Editorial, Opinion

EDIT: To Teach for America or not to Teach for America

Since 2006, Hawaii has relied on Teach for America to fill approximately 9 percent of job openings on its islands each year. From 2012 to 2013 this organization has received $870,000 in state funding and, according to state education department spokesman Alex Da Silva, it has been a “valuable component” of the state’s education system. But despite how valuable Da Silva claims this program is, the House decided to cut its state funding in half last week.

Teach for America takes well-qualified college graduates and trains them to teach in high-poverty schools for at least two years. Wendy Kopp proposed the idea for this organization in 1989, and has cultivated it from an unpromising start-up to a national corporation that incurs an annual budget of $212 million and has more than 1,400 staff members.

Ruth Bolan, managing director of external affairs for Teach for America in Hawaii, said this cut in funding would cause a “big hit” to the organization, as Hawaii has long relied on this program to recruit and train teachers to work in schools that are difficult to staff.

Kopp founded Teach for America with the intentions of filling teacher shortages in U.S. public schools with young, idealistic and eager college students. At face value, this organization seems like it would promote a win-win situation. The new graduates would have an ethical, short-term segue into the real world, and underprivileged kids would get instructors they otherwise wouldn’t have.

However, although the intentions of Teach for America are ethical in nature, it actually perpetuates the structural problems within the U.S. educational system. Although this is a highly regarded program, it perpetuates a “white savior” complex, in which privileged people work with the underprivileged to promote their own image.

Yes, Teach for America is a cheap and simple solution to staffing classrooms of underprivileged kids. The fact that these classrooms are difficult to staff in the first place is a sign they are the ones that need the most attention. Staffing these classrooms with young and inexperienced students just because they are cheaper than paying a (low) salary for the more adequately trained teachers is not a solution to this cyclical problem.

Chicago teacher and activist Kenzo Shibata said, “Teach for America wanted to help stem a teacher shortage. Why, then, are thousands of experienced educators being replaced by hundreds of new college graduates?”

Teach for America undermines the U.S. education system in that it replaces experienced teachers with inexperienced teachers. As journalist James Cersonsky said, “Districts pay thousands in fees to TFA for each corps member in addition to their salaries — at the expense of the existing teacher workforce. Chicago, for example, is closing 48 schools and laying off 850 teachers and staff while welcoming 350 corps members.”

This is not to suggest that the Teach for America instructors are incompetent, however. Each candidate goes through an extensive application and interview processes to ensure only the best of the pool are chosen. However, despite the fact that the teachers may be “qualified,” they still pose the problem of being “short-term.”

These underprivileged kids need more than just people to teach them arithmetic and poetry, but rather they need mentors and friends. By constantly recycling teachers in and out of the school system, students are given the impression that they are not worth more than a year’s worth of effort.

Although Hawaii runs the risk of losing 100 Teach for America instructors who do not require as much pay, maybe the money that is cut can go toward funding teachers with more experience and expertise for teaching underprivileged kids.


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One Comment

  1. It would have been nice to see the Daily Free Press do some investigative research by talking to BU alums who went on to join the program (just a thought?). I’m sure that the Dean of Students or SED faculty could have provided you with some names. Although many corps members don’t study education, as their undergraduate major, many seem to enroll and take courses through SED before graduation.

    Teach For America, Boston University alumni are still plugging away in the classroom, deeply involved in education policy (at local, state and federal government levels), and going onto law school or medical school to promote social justice and serve in low-income communities. The organization itself promotes short term goals in the classroom and long term goals to create opportunities in under served communities. It’s not a “silver bullet” to the issue of educational inequity, but nobody claims it is.

    While in the program, many corps members now work as full-time classroom teachers and complete Master’s degrees in Elementary, Secondary and Urban Education on nights/weekends…

    Just a few thoughts/suggestions!