I Quit Teach for America

Five weeks of training was not enough to prepare me for a room of 20 unruly elementary-schoolers.

Teach for America Delta Institute, Julia Sweeney, HO/AP Photo

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.

Once the school year began, I found myself teaching in a 500-student K–5 school with two other corps members and three TFA alumni. The school’s other 30 teachers had gone through some version of a traditional teaching program, involving years of studying educational theory and practice, as well as extensive student teaching. As I got to know my new colleagues and some level of trust was established, it didn't take long to discover that TFA's five-week training model was a source of resentment for these teachers. Not only were we youngsters going into "rough" schools with the stated goal of changing what they had not been able to, but we had done this with only half a summer's worth of preparation. I began to understand why my TFA status instantly communicated to other teachers that I found myself superior.

Although I felt bad that TFA had created a system that caused a rift between corps members and traditional teachers, I didn’t have much time to worry about that. The truth was, the five-week training program had not prepared me adequately.

During my training, I taught a group of nine well-behaved third-graders who had failed the state reading test and hoped to make it to fourth grade. Working with three other corps members, which created a generous teacher-student ratio, I had ample time for one-on-one instruction.

That classroom training was completely unlike the situation I now faced in Atlanta: teaching math and science to two 20-person groups of rotating, difficult fifth-graders—fifth-graders so difficult that multiple substitute teachers would vow never to teach fifth grade at our school again.

I had few insights or resources to draw on when preteen boys decided recess would be the perfect opportunity to beat each other bloody, or when parents all but accused me of being racist during meetings. Or when a student told me that his habit of doing nothing during class stemmed from his (admittedly sound) logic that "I did the same thing last year and I passed." The Institute’s training curriculum was far too broad to help me navigate these situations. Because many corps members do not receive their specific teaching assignments until after training has ended, the same training is given to future kindergarten teachers in Atlanta, charter-school teachers in New Orleans, and high-school physics teachers in Memphis.

I was not alone in my trouble with student behavior. Gary Rubinstein, a 1991 TFA alum and an outspoken critic of the organization, believes the training sets teachers up for failure: TFA teachers “don’t know how to deal with discipline problems, because they’ve never dealt with a class with more than 10 kids—there’s no way to deal with so many potential problems when they’ve never been practiced.”

Jessica Smith, a corps member I recently called up, agrees. “I’ve struggled with behavior management,” she admits. (As with all the names of teachers I spoke to for this article, “Jessica” is a pseudonym.) Though training includes some instruction in student discipline, “I didn’t really have the training to know how to give consequences consistently,” Jessica said.

I asked if she reached out for support. “I think I talked to every person I knew to talk to, even our region’s executive director,” Jessica recalled. Although TFA ultimately did send in a behavior-management expert, “The person who finally came in to help me came at the end of February for a 20-minute session.” Is this a representative experience? It’s hard to say. “We provide training in behavior-management techniques,” a TFA spokesperson said when asked about Jessica, “but corps members are expected to adapt their training to their unique school culture. We also provide continuing support for corps members who have trouble fitting in.”

Jessica has decided not to return to TFA for a second year. She said she was so unsupported that she felt justified reneging on her two-year commitment. “Yes a commitment matters,” she wrote, “but staying isn’t necessarily helpful to your kids or anybody.” Jessica said that after she notified local TFA leadership of her decision, the reaction was severe. “They chewed out my character and made personal allegations,” she said. She was told, she recalls, that she would “personally have to deal with remorse and regret.”

On its website, TFA makes a bold claim that “By the end of Institute, corps members have developed a foundation of knowledge, skills, and mindsets needed to be effective beginning teachers.” Training is supposed to include teaching “for an average of two hours each day … observed by experienced teachers,” “extensive lesson planning instruction,” and constant opportunities for feedback. Personally, I taught two 90-minute classes per week, a far cry from the 10 hours per week described in the publicity materials—and “experienced teachers” usually meant new TFA alumni with two years of classroom experience.

“It is certainly possible that [you] got less classroom time than promised,” the TFA spokesperson told me. “But we work to avoid that situation. During summer Institute, we work with 120 different schools, and there is variation in the schedule, which we don’t always control.” The spokesperson added that “as part of Institute, our CMs have access to two different coaches: a coach/adviser that we hire and train as well as a veteran teacher from the local school or district with whom we are partnering.” Although my group was assigned a veteran teacher during Institute, she did not have a substantive role in our training, and halfway through the summer she was implicated in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal.

