Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Teach for America, Like the Peace Corps, is a Worthwhile Program of Bourgeois Missionary Work

Teach for America is sometimes criticized because the young people who do it are well-meaning amateurs who do not stick with teaching.  They come from good schools, but were not trained in education.  There is a high rate of leaving teaching after a few years.

I have taken comfort from the fact that the same is true of the Peace Corps.  Indeed, we always expected that Peace Corps volunteers would return to the US after their tour and go into some other field.  The idea was that they would learn more about some other place in the world, which would infuse their future work in any field.

Both Teach for America and the Peace Corps are, in other words, missionary programs.  I think this is a good thing.  I am for bourgeois missionaries to impoverished schools and impoverished countries. I am also for religious missionaries spreading the faith, whether they are there for the long term or not.

Another gripe about Teach for America is that amateur short-time teachers are bad for their students, even if the teachers get a great deal out of the experience. There is something to this. I don't think the amateur issue is that big a deal, but the short time is a problem. However, many education majors also leave the profession quickly, too.  Teaching in poor schools is a hard job, and a hard adjustment.

I have rarely heard people complain that the Peace Corps is bad because sending amateur short-timers hurts the people they were meant to help.  I think one of the reasons we rarely hear this gripe is because if the Peace Corps volunteers didn't go, no one would.  Someone helping for a short time is better than no one helping at all.

In America's poor schools, by contrast, someone would get hired to teach each year.

Still, I think that investing in getting liberally educated young people from the best schools - most of whom have no real experience of poverty - to wrestle seriously with the realities of poor life while trying to help, is worth the investment.  What I would add would be a stronger supportive community to help them weather the first hard years of teaching, so more of them stay.  A model for this kind of support is provided by our Teach Kentucky program.

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