Since 1990, America has put many school children, usually poor, in classrooms with Teach for America Corps Members (CMs) who get five weeks of training. They’ve also placed novices in special education classrooms. Many corporations and individuals donate to this group, undermining professional teachers who commit to teaching as their choice of a career.
There’s no evidence that TFA CMs teach better than professional teachers, but today I focus on how TFA has failed k-12 students in special education.
The ultimate goal for TFA is not to create a teaching service to fill the need for a teaching shortage, as advertised. Their objective is to privatize public education and end the teaching profession.
TFA CMs also, despite their insufficient pedagogical and experiential background, rise to powerful administrative positions in local, state, and federal general and special education oversight programs. See below.
TFA alums can be found in a gazillion non-profits set up to dismantle public schools. Here is one, a description of Bellwether.
It’s especially troubling to examine the harm they do when it comes to instruction and working with students with disabilities in the classroom.
In 2013, under Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Teach for America was given “highly qualified status” in a Congressional loophole during a budget/shutdown deal. This 2013 status change enabled any college graduate no matter their degree, to teach special education.
I wonder what kind of strange policy changes involving education reform will take place as a result of our current shut down!
TFA CMs Fail in the Classroom!
In Matthew A. M. Thomas’s 2018 study “‘Good Intentions Can Only Get You So Far’: Critical Reflections From Teach For America Corps Members Placed in Special Education,” we learn that TFA CMs receive minimal preparation to work with students with a variety of disabilities.
They lack the groundwork of a professional teacher in the following areas:
- Inclusive Pedagogy. They don’t learn how to help students adjust in general classrooms
- Diagnostic Tools. They don’t understand the kinds of diagnostic assessment to pinpoint academic and social difficulties.
- Instructional Strategies. They aren’t sure how to teach students with disabilities.
- Self-Contained Classrooms. They can’t manage a classroom with students who have disabilities.
- Upholding Federal and State Requirements. They know little about IDEA and its mandates.
- Writing IEPs. They don’t understand the logistics of how to plan with staff, parents, and students, to carry out objectives, and evaluate outcomes.
- Legal and Liability Issues. They lack a basic understanding concerning what is and is not acceptable while working with students.
- Assisting With Critical Transitions. Helping students with disabilities make positive transitions from school to college or career, for example, is not something TFA do well.
TFA training is mysterious, but it seems to center around instructional texts and “boot camp” instruction that takes place within five weeks.
CMs are cultishly inducted into the core. They work with other TFA CMs, and practice on students in summer school. They write lesson plans and make teaching materials while they learn about TFA and its mission.
Thomas found that many TFA CMs don’t want a special education placement, but the TFA organization places them in those spots anyway, especially if they check “interested” on the application form. Compare that to well-prepared, career teachers who choose teaching and special education as a vocation, a calling that is a personal challenge and commitment.
TFA and Special Education in Charter Schools
Another concern is TFA CMs teaching in charter schools.
Parents, dissatisfied with public school services, or lack of services due to budget cuts, may be conned into believing choice and charter schools are better. But charter schools often use TFA CMs to teach special education. Although many charter schools often counsel students with disabilities out, or don’t accept them into the school.
In “Charters & Special Education — Truth For America about Teach For America,” a podcast by Julian Vasquez Heilig and T. Jameson Brewer, a former TFA CM and an education professor discuss the problems with TFA CMs teaching special education.
TFA Individuals Who Fail Students When it Comes to Special Education Leadership
TFA CMs also move up the ladder into leadership positions at the local, state, and federal departments of education where they change how schools work. Here are two examples.
TFA alum Penny Schwinn became known in Texas for trying to give a special education no-bid contract to another TFA alum, Richard Nyankori’s (see Mercedes Schneider’s Deutsch29, SPEDx: State SPED Data in the Hands of a Former TFAer?), for-profit data mining company known as SPEDx. I could no longer find SPEDx online. Fortunately, parents caught it and the plan was foiled, despite Texans losing $2.2 million of the $4.4 million that was supposed to go to the company. Schwinn is also a graduate of The Broad Academy.