Compared with the experiences of other Teach for America teachers, though, my placement and training were actually fairly lucky. I know more than one Religious Studies major who arrived in Atlanta ready to teach elementary school, only to be told that she was being reassigned to teach high-school mathematics. Of course, becoming "highly qualified" to teach upper-level math meant passing the state teaching test in that subject, and some recruits found out midway through the summer that they had failed. After being recruited by TFA, successfully completing training, and hearing time and again that we would be supported throughout the hiring process, we received the following e-mail, a terse reminder of how alone we actually were:

If you did not pass your exam, you will have to Emergency Release from the corps—your position will be reserved for the [next] Academic Year and you will not be required to attend Institute. You will be able to apply for open positions within Teach For America, receive guidance on how to apply to other opportunities within the Atlanta area, and be able to use the Teach For America Corps Member Computer Lab and Resource Room as needed during your transition.

At a party last year, I met one former TFA recruit who had failed the state’s notoriously difficult special-education exam. After I complimented her espadrilles, she replied that she'd gotten them at a discount through her retail job. Shocked that she hadn’t been placed elsewhere, I thought back to the e-mail we had received. Having a reserved spot in next year’s corps isn’t much help to 22-year-olds who have uprooted their lives for a teaching position they believe to be all but guaranteed.

I am standing, arms crossed, back hunched, whispering with Ms. Jones, as we sort supplies our students will need for the Criterion Referenced Competency Test. In the last few free minutes before testing begins, Ms. Jones is sharing her candid, and often hilarious, views on first-year teaching. “It’s wrong!” she whispers passionately, her eyebrows shoot up far into her forehead. Ms. Jones is known as a no-nonsense veteran teacher, and I had found her quite intimidating before I realized she is incredibly kind. “It’s wrong to put teachers in the classroom with no experience, Ms. Blanchard. I went through a teaching program, and I taught in four different classrooms before I ever had these kids on my own.” Looking at Ms. Jones’ perfectly behaved, high-achieving third-graders and comparing them with my own unruly students, I can see her point. The intercom buzzes to announce a five-minute warning before testing will begin, and that reminds Ms. Jones of the labyrinthine set of test procedures to come. “Make sure they have their pencils, Ms. Blanchard, we can’t have any testing irregularities. You know we have to cover ourselves. Everyone’s watching this building, and I don’t know about you, but Ms. Jones is not fixing to be on Channel 2 tonight.”

By the end of the school year, I felt like I would scream if I ever heard the phrase cover yourself again. Within Atlanta Public Schools, this phrase embodies a general spirit of fear and intimidation, not to mention sad tolerance for the fact that teachers are seen as little more than passive cogs in the wheel of the city's education machine.

Valuable minutes of classroom instruction time were lost to filling out accident reports when kids occasionally fell out of their chairs or poked each other with pencils. If two students began arguing and one child angrily vowed to “get” the other, I was always advised by fellow teachers to write up the incident on Atlanta Public Schools letterhead immediately, thereby “covering” the district if the threat materialized and parents were feeling litigious. What our students needed the most in these situations, it seemed, were conflict-management skills and character education, but unfortunately these interventions do not sufficiently “cover” the adult interests of the district. When I was once asked to fill in for an unexpectedly absent colleague, one of her second-graders chose to confide in me about his abysmal home life. He explained, with wide and trusting eyes, that his mother’s boyfriend enjoyed getting drunk, abusing the family, and sometimes shooting at the kids with a BB gun for fun. I immediately reported the incident to an administrator, who reacted with what appeared to be annoyance that one more paper had to be filed at 3:00 p.m. on a Friday. This was an administrator who really does care about children and wants to improve their lives—but the all-important duty of covering the legal interests of the district can make crucial social work feel like just another rubber stamp.

I’d been at TFA training, about to head into this system, when the official report on the cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools was released. My immediate reaction was shock that so many teachers could be complicit in something so outrageously dishonest. Midway through the school year, though, I came to understand exactly how it had happened. APS has some of the best teachers in the country, but surviving in the district means covering yourself, and during standardized testing this means ensuring objective success. In a top-down, ruthless bureaucracy like APS, teachers are front-line foot soldiers, not educators encouraged to pursue their calling.

Atlanta Public Schools teachers spend countless hours teaching to exhaustion, spending their own money on classroom supplies, and buying basic necessities for their poorest students, only to be reminded constantly that their job performance will be judged according to test answers bubbled in by wobbly little fingers barely able to hold a pencil upright. Teaching children is inherently much more intimate, messy, and personal than any office job could ever be. It's about guiding, pushing, and spending most of your waking hours with other people's children, whether they need a Band-Aid, a bear hug, or a fresh set of markers that their parents can't afford. Many teachers in schools like mine would agree that often the most-struggling students improve in ways that will not be reflected on the state test. They might learn to say please and thank you, or they might master a set of academic skills that still will not be enough to pass on-level, or they might gain a healthy dose of self-respect. After a year in this environment, I realized I could understand how, when the annual testing frenzy rolled around, a lot of teachers chose to put their heads down, tune out, and cover themselves.

