Teach for America: Is Idealism Enough?

The program's brief training sessions aren't likely to prepare recruits for the day-to-day rigors of inner-city teaching

TEACH for America is the most recent and perhaps the most innovative attempt to lure ``the best and the brightest'' into the teaching profession. Every account of the program has praised its creator, Wendy Kopp, for her courage and vision, major corporations for their generosity in backing the effort, and, of course, the 500 idealistic college graduates who have committed the next two years to teach in five of the most challenging regions in the country.

While there is certainly much that is praiseworthy about Teach for America, its organizers, and its participants, there is also some cause for concern.

Any educator serious about improving the quality of public education must embrace an attempt to bring gifted men and women into the public schools. But like many of my colleagues, I bridle at the notion that anyone, regardless of how bright or how selective his school, would be ready to teach after a summer's worth of ``intensive'' training.

Yes, I know the new teachers will be paired with mentor teachers in their schools. I know that Teach for America also plans to provide a support center in each of the five areas. I also know that the corps members will receive additional training throughout their first year. But I am deeply troubled by the prospect of new teachers facing students that would challenge even the most savvy and experienced teacher. They'll take with them little more than enthusiasm and a superficial knowledge of the psychological and philosophical foundations of education - let alone recent research in effective teaching, lesson planning, classroom management, and curriculum development.

Implicit in Teach for America's approach to teacher-training is the insidious assumption that anyone who knows a subject and is willing to be with kids can teach - with little or, in some states, no training. Teachers, it is believed, can learn on the job. While we value classroom experience as the most important component of training, many educators find the structure of Teach for America's training ludicrous. What would lawyers or doctors think about proposals to train young and eager would-be professionals for a summer, give them a guaranteed job for two years, and then teach them law or medicine as they practiced it?

We need to do more than simply bring talented young people into the teaching profession; we need to keep them in it. Many of the students who have gathered in Los Angeles this summer for training might under the right circumstances, and with appropriate training, become dedicated teachers.

But the difficulty of the teaching situation awaiting Teach for America recruits, and their unreadiness for it, could make them flee from the hallways of the public schools that so desperately need them. Even if they stick out their two-year commitment, I wonder how many will recommit on their own and become the veteran master teachers so brilliantly chronicled in two recent portraits of heroic teachers, ``Among Schoolchildren'' by Tracy Kidder, and ``Small Victories'' by Samuel J. Freedman.

I'd be worried about Teach for America for the reasons outlined above, even if the corps members were an abstract group of faceless young graduates whom I could admire and fret about from afar. But six people from Carleton College, the selective liberal arts institution at which I teach, are attending the intensive training session at the USC campus this summer. And so, as I weigh the merits and weaknesses of the program, it is not an idle intellectual exercise, but one made vivid by the faces and futures of young people I know and care about.

Consider Michael Lach, a 21-year-old physics major from Carleton who will be heading down to New Orleans in August to teach high-school science. Like most of his fellow corps members, Mike is bright, sincere, sensitive, and well-motivated. Like most of his fellow corps members, Mike had several attractive alternatives for his future, including graduate school, but chose to try his hand at teaching. He jokes about being a hero, but in many ways he is one. He is troubled by the frequent references to the corps' ``best and brightest'' status, but also admits to being tickled by it.

I've been hoping silently (and not so silently sometimes) that Mike would become a teacher since I met him during junior year in my educational psychology class. He seemed to possess innate teacher instincts, including remarkable intuition and a flair for relating to all kinds of kids. (Black T-shirted Metallica fans appeared to be his specialty.) Now that Mike has joined the ranks of Teach for America, I cheer at the thought of what this swim captain-audiophile-computer, whiz-published, author-elite college graduate could bring to needy kids, but I shudder at the perils of his path of preparation to teach those kids. Good instincts may be a necessary requirement for good teaching, but it is not a sufficient one.

In order to evaluate Teach for America, I visited the training session in Los Angeles recently. I spoke informally with the Carleton corps members and then shadowed Michael for what he claimed was ``another typical day at Teach for America.'' The day was filled with a variety of activities, ranging from a large group lecture on bilingualism provided by the Los Angeles Unified School District, a small group session on cooperative learning, and an afternoon session designed to introduce classroom management. An introductory session of content-area teaching ranged from inspiring (the science team managed to get everyone in the room, even me, excited about teaching and ``doing'' science) to embarrassing (a ``state of the art'' film on bilingualism was so elementary that it had the corps hooting.

The students with whom I spoke confirmed this sense of unevenness, as well as a general sense of confusion from both the program's planners and participants. Surely this would be expected in the first year of such an ambitious undertaking. And, of course, a single visit to the program, especially one that does not include extended conversations with the staff members, cannot give one an accurate picture of the pedagogical goals of Teach for America or a clear idea of how it will attempt to accomplish them.

There were, in all fairness, some things that impressed me about what I saw that day. Most corps members appear to be sincerely excited about the prospect of teaching. By all accounts, the staff consists of dedicated college professors and classroom teachers, and a real attempt is made to address some major themes of teacher training, including multicultural education, professionalism, and reflective teaching.

But if my visit to the training session did not exacerbate my concerns, it did not erase them either. While the corps members' days may be filled, the pace of learning seemed anything but ``intensive.'' I'd hoped for a sense of urgency - so much to learn, to discuss, to practice, in such little time - but the air approached casualness. Students were lamenting the lack of practical emphasis, with their student teaching in L.A.'s public schools only days away. Even if those practical topics - lesson planning, teaching techniques, managing student behavior, handling troubled kids, evaluating student work, finding resources, etc. - are addressed, the timing seems to be less than ideal.

In addition to having little time to cover the practical, there is also neither the time nor any apparent attempt to provide the grounding in educational theory, history, and philosophy that enables teachers to gain perspective on their own teaching style and philosophy.

I want Teach for America to work - for the sake of the students who will fill the corps members' classrooms in September, for the sake of the troubled state of our public schools, for the sake of teacher education programs across the country that need to be prodded into reform, and for the sake of the courageous young people like Michael Lach whose faith in Teach for America has allowed them to embark on this daring route to teaching.

But if this program intends to prepare a new corps of teachers who will enter America's schools and have the confidence, competence, and commitment to stay there long enough to make a difference, perhaps it should be more respectful of the depth and breadth of knowledge, the complexity, and, indeed, the artistry required of good teaching.

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