A few years ago I had a bad first date with a youth pastor. He offered to pick me up around 7pm so we could have dinner on the other side of town by 7:30pm. Around 9:30pm he arrived without an apology or an acknowledgment of his lateness. The restaurant was closed when we got there, so he drove around looking for other alternatives. During the commute he skipped a few stop signs, drove through a few red (not yellow) lights, and stayed at least 20 miles above the limit on all the neighborhood streets. “Shouldn’t you put your seat belt on?” I asked casually, but with a slight hint of passive-aggression. “Nah, I don’t wear them.”

I tried to stay as upbeat as possible. During dinner we chatted about the city, about family, about education policy, and about the best 90’s video games. He mentioned that his grandmother had just passed away. Tonight. She had been instrumental in raising him and was more like a mother to him. He lived with her, and only her, for the first sixteen years of his life. He’d spent a few hours drinking before he picked me up, and a few hours driving after that.

 Alternative Teaching Certification Programs are criticized for similar reasons. They are seen as unfit and ill-prepared. They create harm because of their failure to acknowledge the present reality. They break down systems; they don’t repair them.

To be fair, this isn’t an indictment of Teach for America or similar kinds of programs. After all I’m a graduate of an alternative certification program, and someone who has benefited from initiatives that TFA engineered. But I think we should be critical of everything, and we should always listen to the arguments of the opposing side. Mutually beneficial solutions evolve from compromise.

TFA opponents believe that the program is harmful to schools and communities. It starts from the faulty premise that individuals with no prior experience in a chosen field can become competent, proficient facilitators within 5-7 weeks.

  • In communities where experienced and highly trained educators are most needed, unqualified novices are placed instead.
  • Competent and certified educators are being displaced by these unprepared and inexperienced recent college graduates.
  • Due to the length of the service requirement, staff turn-over negatively impacts these urban schools, which are most in need of stability—a consistent cadre of educators who are embedded within the community.

TFA supporters believe that TFA has a stellar reputation for being a positive change agent in urban education. TFA has provided funding and training for various ancillary organizations; it is making real strides to provide quality education for all.

  • Alumni consistently speak fervently and passionately about strategies for improving urban schools. They are leading the charge for education reform.
  • Students under TFA tutelage have spoken about the quality education they received and the opportunities they were afforded as a result.
  • TFA’s nationwide impact and ongoing growth serve as confirmation that it produces necessary results.

The youth pastor had been in a horrible car accident a short while ago. His car flipped over, and he landed under water. Water began to rise, and he anticipated drowning. He could feel the panic set in as the water rose; he was trapped by his seat belt. With the one hand he was able to free, he pulled and tugged at the belt. He looked around for a piece of glass he could use to free himself. He didn’t want to elaborate. He just chooses never to wear seat belts. They don’t keep you safe.

I want to believe that the debate over Teach for America is a simple one. On its face, displacing experienced educators with inexperienced idealists is wrong, and creates a lasting negative impact. Offering a 5-7 week training period for new educators is disrespectful to the profession and is disrespectful to the process experienced educators have gone through. Educators should be in an uproar. Policymakers should raise awareness. Parents should protest and picket. We should be outraged.

But for every embittered educator, I’ve met an enlightened agitator: scores of satisfied TFA “customers;” alumni, graduates of TFA-impacted schools, parents of children of TFA-impacted schools, TFA-impacted school leadership– all excited to be a part of an innovative movement to provide solutions for struggling schools. They are proud. They are committed.

Regardless of which side they’re on, they are convinced they are right.

Would you Teach for America?

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