There has been much discussion and debate about how Teach for America undermines our public schools by encouraging the deprofessionalization of the teaching force, and “perpetuates systemic inequalities” especially in urban schools. In many districts, TFA has used its political clout to get its recruits hired, as in Chicago, while thousands of experienced teachers are being laid off. Gary Rubinstein, a former TFA corps member, has been a fierce critic of the inadequate training that the organization provides. Edushyster recently wrote that the TFA has become a primarily a “placement agency” to staff charter schools rather than public schools – and in the process is fueling the privatization movement.
All the above is true; but in my mind, the most shocking aspect of the organization is how in many districts, including NYC, raw TFA recruits are assigned to special education classrooms almost exclusively --because this is the biggest shortage area. See the recent Independent Budget Office report on p. 24 – showing that 80 percent of TFA recruits in NYC public schools in 2010-11 were working as special education teachers; and 68 percent of Teaching Fellows (a similar program for mid-career recruits, run by TNTP).
That to me is the biggest scandal. Instead of doing something to stanch the outflow of special education teachers assigned to those children who clearly need teachers with the MOST training and experience, TFA and TNTP fill in the gap, year after year, with the least-trained recruits, who only stay one or two years and perpetuate the problem.
For all the endless rhetoric about teacher quality that issues from TNTP, about the need for more rigorous teacher evaluation and getting rid of sub-par teachers, they along with TFA are actively participating and benefiting from a system in which children with disabilities -- who require the most specialized instruction -- are relegated to the poorest-trained teachers. The same phenomenon has been noted in Philadelphia – in which about 20 percent of the TFA recruits were assigned to special education classrooms in 2010:
Conventionally certified special education teachers in Pennsylvania must complete a comprehensive course of study combining a degree program at an accredited university and field experience in a special-education classroom.
For Joseph Ciesielski, a fully certified, third-year special education teacher at Olney Elementary, his studies helped him understand the laws governing special education as well as specific skills like writing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Ciesielski went through five years of schooling, 190 hours of classroom observation, and 12 weeks of student teaching.
He said he regrets that his training at St. Joseph’s University didn’t include “more outreach from the District and a mindset of ‘Let’s make it easier for you to come work here.’” Absent that push, many of his classmates headed for jobs in the suburbs, he explained. But he said that his coursework on disabilities and how they affect each child’s learning is “very valuable” and “sometimes undervalued.”
TFA corps member Julia Cadwallender, now a second-year special education teacher at Spring Garden Elementary, had her advance training crammed into one summer.
Milwaukee also relies heavily on “alternatively certified” or “emergency-credential programs” like TFA and TNTP teachers to staff special education classes, and about one fourth of all its special-education teachers held emergency licenses in 2009.
“…experts and advocates argue that a few weeks of preparation over the summer — and even less time for teachers who start training in the winter — isn’t enough to help individuals, regardless of their passion and motivation, deal with the often profound needs of special-education students.”
According to the Hechinger Report, about 12.5 percent of the TFA corps worked as special-education teachers in 2009. I would suspect that the figure is even higher now. How can the organization justify this?