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Education, GERM (Global Education Reform Movement), Students' Own Words, Teach First NZ, Teachers' Own Words, Unqualified teachers

Teach For All – Cheap, untrained labour or classroom saviours?

NZ and England have Teach First.  The USA has Teach For America (TFA).  There are Teach For All schemes worldwide.  So are the schemes any good for the trainees and, more importantly, for the students they teach?

A little background: The schemes give recruits little to no training and then put them into schools to teach.  The recruits are mentored in the job and agree to stay for 2 years.  They are usually put into low income area schools and they are there, according to TFA literature, to address inequality and improve the lot of poorer students.

There is a mountain of literature out there from Teach For All explaining why they believe the scheme to be a good thing. But since many are opposed to TFA, I want to consider instead, the arguments against the programmes.

Cheap Labour

There is an argument that the scheme is there only to feed cheap labour into schools.  The low starting wages due to the teachers being unqualified during their 2 year initial training allows schools to reduce their costs by employing teaching staff at unqualified teacher pay scales.  As a result, the scheme makes the untrained more financially attractive compared with the more expensive but trained teacher.  This can be particularly attractive to schools that are run as businesses, such as charter schools.

Staff Turnover 

Another issue that has been raised in the high turnover of trainees, with a much lower proportion staying in the profession than those who are trained via a traditional university course and school placements.  For the Teach First proponents the high turnover is not an issue, since the scheme actively promotes itself as a stepping stone for graduates into other fields rather than a way to enter a life-long job in teaching, and gaining long-term experience and a deeper knowledge of pedagogy does not seem to be a focus.  However, the high turnover and low retention of these trainees means students in the target schools (poorer districts) are more likely to have a succession of new and untrained teachers.

Job Insecurity

Former TFA recruit, Chad Sommer, highlights the issue of job security:

“A fellow TFA corps member in Chicago who worked at a charter school told me that she met with her principal each Friday to find out if she should bother coming back to work the following Monday. Another told me that his principal explicitly told him that she knew he would only be with her school for two years, so she was going to work him to death. And when he left after his TFA commitment, she would just replace him with a new TFA recruit. Churn and burn is the business model for these schools, and TFA provides a continuous supply of naively idealistic workers who have no choice but to accept their lot…

By driving down teacher salaries and weakening workplace protections, TFA has a corrosive effect on the teaching profession. But behind TFA’s role as a feeder system for charter schools is a hypocrisy that’s especially galling. Source.

Chad Sommer goes on to say:

Considering the domineering corporate influence on TFA, I would suggest that TFA has become an inverted labor union. Traditional labor unions work to promote the interests of the working people who comprise them by collectively bargaining for higher wages, better benefits and improved working conditions. Through its partnerships with charter schools and its mandate that corps members take the first job they’re offered, TFA is lowering wages, reducing benefits and worsening the working conditions of teachers. It is increasingly clear that the mission of the corporate class is to destroy teachers unions and remake the teaching profession into a temporary, low paying job. Source.

Students’ Impressions

Dangeous Minds - PfeifferNot all students are happy with untrained teachers and the high turnover, and some find it patronising that poorer and mainly non-white students are deemed to need ‘rescuing’ by predominantly white, middle and upper class graduates.

That’s not to say the recruits’ intentions are not well meant, but Rachael Smith puts it very eloquently here where she condemns those that come into “the ghetto” as would-be saviours of the poor yet are “only seen for two years because we are a stepping stone.”

Interestingly, it has been incredibly tricky to find out what the students themselves think.  Thier voices, online at least, are drowned out by the adult voices for and against the scheme, and maybe that in itself is rather worrying.

If you are a student who has had a TFA teacher, I would love to hear from you (both positive and negative experiences).

What do traditionally trained teachers think?

Kate Osgood caused quite a stir when she wrote her open letter to TFA recruits and followed up with further questions on the effectiveness (and motives) of TFA, noting that

“Teach for America is not about creating and supplying the teachers my students need.  When an organization spends more on recruitment, PR, and lobbying than it does on training recruits, you know that the kids are not the focus.”

She concludes that:

“My students need so much more than what Teach for America can provide.  The injustice of placing poorly-trained, uncertified novices in our neediest classrooms is frankly, unacceptable. “

This blogger explains why he feels TFA is the wrong route to teaching, saying he is “not here to destroy or take down TFA. I simply do not support their approach.”  He believes that in ignoring the root of the issues – namely poverty – TFA and the like are just papering over the cracks and allowing the status quo to continue.

What do the TF/TFA recruits themselves think?

Some former TFA recruits have struggled with their place in the scheme of things.  One notes:

“The educational and cultural imperialism that my fellow Corps Members and I were perpetrating was not lost on me nor on many of my peers. It was an inconvenient truth that we talked about over drinks and dinner when we returned to our neighborhoods at night. We maintained a belief, however, that despite our temporary teacher status and (in my case) my permanent Northern whiteness, the good that we did for our students outweighed the harm.” Source.

Another recruit, who left the scheme, says:

I sat through a workshop at a TFA Professional Development Saturday last November designed to help solve management issues, and I was stunned by the sense of despair that permeated the room.  In a group of perhaps twenty corps members, everyone was on the verge of giving up.  And everyone gave the same reasons:  “I stand there, and I talk, and then I yell, and then I beg, and then I threaten, and still no one has heard a word I’ve said.  It’s like I’m invisible.  I might as well not be there.Source

The first batch of Kiwi TF recruits is still going through the training, and so there is no post-experience reflection out there yet, but it will be interesting to follow developments over the coming years and see whether the scheme fares any better here, on reflection, than it has elsewhere.

I would love to hear from anyone who has been through TFA in any country, so that I can better understand the pros and cons of this scheme.

As it stands, I don’t see that it’s a valid way to improve the education system and lift it to a higher, better-trained status with very knowledgeable and dedicated staff.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

du bois untrained minds

About Save Our Schools NZ

"One needs to be slow to form convictions, but once formed they must be defended against the heaviest odds." Gandhi

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