I am sitting in a comfortable gold folding chair inside one of the many ballrooms at the Georgia International Convention Center. The atmosphere is festive, with a three-course dinner being served and children playing a big-band number. The kids are students at a KIPP academy in Atlanta, and they are serenading future teachers on the first night of a four-day-long series of workshops that will introduce us to the complicated language, rituals, and doctrines we will need to adopt as Teach for America "Corps Members."
The phrase closing the achievement gap is the cornerstone of TFA's general philosophy, public-relations messaging, and training sessions. As a member of the 2011 corps, I was told immediately and often that 1) the achievement gap is a pervasive example of inequality in America, and 2) it is our personal responsibility to close the achievement gap within our classrooms, which are microcosms of America's educational inequality.
These are laudable goals. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, white fourth-graders performed better than their black peers on 2007 standardized mathematics exams in all 46 states where results were available. In 2004, there was a 23-point gap in mathematics scale scores between white and black 9-year-olds, with the gap growing to 26 points for 13-year-olds.
But between these two messages lies the unspoken logic that current, non-TFA teachers and schools are failing at the task of closing the achievement gap, through some combination of apathy or incompetence. Although TFA seminars and presentations never explicitly accuse educators of either, the implication is strong within the program's very structure: recruit high-achieving college students, train them over the summer, and send them into America's lowest-performing schools to make things right. The subtext is clear: Only you can fix what others have screwed up. It was an implication I noticed when an e-mail I received during Institute, the five-week training program, referring to “a system of students who have simply not been taught.” The e-mail explained, “That’s really what the achievement gap is—for all of the external factors that may or may not add challenges to our students’ lives—mostly it is that they really and truly have not been taught and are therefore years behind where they need to be.”
I later asked a TFA spokesperson if this e-mail reflects the organization’s official views on traditionally trained teachers. He denied that TFA believes “the shortcomings of public education” to be “the fault of teachers. If anything,” he added, “teachers are victims of more-structural problems: inequitable funding; inadequate systems of training and supporting teachers; the absence of strong school and district leadership.” Nonetheless, at the time, the dramatic indictment of America’s non-TFA teachers would stay with me as I headed into the scandal-ridden Atlanta Public Schools system.
In the weeks between accepting the offer to join TFA and the start of our training, I was told by e-mail that “as a 2011 corps member and leader, you have a deep personal and collective responsibility to ground everything you do in your belief that the educational inequality that persists along socioeconomic and racial lines is both our nation’s most fundamental injustice and a solvable problem. This mindset,” I was reminded, “is at the core of our Teach For America—Metro Atlanta Community.”
At the time, I appreciated TFA’s apparent confidence in me as a leader. I assumed that I would learn the concrete steps I needed to achieve this transformation during the training program. Instead I was immersed in a sea of jargon, buzzwords, and touchy-feely exercises. One memorable session began with directions for us to mentally “become” two of our students. After an elaborate, 32-slide reflection guide, we were asked to close the session with a “Vision Collage,” for which we were handed pre-scripted reflections. “One person will volunteer to read his/her line first. After one person reads aloud, another should jump in, so that one response immediately follows another—without any pauses.” At this stage in training, most of us were still struggling to grasp the basics of lesson planning. (According to TFA this exercise is not a part of the formal training program.)
Typical instructional training included only the most basic framework; one guide to introducing new material told us to “emphasize key points, command student attention, actively involve students, and check for understanding.” We were told that “uncommon techniques” included “setting high academic expectations, structuring and delivering your lessons, engaging students in your lessons, communicating high behavioral expectations, and building character and trust.” Specific tips included “you provide the answer; the student repeats the answer”; “ask students to make an exact replica in their notes of what you write on the board”; and “respond quickly to misunderstandings.” After observing and teaching alongside non-TFA teachers at my placement school, I can confidently say that these approaches are not “uncommon.”
I am shifting my weight uncomfortably in a plastic classroom chair on an Atlanta summer afternoon. Our adviser interrupts lunch by asking us to pause to spend a few minutes reflecting on what brought us to TFA in the first place. After the requisite reflection time, and after turning off the room’s lights, Alicia begins to share a story about growing up with a single mother, culminating in an emotional appeal to do whatever we can to help "our kids" in the future. Although I have always found Alicia to be rather stoic, she suddenly begins sobbing when relaying this story. After regaining composure, she makes it clear that we are meant to follow suit. One by one, until the 12th person has spoken, we deliver either tearful accounts of personal hardship or awkward, halting stories recounted by people uncomfortable with the level of intimacy. While talking to other TFA teachers from different schools over dinner, I learn that other groups had nearly identical sessions.