Why I Stopped Writing Recommendation Letters for Teach for America

Getting schooled.
Oct. 9 2013 2:38 PM

Why I Stopped Writing Recommendation Letters for Teach for America

And why my colleagues should do the same.

Young teacher at elementary school teaching and giving lessons to group of young children.
The simple fact is that students who apply to TFA are not trained to be teachers.

Photo by Dotshock/Thinkstock

For the past nine years, I've been an instructor, a Ph.D. student, adjunct professor, and post-doctoral fellow in humanities departments at several different universities. During this time, many students have asked me to write recommendations for Teach for America. My students generally have little to no experience or training as teachers, but they are lured by TFA's promises that they can help close the education gap for children in low-income communities. For humanities majors, TFA is a clear path to a job that both pays a living wage and provides a stepping stone to leadership positions in a cause of national importance.

I understand why my students find so much hope in TFA. I empathize with them. In fact, I’m a former Teach for America corps member myself. But unless they are education majors—and most of them aren’t—I no longer write Teach for America letters of recommendation for my students. I urge my higher-ed colleagues to do the same.  

There is a movement rising in every city of this country that seeks true education reform—not the kind funded by billionaires, corporations, and hedge funds, and organized around their values. This movement consists of public school parents and students, veteran teachers, and ex-TFA corps members. It also consists of a national network of college students, such as those in Students United for Public Education, who talk about the damage TFA is inflicting on communities and public schools. These groups and others also acknowledge the relationship between the corporatization of higher education and the vast impact of corporate reform on our youngest and most needy children. It is these children who are harmed by the never-ending cycle of under-trained, uncertified, first- and second-year teachers that now populates disadvantaged schools, and by the data-obsessed approach to education that is enabled by these inexperienced teachers.

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Every year, TFA installs thousands of unprepared 22-year-olds, the majority of whom are from economically and culturally privileged backgrounds, into disadvantaged public schools. They are given a class of their own after only five to six weeks of training and a scant number of hours co-teaching summer school (in a different city, frequently in a different subject, and with students in a different age group than the one they end up teaching in the fall). College and university faculty allow these well-meaning young people to become pawns in a massive game to deprofessionalize teaching. TFA may look good on their resumés and allow them to attain social capital for their bright futures in consulting firms, law schools, and graduate schools. But in exchange for this social capital, our students have to take part in essentially privatizing public schools.

The simple fact is that students who apply to TFA are not trained to be teachers. So by refusing to write TFA letters of recommendation, we’re merely telling our students that we can’t recommend them for a job they’re not qualified for. An increasing amount of research shows that TFA recruits perform at best no better, and often worse, than their trained and certified counterparts. What’s more, they tend to leave after just a few years in the classroom. Would a biology professor write a recommendation to medical school for an English major who’s never taken any core science courses? That would be strange. It would be even stranger if the professor knew the English major was just going into medicine for a few years, as a way to boost his resume, before ultimately going on to a career in public relations.

So competence is one core issue here. Another one is race. Rooted in the corporate discourse around reform, charter schools, and “urban revitalization” is the hope that the (mostly white) elite class and free-market ideologies will combine to solve every social ill. Meanwhile, whole communities of African-American and Latino men and women are being warehoused in prisons, the racial income gap is widening, and urban communities of color are being gentrified out of their neighborhoods. TFA—and the charter schools that function as TFA’s biggest partners—perform a similar kind of gentrification by ridding cities of veteran teachers of color. Despite what you might hear, there is no teaching shortage. Schools and districts fire their unionized, more expensive professional staff in order to make slots for the cheaper, eternally revolving wheel of TFA and other nontraditionally certified recruits, who quickly burn out.

When I joined TFA in 1998, I was placed into a public high school in Oakland, Calif., with three other TFA teachers and dozens of veteran teachers. I quickly realized that I wasn’t even remotely prepared for my job. Luckily, the unionized “lifers” at my school swooped in to help me, and over the course of four years, they trained me to be a decent teacher. I also enrolled in education classes at a California state university where I got the guidance and mentorship that TFA didn’t provide.

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