educational Horizons, Spring 1992

Teach for America
©2000 Gary K. Clabaugh


edited 9/2/11

Teach for America has been touted in the press as a "revolutionary teacher preparation program." What is revolutionary about it? By opening still another easy path into teaching it actualizes the supposition that "...bright people who can light up a classroom with enthusiasm and intellect can become effective teachers largely through on-the-job training."

Any college graduate with a desire to teach (for a job?) are considered well qualified for the job. There is no need for them to master a comprehensive understanding of research into teaching and learning. Aspirants don't need to study how to deliver content in a way that more closely matches student needs, abilities and learning style. There is no point in gaining a meaningful holistic understanding of the knowledge base that illuminates each child or adolescent as a very individual LEARNER. To qualify for a life-time in teaching, all one has to do is take Teach for America's crash course in classroom survival skills, then practice on captive school kids and, presuming you don't just keep repeating your mistakes, SHAZAM! you are a teacher.

Unencumbered by training in pedagogy, Wendy Kopp dreamed up Teach for America for her senior thesis in Public Policy Studies at Princeton University. Subsequently, Ms Kopp persuaded H. Ross Perot and like-minded corporate dabblers in school "reform" to give her enough money to charge the monster with a jolt of financial lightning insert that last bolt through its neck and then coax her monster to life.

Teach for America attracts people to the classroom who are unwilling or unable to make a legitimate, much less adequate, effort to become expert teachers. Discarding the thoughtful, thorough and progressive preparation characteristic of all expert professions, Teach for America coaxes half-committed aspirants through just six weeks of summer crash course work in pedagogy. Then, with the connivance of local and state education officials, they are turned loose on kids.

From ignorance to competence in just 30 days of preparation! Even the notoriously inadequate "90 Day Wonders" given emergency commissions in the military during World War II got more than three times that training. But then, they were going to do something we had to take seriously Ms. Kopp claims, "Amazing things happen when you put creative, idealistic and enthusiastic teachers into the classroom." Sure, and even more amazing things happen when these aspiring educators take the trouble to learn something about kids and teaching before they start.

In his thoughtful book, Teachers for Our Nation's Schools, John Goodlad's says this about such back doors to teaching as Teach for America.

Few matters are more important than the quality of the teachers in our nation's schools. Few matters are as neglected. Most parents exercise considerable care in deciding who should baby sit for their children. But the doors to teaching are unlatched; if the front door is locked, one enters through the back. Those who want to teach in our schools are required to meet no tests of character or commitment. -- John I. Goodlad Teachers for Our Nation's Schools (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991) p.xi.
One particularly deleterious consequence of back door approaches to teaching is that they undercut legitimate efforts to educate expert teachers. For instance, at La Salle University where I have helped educate teachers for over 20 years, we painstakingly developed, implemented and refined a nationally recognized elementary and special education teacher preparation program. Using a developmental theme to totally integrate elementary education and special education, La Salle's program carefully encourages the expertise necessary for creating and implementing instruction of elementary aged handicapped and non-handicapped learners. Teachers trained at La Salle can deliver content in a way that more closely matches the needs, abilities and learning styles of all of their students. And they don't wash out of teaching after a year or two either. They have staying power.

Let's compare Teach for America's training with La Salle's elementary / special education teacher preparation program:

Instruction in Pedagogy:
Teach for America: approximately 120 hours of (quickie) instruction performed by some sort of pick-up team. La Salle

900 hours of instruction by fully qualified, nationally published faculty who are all veteran teachers.

Student Teaching

Teach for America

6 weeks of 1/2 day experience in summer school

La Salle:

1 complete school year in two different schools instructing both "normal" and special needs children.

Significantly, La Salle teacher preparation candidate's SAT scores are comparable to students in other majors and they must maintain at least a cumulative index higher than that required for graduation. Moreover, they must satisfy the same liberal arts requirements as any other student.

La Salle also takes considerable trouble to act as a responsible gatekeeper. After four years of careful observation, we have a good idea whether certification candidates can be trusted with the lives of children. In contrast, Teach for America is satisfied with the following disclaimer: "Teach for America is not responsible for finding alternative placements for candidates who cannot be hired by their assigned school district because of their criminal records or present involvement in criminal proceedings."

