This is a long form piece I wrote quite a while ago and have been unable to find a home for. So be forewarned: It's long. I also want to take a moment to commend the TFA corps members who have stayed in the classroom and to acknowledge the many, many thoughtful and critical reflections I've read by former and current corps members.
Although Teach For America began twenty years ago as a well-intentioned band-aid, it has morphed into what is essentially a jobs program for the privileged, funded by taxpayers and wealthy individuals. TFA was originally designed to serve a specific need: fill positions in high-poverty schools where there are teacher shortages. A non-profit organization that recruits college seniors primarily from elite institutions to teach for two-year stints in high-poverty schools, preceded by five weeks of training, TFA has grown from 500 teachers to more than 8,000 teachers in thirty-nine rural and urban areas. As TFA is expanding, it is no longer just filling positions in shortage areas; rather, it’s replacing experienced and traditionally educated teachers. To justify this encroachment, TFA claims that their teachers are more effective than more experienced and qualified teachers, and that training and experience are not factors in effective teaching. TFA supporters also defend the explosive growth of TFA as an indication that TFA is elevating the status of the teaching profession for ambitious high-achieving college students. Unfortunately, while Teach for America has been very effective at elevating the status of Teach for America, it has not had a similar impact on the status of teaching as a profession.
When I was a college senior, back in 1995, I applied and was rejected for a position with Teach For America. Given how the interview went, I was expecting as much, and so much the better. By my senior year, I was successful academically, but that was at being a liberal arts student—I was hardly ready for the challenges of a teaching position. I had also landed interviews at several private schools that I blew off. Seeking urban bustle and adventure, I headed for New York City, but instead discovered existential misery working as a paralegal. At the very least, though, I learned that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. The following year, newly re-interested in teaching, I took a job as an after school and substitute teacher at a Quaker school in Brooklyn. My existential angst lifted: I wanted to be a teacher! I returned to my hometown, saved up, and applied to graduate school. I ended up with a master’s degree in education and a teaching license in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and Social Studies. I went on to teach for almost ten years. Once my children are older and I grow tired of the writing life, I plan to return to it.
Another friend from high school, who went on to be a successful teacher and department chair in the state of New York, was also rejected by Teach For America. We used to joke with a twinge of bitterness about the irony of our rejections. One of my graduate school professors had criticized TFA for taking people who might become career teachers and burning them out. Despite my own disappointment and his insights, I didn’t question the mission or impact of TFA, thinking his attitude was sour grapes, and eventually I viewed my own rejection from TFA as a blessing in disguise My brief teaching experience in New York prepared me well for graduate school, and, in turn, my graduate school education and training prepared me well for a teaching position, better, I think, than almost zero training or experience did some of my future teacher colleagues. Once I graduated and started teaching in an inner-city high school, I worked with many TFA teachers. Most were wonderful colleagues and dear friends. All were dedicated, smart, and hard-working, but most seemed overwhelmed. More significantly, most of them left the classroom after a short time. I started to realize that the youngest people with the least amount of experience were being thrown in the deep end with the most challenging teaching positions, when they should have been started in the shallow end. I still didn’t give much thought, though, to the negatives of TFA as a mechanism to attract and place teachers and to improve the quality of education. Now I do.
According to New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip, Teach for America has become very popular in recent years. In 2010, Teach for America hired more seniors than any single employer at numerous colleges, including Wesleyan, Yale, Dartmouth, Duke, Georgetown and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At Harvard, 293 seniors, or 18 percent of the class, applied, compared with 100 seniors in 2007. TFA’s acceptance rate is lower than that of Harvard University’s. The struggling economy and tight job market has probably boosted TFA’s popularity among graduates of selective colleges. Also, finance and business fields suffer from a tarnished reputation, and more idealistic undergrads are likely sensitive to this. Even so, TFA preserves the status of selectivity of industry and law jobs, but with the patina of altruism. TFA members gain access to a network of privileged and well-connected people with the added bonus of being perceived as “making a difference.” The program provides training in leadership skills, a notch on the resume, a social and professional network, and middle-income employment, almost all on the taxpayers’ dime and at the expense of the education of the most powerless of our society.
