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August 04, 2009
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Yesterday Fordham's hometown paper, the Dayton Daily News, ran a piece about Teach For America, as did the New York Times on Sunday. At first glance, both seem positive (and that was the sentiment expressed by family and friends sending me the obligatory I-know-you're-a-TFA-alum-so-read-this email). Each article highlighted the selectivity of the program and pointed to numbers about Ivy League applicants and the program's low admission rates. Dayton Daily offered an obligatory argument that yes, we know there are not enough teaching jobs in Ohio as is, but? they're smart so let them come here. The Times said that TFA ?has become an elite brand that will help build a resume? and acted shocked that three out of four Harvard students who apply don't get in.
This kind of reporting about Teach For America, rather than stroking my ego, frustrates the hell out of me. There is one vital narrative missing from both of these articles that is far more important than the fact that many of applicants happen to be Ivy League and TFA has become the new social-justice discussion outlet for privileged students in Harvard dorm rooms.
Above all this hoopla, and even beyond hard stats illustrating how bright Teach For America applicants are on average (the oft-cited SAT score or GPA comparison between TFAers and regular ed school graduates), is the fact that Teach For America recruits candidates who above all have an abiding commitment to low-income children and closing pernicious achievement gaps between the haves and have-nots in this country.
Above all this hoopla... is the fact that Teach For America recruits candidates who above all have an abiding commitment to low-income children.
I fear this narrative gets lost in the media's fixation over how prestigious the program is. When I read the NYTimes' anecdotes about three-fourths of Ivy League students being rejected by TFA, I rolled my eyes. Honestly, while I'm sure these students are smart and have SAT scores that blow their state-school peers out of the water, that's got nothing to do with whether their commitment to low-income kids is genuine and whether they have the humility to walk into one of America's poorest communities and work effectively with people of various backgrounds.
The truth of the matter is that a whole lot of Ivy Leaguers aren't able to bridge this gap. When I was at Princeton (as a grad student) I attended TFA recruiting and networking events and was horrified at the attitudes of some students applying for the program. I offered to help with essays or give advice about interviews and no one took me up on my offer because, as one girl confided to me, ?we're a shoe-in, honestly ? they love Ivy League kids.? Another young woman who I'd recently overheard at a restaurant demand impatiently to the non-English speaking waiter to ?Please take the tom-ah-toes off my salad!!!!? said she was applying because after a life of privilege she ?felt sorry for all those kids.? I nearly choked. Not all were like this. I'm sure many (and certainly the ones who were actually accepted) have an abiding commitment to low-income kids and are doing great things in classrooms as we speak. But when I read articles like this, I can't shake from my mind the image of dozens of young women wearing Tiffany jewelry walking into North Camden or the South Bronx.
What happens as a result of the media's fixation on Ivy Leaguers is two-fold. First, the traditional education community is skeptical and this prompts the vitriol about TFA being a bunch of ?white Ivy League missionaries.? When I think about the Tiffany pearl-wearing type of young woman walking into a non-air conditioned classroom with cockroaches and graffiti (like the first North Philly school that I trained in), I can't say I really disagree with that sentiment.
The second thing that happens is that inspiring stories focusing on the rest of the TFA applicant population are completely lost. There are plenty of impressive applicants from state schools who join the program not to ?boost resumes? but because of their steadfast commitment to fighting poverty. A growing group comes from faith communities as TFA's mission meshes well with most faiths' focus on economic equality and justice.
When I think of who the majority of TFAers really are at their core ? I push articles like this out of my head. Instead I recall one of my peers from Education Pioneers who had previously taught high school. During an exercise wherein we shared who our ?heroes? were, he brought us all to tears as he described a former student who'd watched her entire family be shot to death in their own home, and who struggled mightily to finish school but hung in there because she wanted to make it to college and make them proud. She was the reason he wanted to continue working in low-income communities in the capacity of a social worker.
To change folks' perspective about the program? both nationally and in my home state of Ohio ? I think this is a message worth telling. Teach For America screens heavily for humility, for evidence that one has the ability and drive to overcome significant obstacles, and above all for a commitment to kids in poor communities and a willingness to do whatever it takes to ensure that they learn. Somebody write a story highlighting this.
Update: There is a second Dayton Daily News piece worth reading that discusses the ?downside? of TFA's elitism ? that not only do many elite TFA teachers not stay in teaching, but that TFA is missing out on top talent that could make a difference. The piece describes an African American young man who grew up in Chicago's Public Schools, did Peace Corps and then proceeded to apply to Teach For America but couldn't get accepted. Now, I don't work in TFA's recruitment shop, but I do know generally that they screen for commitment to children and other factors such as the likelihood they'll succeed in a tough assignment and don't merely look?at impressive stats about where one goes to school. I know that for a fact. But, the article's point is a good one. How can someone with such a steadfast commitment to ? and personal experience living in- poverty, not be accepted? I can't answer that. But I'd generally agree that TFA should think about how to weigh not just racial diversity but also socio-economic diversity?when recruiting candidates if it?wishes to avoid these types of criticisms.
- Jamie Davies O'Leary