A Strange Letter to Teach for America

Teach for America, the nonprofit organization that puts high achieving college graduates in underperforming public schools for two years, is generally a fairly popular organization. It’s also somewhat controversial. Critics say it staffs high needs classrooms with unprepared teachers and undermines the education profession.

But in general the actual members and alumni of the organization stay pretty loyal to the institution and its goals. Even when graduates of the program move on to other things and can put the experience in perspective, they mostly have good things to say.

And then there’s Rebecca.

Rebecca had a job teaching special education in California back in 2013. Recently she wrote an open letter to this year’s special education TFA Corps Members. She’s got some pretty serious charges:

…There is a part of you that… feels like something just doesn’t feel right. Perhaps it’s because you never really taught a class more than 10 students on your own without any supervision. Or maybe it could be knowing that the summer session students did not have an IEP. Or maybe you hear the term “IEP”, which has you a bit confused and lost…. I had no real idea the weight and the depth of what an IEP was. I knew it was a legal document that states required services that the school district must provide; however, I had no idea what were the IEP goals and or track/update the IEP goals. But don’t worry that’s not as big of an issue as everything else.

“Everything else” is where this gets interesting.

We were also told… if we were ever to leave in the middle of two years, we would owe money to TFA and or their partnering university. It’s called bonded labor/debt labor. Victims (TFA Corps Members) become “bonded” when their labor, the labor they themselves hired and the tangible goods they bought are demanded as a means of repayment for a loan or service in which its terms and conditions have not been defined or in which the value of the victims’ services is not applied toward the liquidation of the debt. Generally, the value of their work is greater than the original sum of money “borrowed.”

TFA

If you complain about the classes or TFA not prepping you enough for your job placement, they will blame you for failing. If you mention that you want to leave — they will threaten you with financial debt (bonded labor or debt labor) or claim you do not care about your “kids” (they hardly will use the term students). You will feel like they are mentally and emotionally abusing you because they are. This is the turning moment when you decide to push down your thoughts or try to find a way out. This abusive and cultish behavior may have been seen while you attended summer institute, if not, you will see it when you attend those mandatory Saturday trainings. Oh yea, those trainings rarely train you in SPED.

Now I’m not sure if she’s right about all of this. The nature of any exclusive group, whether a fraternity or a sports team or a really fancy job, is that a whole lot of what you end up doing is going to meetings where organizers pump you up in slightly absurd ways and harp on how hard you need to work to succeed. And clearly Rebecca is a biased, and rather bitter, observer.

But her sense of the way the organization operates—“summer session students did not have an IEP. Or maybe, you hear the term “IEP”, which has you a bit confused and lost. I had no real idea the weight and the depth of what an IEP was. I knew it was a legal document that states required services that the school district must provide”—is worth considering.

In general the organization is pretty open about its human resource strategy consisting of putting naive bright-eyed kids into very difficult situations with minimal training. And Teach for America teachers in general have a pretty limited impact, for good or ill, on education.

But when we’re talking about special education, does this really work? Is it appropriate to place people who don’t know what they’re doing in charge of America’s most challenging students?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer