Student success is tied to teacher expertise, yet TFA only trains its members for five weeks before placing them in schools. One lawmaker says these programs need to be banned from classrooms if California wants to close its education gap.
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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Kim Brown: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Kim Brown. America is facing a nationwide teacher shortage with the expected shortfall to reach 200,000 by the year 2025.
Now organizations like Teach for America claim to have a solution. They take recent college graduates, offer them a brief training, then dispatches them to some of the most challenged school systems. However, are children truly thriving under the instruction of novices? One assembly person in California says that kids are being failed as a result. And today we’re joined with Cristina Garcia, she represents the community of Bell Gardens in Los Angeles County. Twice now she has introduced bills in the state legislature to effectively ban Teach from America from California schools, unsuccessful both times. However, she remains undeterred and she’s here today to tell us why she’s not backing down. Assembly Woman Garcia, thank you so much for being here.
Cristina Garcia: Thank you for having me.
Kim Brown: Well, before we jump into our conversation, I have to ask, how are you and your constituents fairing amidst a shelter in place order in California?
Cristina Garcia: You know, I represent half a million working class constituents, there’s a lot of anxiety about jobs, lack of jobs, unemployment insurance out there right now. So we all want to do what’s best to protect ourselves, our families, and our community.
We’re a pretty tight knit community, but there’s been a lot of stress since I think most of us are hunkering down. The streets are pretty quiet around my community, but we have a lot of constituent calls coming in with a lot of anxiety. A lot of need for resources.
Kim Brown: Absolutely. Well, we certainly have our thoughts with really everybody around the world during this challenging time, during the pandemic. But to get into our conversation about Teach for America, not specifically about that, but why you think organizations like Teach for America aren’t good for California students?
So let’s talk about your bill. AB-221 says that school systems in California, which receive federal funding should not be offering contracts to organizations like Teach for America. And I believe an amended version of the bill went on to say that for school systems for whom 40% of the students come from low income communities, those teachers from organizations like TFA should be outright banned unless they offer a commitment of five years or more. Can you explain your bill to us please?
Cristina Garcia: Yes, definitely. I want to start off by reminding folks. I was a math classroom teacher for 13 years in low income schools. I was one of those students also and I represent a district where every single one of my schools is title one or low income. We know research tells us that an experienced teacher is the best ways to close the educational gap. My first hand experience tells me that as well. I went in with little experience and I over the years got better for my job.
We also know that these students have a lot of other barriers that we need to help them overcome. So it doesn’t make sense to me that we’re going to send our least experience, our least trained teachers into our most vulnerable classrooms. If we really want to close our educational gap, we need to stop this false solution to our teacher shortages out there. We need to actually start recruiting teachers that are qualified, paying them adequately, and having the resources to help them be successful.
Kim Brown: So your bill passed the educational committee, but you pulled it from the floor for a full vote. Why was that?
Cristina Garcia: Well, we had a strong lobby from a lot of billionaires out there who I think are comfortable with the idea of privatizing education, or experimenting on our poor black and brown students. Against my voice and the voice of other former Teach for America teachers who also talk about how this is such a bad experience for them and the students that they taught.
So at the end of the day, my colleagues didn’t have the courage to stand up and do what was right, we didn’t have the votes, and so I decided that we had to take a pause and re-strategize and figure out how we were going to elevate the voice for these students who don’t have a paid lobby out there.
Kim Brown: Some of your colleagues express trepidation for supporting this bill because they said there was not enough data to support your claim. Do you have proof that groups, and I keep saying TFA, it’s not just TFA, but TFA is the main one, probably one of the larger ones. What data supports what you say that these first-time instructors are actually failing children more than they are helping them?
Cristina Garcia: We don’t have specific data. Unfortunately here in California, each school district tracks however they want to track and a lot of times they’re not tracking any of this information. A lot of it has been anecdotal, but we do have repeated national surveys and research that shows us that the best way to close the educational gap is having a qualified teacher.
So this year we have a new bill that is out there trying to track the data. We’re tracking data about where are these teachers being in placed, what kind of training do they have, are they in credential programs, how long are they staying at these sites, and how are their students performing compared to the rest of the students at the school site?
So we are confident that when the data comes back, we will have the same results that we expect. That these students are not performing, that these teachers are leaving after three years and we continue to perpetuate the cycle of having inexperienced teachers in a classroom and a constant turnover. That just creates a lot of instability for these school sites.
Kim Brown: Amidst a teacher shortage, is it wise for school systems to be turning down help, or is it more of the case all money ain’t good money?
Cristina Garcia: All money ain’t good money I would say definitely is the case here. I think if you’re really serious about closing the gap that we have out there, the achievement gap with our students, our colors, we can’t keep accepting these false solutions. We do have a clear teacher shortage, but the solution is not to put people in there who only have 18 hours of training, but to recruit individuals who have the training, who have the expertise to help the student cells, and then to give them the support they need in the classroom. So I just think that these are false solutions that allow us to ignore what we really need to do, and those tough choices that need to be made.
Kim Brown: Last school year, there were roughly 700 Teach for America educators dispatched throughout California, in the Bay area, in San Diego, and Los Angeles in the Central Coast Valley. But from what I’m able to discern is that we’re not seeing a lot of them being put in higher income school districts. They’re not a lot of Teach for America educators being put in Calabasas for example. Is this an income inequality thing where students who are low income are receiving the least trained people for their primary education, whereas higher income communities are not dealing with that?
Cristina Garcia: Definitely I feel this false lead doesn’t just have income inequality, but it has racism in it. These teachers are only placed on low income schools, in our most vulnerable schools. In California those are schools of color, those are schools of immigrants, those are low income communities.
So our most vulnerable students are getting our least qualified teachers. Just logically, this doesn’t make any sense, do we really valued these students? Or are we comfortable with treating two classes of students out of here, the haves and the have nots?
So I’ve asked that question as these programs are so great, if these teachers are so great, why are they not in our middle and upper class communities? Why are they only good enough for my students from my community? I think right now we are all dealing with this pandemic, a lot of us are hunkered though at home, parents are struggling with homeschooling. I’m seeing all kinds of names out there, all kinds of videos asking for help. They’re just struggling, they’re seeing how hard it is to teach one or two children.
Now imagine teaching 30 of them at once, or 40 of them at once. How do they really expect that a 22-year-old with only 18 hours of training somehow is going to be able to manage a classroom with any group of students? Much less students with such a unique needs in these communities. So for me these policies are both about economic injustice but also about racism at the same time.
People don’t want to have those uncomfortable conversations. But I think if we are really going to close the educational gaps, we need to call it what it is and when you start dealing with this differently.
Kim Brown: I think a lot of parents are understanding the value of teachers, especially as school systems are closed around the country.
Lastly Assembly Woman Garcia, I wanted to ask because you said that you are a former teacher yourself and in April of 2019 you pinned an op-ed in, I believe it was the San Diego Union Tribune, where you talked about your own shortcomings as a new teacher and how some of the students that you instructed early on in your teaching career were not best served just because of inexperience.
As you mentioned earlier, we know that student success is directly tied to teacher preparedness and teacher expertise. What can you share with us about your own experiences as a teacher, and how the difference between having someone who is educated specifically for instruction versus someone who may have had a bachelor’s degree in a completely other field and was only offered a short amount of training? What can we talk about in experiences as it relates to this profession?
Cristina Garcia: Yeah, let me be clear. You’re walking… I was probably, if my college would have allowed Teach for America, I might have applied and I was their prime candidate. I was a young woman of color, I was a good student, I loved the idea of being of service and helping our most vulnerable communities. I had a lot of empathy, culturally I understood these communities, but I was not qualified. I walked in with limited training, not through Teach for America, but through an emergency credential program and I didn’t know how to do discipline. I didn’t know how to think about the different ways students thought, we’re thinking about and learning about math. I learned about it one way, the way that was traditionally taught and it worked for me, but clearly it doesn’t work for most students out there. So I didn’t know about pedagogy, I didn’t know about, listen honey, I was figuring that out every day and every day you feel like a failure.
So I think a lot of well-intentioned, young individuals go into the school and maybe think they want to be in it, but leave. Because at some point you get tired of feeling like a failure regularly. I got lucky that I got some great mentors along the way. I got enrolled in a credential program and quickly was able to take charge of at least having basic discipline so I could deliver my lessons.
But I think it took me about a good solid seven years to get to the point that I thought I was a really good teacher. I think as I left teaching to join the assembly, I would say I was a pretty great teacher. But I was constantly working at my craft, constantly working on how to help students get through their math anxiety out there. Even the concept of math anxiety and why students have it, that’s something that I didn’t know about until I was in the classroom and I was trying to figure out why are these students still afraid of anything I’m talking about?
Kim Brown: Lastly, Assembly Woman, I know I said lastly for the last question, but do you plan on re-introducing your bill again in the future?
Cristina Garcia: I do. I am committed to this. I am committed to being a voice for these students, both because I was that student, I was that teacher, and I now represent a community of low income students. I want to make sure that my experience in the classroom brings some policy change in the years that have left over the legislature. So I’m committed to work on this on the long haul and continue to be a voice and continue to elevate issue, and I hope more of my peers join me in this fight.
Kim Brown: All right, we’re going to leave it right there. We’ve been speaking with Assembly Woman Christina Garcia. She represents the community of Bell Gardens in Los Angeles County. She intends to reintroduce her bill that would effectively ban organizations like Teach for America, which puts inexperienced teachers, educators in front of the most challenged students who come from low income communities. Assembly Woman, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.
Cristina Garcia: Thank you. I appreciate it as well.
Kim Brown: And thank you for watching the Real News Network.
Kim Brown has been covering national and international politics for over 10 years and has been a sought-after voice on issues on race and culture.