In a major step for a growing “countermovement,” Teach For America alumni and teachers are meeting at a conference here this weekend to organize “resistance to TFA’s efforts to promote corporate education reform.”
Meanwhile CPS, which is laying off hundreds of teachers, is stepping up its financial support for the controversial organization, which provides graduates of top colleges with cursory educational training and places them in classrooms in low-income urban and rural areas.
An assembly on Organizing Resistance to Teach For America  takes place Sunday, July 14, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., at Uplift Community High School, 900 W. Wilson. It’s part of the national Free Minds, Free People  conference, aimed at “promot[ing] education as a tool for liberation.”
Among the organizers is a group of New Orleans TFAers who formed a Teachers Roundtable to foster community discussions after they realized their training hadn’t prepared them for issues of racial justice and community displacement, according to the American Prospect .
The Sunday event aims to focus the efforts of an emerging group of TFA alumni and others who are critical of the organization’s role backing privatization and the charter school movement, said Kerry Kretchmar, an assistant professor of education at Carroll University in Wisconsin. Kretchmar was a TFA teacher-intern in New York City from 2004 to 2006.
Contributing to inequality
While TFA “uses the language of the civil rights movement” and talks about ending educational inequities, the group “perpetuates systemic inequalities” including the lack of certified teachers in low-income urban schools, Kretchmar said. And while it started out a quarter century ago filling teacher shortages in poor districts, today its “corps members” are replacing veteran teachers.
TFA spokesperson Becky O’Neill said in an e-mail that research “shows that corps members’ impact on student achievement exceeds that of other teachers in the same high-needs schools, even when compared with veteran and fully certified teachers.” According to Kretchmar, peer-reviewed research doesn’t back up that claim. (More on the question here .)
It’s a sensitive subject in Chicago, where hundreds of teachers were displaced when Mayor Emanuel closed 50 schools recently, and hundreds more are expected to lose their jobs with cuts to school budgets  now under consideration.
Meanwhile, Substance reports , CPS has increased its contract for TFA to refer teacher-interns to the district from $600,000 to $1.59 million, raising the number of first-year TFAers to 325, up from 200 two years ago.
That money is for referrals (some call it a “finder’s fee”) and for on-going support; CPS also pays TFA teacher-interns the full salary of a starting teacher. (CPS did not respond immediately to a request for comment.)
It’s not like it’s particularly hard to find available teachers in Chicago.
No teacher shortage
“In Chicago, we don’t have a teacher shortage; we have a huge population of veteran teachers who’ve been thrown out of their jobs,” CTU president Karen Lewis told Newstips. “It’s primarily middle-aged black women. And it’s very difficult for them to find open positions.”
O’Neill argues that in Chicago, hiring decisions are made by principals, who “continue to hire our corps members based on the impact they make in the classroom.”
But Lewis point out that with the district’s shift to per-pupil funding, principals have a strong financial incentive to favor lower-salaried first-year teachers over those with experience — even though research shows that teachers with five or more years of experience are far more effective than novices.
She adds that TFA has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from pro-privatization foundations; the group’s total assets in 2011 topped $350 million, according to the Prospect. “So why is CPS subsidizing them? It’s ridiculous.”
In May, local teacher/blogger Katie Osgood raised alarms  about a TFA statement that “by 2017, we aim to create a network of eight or more neighborhoods with exceptional levels of student achievement….
“Through a focused influx of corps members and alumni, we will reach critical mass in the Near West Side, East/West Garfield Park, North/South Lawndale, Archer Heights, Brighton Park, Gage Park, and Englewood.” The statement was included in materials for a gala, $10,000-a-table fundraiser at the Drake Hotel.
Osgood wrote that TFA was targeting “the very same communities being traumatized” by massive school closings.
“And TFA wants to go into those communities after mass layoffs — where many quality veteran teachers will be displaced and many may not be rehired,” among them many teachers with deep roots in the community – “and offer them uncertified, poorly-trained novices, many of whom have never even been to the Midwest, much less know the varied individual neighborhoods of Chicago.
“It’s like TFA is kicking these communities while they are down.”
