Illustration: J.D. King
If you know what to look for, it’s not hard to spot a Teach for America (TFA) classroom. Typically, on one wall, a “Big Goal” poster proclaims the class objective: “Students will, on average, achieve 80 percent of their learning goals based on state standards.” On another, tracking charts show the progress of individual students toward meeting those standards. At the front of the class—or, just as likely, crouched over a student’s desk offering help—is the teacher: probably young, probably white, and probably from an upbringing worlds different from the low-income communities of color that TFA targets.
Though my own classroom in Memphis, Tenn., is characterized more by quotes from acclaimed rabble-rousers and stacks of unorganized student handouts, I am one of about 7,300 current TFA teachers—and, if you believe the organization’s rhetoric, offered to us in workshops and featured at TFA’s website, a member of “the new civil rights movement.” I am in my second year teaching high school world history and world geography. For a variety of reasons, at the end of this year I will join the majority of TFA teachers who move on after their two-year commitment.
Most TFA teachers enter the program fresh from the completion of their undergraduate education—I was on a plane to Memphis for the beginning of summer training one week after I graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut with a degree in sociology. Very few of us, including me, had formal education training prior to joining TFA. Our ideas of how to teach come mostly from a five-week summer training institute that promises to give new recruits the tools they will need to be successful teachers. The summer institute combines sessions on classroom management, lesson planning, and other aspects of teaching with a daily opportunity to plan and deliver a lesson to a summer-school class under the supervision of an experienced teacher.
TFA Training: Strengths and Weaknesses
Through it all, TFA focuses on specific “best practices,” strategies they find are consistent among the most effective teachers. As a new teacher, I found most of these to be helpful. Some, however, can be limiting. Because of the way we’re trained, TFA teachers tend to be very test-, data-, and standards-driven. TFA teachers are taught to begin with state standards, break them down into specific skills, then write test questions for each skill. It is only at this point that we are to plan specific activities. TFA judges our effectiveness by our students’ performance on our tests, which we are supposed to “track” with a large spreadsheet provided by TFA that keeps track of the extent to which each student has mastered each standard (as measured by a percentage based on the student’s performance on the tests).
This focus on testing is hardly unique to TFA—it fits squarely within the kinds of accountability enforced by No Child Left Behind legislation and promoted by most school districts and schools of education. But in an educational system where the learning time of lower-income and lower-performing students is increasingly hijacked by testing (especially in comparison to their more privileged counterparts), it’s a major problem.
My over-arching goals as a social studies teacher may not be so easily tested. For example: Students will be able to analyze the various ways groups and individuals seek to dominate others to gain wealth and power. Or: Students will be able to compare the strategies of different social movements. Of course, these objectives are not one-day lessons; I hope to build towards them throughout the course of the year. These objectives are not easily reduced to bite-sized testable items. But in the TFA model, specific testable objectives are of primary importance.
As I write, I am in the middle of a unit on the world wars with my history classes. Tennessee state standards for world history generally offer little guidance on what you should teach (this is not true of subjects like U.S. history, which have specific standards and final assessments). The standard my World War I lesson addressed requires students to “understand the impact of various global conflicts throughout history.” In order to find more standards-based clarity, TFA has counseled us to use more specific standards from different states, or to write our own.
An example of a daily objective I might teach is: