Third grader Enrique (not his real name) eagerly describes his Teach for America teacher like this: “He let us borrow bigger books.” “I am learning English now.” “My goal is to be at fourth grade in reading by the end of the year.”
Teach For America (TFA) is a nationally-recognized training program that provides highly motivated, talented teachers to schools nationwide, especially in low-income inner city communities. TFA graduates come from highly respected colleges, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and the University of Washington. Studies show their students typically make more progress in reading and math than students of other teachers, including veteran and certified instructors.
TFA educators set high goals for their students: a clear focus on math and science, 40 minutes of reading every night, and a desire to graduate and go on to college. In Seattle and other cities TFA is helping children raise their sights and reach for the stars.
Not everyone is happy, however. The teachers’ union sees opening schools to TFA graduates as a threat to their power within the system. Union executives did not want TFA in Seattle in the first place, and this year they did everything they could to drive these young instructors out of local classrooms.
This time they failed. The Seattle School Board, by a one-vote margin, denied the union’s request to impose a ban on TFA teachers and allowed these instructors to continue educating Seattle school children.
How did we get to this point? How did a school board in a caring community come so close to ousting some of the best-qualified teachers in the country? As recently as October 2010 the Board had invited TFA to provide trained teachers for some of the most needy schools. In response, six young TFA teachers began working in Seattle classrooms, impressing administrators and parents with their energy, ability and professionalism. Though demanding, they are popular with students, and set high expectations for what they believe kids can achieve.
Then the School Board changed. In the November election, the teachers’ union backed two candidates, Marty McLaren and Sharon Peaslee, giving financial support to their political campaigns. These candidates won, and in what looks like pay back, spearheaded the union drive to force TFA from Seattle schools.
There’s more. The Seattle Times reports union-inspired activists harassed TFA teachers at Aki Kurose Middle School and South Shore K-8, hoping to get them to quit. Their personal information was posted online. One teacher’s home was burglarized.
The union may be stirred up about TFA in Seattle, but the program is considered routine in other cities. Since 1990, nearly 33,000 TFA-trained instructors have taught more than three million students. Today, 9,000 of them educate over 600,000 students in 32 states and the District of Columbia.
The program is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Ironically, if the ban had been imposed, the Seattle-based charity would have found it could fund TFA educators in Philadelphia or Boston, but not at John Hay Elementary just up the street from the Foundation’s offices.
So what have we learned? This painful episode shows that, in the union’s failed effort to ban Teach for America, it was not the adults who were put at risk, it was the students. The real harm from this reactionary and mean-spirited campaign fell on kids like Enrique, all because some grown-ups think protecting their privileged status within the system is more important than helping children learn.
Liv Finne is the education director at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Washington state. For more information, visit washingtonpolicy.org.