Commented O’Neill, “Based on the success that our corps members have had teaching in some of our highest-need communities and feedback from principals in these areas, we’re open to the idea that it might be worth increasing the number of corps members we recruit, train, and support to partner with kids and families in these communities in particular.”
Since up to 70 percent of Chicago TFAers work in charter schools, including the politically-connected Nobel and UNO chains, it could be yet another sign that the school closings weren’t about “underutilization” or saving money after all — they were to lay the ground for charter expansion .
More recently, Osgood has scored TFA  for using CPS summer school classes — for students who failed courses during the school year — as training sites for their interns.
“These are the children most in need of expert teaching and support; many may have or eventually may need special education services,” she wrote. “Instead, TFA partners with certain schools where students are used as practice tools the entire day, as novices have their very first experiences working with a group of children.”
According to Osgood, a veteran teacher she knows reported his class was taken over, and he “was told to sit silently in the back of the classroom” as “five novice TFAers fumbled their way through lessons for four whole weeks of a five-week summer term.”
“They are using my kids as guinea pigs,” he told Osgood.
“The organization is working to deprofessionalize teaching,” charges T. Jameson Brewer, a former TFAer who’s now a PhD candidate at Univerity of Illinois at Urbana-Champagn
“The assumption is that anybody can teach — that if you went to a good school and got good grades, then you can teach,” he said. “I can assure you that’s not the case.”
Brewer took a curious route into TFA. After university training he was certified as a secondary school history teacher in Georgia — but at the height of the recession, a two-year job search was fruitless. He joined TFA thinking, “anything to get in a classroom,” he said.
He took notes and even volunteered as a staffer for summer training institute his second year to gain more insight. (TFA trainers are not a whole lot more experienced than their trainees.) His account of his experience will be published in a forthcoming issue of Critical Education  devoted to TFA.
He’s also written on burnout among TFAers : he thinks the combination of minimal training and the ideology that every student failure is solely the teachers’ fault is a powerful factor, and contributes to low retention rates for the organization.
Brewer recalls witnessing a TFA adviser yelling at an intern who’d sought his guidance regarding a student who consistently failed to bring a pencil to class.
The adviser excoriated the intern, according to Brewer, “insisting that if the corps member had properly ‘invested her students in their learning’ that the student would bring a pencil. The corps member was brought to tears and quit three days later.”
Time to fold?
Another local blogger who’s a TFA alum has suggested it’s time for the organization to fold.  A recent TFAer in Colorado, Matt Barnum is now a student at University of Chicago Law School; he seems generally supportive  of mainstream “reform” goals.
But he argues that TFA is now replacing veteran teachers, and points to the “wasted investment schools make in teachers who leave within a few years.” He questions TFA’s cost-effectiveness, pointing out that the group’s annual budget in 2009 amounted to $38,000 per intern, more than double what it cost in 2005.
Barnum says his five-week training was “close to useless” and the support he received through the school year was perfunctory and “little help.” Considering the group spends over $200 million a year, perhaps there is a better use for that money, he writes.
Osgood has called on TFA members to quit , saying the organization claims to fight inequality but in fact contributes to char it.
“I have nothing against the corps members,” says Lewis. “They’re young people who have a lot of empathy and want to do something, want to give something back.”
In fact, she says, “I came into teaching like they did” — graduating from an Ivy League school and going through an alternative certification program. “I didn’t know I was going to make a commitment to teach, but I got the teaching bug.”
“I know that you are trying to help, but you are becoming part of a system that is destabilizing children’s lives,” she says. “Realize that you’ve been sold a bill of goods.”
What should they do? “Make a commitment, learn how to teach, check your egos at the door.” By this she means questioning the organization’s Super Teacher fantasy, the notion that an elite education gives you special powers that mere mortals lack.
“And don’t buy into the finger-pointing at veteran teachers. We have to do this together.”
CTU is a sponsor of Free Minds, Free People , along with Northeastern Illinois University, the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program, the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education, and a number of national groups, including the Alliance for Eeducation Justice, Rethinking Schools, and the Brown University Department of Education.
Karen Lewis will speak as part of the plenary town hall meeting, Saturday, July 13 at 2:15 p.m.