Monday, October 5, 2015

Critical Response to: "An Open Letter to Teach For America Recruits" - Katie Osgood

I recently read Katie Osgood’s An Open Letter to Teach For America Recruits. Osgood, a Special Education teacher in Chicago, writes an open letter to new Teach For America (TFA) recruits, urging them to not join the national organization. While Osgood tries to belittle and attack the organization using several personal and general examples, she fails to address the true problem that persists in so many urban school districts across the country: minority children do not receive the same educational opportunities as white students in wealthier school districts.

I am a TFA corps member – there, I said it. I am sorry I cannot give you a story about how I knew that I always wanted to work in education. Indeed, I never thought I would be in the classroom two years ago. The son of two immigrant parents, I grew up speaking Portuguese in a lower-middle class household. I earned a scholarship to play soccer at a prestigious liberal arts college in Massachusetts. Much to my parents dislike (and apparently Osgood’s as well), I decided to join TFA instead of pursuing a lucrative job on Wall Street.

I thought I was doing a good thing at the time. I was going to be a mirror that many minority students in urban education do not have. I was not going to “forget where I came from”, join the “evil one percent”, and never look back. Yeah, about that…

As you can imagine, my fellow corps members and I have read dozens of articles like Katie Osgood’s during my time with TFA. Regardless of the work I do in my classroom, the successes of my students, or my volunteer work in the community, I must seemingly forever hide the fact that I am a TFA corps member publicly unless I want to hear a rant about how horrible I am. Even as I type this, I find myself in fear of ostracizing myself from my grad school professors and co-workers. The fact is, TFA gets a bad reputation in the education community. My question is simple: why?

Is TFA the solution to the “achievement gap” that persists between inner-city and suburban school districts? No. Actually, contrary to popular belief, the organization does not expect to be the solution either. TFA’s goal is simple: one day all children will have the ability to receive a quality education. We are not here to spread “right-wing propaganda”. I do not have a poster of Walmart above my bed, and I do not have a “vested interest in the status quo of inequality, breaking unions, and keeping wages low and workers oppressed.

The fact is, TFA would not exist if there were no inequalities and deficiencies in our urban school districts. Instead of focusing our energies on solving this persistent and institutionalized dilemma that has existed for over a century, many seem more preoccupied with debating about an organization that has been around for 25 years.

With every article I read, the arguments against TFA become seemingly more and more intense. In accordance with Osgood, I want to highlight a few common themes that I hear:

“Teach For America corps members are unqualified, untrained teachers who cannot adequately serve our most deprived students”

Every TFA member has heard this one: “How can we put so much faith in these new college graduates who have no prior teaching experience?” Yes, it is true: I attended that “horrible” five week training program that uses students as “guinea pigs”. Of course, anyone can frame a story like this. I can also say that I took twenty sixth graders that had failed math the year before, taught them the key points of a curriculum in four weeks, and saw twenty children pass a New York state exam that allowed them to pass onto seventh grade. Osgood notes that “regular teachers” undergo extensive training prior to entering the classroom. This is very true. Traditionally, teacher hopefuls spend several years learning theories, observing teachers, and finally doing some instruction themselves in front of a classroom. Unfortunately, many student-teachers are not trained in urban-school districts. In my school’s 15 year existence, we have never been asked to support a student-teacher.

Interestingly, Osgood attempts to discredit TFA for being “too data-driven”. Yes, TFA does focus on data-driven results (is that bad??). Indeed, if districts are going to bring TFA in, and if schools are going to hire us - we better produce results. For “unqualified teachers”, TFA Rhode Island produced very positive results last year. Over 73% of TFA Rhode Island first year teachers received a “4 - Highly Proficient” rating on the state-wide evaluation, with 100% of first-year teachers receiving a “3 – Proficient” rating or higher. Even in a national, independent study, TFA faired extremely well; TFA members  “who average just over a year and a half of teaching experience, were aseffective as their counterparts in the same schools, who averaged 13.6 years ofteaching experience.” Not bad for a bunch of “unqualified teachers.”