TFA makes it possible for some corps members to put off pursuing jobs in corporate law and finance until after they have “made a difference” for two years; perhaps at that point corps members and their peers have more distance from undergrad idealism. Perhaps to ease the transition to jobs in the private sector, financial institutions, such as Goldman Sachs, have established partnerships with TFA, to provide summer internships. Furthermore, TFA has partnerships with hundreds of graduate schools which offer TFA alumni benefits such as two-year deferrals, fellowship, course credits, and waived application fees. With education reform having become the new cause célèbre among hedge fund managers, Oprah, national journalists, and Hollywood types such as Davis Guggenheim, I can’t see TFA losing popularity any time soon. Many TFA applicants should indeed be applauded for their nobility, but I’m not so sure that is the beginning and end of all of their motivations. Is twenty-five percent of Harvard University’s graduating class so purely well-intentioned?
Noble intentions versus teaching-poor-children-as-social-climbing-and-resume-building yuck factors aside, the essential question is: Is TFA good for education? I used to think it was. Making the profession of teaching more attractive to high achievers is certainly a laudable goal and when the organization was started, there were indeed teacher shortages in high-poverty areas. As many national journalists, including New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof, bemoan the state of our education system, they cite countries with highly rated education systems such as Finland and Singapore that recruit their teachers from the highest ranks of college graduates, while the Unites States doesn’t. What these journalists miss, though, is that Finland’s rigorous education and internship program for teacher candidates go far beyond TFA’s five-week training sessions. Most of these other countries have highly-professionalized teaching forces; TFA, however, de-professionalizes teaching by emphasizing talent over training. While Wendy Kopp and her supporters are in favor of increasing the numbers in teaching of graduates of more selective colleges, they are opposed to making teacher education and training more rigorous. Kopp says in her memoir, for example, that she is “baffled” that teachers are required to have professional training as doctors and lawyers are; teacher quality is a matter of talent and leadership. Selective colleges select talent, but due to admissions criteria biased towards students in wealthy school districts, they often perpetuate class privilege. To me, the idea that a person would inherently be a better teacher due to their privileged position in society smacks of elitism.
More seasoned and more rigorously trained teachers continue to be pushed out in favor of TFA teachers. This letter by such a teacher in Baltimore is just one example of a teacher who had a hard time finding a job in a district that has a high number of TFA teachers. According to Barbara Miner, whose journalism investigating Teach for America can be found in Rethinking Schools, Dallas, Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and DC all laid off teachers while sparing TFA-ers. When ex-Chancellor Rhee declared a RIF (Reduction in Force) in October 2009 due to alleged budget shortages, 229 teachers total lost their jobs, but only six of them were from TFA. Seattle Public Schools recently signed a new contract with TFA, despite parent opposition and despite recent layoffs of veteran teachers. The state Education Board in South Carolina recently approved guidelines that would allow TFA recruits to apply for teaching positions, thirty percent of which would be for elementary school positions, where thousands of teachers have recently been laid off. The teachers' union in Kansas City, Missouri, supported Teach For America as a way to fill gaps, but teachers there recently protested the district's plan to fire 87 non-tenure teachers who have been deemed effective while brining in 150 Teach For America recruits. Teach For America's regional director Alicia Herald confirmed TFA's new mission: "We're no longer here to fill gaps. We're here to provide value."
TFA claims on their website that their corps members are often more effective than other teachers, including certified and veteran teachers, yet according to this review of literature on TFA studies produced by Arizona State University’s Education Policy Research Unit and the University of Colorado’s Education and the Public Interest Center, the impact of TFA teachers is unclear. “Teach for America: A Review of the Evidence” does note, however, that many of the studies cited by TFA either haven’t been peer reviewed or have results that are statistically problematic. Furthermore, the review claims that TFA teachers don’t initially do better than teachers who are traditionally certified. In some cases they do about the same and in others they do worse. Only after two to three years do TFA teachers seem comparable to more experienced and traditionally trained teachers. These findings imply that even with TFA’s “talented” achievers, it’s experience and preparation that matters, not talent.
If the impact of TFA teachers is not entirely clear, their rates of attrition and financial costs are. According to the review of literature cited earlier, fifty percent of Teach for America teachers leave after two years and eighty percent leave after three. They don’t become lifelong teachers or even ten-year teachers. Their improved effectiveness would only come into play after they would have left. Since the corps members don’t stick around long enough for their students to benefit from their experience, TFA doesn’t, in fact, ultimately lead to higher teacher quality.
