By Teach For America (Teach For America ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

May 13, 2016; Washington Post

The San Francisco school board has announced that it will not be accepting fifteen new Teach for America recruits for the 2016–17 school year, despite the fact that there are 500 openings in the district. According to board president Matt Haney, “Our goal as a district should be to get experienced, highly prepared, fully credentialed teachers with a track record of success into our high-needs, high-poverty schools.”

The fifteen Teach for America teachers would have been placed in some of the hardest-to-staff classrooms in schools today: special and bilingual education. The question of filling those slots with non-credentialed teachers is a troubling one to district officials. “For now,” said Haney, “I believe that we should press pause on our contract with TFA, as we consider how best to address our own challenges of getting the best, most-prepared teachers where they are most needed.”

Teach for America has been placing corps members in special education classrooms for years, and two years ago launched a special education initiative aimed at “creating a culture of high expectations and tailored learning.” At the time, the organization put the number of corps members working in inclusive and resource settings at more than ten percent. In 2013, according to Disability Scoop, Congress effectively gave the green light to rookie teachers working on their certification through alternative training programs like Teach for America by approving language (tucked into legislation ending the government shutdown) that would confer “highly qualified” status on those teachers.

More than 90 civil rights and education activists opposed the legislation, arguing that it would be poor and minority children who would suffer because they are most frequently assigned inexperienced teachers. In fact, according to a 2015 report prepared by the U.S. Department of Education in response to a congressional directive to study the issue, “high-poverty school districts had higher percentages of [highly qualified teachers] enrolled in alternative route programs (2.3 percent), on average, than districts with low poverty rates (1.0 percent).”

While San Francisco was opting out of accepting new TFA teachers, the West Virginia Board of Education announced its decision to bring the program to six counties in the state. According to Monica Beane, an official in the Office of Educator Effectiveness, the need for TFA stems from the state’s difficulties in recruiting teachers for certain disciplines, particularly in rural, low-income areas. “More than half of the nearly 600 vacancies were in special education,” she said.

According to many who work in the field, there is something alarming about the decision by West Virginia’s board of education—and indeed, the decision of any school district—to use Teach for America recruits to fill vacancies in special education and bilingual classrooms, particularly if they are serving as head teachers and not support faculty.

Julian Vasquez Heilig, Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at California State Sacramento, publishes the blog, Cloaking Inequality, which focuses on education policy and social justice. As he writes, “I am not an expert in Special Education, but what is clear is that the courts have protected [students with special needs] and required very specific accommodations such as an Individualized Education Program (IEP). I think it is now time to ask a very important question. Should untrained, uncertified Teach For America corps members be teaching Special Education? This should be a national debate.”

Eric Ruiz Bybee, a TFA alum, former public school teacher and now assistant professor of education at Brigham Young University, makes an argument for the focused pedagogy required in traditional education programs for students wishing to specialize in disciplines such as bilingual or special education. Citing the high degree of training typically found in certification programs around the country, he concludes that it’s time for TFA to “get serious” about preparing teachers before placing them in high-need classrooms:

Unsurprisingly, my liberal arts degree hadn’t provided the slightest idea how to meet the learning or behavioral needs of my bilingual special education students, and the TFA training only provided basics like lesson planning and classroom management. My inexperience, coupled with the impossible daily task of learning to teach multiple unfamiliar subjects literally “on the job,” made me feel demoralized and incompetent.

It wasn’t until he became a teacher educator himself that Dr. Ruiz Bybee fully realized how critical it is to acquire in-depth, specialized knowledge in teaching content area classes and complete coursework in things like language acquisition and learning theory before setting foot in a classroom. In Dr. Ruiz Bybee’s mind, high approval ratings from principals are not enough to justify TFA’s short training program: “Citing a demand from chronically understaffed and under-resourced schools seems disingenuous. Students in high-need schools need a sense of continuity, and an ongoing cycle of short-term TFA teachers creates a culture of high turnover in a profession where pedagogical content knowledge and deep community ties are important.”

As reported in the Washington Post, the school board in Durham, North Carolina, voted to end its relationship with TFA in 2014. The year before, the Pittsburgh public schools made the decision to not bring in new TFA members and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton vetoed a line item in a higher education bill that would have allocated $1.5 million to TFA over two years. As reported here recently, over the last three years, TFA has seen its applications decline, and a major reorganization in the organization’s national office was announced earlier this year.

West Virginia’s Monica Beale says that at least two counties in the state have their own Teach for America criteria and that one county—McDowell—will require more prerequisites than TFA traditionally requires. As pointed out in an editorial in The Journal, TFA’s typical training is “not enough,” which is why, in McDowell County at least, TFA teachers will serve in support roles only. As the editorial concludes, “merely placing ‘warm bodies’ in classrooms is no answer to the shortage of teachers in some counties.”—Patricia Schaefer