Response to George F. Will’s TFA article

Read this appalling TFA-praise article written a few months ago by George F. Will and published in the Washington Post. It reads like it was something written by Wendy Kopp and pulled straight from TFA’s website: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/25/AR2011022505002.html.

Anyway, here is my lengthy response/rebuttal email that I sent to Mr. Will yesterday. His article was so lacking in honesty and thoughtfulness that I felt I had to respond:

“Mr. Will,
I recently read your article praising Teach For America and was absolutely appalled by the inaccuracies and lack of journalistic integrity present in the piece. It read like a TFA press release straight off of their website or from the lips of Wendy Kopp. How on earth can such an esteemed journalist turn out such a biased, shallow opinion piece so fundamentally not rooted in reality or the facts? It was very bothersome and as a former TFA Corps member (Detroit 2010) who had an absolutely awful experience and has witnessed many similar experiences from fellow Corps members as well as done actual research on TFA (and not just from their website, as you apparently did) and the surrounding issues, I felt an immediate need to respond to your article.

First off, you cite TFA’s claim that two-thirds of its alumni are still in education full-time. This statistic is based on an optional alumni survey that had a 45 percent response rate – so the 10-15 percent (and I would guess it’s more – I wonder how that statistic got created too) of TFA alumni who fail to complete their two years in TFA would never see that survey and most of them are presumably far, far away from education. Also, many of the other 55 percent of TFA alumi who didn’t respond to that survey more often than not probably hated and barely survived their two years in TFA and now are also far, far away from anything to do with education. Also, TFA’s definition of what constitutes “involved in education” is incredibly broad – it goes way beyond teaching or even directly or indirectly working in schools under any capacity. My educated and very reasonable guess is that the number of TFA teachers who are still in a classroom after two years is around 10-20 percent and that number only shrinks each additional year – I certainly know very few Corps members here in Detroit who will be anywhere near a classroom/school after their two or three year (to get certified in Detroit requires three years) commitment is complete – for most TFA Corps members, the two-year commitment is survival of the fittest, then they get out (unless a Corps member lucks out and is placed in a pretty good school that already has strong support systems for teachers in place pre-TFA or is incredibly passionate about teaching pre-TFA). At times, the less fortunate TFA Corps members are bounced around from school to school (or fired from schools), hospitalized from stress/exhaustion while many others quit from less extreme misery/despair, etc. That’s certainly a little less impressive than the “two-thirds” statistic that TFA throws out that uncritical journalists such as yourself routinely spout. Please do your homework next time before you throw out statistics blindly supporting any organization, but particularly TFA because the organization is an expert at warping statistics and being a deceptive PR machine.

Additionally, numerous studies have been done questioning TFA teachers’ effectiveness – I won’t bother to list the specific studies here, but with nothing more than a cursory Google search of “TFA effectiveness studies”; you will find said research articles and there are several of them. I guess doing a Google search is a bit too intense in terms of research, since it was just an op-ed after all. Nonetheless, in your free time, you may want to actually do some research about TFA and what studies have shown and you may be surprised. These studies generally tend to say that first-year TFA teachers perform as well or slightly less well than first-year credentialed teachers and that the number of years a teacher is in the classroom is generally the biggest indicator of how a teacher will perform. This certainly played out in my experience here in Detroit – as I routinely felt far less effective than experienced teachers (who often also came from the area they were teaching in – which was another huge advantage). It smacks of the worst kind of neo-colonialist elitism to say that imported (mostly white, upper-middle class) young people from the most prestigious colleges in America with five weeks of training (the training TFA offered us by the way was absolutely mediocre at best and most of us weren’t even trained to teach in the grade level/subject we ended up teaching in – I certainly wasn’t) can do a better job at teaching than can experienced, veteran teachers who were born and raised near the cities they are teaching in. A revolving door of young, inexperienced, privileged teachers is not the solution to America’s ‘education crisis – as easy and convenient as that might be for some parties involved.