Schwinn was hired by Mike Morath, the commissioner of education for the Texas Education Agency. Eyes are on Texas for the harmful privatization reforms. Morath is a software developer and investor. It is well-known that he is transforming the TEA with TFA alums.
Texas is seen as a Lonestar Turnaround State by TFA.
The other TFA alum I’d like to highlight is Louisiana’s John White who is state superintendent. White likes to brag about the success of New Orleans’ controversial charter schools. But that city has failed its special education students for years.
Until the American public becomes aware of how public education has been infiltrated by this group, we will continue to see Teach for America badly influence how students learn, and that is especially unsettling when it concerns our most vulnerable students.
Matthew A. M. Thomas. “‘Good Intentions Can Only Get You So Far’: Critical Reflections From Teach For America Corps Members Placed in Special Education.” Education and Urban Society 50(5). 2018. 435-460.
Dr. Jenny Bennett DED says
It’s not just these programs that are doing a disservice to special education students.
The continuum of services has given way to one size fits all. Practically all special education students are being placed in the general education classroom.
General education classes with half the class special education students does not provide the best for either student category.
General education teachers are frustrated and quitting in high numbers. Special education teachers can’t do their best for special education students with so many in the room with so many disabilities. Most students considered ID need more individual attention. They are not getting it they are being left behind with common core practices.
Administers turn a blind eye to IDEA and take the preference for the General education classroom to mean one size fits all. They are motivated by money. A special education student in the general classroom means more funds.
Nancy Bailey says
Great points, Jenny. Thank you for mentioning the difficulties with inclusion. I think smaller class sizes would help. But you’re right about the difficulties it presents.
Agree! My issue is LRE, too, rarely where the most progress will be seen.
It IS frustrating that schools no longer offer a continuum of services. Texas is also setting the bar higher for state testing of special education students, thereby setting them up for failure.
Arlene Sealey says
The school boards are motivated by savings. If they put all the students in general education, they would save money by not having to pay a teacher in a contained class, there is no need to have general learning disability classes, and all the former divisions that is associated with segregation.
Any education system based on the bottom line does not care about efficacy. After working as an Education Assistant for six years, I would conclude that in a lot of cases the general education classroom is a decanting centre for SEN students, and those who support it do not really care about SEN students learning to change their brains. Some students need instructions that are entirely different from what is offered to general students. The needs of SEN students vary greatly, and some may be able with accommodations and modifications to fit into the general education classroom, but some need to be segregated; not only because of their cognitive deficits, but because it is the only way they will have a chance at learning. In many instances the children are sensitive to noise, and when those susurrous sounds from collaborative learning begin, they become overwhelmed, and suffer meltdowns.
After my experiences with SEN education, what I expected to see-a plan aimed at cognitive improvements, and the acknowledgement that these students may need repetitive relentless teaching never happened. And all of the classes in which I have worked are manned by certified teachers. I shudder to think that worse may be done by Teach for America trainees.
Nancy Bailey says
I basically agree with you, Arlene. But you seem to be a little tough on certified teachers, despite the argument that they have students with disabilities in their classes who need something different. But thanks for sharing. Good points!
James Katakowski says
We need one form of education that is publicly supported and that would be public education. Public schools are American. We do not need all these add ons especially charter or any form of privatization that encourages TFA.. Public schools have always been totally transparent, I am so tired of religious schools which already have a tax breaks. Most states have less students enrolling but are costing taxpayers in states more in taxes due to lack of funding to public. These add-on gimmicks like teach for America do not due justice to a once proud profession which has been destroyed mostly by GOP. What ever happened to a free appropriate public education? We need to get education back before its destruction.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks, James. I agree.
Sue Bursztynski says
Goodness! I hadn’t realised how bad this was in your country. Here, it’s just a money saver. They hire a bunch of graduates (with high marks to give them credibility) and give them that boot camp training, then send them to schools like the one where I worked for twenty years. Most of them drop out after a short time, but the damage has been done, and real teachers have missed out, and so have students. But still nowhere near as bad as your system!
