to build bridges between where students are and where they need to be in their learning.

There’s work to do on all sides. This open letter is transparently polemical, but I still appreciate the opportunity to take a closer look at TFA’s current practices and partnership, something that I believe other TFA CMs and alums should care about as well. TFA’s weaknesses (and its strengths) need to be considered in the context of a highly problematic, fractured system. We want TFA to be part of a long-term solution, not a source of deeper problems.


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