Messiah College Graduate Defends Teach for America

Some of you may remember my post last week about Teach for America. (Those interested in the work of Teach for America may also want to read my recent post on an article in The Atlantic about what makes a good teacher). I was responding to a New York Times article based upon a study out of Stanford University that found that those who graduated from the Teach for America program were not as civic-minded as those who applied and did not get accepted or those who dropped out of the program.

One of the several private responses I received to that post came Brittany Brendsel, a 2008 Messiah College graduate who is currently in her second year of teaching 3rd grade with Teach for America on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota (think Wounded Knee Massacre). (I have never taught Brittany or met Brittany, but she did take an introductory psychology course from my wife).

Brittany writes to defend the work of Teach for America and, frankly, does a pretty good job doing it. She is clearly one of those Messiah College students I referenced in my earlier post. With her permission, I have posted an edited version of her comments below.

Dear Professor Fea

I am a 2008 Messiah grad and a 2nd year corps member with Teach for America. I teach 3rd grade on Pine Ridge in South Dakota.

There has been a lot of buzz within TFA circles regarding the Times article you are referring to. I was initially very disappointed about the findings, but thanks to my excellent training in sociology from Messiah I decided to do a little research. It soon became apparent that the Times article was misleading at best.

For instance, the article states the following “In areas like voting, charitable giving and civic engagement, graduates of the program lag behind those who were accepted but declined and those who dropped out before completing their two years.” Though this may true, the article does not tell you just how minor the differences are.

For example, in the study’s measurement of civic engagement 92 percent of the non-TFA sample voted in the last presidential election while 89 percent of TFA completers did. Not only can this minuscule gap be attributed to a wide variety of unique factors that solely impact TFA corps members, but the study fails to note that an 89 percent participation rate is still about double the national average for our age cohort. Similarly, there is less than a half of a percentage point difference between the charitable giving levels of TFA alumni and TFA dropouts. Though the figures in this study may have been statistically relevant, I would argue that they have little practical relevance.

As for this assertion: “the findings indicate that the program neither achieves an earlier organizational goal of ‘making citizens’ nor produces people who, in great numbers, take their civic commitments beyond the field of education’ I really can only shake my head in wonder. Though I would agree that TFA does far more to harness the energies of civic minded people than it does to actually create them, I find it more than a little disappointing that someone would imply that TFA corps members somehow fall short in fulfilling their civic duties.

The article concedes that TFA corps members are “far more active than their peer group.” Despite this begrudging admission, the author chose to spin the data causing readers who are not familiar with TFA to doubt the effectiveness of the program and the character of its members.

Statements such as this: “a new study has found that their dedication to improving society at large does not necessarily extend beyond their Teach for America service” are blatantly false. The study revealed no such thing. TFA corps members outscored the other participants on 62% of the measured indicators. Furthermore, a different Harvard study found that 60.5 percent of TFA teachers polled voluntarily remained in the teaching profession beyond the required number of years of service. If this does not demonstrate a commitment to improving society at large, I simply do not know what qualifies as such.

Five days a week I step into a classroom knowing that I am literally fighting for the very future of my children. These are not quaint little rural Pennsylvanian schools. I have students who have used drugs, alcohol and racial slurs and I have had to curb gang activity, abuse and suicidal talk—in the 3rd grade. I teach in the 2nd poorest county in the nation, in a place where over 90% of the population is unemployed. I, and thousands others like me, show up each day because we believe that these children deserve access to an excellent education, just like their white, upper-class counterparts.

Are there selfish corps members who joined Teach for America merely for the benefit of an impressive line on their resume? Of course. But let me assure you, every single corps member regardless of their motives, pay dearly for that right.

And so, as a Messiah College alum whose passion for social justice was encouraged and challenged by incredible professors–including your wife–I hope I have offered you a bit more peace of mind when writing letters of recommendation for students applying to Teach for America.

In Christ,

Brittany Brendsel

What Makes a Great Teacher?

If you are a teacher you need to read Amanda Shipley’s essay in the recent issue of The Atlantic.

What makes a great teacher? Shipley suggests that “we have never identified excellent teachers in any reliable, objective way. Instead, we tend to ascribe their gifts to some mystical quality that we can recognize and revere—but not replicate. The great teacher serves as a hero but never, ironically, as a lesson.”

Until now, that is.

Shipley was given access to an extensive study done by Teach for America on the practices that go into “great teaching,” especially in underprivileged areas. According to this study,

Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

Sounds like some good advice for college professors as well.