Thinking of Teach for America? Please Reconsider

On Nov 2, The Seattle Times reported that Teach for America (TFA) is making an effort to introduce its recruits to schools of "high poverty" in Seattle.  TFA's model, which is to place academically successful college graduates in our nation's underperforming schools with no formal teacher training or experience, implies that excellent teachers need only a stellar GPA and the right personality traits to positively impact student achievement levels.  TFA is wrong about this.

Five years ago, I walked into my first classroom believing that my youth and idealism were all my students would need to develop a love for education.  I was mugged by reality in the first two weeks.  What made my experience different than the TFA approach, however, was that my training provided me the oportunity to teach an already-developed curriculum for only half a day for an entire year while mentors observed me.  The other half of the day, I worked with four experienced educators who helped me see where I was going wrong and how I could fix it.  When I took my first job at an underperforming school just south of Seattle, I was significantly better prepared to handle the challenges that come with working in an urban school.  What I've learned in reflecting on my work is that even six-month student-teacher programs still leave most incoming teachers woefully unprepared for the job.  Consider that TFA offers only five weeks of training, that most of its members leave after two years, and that TFA makes it more difficult for qualified candidates to find jobs, and you begin to see why it's controversial.

Teach for America would say I overstate the importance of experience and refute my claim that their recruits don't stay in education.  A letter passed around congress last March requesting 50 million federal dollars for TFA calimed TFA has "proven successs in the classroom as demonstrated in numerous studies" and that their alumni remain in the communitites to continue to work on solving educational inequity.  This is misleading.

In April, Rethinking Schools published an eye-opening article entitled, "Looking Past the Spin," by Barbara Miner.  Miner points out that a 2004 Mathematica study and a 2005 study by Linda Darling-Hammond demonstrated that TFA not only failed to produce a single corps member in the study who performed as well as a certified teacher with comparable levels of education and teaching experience, but also that TFA members' student achievement levels were virtually identical in comparison with similar teachers with "substantially lower rates of certification and formal education training."

Miner also notes that the numbers TFA draws on in claiming two-thirds of its members stay in education (as was referenced in the Seattle Times article on Nov 2) come from "self reported data in 2007" from only about 57% of the total alumni (thereby excluding those who chose not to answer the survey and those who left the program prior to completing their two years).  Additionally, "in education" could refer to virtually anything related to the field, from working with a nonprofit to completing a graduate degree in education.

It's not that Teach for America is only wrong for Seattle; it's wrong for America.  Placing our least experienced teachers in our most challenged schools should strike us, intuitively, as foolish.  That it doesn't is merely evidence of the amount of money TFA has spent convincing us otherwise.  If we really wanted to improve the quality of education in schools serving underprivileged youth, wouldn't we be giving them at least the same environment the richest among us provide their children?  If President Obama doesn't have any TFA recruits teaching his children at Sidwell Friends, why should students from our most underprivileged communities?


  1. Another thing is that "stay in education" means staying past their 2 year commitment, so could mean just another year of teaching, or a few months finishing up a degree. Misleading indeed.

    And it's totally adult focused - all about how wonderful it is that these elite grads of elite schools are willing to spend 2 years of their precious time in the ghetto with children who are bound to be helped just be association, not matter how brief and no matter how little these elite people know about teaching.

    In contrast, teachers who devote their careers to this supposedly noble work, are portrayed as losers.

  2. excuse typos: ...just BY association, NO matter...

    Regarding TFA at Sidwell - that would deprive the elite grads of the entry on their resume proving that they sacrificed for the cause of helping those most in need.

    It would also probably deprive them of financial assistance with their college loans and grad school tuition, as Sidwell is not exactly combat duty.

  3. "Placing our least experienced teachers in our most challenged schools should strike us, intuitively, as foolish."

    True, but why would a teacher who had spent years in the trenches want to continue to battle the discipline problems, lack of parental involvement and terrible 'living conditions' of the worst schools? If I were in the peak of my career or working toward retirement, I would want the 'reward' of teaching in a decent work environment that wasn't as personally and professionally punishing.

  4. anon 10:44 - what you say is understandable. Seems to me that the answer is to improve the "living conditions" for the teachers -- and of course the students. With good admin support, resources and security, teachers with a gift and desire to work with high poverty settings would more easily make a career of it.

    I've been very impressed with some of the teachers I've met who choose to work with these students. I see it as having a gift - just as some people have a gift for working with physically handicapped or mentally disturbed people. They should be supported and encouraged - not driven to distraction and ultimate burn-out.

