I Quit Teach for America

Olivia Blanchard, The Atlantic, September 23, 2013

I am sitting in a comfortable gold folding chair inside one of the many ballrooms at the Georgia International Convention Center. The atmosphere is festive, with a three-course dinner being served and children playing a big-band number. The kids are students at a KIPP academy in Atlanta, and they are serenading future teachers on the first night of a four-day-long series of workshops that will introduce us to the complicated language, rituals, and doctrines we will need to adopt as Teach for America “Corps Members.”

The phrase closing the achievement gap is the cornerstone of TFA’s general philosophy, public-relations messaging, and training sessions. As a member of the 2011 corps, I was told immediately and often that 1) the achievement gap is a pervasive example of inequality in America, and 2) it is our personal responsibility to close the achievement gap within our classrooms, which are microcosms of America’s educational inequality.

These are laudable goals. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, white fourth-graders performed better than their black peers on 2007 standardized mathematics exams in all 46 states where results were available. In 2004, there was a 23-point gap in mathematics scale scores between white and black 9-year-olds, with the gap growing to 26 points for 13-year-olds.

But between these two messages lies the unspoken logic that current, non-TFA teachers and schools are failing at the task of closing the achievement gap, through some combination of apathy or incompetence. Although TFA seminars and presentations never explicitly accuse educators of either, the implication is strong within the program’s very structure: recruit high-achieving college students, train them over the summer, and send them into America’s lowest-performing schools to make things right. The subtext is clear: Only you can fix what others have screwed up. It was an implication I noticed when an e-mail I received during Institute, the five-week training program, referring to “a system of students who have simply not been taught.” The e-mail explained, “That’s really what the achievement gap is—for all of the external factors that may or may not add challenges to our students’ lives—mostly it is that they really and truly have not been taught and are therefore years behind where they need to be.”

I later asked a TFA spokesperson if this e-mail reflects the organization’s official views on traditionally trained teachers. He denied that TFA believes “the shortcomings of public education” to be “the fault of teachers. If anything,” he added, “teachers are victims of more-structural problems: inequitable funding; inadequate systems of training and supporting teachers; the absence of strong school and district leadership.” Nonetheless, at the time, the dramatic indictment of America’s non-TFA teachers would stay with me as I headed into the scandal-ridden Atlanta Public Schools system.

In the weeks between accepting the offer to join TFA and the start of our training, I was told by e-mail that “as a 2011 corps member and leader, you have a deep personal and collective responsibility to ground everything you do in your belief that the educational inequality that persists along socioeconomic and racial lines is both our nation’s most fundamental injustice and a solvable problem. This mindset,” I was reminded, “is at the core of our Teach For America—Metro Atlanta Community.”

At the time, I appreciated TFA’s apparent confidence in me as a leader. I assumed that I would learn the concrete steps I needed to achieve this transformation during the training program. Instead I was immersed in a sea of jargon, buzzwords, and touchy-feely exercises. {snip}


Once the school year began, I found myself teaching in a 500-student K–5 school with two other corps members and three TFA alumni. The school’s other 30 teachers had gone through some version of a traditional teaching program, involving years of studying educational theory and practice, as well as extensive student teaching. As I got to know my new colleagues and some level of trust was established, it didn’t take long to discover that TFA’s five-week training model was a source of resentment for these teachers. Not only were we youngsters going into “rough” schools with the stated goal of changing what they had not been able to, but we had done this with only half a summer’s worth of preparation. I began to understand why my TFA status instantly communicated to other teachers that I found myself superior.

{snip} The truth was, the five-week training program had not prepared me adequately.

During my training, I taught a group of nine well-behaved third-graders who had failed the state reading test and hoped to make it to fourth grade. Working with three other corps members, which created a generous teacher-student ratio, I had ample time for one-on-one instruction.

That classroom training was completely unlike the situation I now faced in Atlanta: teaching math and science to two 20-person groups of rotating, difficult fifth-graders—fifth-graders so difficult that multiple substitute teachers would vow never to teach fifth grade at our school again.

I had few insights or resources to draw on when preteen boys decided recess would be the perfect opportunity to beat each other bloody, or when parents all but accused me of being racist during meetings. Or when a student told me that his habit of doing nothing during class stemmed from his (admittedly sound) logic that “I did the same thing last year and I passed.” {snip}


On its website, TFA makes a bold claim that “By the end of Institute, corps members have developed a foundation of knowledge, skills, and mindsets needed to be effective beginning teachers.” Training is supposed to include teaching “for an average of two hours each day … observed by experienced teachers,” “extensive lesson planning instruction,” and constant opportunities for feedback. Personally, I taught two 90-minute classes per week, a far cry from the 10 hours per week described in the publicity materials—and “experienced teachers” usually meant new TFA alumni with two years of classroom experience.


