Teaching For Our Children: Why Low-income Communities of Color and Allies Are Calling Upon Teach For America To Evolve

Joe Rogers, Jr.

Last month, Teach For America (TFA) celebrated its 20th Anniversary with a huge summit in Washington, D.C. Thousands of TFA teachers, alumni and supporters from across the country converged on the Washington Convention Center for three days of celebrating, networking and listening to CEO and Founder Wendy Kopp articulate her vision for this much-celebrated organization’s future.

Outside the summit, a small grassroots team of concerned volunteers circulated a petition to Ms. Kopp and her senior leadership insisting that they announce the long overdue reform of TFA’s teacher preparation program in order to better ensure true educational equity and excellence for low-income students of color. Inside, TFA alumni who agreed with the petition’s aims collected additional signatures from TFA corps members, alumni and other participants. To date, nearly 750 signatures have been collected from TFAers, members of our low-income communities of color, and other advocates and allies.  The goal is to collect at least 10,000 signatures by the end of June.

Why, you ask, would anyone call for an overhaul of organization that serves our underserved communities and that counts among its board members and boosters some of our nation’s most famous and powerful—from liberal politicians to soulful celebrities to several esteemed champions of civil and education rights? Great question.

Currently, TFA systematically assigns brand new teachers with only five weeks of summer school training to teach Black and Latino children in low-income communities. In addition, few TFA teachers remain in the classroom beyond TFA’s two-year requirement, depriving our children of experienced educators. Studies show that, on average, it takes TFA teachers at least two years to catch up to their traditionally certified peers. However, just as they are hitting their stride, most TFA teachers leave the classroom.

The oft-cited statistic that roughly two-thirds of TFA alumni are working in other positions in or related to education is little consolation. Certainly, we need education advocates in a range of professions, and advocates with classroom experience offer an indispensable (though often disregarded) perspective. But every education advocate’s agenda should include well-prepared, experienced, highly effective teachers so more of our children are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to become the primary advocates for their own schools and communities.

The Urban Teacher Residency model of preparation, now popping up in cities across the nation, provides a promising alternative that TFA and other teacher preparation organizations should consider adopting or adapting. If cultivating and recruiting academically accomplished new teachers who understand the value of a rigorous, extended clinical preparation program and a commitment to teach more than two years presents a major challenge, let us not lower the bar for preparation, but instead focus our resources and energy on more equitable incentives and supports such as free or heavily subsidized preparation programs with intensive mentoring and ongoing support, career ladders, peer collaboration, and improved working conditions—all key elements of teacher residency programs.

Clearly, the challenge of preparing teachers to serve low-income communities of color well is not TFA’s alone. Many other alternative and traditional teacher preparation programs, would better serve our children by adopting a rigorous, extended clinical preparation model offering intensive ongoing support. But Teach for America, an organization that has received hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, that seeks to portray itself as the vanguard of educational equity and civil rights in low-income communities and communities of color, and that exclusively targets our communities, bears a heightened obligation to offer our children only the highest quality educational services.

In sum, the civil rights community cannot sit on the sidelines as our poor children of color are denied the educational resources they need to reach their full potential. Placing inexperienced and underprepared teachers in our communities is a bold injustice in a perpetually unfair education system that denies our children the critical resources they deserve and need to reach their full potential. We must send a strong message to Teach For America (and to all organizations and universities that provide our children less than the best) that the status quo educational inequity that assigns well-prepared teachers to middle class and wealthy White children and inexperienced, underprepared teachers to our children has no place in our schools. By taking immediate steps to strengthen its model, TFA will better fulfill its mission to ensure that “one day all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.”

For more information on the petition, visit:

http://www.change.org/petitions/tell-teach-for-america-to-give-low-income-children-of-color-well-prepared-teachers

Joe Rogers, Jr. is a New York City-based educator, organizer, facilitator, policy analyst and proud NAACP member committed to educational equity. He launched Communities For Well-Prepared Teachers, a grassroots movement, in February 2011 to address the systematic assignment of unprepared and inexperienced teachers to low-income communities of color.

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