In many developed countries, the teaching profession is as highly reputed as that of becoming a doctor or lawyer. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the United States. Trust me, teaching is hard – really hard. Still, there is a negative stigma that surrounds the profession: teachers are lazy, they get summers off, it does not pay well enough, etc. Needless to say, the woman who says she’s a doctor gets a lot more respect than the woman who says she’s a teacher. As a result, many of our top students in the US grow up wanting to become engineers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, and bankers. In Finland, almost every teacher was in the top 10% of their graduating high school class. This is not the case in the US today. If nothing else, TFA has opened thousands of eyes to the injustices that persist in our most deprived schools. For 25 years, it has taken some of our nation’s most successful graduates and immersed them in worlds that they most likely would never have experienced. For those that argue that TFA members are notorious for leaving the profession, over two-thirds of TFA alumni are still involved in education. Personally, I would never have considered working in the classroom had it not been for TFA. To those who knew that they always wanted to work in urban schools, I want to say, “Thank you for the work that you do. I’m sorry that I didn’t know as early as you, but I am glad to be here now.”

“TFA corps members taking over districts and taking jobs that more qualified teachers should have.”

There is a surplus of teachers nationally. Unfortunately, many of these teachers have been forced to lose their jobs. Although TFA has experienced a decrease in applications over the past two years, many onlookers were enraged when they discovered that TFA was growing in numbers, but more and more teachers could not find work nationally. It does seem rather peculiar, right?

In all of the research that I have seen, almost every major urban school district experiences teacher shortages – especially in math. Indeed, my own school has been unable to hire a math teacher for three years; the position is repeatedly filled with a long-term substitute or a displaced, forced hire. We also have two open science positions that are “taught” by a different 
substitute each day. If you look at the composition of TFA Rhode Island, all of the teachers that we provide are certified in “high-need” positions. So, when someone says, “I wouldn’t want my kid taught by a TFA corps member”, I always ask them to consider the very real alternative.

“TFA is the problem in urban school districts today”

Alright, this is just ignorant. As a member of TFA, it almost seems like I cannot catch a break against the onslaught of negativity that comes with this title. An abundance of research has been done to show that students in urban environments need “teachers that look like them”. This is a call to try and end the common dilemma of black and brown students in urban schools potentially never seeing a role model in the classroom that “looks like them”. Currently, over 82% of teachers in the United States are white. Yeah, 82%. Currently, over 50% of TFA corps members identify as persons of color, 47%identify as coming from a low-income background, and 34% were first-generationcollege graduates.

Similar to Osborn, I can sit here and rattle off a number of grievances. I can tell you that even though my students improved 2.9 grade levels last year, a school mentor of mine still refuses to talk to me ever since he found out that I was part of TFA. I can tell you that it angers me to see my students have no biology or history teachers because two “more qualified” teachers are using 160+ consecutive paid “sick days” the year before they retire. I can be just as ignorant as Osgood and say that all traditionally trained teachers are horrible, unions are the worst thing since the ice age, and every TFA teacher deserves to teach at Harvard.

I won’t though.

The fact is, we should not be having a back and forth about this. Whether you hate TFA or you want a Wendy Kopp mug for the holidays, you have to remember what really matters: our youth. Face it or not, the system is broken. It’s about time we did something about that. If you don’t like TFA, that’s fine. Let’s create a world in which our most deprived youth can get a quality of education, regardless of where they live. 


  1. This was an awesome read, Dan. I loved hearing your side to this on going (yet pointless) argument. I think you hit the nail right on the head when you said that we should be taking a look at the system, and not fighting this pointless battle about who is more effective. As long as we as a whole are effective, who cares what the background is? I would love to have an educational system that was so good that TFA didn't need to exist, and our teacher population was diversified and producing results that did not call for an achievement gap to be closed, or a calling for all students to get a fair education. That'd be a dream. But if we do not cease the argument and pointless energy invested in TFA or Non-TFA, and put that energy towards focusing the real problem, the cycle will just continue.

  2. I do hope we get to talk more about this, and I very much appreciate your taking this risk to write on this article. I think an important point to remember here is that critiquing a system is not the same as critiquing individuals. So it is, IMHO, not an attack on any individual TFA member when we challenge the underlying assumptions of TFA as an institution. Enjoying having your voice here very much.

  3. You go, Dan! The fact that you are so fiercely defending WHAT you do and not how you got there says a lot about you. The fact that TFA lead you to the field of urban education when more traditionally trained teachers are running away from it in droves says a lot, too. Passion and conviction are what make a great teacher, not a building, a program or an institution. I bet your students have already figured that out, haven't they?

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.