Teach for America and Exclusivity: is this what the profession should be?

July 14, 2011 § 2 Comments

Before I begin, I’m going to point out two (hopefully obvious) things: 1) this is not technology related, so a little break from the typical for me; 2) I’m going to focus on one tiny little aspect of TFA in this post, setting aside all of the other arguments about whether TFA produces effective teachers, whose jobs they’re taking or not, etc. I’m not going to talk about those things.

This whole post started from a G+ post last week that linked to the post “An Ordinary Teacher talks to Teach for America.” I read through the post and had the typical fire-up-the-troops reaction that a lot of people had. In the comments, the author of the post put:

I realize that not all TFA alums come out of Ivy League schools. However, there is a reason why everyone is under the notion that they do. That’s because TFA uses exclusivity to brand itself. see here It operates from the same playbook as the Ivy League Franchise.

While I understand that the point she’s trying to make is about TFA being an exclusive club, another thing came to mind while I was reading the New York Times article she linked to in the comment (go ahead…click it. I’ll wait):

Maybe TFA is marketing teaching the right way.

What I’m saying here is that maybe if teaching colleges actually were more exclusive about who they let into their teaching programs, or more importantly, who they graduated from those programs, maybe every Tom, Dick, and Jane that had been to school wouldn’t think they they could teach.

I’ve heard/read a lot, “So and so had a public education so they think they know what happens in the classroom.” But that isn’t the case with doctors and lawyers, is it? People think they know how to do those jobs because they see them on TV. OK, I’m kidding, but really, you don’t see people leave a career in sales and go into law, or medicine, and why not? Because there are rigorous standards to get into those professions. People have to make a long-term commitment to schooling and internships before they get to actually do those jobs.

Why can’t teaching be like that? Why isn’t teaching like that?

To answer that question, we have to go back and look at the history of teaching in this country.

Back in the frontier days of one-room schoolhouses, teaching was done by single women. It was not a high skill, high pay, or high demand job. Yes, each town needed a teacher, but it was a job a single woman could do until she got married, then she would stay at home being a housewife.

The job itself was not highly respected because it wasn’t a “man’s job.”

Like nursing and social work, teaching has been burdened with an image of ‘social housekeeping.’ Such ‘women’s work’ becomes both identified as an extension of the domestic sphere and vulnerable to loss of discretion, autonomy, and status… And it is not surprising that historians and labor economists have begun to explore connections between feminization and explicit initiatives (like installing ‘teacher-proof’ curricula and Individually Guided Education) to ‘deskill’ teaching by limiting occasions for teachers to use their professional judgment and skills. (Apple, M. W. (1985). Teaching and “women’s work’: A comparative historical and ideological analysis. Teachers College Record, 86, 445-473)

And maybe that is where the problem lies. Teaching, while becoming a more respected profession in the late 20th century, still suffers from being seen by many in politics and other traditionally male-dominated professions as inferior work, which I think is leading to the types of reform agendas we are currently seeing.

How many teachers do you know that could quit teaching tomorrow and stay at home because their husbands make enough money that they don’t have to work?

What if teaching required more than a 4 year degree? What if it was more like law school or medical school where you had to dedicate yourself to spending long hours studying and practicing your craft with master teachers before you were allowed to teach in a classroom of your own? How many of the teachers that you know in your school that would have stuck it out or chosen teaching as a career if they had to do it that way?

Look, I’m not about to jump on the “all teachers are lazy and bad” bandwagon because I know that the vast majority are dedicated to their work and the children that they teach, but I also know plenty of people who, if the process of becoming a teacher had been a little harder, probably wouldn’t be in the classroom today, either because it would have been too much work, or because they would have been washed out in the process.

Maybe requiring more of a commitment to get into the profession would result in more people actually staying in the profession. You see the statistic all the time that half of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years. It is still a very transient profession, and part of that goes to the fact that the requirements to become a teacher aren’t as strict as those of other professions.

Now, who’s going to start stepping up the standards for our profession? Should it be the colleges? The states? The federal government? I’m not the one to decide that. But my point here about what TFA is doing is this: making it hard to get into, making it an exclusive club…maybe that’s the kind of reform the profession needs.


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§ 2 Responses to Teach for America and Exclusivity: is this what the profession should be?

  • Audrey Hill says:

    TFA is NOT making it harder to get into teaching or improving standards for teaching. TFA isn’t, paradoxically, in the business of training teachers or raising standards for teaching. It is the business of giving a little street cred to policy makers by puts people in teaching for a couple of years and then moving them quickly into positions of authority. Teaching is just a gateway to more illustrious careers.and greater influence. So, they do nothing for the teaching career itself. In fact, they obviously believe that two years is really all you need in order to be an expert in our field. If anything, they denigrate teaching when they presume that a 2 year stint is all they need to lend legitimacy to a meteoric rise.

    • Scott says:

      Hi Audrey…thanks for the input. I’m not saying that TFA is making it hard to get into teaching. They do, however, make it hard to get into TFA. They obviously weed out a bunch of people along the way, and my larger point here was that maybe colleges of education should take that same approach. I’m not saying anything about TFA and whether they produce quality teachers or not, or whether what they do is good for the profession. I’m simply saying that maybe making it hard to get into the program is something colleges of education and states should look at when considering reform. Raise the standards for becoming a teacher, then maybe programs like TFA and alternative certifications that take just a few months would cease to exist, and the profession could be elevated to a higher lever.

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