Are a couple thousand immodest college graduates and inexperienced, temporarily committed, law school hopefuls really going to break down the achievement gap between privileged and underprivileged students in America?
The brains over at Teach For America headquarters like to think so. And several media outlets, high-ranking corporations and school administrators gladly nod their heads at this idea. (And let’s not forget the young adults – more than 2,500 to start in fall 2008, myself included – who have signed on to the TFA bandwagon, thinking they really are the solution.)
On the other side of the debate, the answer is not so straightforward. As education w riter Alexander Russo pointed out in an October article on The Huffington Post, TFA’s approach to education has plenty of critics, with statistics backing up their criticisms. Among them is a group of professors at Stanford University whose research exposed problems with TFA’s method, including a finding that TFA teachers are inferior to certified teachers. And, as Russo suggests, the number of opponents may only be growing in the program’s 17th year of operation.
But creating a wider divide between the TFA-cynics and the TFA-backers, instead of lowering the wall between them, may be avoiding the real issue: America’s public education system needs help – any help. Narrowing the divide between those who ambitiously try to save the world and those who sit back and criticize the way they do it could be the key to actual progress.
As the program gains participants and momentum across the country, it’s nearly a given that skepticism will grow too, especially because TFA’s positive influence on America’s classrooms hasn’t been unequivocally proven. Yet, like other ambitious initiatives trying to correct America’s problems, the antagonism – especially by those who refer to the program as “Teach for Awhile” – should not be an indication that TFA is an unworthy cause. The truth is, just a slight positive impact on the lives underprivileged students is still an impact and still calls attention to a problem few lawmakers want to step up to fix. Sure, TFA may not live up to the utopian promise on its fliers, but that shouldn’t translate into more people opposing its philosophy or steadfastly remaining withdrawn from the cause.
Understandably, getting people onto the “save the world, one small step at the time” bus is not that easy. For the longest time, I believed in the idea that initiatives that don’t produce real, long-term results and don’t have every participant bleeding for the cause should be avoided – or better yet – challenged. This is the same reason I actively avoided campus initiatives like the Alternative Spring Break or the Detroit Project’s DP Day: They seemed like Band-aids over gushing wounds, attracting half-hearted students trying to boost their résumés. I also adhered to the idea that quick fixes were only distracting from real solutions.
My negative feelings towards DP Day and Alternative Spring Break are related to how some (understandably) perceive TFA. As a writer for a conservative Vanderbilt University magazine wrote about TFA recently, “Instead of actually solving the problem, it helps to soothe the consciences of students – and improve their résumés – without actually providing a long-term solution.” The problem with this perspective is that it is critical without offering practical alternatives to help solve the problem of struggling schools.
I agree that TFA is one of those organizations where the underlying philosophy sounds too good to be true. It deserves its share of criticism. As the Daily’s public editor pointed out Tuesday, TFA has been made to look almost too perfect (What counts as useful criticism?, 02/12/2008). He suggested that by receiving criticism, TFA might actually be better off. But blind criticism that doesn’t translate into productivity and solutions is only going to distract people from doing some good in the mean time.
Thankfully, the TFA storm flooding campus all year will pass tomorrow, the last application deadline. But what won’t pass is the dire need to get students dedicated to a cause that will help promote change and impact our country’s future. While I have been skeptical in the past, and still hold some reservations about initiatives like TFA, the reality is that the help these programs provide across the country is still help.
Sure, the recent college graduates who enter these classrooms with little more than bravado and na’vete may not be the end-all answer to the achievement gap. But they are going to influence a hell of a lot more underprivileged students than some statisticians and bloggers who don’t subscribe to TFA’s philosophy.
Theresa Kennelly was a Daily associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.