Getting the Facts Out
Becky O'Neill
Wednesday, October 23, 2013 - 11:01am

In today’s Harvard Crimson, student columnist Sandra Korn puts forth a piece with a juicy headline: Don’t Teach For America. In it, she details her personal objection to programs like TFA that offer an alternate path to teaching in high-need communities. Because we believe so deeply in the power of one generation to change what’s possible for the next, we hope her piece will spark debate and dialogue on this country’s educational crisis across dining halls, lecture halls and late night study sessions in the days to come. But with so much riding on our ability to come together around meaningful solutions, we also hope these conversations will move beyond certain kneejerk misrepresentations Ms. Korn puts forth to include a few of the basic facts about our mission, program and approach.

  • First, TFA is among the country’s largest providers of African American and Latino teachers. Fifty five percent of our 2013 corps either grew up in a low-income community or identify as people of color. Because we believe that educators who share the backgrounds of students have the potential for profound additional impact with their kids, we are committed to diversifying further. We also strive to accommodate requests from those who want to work in their hometowns and have been inspired by many now teaching in the same communities, districts or even hallways they once walked as students. 
  • Second, 20% of our incoming corps members come from the professional sector, including more than 100 military veterans. And while many (including veterans) do describe teaching as the most challenging work they’ve done, we see a growing group choosing to bring their tremendous experience and leadership to our nation’s most pressing issue.
  • Third, Teach For America teachers do not replace veteran teachers. Across our district partners, they apply for open positions, based on non-binding agreements. If hired, they are subject to all district-level policies and procedures. In Chicago, for example, this meant that when schools closed and teachers were laid off, our corps members, alumni teacher and principals were among them. Contrary to the critical and misleading blog posts Ms. Korn cites, there were simply no scenarios in which corps member replaced traditional track teachers, or the other way around.
  • Fourth, studies show that our corps members are making a positive impact in their classrooms. A recent study by Mathematica finds that corps members produced achievement gains in mathematics that amounted to an extra 2.6 months of learning in just one year. While we know that these gains are just one piece of a much larger puzzle, we’re encouraged by the findings and committed to continually improving our training and support to make them stronger still.  
  • And finally, to state that our 11,000 corps members and 9,000 alumni teachers are out to “destroy public education” is factually inaccurate and intellectually dishonest. Along with undermining the commitment of these individuals – most of whom teach in traditional public schools and some of whom have been doing it for 10, 15 or 20 years – it insults the students, families and fellow educators of all pathways they lock arms with every day.

Ultimately, we must decide what we want the debate on education in this country to look like. On the one hand, we can choose to demean certain educators and their pathway to this work – tossing around words like “neoliberal” and well-worn, inaccurate critiques that protect the status quo. On the other – following the lead of the Crimson editorial staff in their prompt response op-ed– we can have the tough, honest conversations it will take to make meaningful change for a generation of students that simply cannot wait. We cast our vote for the latter. 

Becky O’Neill is a communications director for Teach For America. A native of New York City (and proud NJ transplant), she has the good fortune to spend her days hearing from ordinary people doing extraordinary things, from Chicago to the Carolinas. Becky has a B.A. from Princeton and an M.A. from Columbia’s Institute for Research in African American Studies.

Category: Point/Counterpoint

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