I am a TFA Alumni who is still teaching. My region was small, there were 10 of us placed in 7 schools. So each school had 0-2 TFA members. Going into TFA, all but two of us had experience in education, three of the members had their degrees in education and their licenses before joining TFA. My degree was in math, but I also was in my fourth year of working as a long term special education guest teacher. My college didn’t have an education program, so by the time I realized I wanted to teach in my sophomore year it would have been too costly to transfer, so I joined TFA.
I would also like to point out that even with TFA members, our district was still about 25 teachers short. Meaning that there weren’t enough teachers to fill those poisitions even with TFA, so no jobs were being takes from full time members. Without TFA, the only difference would have been that there were 35 empty positions instead of 25. All empty slots are treated by doubling class size or filling positions with substitutes who have no training and a minimum requirement of 20 college credits to sub (2 years of college, no degree required). Substitutes also are not allowed to work in a particular classroom more than 90 days, so every 90 days the “teacher” would switch, if the guest teacher didn’t quit before then.
Special education is very difficult and nationally lacks funding. The care and attention students deserve simply isn’t possible under our current education system. What results is the inability for any teacher to provide the attention each individual student deserves. The entire system requires reform, so although some of TFA’s approaches haven’t been as successful as they hoped, I can guarantee the ultimate goal of TFA is to try and help the students to the best of our abilities and try and help reform a shattered system. The problem is much greater than one organization.
Nancy Bailey says
Hi Hannah, I appreciate this comment because you bring up some points that are important.
I notice at the end you say “the entire system needs reform.” That’s the real message of TFA and has been since 1990 when it started.
I know that there are many college graduates that go into TFA who are well-meaning, and some stay and continue to be teachers. You sound dedicated, like you wanted to be a teacher and worked around your inability to get college instruction.
You are also correct that special education teachers are hard to find. I agree. There’s been a shortage for a long time. But there’s been no serious money poured into getting real teachers into the classroom.
Look at the link in my post of corporate donors for TFA. Why didn’t they put their money into college programs to recruit real teachers?
Why didn’t your college have a special education program?
You dismiss many other factors. A large majority of TFA alum go into nonprofits that are no friends to teachers or public schools. Some, like Schwinn and White, who I mention, go on to reform schools-towards privatization. Many see them as part of the “shattering” of teaching.
TFA has often been adversarial. They have been critical of those teachers who worked through the traditional program. They have been especially critical of veteran teachers.
Yet, still, and despite what you say, TFA CMs do not get the necessary preparation. Of course, there will be some who do more to stay and become credentialed.
I wish you well teaching and I’m glad you stayed and committed to it. Very best.
Roy Turrentine says
My only contact with TFA was when now out-going governor, Bill Haslam, chose Kevin Huffman as state education commissioner of Tennessee. That worked out just peachy. Clueless Huffman soon went elsewhere, replaced by another testing proponent who changed the name of the common core, which had become toxic politically. It’s replacement, barely changed at all, but renamed is still around, even though Huffman is gone.
Nancy Bailey says
How did I leave out Kevin Huffman? He is still around. pushing school privatization. https://www.newamerica.org/our-people/kevin-huffman/ Thank you, Roy!
Roy Turrentine says
And now! Direct from TFA and Texas! Wearing the voucher trunks! Penny Schwinn, who told the radio she is for excellence in all public education. No intelligent life here.
Nancy Bailey says
I think “all public education” to her is all charter, which aren’t public at all! Thanks, Roy!
Ironically, with the mess that was created by TFA alumni Deputy Commissioner in Special Education with a suspicious contract with another TFA alum, the fiasco with TEA and the 8.5 percent cap which is still embroiled and under investigation, the Deputy Commissioner tasked with correcting the situation has just been named the New Commissioner of Education for Tennessee with a stated goal to roll out a voucher program.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Barbara. I think a lot of Tennesseans are stunned. Students deserve better. I think Penny is qualified to be a teacher’s aide. But I don’t think that’s what the Gov. is concerned about. Watch for vouchers, more data collection, and the elimination of special ed. services. Of course, I hope I am wrong.