Teach for America cited the Atlanta scandal as a sad example of what is wrong with education's status quo, one of the many reasons America's schools need even more reform and innovation. But what occurred to me, as I worked my way, ill-prepared, through Atlanta Public Schools, was that the two systems are not as far apart as either might like to suggest. TFA is at least as enamored of numerical "data points" of success as APS is. TFA strongly encourages its teachers to base their classes' "big goals" around standardized-test scores. Past and present corps members are asked to stand to thunderous applause if their students have achieved some objectively impressive measure of achievement, and everyone knows that the best way to work for and rise through TFA ranks is to have a great elevator pitch about how your students' scores improved by X percent.

Nor is the organization a stranger to controversies involving performance measurement. On its website, TFA claims that “Teach For America corps members help their students achieve academic gains equal to or larger than teachers from other preparation programs, according to the most recent and rigorous studies on teacher effectiveness.” But TFA’s ability to rate the performance of its own teachers has been heavily criticized; a Reuters article in 2012 pointed out that TFA’s 2010 federal grant of $50 million was based on the organization’s internal data “showing that 41 percent of its first-year teachers and 53 percent of its second-year teachers advanced their students by an impressive 1.5 to 2 years in a single school year.” When asked about the origin of these statistics, TFA’s former research director, Heather Harding, admitted that many teachers provide performance statistics based on self-designed assessments. Reuters quoted Harding saying, “I don’t think it stands up to external research scrutiny.”

The TFA spokesperson maintains that the comment “was taken out of context,” and that Simon was “merely pointing out that internal research referenced in a grant application does not meet the same level of rigor as external research, although both show the positive impact our corps members are having on students.”

Whether or not the numerical data is broadly accurate, I can attest to the pressure within TFA to produce proof of student gains without much oversight or guidance.

By the end of my time at TFA and Atlanta Public Schools, I came to feel that both organizations had a disconnect between their public ideals and their actual effectiveness. APS invests in beautiful new buildings and glossy public-relations messaging, only to pressure its teachers into pedagogical conformity that often prevents them from reaching the district’s most remedial students. Likewise, TFA promotes a public image of eager high achievers dedicated to one mission, reaching “Big Goals” that pull students out of the achievement gap, where non-TFA teachers have let them fall. But in my experience, many if not most corps members are confused about their purpose, uncertain of their skills, and struggling to learn the basics.

TFA often cites research showing that its teachers perform well in relation to other teachers; a spokesperson I talked to said that, “In terms of the external research, the most-rigorous nationwide studies on TFA to date, by Mathematica and CALDER, found TFA teachers to be at least as effective as other teachers at the schools where they teach. A follow-up analysis of the Mathematica data showed that Teach for America teachers produce significant student achievement gains in math, regardless of how well students were performing beforehand.” Referencing statewide studies of teacher effectiveness, TFA’s website notes that studies in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee all “found that corps members often help their students achieve academic gains at rates equal to or larger than those for students of more veteran teachers.” A just-released U.S. Department of Education study of secondary math teachers showed Teach for America teachers to be more effective than other teachers at their schools. According to the study, students with TFA teachers scored higher on end-of-year exams than their peers in non-TFA classrooms—the difference is equivalent to 2.6 extra months of classroom time.

I have no reason to doubt studies showing that TFA teachers are more effective—after all, they are recruited from a pool of the country’s hardest-working college students, and good teaching is nothing if not hard work. But Teach for America aspires to close the achievement gap by training teachers that are significantly better than educators already in the system. Can simply being “at least as effective as other teachers” really be cited as success?

I am sitting in a black, leather office chair in my new Washington, D.C., office. I have just been hired at a private company whose vision statement says nothing about closing the achievement gap, and the time has come to send TFA an e-mail announcing that I am leaving the program. I have only completed one year of my two-year commitment, knowing full well that this kind of mission-shirking is seen as a very serious, selfish betrayal within TFA. However, the reality is that my employer has been Atlanta Public Schools, my contract with the district was only for one year, and most of my teaching experiences have been defined by the messy struggles of Atlanta Public Schools, not the comfortable mantras of TFA. I struggle to summon the guilt I know I am supposed to be feeling. My large-screen computer monitor rests sturdily in front of me, and the cursor on an empty Word document blinks. What can I say to them?, I wonder. I steel myself against the possibility of criticism, against accusations of apathy, inability, or lack of leadership.

When I click Gmail’s Send button, though, I am flooded with relief rather than dread. Because the truth is, by finally showing I don’t believe that American education can be saved by youthful enthusiasm, I feel more like a leader than I ever did inside the corps.