I am standing, arms crossed, back hunched, whispering with Ms. Jones, as we sort supplies our students will need for the Criterion Referenced Competency Test. In the last few free minutes before testing begins, Ms. Jones is sharing her candid, and often hilarious, views on first-year teaching. “It’s wrong!” she whispers passionately, her eyebrows shoot up far into her forehead. Ms. Jones is known as a no-nonsense veteran teacher, and I had found her quite intimidating before I realized she is incredibly kind. “It’s wrong to put teachers in the classroom with no experience, Ms. Blanchard. I went through a teaching program, and I taught in four different classrooms before I ever had these kids on my own.” Looking at Ms. Jones’ perfectly behaved, high-achieving third-graders and comparing them with my own unruly students, I can see her point. The intercom buzzes to announce a five-minute warning before testing will begin, and that reminds Ms. Jones of the labyrinthine set of test procedures to come. “Make sure they have their pencils, Ms. Blanchard, we can’t have any testing irregularities. You know we have to cover ourselves. Everyone’s watching this building, and I don’t know about you, but Ms. Jones is not fixing to be on Channel 2 tonight.”


I’d been at TFA training, about to head into this system, when the official report on the cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools was released. My immediate reaction was shock that so many teachers could be complicit in something so outrageously dishonest. Midway through the school year, though, I came to understand exactly how it had happened. APS has some of the best teachers in the country, but surviving in the district means covering yourself, and during standardized testing this means ensuring objective success. In a top-down, ruthless bureaucracy like APS, teachers are front-line foot soldiers, not educators encouraged to pursue their calling.

Atlanta Public Schools teachers spend countless hours teaching to exhaustion, spending their own money on classroom supplies, and buying basic necessities for their poorest students, only to be reminded constantly that their job performance will be judged according to test answers bubbled in by wobbly little fingers barely able to hold a pencil upright. {snip}

Teach for America cited the Atlanta scandal as a sad example of what is wrong with education’s status quo, one of the many reasons America’s schools need even more reform and innovation. But what occurred to me, as I worked my way, ill-prepared, through Atlanta Public Schools, was that the two systems are not as far apart as either might like to suggest. TFA is at least as enamored of numerical “data points” of success as APS is. TFA strongly encourages its teachers to base their classes’ “big goals” around standardized-test scores. Past and present corps members are asked to stand to thunderous applause if their students have achieved some objectively impressive measure of achievement, and everyone knows that the best way to work for and rise through TFA ranks is to have a great elevator pitch about how your students’ scores improved by X percent.


By the end of my time at TFA and Atlanta Public Schools, I came to feel that both organizations had a disconnect between their public ideals and their actual effectiveness. APS invests in beautiful new buildings and glossy public-relations messaging, only to pressure its teachers into pedagogical conformity that often prevents them from reaching the district’s most remedial students. Likewise, TFA promotes a public image of eager high achievers dedicated to one mission, reaching “Big Goals” that pull students out of the achievement gap, where non-TFA teachers have let them fall. But in my experience, many if not most corps members are confused about their purpose, uncertain of their skills, and struggling to learn the basics.


I have no reason to doubt studies showing that TFA teachers are more effective—after all, they are recruited from a pool of the country’s hardest-working college students, and good teaching is nothing if not hard work. But Teach for America aspires to close the achievement gap by training teachers that are significantly better than educators already in the system. Can simply being “at least as effective as other teachers” really be cited as success?

I am sitting in a black, leather office chair in my new Washington, D.C., office. I have just been hired at a private company whose vision statement says nothing about closing the achievement gap, and the time has come to send TFA an e-mail announcing that I am leaving the program. I have completed only one year of my two-year commitment, knowing full well that this kind of mission-shirking is seen as a very serious, selfish betrayal within TFA. However, the reality is that my employer has been Atlanta Public Schools, my contract with the district was only for one year, and most of my teaching experiences have been defined by the messy struggles of Atlanta Public Schools, not the comfortable mantras of TFA. I struggle to summon the guilt I know I am supposed to be feeling. My large-screen computer monitor rests sturdily in front of me, and the cursor on an empty Word document blinks.What can I say to them?, I wonder. I steel myself against the possibility of criticism, against accusations of apathy, inability, or lack of leadership.

When I click Gmail’s Send button, though, I am flooded with relief rather than dread. Because the truth is, by finally showing I don’t believe that American education can be saved by youthful enthusiasm, I feel more like a leader than I ever did inside the corps.

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