Teach For America Falls Short in Special Education

By Levi B Cavener

“We all know that we aren’t yet providing a world-class education for every child with a disability. And we won’t rest until we do that,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2010 while celebrating the anniversary of the Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA).

Levi B CavenerIndeed, there is good reason for Duncan to acknowledge that despite achieving such incredible victories for special education students our nation still has many hurdles to overcome with educating students with special needs.  This is particularly true when ensuring that a “highly qualified” educator — not just on paper, but in practice — is leading the head of every special education classroom; such is my concern with an organization inaptly named, Teach For America (TFA).  

At a December 10, 2013, Vallivue School Board meeting I listened to Nicole Brisbane, Idaho’s TFA point person, pitch her product.  (The Albertson Foundation, a heavy donor to the district, had called them to see if they would meet with Ms. Brisbane.)  During the presentation board members inquired about TFA’s ability to provide staffing for “hard-to-fill” positions, particularly special education.  Brisbane was clear: TFA can provide “highly qualified” special education instructors.  

In a recent political loophole, Congress approved Teach For America’s “highly qualified” status, an earmark that was slid last second into the October 16  budget/shutdown deal. TFA’s “highly qualified” status means anyone with a college degree, in any subject area, can become a special education instructor.

In other words, a graduate in Government can teach P.E., an Art major can teach Science, or a person with a major in Business can teach special education. TFA instructors arrive at a school with little to no experience in teaching methods, educational psychology or a substantive pre-service teaching experience.  TFA instructors are often “helicoptered in” to more challenging teaching situations and expected to teach classroom after classroom filled with diverse learners.

I, for one, am reassured.  

 It’s not like a special educator needs any specialized training to work with students on the autism spectrum, kiddos with emotional disturbances, or adolescents with language impairments, right?  It’s reasonable to assume that a TFA employee with a degree in Gender Studies is completely suited to the task of instructing our most vulnerable students in reading strategies.  Ditto, written composition.  I can’t foresee any problems with such an instructor explaining multi-step equations to a student with a learning disability, let alone a classroom of students with varied disabilities.  Surely this instructor is well versed in implementing Common Core State Standards.

There shouldn’t be any problems writing Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), conducting eligibility assessments, working with general education teachers to accommodate assignments, or any other case management responsibilities without significant mentoring, right?  Clearly this individual has studied special education case law, particularly from the Ninth Circuit.  It’s not like school districts ever go to court.  No, I can’t foresee any legal issues or lawsuits here.

But, hey!  No worries.  Brisbane explained that TFA-ers go through “five weeks of intensive training” before stepping foot inside a classroom.  At the end of five weeks, Blamo!  A “highly qualified” special education teacher emerges with the tools and strategies to work with our most challenging students?

 No.  TFA is a step toward the de-professionalization of the teaching profession.  We can do better.  As Mr. Duncan stated in 2010, every child with a disability deserves a world-class education.  Sorry, but Teach For America does not fulfill this mandate, especially for Idaho’s special education students.

Let your school board know Teach For America is wrong for your district, wrong for your children, wrong for our students, and wrong for Idaho.

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