NYTimes education reporter Sam Dillon has a nice profile of Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp and KIPP CEO Richard Barth, who lead the nation’s two most successful and high-profile education entrepreneurial organization while also being married to one another.
Of course, no TFA article would be complete without the requisite disparaging quote from Stanford professor and Obama advisor Linda Darling-Hammond, who has elevated TFA haterism into something of a fine art over the years. TFA hating is an interesting phenomenon and worth exploring in more depth.
I think there are basically two issues at work here. The first is privilege. Teaching is very much a middle-class profession in this country. Teachers tend to be a lot like my aunt, who has lived in the same mid-sized southeastern Pennsylvania town for the last 30 years, raising three kids, marrying twice, and generally living a prosaic American life while making a career as a middle school math teacher. She’s never been paid very much, but she takes a lot of pride in her work and enjoys respect in her community.
Many (though certainly not all) TFA corp members, by contrast, come from the privileged backgrounds inherent to Yale and other elite colleges where the organization likes to recruit. I think there’s a sense among some that TFAers are parachuting into the teaching profession for a little while, grabbing a piece of moral authority, and then using it to further their already-privileged lives. A teacher like my aunt reading about state dinners for Prince Charles and limousines lined up outside the Waldorf-Astoria might wonder, not unreasonably, why it never occurred to all those rich and famous people to recognize or support her lifetime of service.
The second issue is professionalism. There is a robust strain of thought (of which Darling-Hammond is a leading proponent) which holds that teaching needs to be elevated into the ranks of respected, well-compensated professions like medicine and law. As NCATE president Art Wise recently said, “Professions normally have common programs of preparation and extended terms of practice. TFA does not fit the professional model of teaching; other professions do not assign novices primary responsibility. “
Here’s the problem with this argument: most people—like me, for example—know virtually nothing about what it takes to be a doctor. My knowledge of diagnosis and treatment is pretty much limited to “if it’s bleeding, make it stop.” That’s because I’ve had little exposure to the practice of medicine—I’m not related to or friends with any doctors, nurses, or other health professionals, and I’ve been lucky enough to avoid seeing very much doctoring from a treatment perspective.
Yet despite the fact that I’ve never been a teacher or taken an education class, I know a fair amount about teaching—far more than I know about medicine. Why? Because like everyone else who goes to school and then college, I’ve spent thousands upon thousand of hours in my life being taught. I’ve observed a range of teaching practitioners in action, sitting in their classrooms day after day for months at a time, unconsciously absorbing their methods, making judgments about which approaches work and which don’t.
This is not to say that I wouldn’t benefit from conscious exploration of pedagogical theory and explicit instruction in teaching methods. And I’d probably be better off without some of what I learned from my teachers–they weren’t all good. But the fact that college graduates come directly from an educational milieu–combined with TFA’s rigorous screening process and the tendency of elite colleges to graduate students with the kind of exceptional verbal abilities that research suggests are associated with classroom effectiveness–appears to be enough to make up for what TFA corp members lack in formal experience and training. That’s why, on average, they’re as effective or more effective than the traditionally-prepared teachers with whom they work.
Regular teachers, who won’t be and shouldn’t be displaced by the TFA model, deserve a lot more recognition and privilege than they receive. But unless the revolution is coming sooner than I think, we’re stuck with class-based society that distributes privilege disproportionately, and all else equal I’d rather Ivy League graduates looked for their status signifiers in low-income classrooms on the Mississippi Delta than in hedge funds and investment banking houses on Wall Street. And while it may be frustrating to advocates for the professionalization agenda that TFA complicates their narrative, that’s no excuse for wasting valuable time and energy trying to tear down a program that unambiguously makes the world a better place.