Perhaps my involvement in collegiate-based teacher education will cause some to dismiss this column. But consider the proponents of these so-called "alternative" forms of teacher preparation such as Teach for America. They too have vested interests. For instance, there are the liberal arts types like Lynne Cheney, Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Ms. Cheney routinely blasts course work in pedagogy while championing traditional subject matter preparation as not only necessary but sufficient for becoming a teacher. Guess on which side Cheney's bread is buttered. Consider also the politicos who either have to facilitate and fund real school reform or find a continuous supply of teachers (read victims) for schools with persistently horrendous teaching conditions.

Time and again these politicians have created alternative certificates rather than address the social and bureaucratic horrors which create and sustain this pedagogical squalor. Finally, there are those wealthy, influential corporate executives who dabble in school reform. Their credibility depends on th public believing that there is nothing to the knowledge base concerning schools, learning and teaching. Why? Because they themselves know nothing about it. However, they do have money, the need to massage their own egos and, most crucial of all, powerful political connections. Just gently mix these ingredients and,voila, an instant expert on all matters pedagogical! In the last analysis, arguments about teacher preparation must be decided on their merits and not by resorting to the logical fallacy, argumentum ad hominem. (attacking the man, rather than his argument.) So ask yourself, is teaching really so simple that all you need to be an expert pedagogue is subject matter knowledge and unguided experience? Also ask why school children should be expected to be guinea pigs and pay the teacher training costs avoided by Teach for America's "lively and enthusiastic" novices. In any other serious endeavor it is the aspiring practitioner that bears these costs.

Admittedly, there are some lousy teacher preparation programs. But there are also hundreds of good ones across the country. So, with many well-trained teachers available, who hires Teach for America's untrained candidates? Generally, schools in undesirable locations and/or those with such abominable teaching conditions that they drive out anyone with standards. Consider Mott Hall School in Harlem . They have hired four Teach for America teachers, and vice principal Steve Buchsbaum is quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer as saying "...they are an asset to our school." In that same article, however, we learn that when one of these Teach for America teachers showed up at Mott Hall for work, she found she had no desk and no classroom! School officials told her such was the case because there was no money and no space. So what did our Teach for America teacher do that made her such an asset to the school? She found a space under some stairs and, using her own furniture, set up an "office" in this dingy little niche. What school administrator operating within preposterous constraints wouldn't settle for such a compliant slavey?

Those who favor "just let em teach" approaches, such as Teach for America, argue that alternative certification programs are necessary because "...the graduates of traditional teacher-education programs do not want to and cannot teach all the children and youth of America." What that really means is that traditionally trained teachers often do not want to teach in the inner city or in remote rural areas. It is true that properly qualified people choose to teach in the suburbs first. But does it follow that because Teach for America candidates are willing to teach in the inner city or rural areas that they will be effective at teaching there? And why should the solution to inner city, rural area teacher scarcity be to make it pathetically easy to become a teacher? Such logic justifies the alternative licensure of every sort of professional who now avoids the inner city or rural areas. For example, graduates of the nation's medical or nursing schools do not want to practice in precisely the same locales avoided by traditional teacher-education graduates. So how about setting up Doctor or Nurse for America? After a few weeks training, we could turn well-meaning aspirants loose to practice on patients in inner-city emergency rooms. Given time, adequate enthusiasm and a lot of failed practice trials (read "dead patients") some are bound to turn into cracker jack physicians or nurses. We could also develop Podiatrics for America, Dentistry for America, even Chiropody for America. There are all sorts of exciting possibilities.

Because Teach for America's hasty puddings work mostly in the inner city their incompetence doesn't really matter to anyone with power. But even at the very top of the educational system Americans have a remarkable tolerance for the trifling of amateurs. Time and again individuals are appointed to positions of power and influence who have never spent the years in study and practice that should be the price of admission. What, for instance, does Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander know about pedagogy? Isn't he just another lawyer/politician who encouraged minor school reforms while governor of Tennessee? And what, pray tell, does William Bennett know about schools and teaching that qualified him to be Secretary of Education? Don't even ask! The point here is not to attack these individuals personally, but to stress their complete lack of relevant training and experience.

Those of us who really care about teaching can be forgiven a certain indignation at the trifling of these amateurs. As the famed philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it:

When one considers in its length and breadth the importance of a nation's young, the broken lives, the defeated hopes, the national failures, which result from the frivolous inertia with which (education) is treated, it is difficult to restrain within oneself a savage rage" -- Alfred North Whitehead The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: Macmillan, 1929) p.22.

Know what would be really revolutionary in teacher preparation? Recognition that teaching is important enough to merit expert practitioners. That it should be necessary to make this argument at this late stage in our national history is incontrovertible proof of a recurrent lack of generosity and vision.