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Teach for America is one of the top three employers of recent Penn graduates. But how much good are corps members really doing?

Teaching for two years in an underfunded school, TFA instructors face challenges that some say cannot — and should not — be handled by non-certified educators, according to panelists at Tuesday night’s Teach for America Truth Tour. The nationwide tour’s stop at Penn was co-hosted by the Penn Education Society and the United Students Against Sweatshops national student labor organization.

2011 TFA Chicago corps member Chad Sommer and community engagement coordinator for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Evette Jones said that TFA’s methods may be hurting America’s education system. TFA attempts “to eliminate the educational inequalities that currently exist along our nation’s racial and economic divides,” according to their website. However, according to the event’s panelists, there are inherent problems with TFA’s system that undermine their efforts.

“So many recent undergrads with no job experience, no work history, no track record of success besides their academic careers are getting hired after five-minute interviews,” Sommer said. “TFA actually organizes interviews like speed-dating ... It was like American Idol. Somebody would come out into the room like ‘Woohoo, I got a job offer!’ literally after a five-minute speed-dating session.”

Schools can exploit TFA for cheap labor, said Sommer. TFA requires a member to accept their first teaching offer after interviewing with school principals. These members are often in debt from recent education loans and don’t want to risk expulsion from the program by rejecting their first offer.

Knowing that TFA members are under pressure to accept an offer, the school principals have no incentive to offer corps members any training or salary beyond what Teach for America offers them, Sommer said.

“Forty-nine Chicago district schools closed down. So now ... you have a teacher who maybe is an experienced teacher with five to six years of experience making a decent middle-class living of $60,000 to $70,000 a year who has to compete for a job being offered to a corps member for $32,000,” Sommer said. “That’s the mechanism that undermines the labor market in big cities like Chicago.”

Many of the schools also lack adequate programs to support the endeavors of TFA teachers, Sommer said. Their low salary in combination with a lack of material resources, such as curriculums, libraries and classroom supplies, places the burden on the teachers to adequately supply their students.

Furthermore, some charter schools factor spots for TFA members into their business model, which encourages the installment of temporary teachers in place of those more entrenched in the education system. TFA terms are two years in length.

Sommer learned from an anonymous TFA alum that the principal at his charter school welcomed him by saying, “I have you for two years. I am going to work you to death. And then someone else will come and replace you.”

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