TFA is a convenient vehicle for politicians to jump on when they want to appear that they care about “reforming education,” but in reality simply want a free ride around such inconvenient nuisances as poverty in urban neighborhoods and lack of education funding, since education budgets are consistently cut all across the country – disporportionately affecting poor neighborhood schools. Jumping on board the TFA train (and other related trains in this sad movement to privatize education and destroy the teaching profession) costs politicians very little and it allows them to cleverly scape goat “bad teachers” and avoid the greater issues plaguing schools in this country. It is very sad and disheartening to see such an esteemed journalist  as yourself (albeit one with a very conservative point of view) falling into this trap without any critical thought or analysis.

As I have mentioned several times, I recognize you as an accomplished, well-respected journalist, so why on earth can’t you do even the most basic of research before writing your op-ed articles? I did a better job researching for my opinions pieces when I wrote for my college newspaper – hell, when I wrote for my high school newspaper. As I mentioned in the beginning of this email, your article sounds like something Wendy Kopp would have written and put on the Teach For America website. Absolutely disgusting, biased journalism and it only further shows what a free ride TFA gets in the corporate-controlled media sphere. I’ve tried to get my TFA horror story out to many big newspapers here in Detroit to give them an actual idea of what is really going on with TFA here in this city – instead of the perpetual TFA sound-bites they feed off of (because here in Detroit, I’ve seen TFA first-hand and how ineffective it is) and no one has even gotten back to me and in fact one of the largest newspapers here hosted a book discussion by Wendy Kopp just a few weeks ago. It’s a sad indication of where this country’s press has gone – into bed with corporate interests.

Mr. Will, you have a great platform with your readership and incredible influence as a noted journalist. Please do not abuse this platform by turning out such awful pieces as your TFA article. You can do a better job of researching the issues and writing a balanced, well-informed piece about an organization that has enjoyed a free ride in our corporate media for far too long. Please ask yourself if any well-educated, upper-middle-class white suburban parent would be OK with their son or daughter being taught by a 21-year-old fresh out of college with five weeks of inadequate teacher training and zero experience beyond that who is also teaching their kid in a grade level/subject that isn’t even close to what they were minimally trained for in the first place? This would be appalling to almost every rich, suburban parent I can think of. Experimenting on poor, black kids instead – as TFA teachers are basically forced to do in the classroom their first several years because of their lack of training/experience – should be just as appalling.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,
John Williamson

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About jasherwilliamson

Hi my name is John Williamson. I'm currently working as a Classroom Coach with a non-profit called College Forward in Austin, TX. Our goal is to get high school students (primarily ones from low-income and first generation backgrounds) into and through college. Originally, I'm from Washington state (Seattle-area) and I went to school at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA. Drop me a line if you want to know anything else about me... Peace and love,
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2 Responses to Response to George F. Will’s TFA article

  1. Penny says:

    Hi John,
    I don’t know if you remember me, but I was in the 2010 D Corps also, until I “D-fected”. I am glad to find your blog (courtesy of links through Diane Ravitch’s blog)! I applaud your guts in writing to Mr. Will. A friend sent me that article, and it absolutely stunned me that GEORGE WILL of all people was advocating to give more PUBLIC tax dollars to TFA. It made me look more closely at what TFA really is all about. By the middle of Institute I knew something wasn’t right, but it took a bit of time and reflecting back to see the bigger picture. I really didn’t grasp or clarify for a while. I still held onto the shred of idealism and hope that the spin was real. There were some truly dedicated and inspiring people I met along the TFA trail, but some of the TFA flaks really gave me a chill!
    It looks like everything is coming out in the wash these days as more people are seeing that the so-called education reform movement is not what it spins itself to be. And TFA is right in the thick of that. I feel like I was so naive. Personally, I am still recovering from the impact of the whole experience. It is helping – I feel less alone – to find your blog and some of the others where finally we can hear the truth from those who have been inside this experience.

  2. Pingback: SOS Conference 2011, Day Two | An Urban Teacher's Education

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