Even for those TFAers who stay in teaching, it’s unlikely that they’ll continue on in the high-poverty areas where they were initially placed. One study cited in the review found that teachers are more likely to stay employed in schools that are close to where they attended school. How many Ivy League grads grew up in the Ninth Ward? How about the Bronx? Compton?
TFA teachers cost taxpayers more money than traditionally educated teachers. The afore-mentioned review shows that the average cost of a TFA teacher is $70,000 per recruit. Public school districts are paying twice for recruiting: from $2,000 to $5,000 to TFA per recruit plus funding recruitment by their internal human resources departments. Recruitment costs should be one-time expenditures, but at the current rate of attrition, districts must pay anew every time a TFA teacher leaves. According to Barbara Miner’s investigations, on top of their school district-paid salaries, Teach for America candidates also receive taxpayer-funded Americorps stipends, plus because of their TFA member status, they qualify for funding that people who take traditional teacher training routes don’t. Finally, TFA receives millions in local, state, and federal dollars. TFA annual reports show that about a third of costs are borne by the public—add in a $50,000,000 grant they received from the Department of Education this past spring, and that share has probably risen. How can the federal government subsidize a jobs program for the privileged as it struggles to extend unemployment benefits for those who have lost their jobs?
Wendy Kopp and other TFA leaders counter that attrition and cost are not issues since the ultimate purpose of TFA is not to produce career teachers but to produce education professionals and philanthropists to fight educational inequity. I agree it’s beneficial for students of education policy to understand the realities of the public school classroom, but I don’t think it should be at the expense of knowledgeable teachers for our students. Many TFA alumni leave the classroom and enter into an echo chamber where the ideologies and industries of TFA, TFA alums, and like-minded individuals and organizations are promoted. This causes many of them to view education policy through a narrow lens and fail to recognize what causes the inequities in the first place: unequal distribution of resources, income inequality, and poverty. Furthermore, unlike jobs in teaching, many of the education sector jobs Kopp speaks of are very lucrative, for example being a charter school administrator in New York City, a superintendent in a mayoral takeover system, or a TFA executive, many of whom make $200,000 to $300,000 per year. One study even disputed the claim that TFA alums become civically engaged at relatively higher rates.
TFA claims not to be a political organization, but Barbara Miner reports on the lobbying organization founded by TFA, Leadership for Education Equity (LEE). LEE is a 501(c)4, a nonprofit that can engage in lobbying and political campaigning, which TFA as a 501(c)3 cannot. For example, LEE lobbies to water down teacher certification requirements. LEE is funded by big corporations such as Goldman Sachs, Visa, the Walton Family Foundation, Monsanto—parties who promote deregulation of the markets and in whose interest it is to break up the only viable unions left, those of the public sector. When a study done by Stanford University education academic Linda Darling-Hammond came out questioning the effectiveness of TFA teachers, Wendy Kopp called them “diatribes” and personally lobbied Governor Schwarzenegger to deny Darling-Hammond a position on the California’s State Teacher Credentialing Commission.
I agree that we need to augment our teaching force and that we need to make teaching a more desirable profession, but an oligarch and taxpayer-funded short-term jobs program for the elite is not the solution. Teacher education programs need to provide for more training and experience, not less. People work as paralegals before deciding to go to law school, why not have TFA candidates work as teachers’ aides and then fund their further education if they pledge to go on to teach in high-poverty schools? Why doesn't TFA start programs for top students such as this amazing one that is being phased out by Yale University? Why not have alternative certification programs that allow credit for non-traditional but still relevant and substantial experience? Why don’t we stop speaking disparagingly of our teachers from state and public universities, start recruiting them to teach in their home or high-poverty districts, and fund their teacher education and apprenticeships with loan forgiveness programs such as is offered by Sallie Mae?
It’s time to stop allowing achievement and privilege to masquerade as competence, dedication, and skill. It’s time for the grown-ups who promote TFA to acknowledge that the quality teaching that we all agree is so valuable comes from experience. It’s time to stop letting TFA stand in the way of the committed, skilled, and experienced teachers our kids so desperately need.
And what do you say, Ivy grads, if we accept that you are talented with much to offer America's school children, would you accept that teaching is a profession? In other words, talent matters, but is worthless without practice. Would you still teach for America if it wasn’t in Teach For America?