As a Teach For America (TFA) alumnus, I enjoyed George Will’s recent op-ed, “Teach for America: Letting the cream rise,” in The Washington Post. Will notes that TFA has become a force not just in education-reform circles but also among recent college graduates, with more than 15 percent of seniors at Harvard and Princeton competing for the chance to spend two years teaching students in low-income urban and rural neighborhoods.
I fear, however, that the lessons Mr. Will has learned from TFA’s story are incomplete. He writes, “Until recently—until, among other things, TFA—it seemed that we simply did not know how to teach children handicapped by poverty and its accompaniments—family disintegration and destructive community cultures. Now we know exactly what to do.”
Not so fast.
At best, the lessons drawn by Mr. Will are likely to distract us from identifying, and then addressing, broader policy problems. More alarmingly, the lessons may give federal, state and local policymakers an excuse—or, worse still, a justification—for inaction on a number of issues of deep importance to our neighborhoods, communities and schools.
Mr. Will cites a declaration by TFA founder and CEO Wendy Kopp that we “do not have to fix society … to fix education.” TFA alumna Michelle Rhee often expresses the same sentiment. It has, in fact, become the favored stance of a certain crop of reformers.
As any educator can attest, there are some things a teacher must have the serenity to accept. Without the ability to change immediate family and societal circumstances, teachers must show courage in effectively executing their jobs and demanding excellence from their students, regardless of what is happening beyond school grounds. The heroic efforts of both TFA and non-TFA teachers are motivated by the belief that all children can learn—but they do not negate truths like healthy children are better learners, or children with stable home environments and fewer distractions in their non-school lives are better able to take advantage of the educational opportunities afforded them.
It’s no secret that teachers must labor long and hard in attempts to overcome factors beyond their control. For example, children in low-income areas suffer poorer health than other children. They are exposed to greater levels of toxins in their streets and lead paint in their homes, and asthma keeps poor children out of school at greater rates than their more affluent peers. One study of high-poverty, high-minority urban neighborhoods in California found that residents averaged one primary care doctor for every 4,000 people. Meanwhile, neighborhoods without high concentrations of poor or minority residents had one doctor for every 1,200 people. While schools and teachers must do their level-best to teach children in spite of such realities, issues like these dramatically influence student learning.
Teachers in challenging environments do not ignore greater societal challenges because such an approach is ideal—they adopt this posture out of necessity. As such, teachers’ valiant efforts must not be used to let policymakers and pundits off the hook for deficiencies in healthcare and housing policy. Kopp is right that great people can create “islands of excellence”—and, yes, great teachers create learning environments in which all students, regardless of background, can thrive. But schools don’t operate in vacuums, which makes the creation of islands of excellence an insufficient solution. Addressing all of society’s ills is surely beyond a teacher’s responsibilities, and teachers can do little to change immediate societal or family circumstances. Their work, however, is profoundly affected by these factors, which is why it is even more important for policymakers to address the bigger picture. As President Barack Obama noted in his 2011 State of the Union address, the responsibility to give every child a chance to succeed “begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities.”
Furthermore, contrary to the picture of TFA painted by Mr. Will, TFA’s long-term approach is actually predicated on the idea that closing the achievement gap requires efforts from non-educational sectors of society. Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of the TFA vision is the multifaceted approach it encourages. Mr. Will notes that roughly two-thirds of TFA alumni are still “in the field” of education. But what about the remaining one-third? According to TFA’s website, “in the long run, our alumni are a powerful force of leaders working from inside education and from every other sector to effect the fundamental changes needed to ensure that all children have an equal chance in life.”
TFA’s vision calls for leaders in all sectors who understand the issues confronting education reform and who can work from multiple professional venues to bring about the kinds of change required to close the achievement gap. The task is nothing short of monumental.
It requires that we address concerns both within and beyond the classroom and schoolyard. The work must be done by teachers, administrators, parents, doctors, lawyers, social workers, policymakers and many other members of our communities. To illustrate this point, at TFA’s recent 20th Anniversary Alumni Summit, panels ranged from more traditional education-reform topics like teacher-evaluation policies and the creation of the Common Core Standards to discussions of school-based health care and advancing educational equity through the legal system.
I remain committed to TFA’s vision, and I am proud to be counted among the program’s alumni. I join Mr. Will in calling on Congress to restore the funding of worthy organizations such as TFA, but I urge Congress and Mr. Will not to neglect the other pieces of the puzzle. National, state and local leaders must understand that educational equity cannot be ensured and the achievement gap cannot be closed by great teachers alone.
Vikash Reddy, who taught third grade in East New York as a TFA corps member, is a senior research assistant at the Community College Research Center, located at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is also completing his Ph.D. in Leadership, Policy and Politics at Teachers College.