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Opinion

Response: Defending Teach For America

TFA corps members impact schools and students for the better

While I applaud columnist Julianne Cuba for taking on topics that get our campus talking, I disagree with her criticism of Teach For America (TFA). In her article from Feb. 4, she barely scrapes the surface when it comes to the vast and complicated issues with education in America. Instead she targets TFA, a program that aims to make a positive impact by providing educators now and leaders for the future.

I’ll be upfront about this: This summer, I am moving to Chicago to join the TFA corps there. I was very excited about my acceptance and my placement in the Windy City, but I quickly learned that education is a very touchy subject in Chicago and activists there have turned against the TFA corps.

So I did my research, spoke to current corps members, TFA staff members and peers (both supportive and skeptical) and read all the criticisms. I took it all in and decided I still believe in the work Teach For America is doing. I am sure it is a key player in the movement for education equity, and I’m going to start making a difference by getting hands-on experience through teaching.

Teach For America is most often criticized for being a “revolving door” of new teachers, but that is not the case. While only 15 percent of individuals who join TFA as corps members plan to become career teachers, one-third continue in the profession permanently. Meanwhile, two-thirds remain in the realm of education. As for the rest, it is the hope of TFA that corps members continue their commitment to the cause, even as they pursue careers outside education.

Nationwide, nearly 50 percent of all teachers leave the profession within their first five years teaching, according to the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future. That’s an unfortunate retention rate, especially when you consider those individuals likely planned to stay in education for good.

Those numbers represent a major part of the problem, because the sad truth is, this is not a good time to be a teacher in the United States. Most people are unaware of what a truly demanding job it is and unappreciative of the work teachers do. Meanwhile, more is being asked of teachers who are just plain underpaid, unsupported and eternally bogged down by regulations and standardized tests that prevent them from teaching effectively.

Many of the individuals in education administration and education policy who created this environment have never set foot in a classroom. Ambitious TFA alumni often seek such positions and will likely play a big role in changing the culture of education in our country to put a higher value on teachers and generate more positive outcomes for students. TFA is not accusatory of current teachers; rather, it is setting up a generation to come to their defense.

According to the Center for Education Reform, there were approximately 3,823,142 teachers in schools across the U.S. in 2010. With its 11,000 corps members, TFA accounts for just .003 percent of teachers nationwide. If the harm to students Ms. Cuba cites is real, then it is minimal.

However, I think the positive effects from young, passionate TFA teachers in the classroom, combined with the continuing work they do for education as alumni, are making a real impact.

Of course, it takes time to become a good teacher, and teachers really do need experience. While there is certainly knowledge only a full certification program can provide, there are other skills — such as organization, classroom management and the ability to apply discipline consistently — that are transferable from past experiences. Studies have presented mixed results, but generally show that TFA teachers are about as effective as newly certified teachers.

It’s not just about the training, though, since TFA is also committed to the ongoing support of the fledgling teachers they place, who are fully certified by the end of their first year.

In each of the regions it serves nationwide, Teach For America takes on a different form. In areas such as Phoenix, Ariz., teachers are desperately needed and TFA could not be more welcome.

The training and preparation vary as well, often beginning long before corps members arrive at their summer training institute. A friend of mine going to a region in Texas has had almost nightly prep work to complete.

While the training may have been a breeze for some, I have heard only stories of struggle, of the overwhelming amount of time spent planning lessons and some of corps members quitting long before beginning in a classroom. For every bad experience, I’m sure there are many positive ones. Since I haven’t been through it yet, I can’t say what it will be like with certainty, but I will keep you updated.

While some regions directly place corps members in schools, the majority still have to get hired by a school. For me, that will mean traveling to Chicago later this month to interview with principals. My point is that principals hire TFA corps members because they want them at their schools. And just like any other non-tenure teacher, TFA teachers can lose their jobs if they are not effective in the classroom.

Not every TFA teacher will be “transformative.” Even those of us privileged enough to have had amazing teachers have had some bad ones too. Still, TFA corps members come to schools with dedication, ambition and fresh perspectives that could make the difference in the lives of the students they teach.

Maybe there will be a day when TFA is no longer necessary, but it is far in the future. I firmly believe it will be those I graduate with this May who build that future.

Ms. Cuba, the thought of teaching might give you anxiety, but when I get in front of my classroom next year, I promise I’ll be confident, even if I still have a lot to learn. I will give my students everything I’ve got, and I have no doubt that it will be the hardest thing I have ever done.

Samson Widerman is a senior majoring in English and philosophy, politics and law

Editor’s Note: Julianne Cuba’s original column, “Teach For America doesn’t live up to its mission,” can be found here

Views expressed in the opinion pages represent the opinions of the columnists.