Teach for America: Lies, Damned Lies, and Special Contracts

While this past weekend found TFA celebrating what they call 25 years of success, the event marked another chapter in TFA's "movement" to displace teachers, deprofessionalize teaching, and privatize education.
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Co-authored by Beth Sondel

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this past weekend, Teach For America (TFA) marked a milestone. Over the past 25 years, the organization has not only expanded, but also shifted their mission and approach. With seemingly good, albeit naive and arrogant, intentions, TFA originated as a solution to the national teacher shortage by recruiting college graduates from "elite universities" to serve as supplemental faculty in hard to staff districts. Founder Wendy Kopp claimed that TFA "would bill itself as an emergency response to a shortage of experienced, qualified teachers and would therefore not be telling the nation that its inexperienced members were preferable to, or as qualified as, experienced teachers." Fully departing from that description, TFA now claims that their corps members are superior to traditionally trained teachers and the organization has effectively changed its mission to "enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation's most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence."

Among these critiques, there has been much anecdotal evidence that TFA displaces other, more qualified teachers. TFA vehemently refutes this, claiming on their website that;

Corps members do not have special contracts with school districts. They apply for open jobs, and they go through the same interview and hiring process as any candidate. Our approach is to bring the best possible people into the field, but no one is obligated to hire our teachers.

Until now, this issue has been an anecdotal back-and-forth and had not been addressed empirically - until now.

In a peer-reviewed study out this week - as part of a special issue examining TFA - we, along with our co-authors, provide the first empirical analysis of TFA contracts and the implications they have on hiring processes. To do this, we collected and analyzed 49 Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs) between TFA and school districts across five geographic regions (Atlanta, Chicago, New York City, Eastern North Carolina, and New Orleans).

Ultimately, we found that TFA's claims about their hiring processes are decidedly false. Instead, across these MOUs (that is, the special contracts that TFA claim don't exist), it was stipulated that local districts reserve and protect positions for TFA corps members; do not limit TFA corps members to "critical" or "shortage" areas; reserve and protect positions for corps members in charter schools; and create pathways towards leadership for TFA corps members.

For example, it was often the case that language like the following outlined the obligation to hire corps members:

Although [TFA] will work in good faith with [the] school district to provide teachers who meet specific grade level, subject matter or other criteria specified by [the] school district, [the] school district shall hire every qualified teacher made available by TFA pursuant to this agreement whether or not such teacher meets such specific criteria.

In exchange for corps members, MOUs stipulate that districts be held responsible for paying a 'finders fee' to TFA for each corps member for each of the two years (usually between $3,000-$5,000). This money is non-refundable even if the corps member is determined unfit once in the classroom - or if they quit before they've completed their two-year commitment. In Atlanta alone, districts have paid approximately $10,251,240 in just finder's fees to TFA since 2000 - money that goes straight to TFA rather than students and classrooms.

With all of the money that cash-strapped districts must pony up for TFA corps members, one might ask why they continue to pay for teachers who have been shown to be mediocre at best. Our analysis found that using TFA to staff teaching positions will, after nine years, provide the district with cheaper labor options than continuing to pay for raises and pensions for career teachers. Thus, in the incessant attacks on teachers as raison d'etre for school failures, TFA corps members represent not only a cadre of teachers who focus almost exclusively on attempting to raise test scores by teaching to the test but they also represent a cheaper source of labor over the long-term. The cult of measurement and meritocracy on the cheap, as it were.

Then there are rural districts like those in Eastern North Carolina, a state that actually has a significant teacher shortage because their teacher pipeline is leaking at both ends - people are not entering the profession and attrition rates are at an all-time high. Meanwhile, the NC General Assembly decided in 2013 that TFA would be the only state-funded solution to this problem, a policy decision cheaper, for example, than raising teachers' salaries. Ultimately, the presence of TFA allows the state to avoid systemic change and still fill positions that are so untenable that only someone planning to teach for two years before moving on to another career (with the benefits and social status TFA provides) might be willing to accept.

MOUs also stipulated that school districts are required to use "reasonable efforts" to retain corps members and rehire or reinstate corps members to other comparable positions. This is especially problematic in districts like Chicago, plagued by incessant school closures and teacher layoffs. Also disturbing is the fact that while teachers typically enter into one year contracts with districts, TFA requires districts to guarantee positions for corps members for two years.

It's important to point out that traditionally credentialed teachers are not granted any of these privileges. And as Terrenda White has pointed out, even as TFA has put great effort into diversifying their corps, they simultaneously promote policies that displace black teachers across the teaching profession.

This privileging and displacement are likely to increase as TFA continues to expand its influence over policy by installing alumni in leadership positions. In New Orleans, for example, when TFA tripled in size after Hurricane Katrina, the MOUs stipulated that the school district retain corps members by directing them towards leadership opportunities. Now over 50 educational leaders (including the state superintendent) are TFA alumni, with full autonomy to hire whom they please based on charter school policies. It should not be surprising then that TFA constitutes 20% of the city's teaching force.

So, while this past weekend found TFA celebrating what they call 25 years of success, the event marked another chapter in TFA's "movement" to displace teachers, deprofessionalize teaching, and privatize education - all the while outright lying about the existence of and the content of special contracts. As TFA continues to expand their reach around the world, they continue in their role as the darling of the Global Educational Reform Movement (aptly shortened to GERM).

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