  5. I'm continually split on this issue. I am not TFA. much like you, I completed a credential and masters program and I now work in your favorite city of DC. This year there were 15+ new staff and I was one of 4 who was not an TFA corp member. My entire department (special education) is TFA. I have developed great friendships with these people, but they all plan to leave next year and continually bitch about the school, kids, ect - leaving me in an awkward position - as I hope to stay long term. None of my friends plan on staying in education past their commitment. It's frustrating to work in a community where the teachers are counting down the days until they "get out". I suppose I hate the system, but I do like the people I've met, which makes it hard for me to stand a hard line against TFA or the like, even if I feel like it serves as a disadvantage to my students.

  6. xjar - can't you like the people and not like their attitude or the negative effect you think their program is having on education?

    I don't see how liking individuals in a program keeps you from disliking the program.

    Let's say you don't support the war in afghanistan but some of your closest friends are soldiers in that war who fight bravely but complain a lot and are counting the days til they get out. Does that make you more supportive of the war?

  7. xcjar: Don't think for a moment that the students taught by these TFA folks haven't picked up on the contempt in which their 'teachers' hold them. I respectfully suggest that you consider that when you speak about liking these people. They will move on, but not before they've damaged and demeaned their students.

  8. Anon at 1044: Valid point. TFA is perhaps more indicative of the wrongheaded nature of our national solutions than it is a cause.

    xjcar: I hear what you're saying and agree with Efavorite and Anon at 903. It shouldn't be personal; it should be about what's best for public education.

  9. Not all TFA corps members are evil, corporatist, resume builders :) I completed my two year commitment this summer, and your blog is my favorite one on education.

    What bothers me most about TFA is how it lends support to very harmful "reform" efforts (Michelle Rhee anyone?) and promotes the idea that all problems can be fixed by a "superteacher".

    As for me, I have no desire to ever again work in a school that refuses to hold students accountable for their behavior, allows the same 15-25% of the student body to steal the education of their classmates, and neglects to treat teachers as professionals. I'm going back to school for a masters's in education instead of law school as I had originally planned, but I'm going to work in a district near the town in which I grew up.

    Keep up the great posts on this blog. It offers some of the most refreshingly honest education commentary I've ever seen.

  10. William:

    Thanks for the comments. I certainly don't think TFA corps members are evil corporate resume builders (only a few of them). I think most of them are well-intentioned, albiet naive (which is not a criticism - we're all naive at one point or another), young people who want to make a difference. There is, however, a problem with TFA's leadership, who (have they any reflective/critical-thinking ability at all) must have realized some time ago the severe negatives that come with the program.

    I'm very happy to hear that you're going back for more training in education and choosing to make a positive impact in your community. Makes me very happy - glad TFA could provide an experience for you that helped you choose that path.

  11. Thanks for the post and forum for conversation! I think true, meaningful, systematic change is only going to happen when teachers, leadership, politicians, and citizens have all invested in the conversation about how we can bring lasting, transformational change for our nation's most underprivileged kids.
    I'm a TFA alum working at the same small, rural, challenging school I arrived at 4 years ago. I don't claim to know a lot- I'm still (relatively) young- but I'd like to share a different perspective. In my K-12 school, we are probably 20% TFAs. I've seen them come and go, some truly gifted teachers, some not. During that time we have also had many non-TFA first year teachers come and go. As well as many veteran teachers. The truth is, at least at our school, finding ANY teacher to stay more than two years is a challenge. Many that DO stay do so because they're poor teachers and can't get hired elsewhere. I'm being brutally honest here because, although many of those teachers are great friends of mine, because they are doing our students and families a disservice. The difference between many TFA teachers at our school and some others is that our TFAs take responsibility for their classrooms. They don't blame the school's lack of structure, curriculum, resources, and discipline for the achievement of students. Nor do they blame the struggling families. Nor do they blame the kids who have been given their poor habits and mindsets from their families, communities, and schools. They hold themselves accountable.
    When discipline in their classroom is bad, we spend our nights reflecting and brainstorming until we come up with a solution. When our kids fail a test, we critically reflect on how WE failed to plan, execute, or motivate our students. We modify our classrooms until we see results. We take an active part in leadership committees, we create sustainable school-wide investment and behavior plans.
    I guess my take-away from the past few years is that TFA is NOT the long-term solution for our public school system. But for the twenty-something kids in my classroom each year, they don’t have time to wait until the system corrects itself. THIS year may be the difference between them being college bound or corner bound. They need teachers who are determined, energized, and who will push them to their highest. What they don’t need are teachers (veteran or not) who are content to let them come to class and sleep or have already decided that 90% of the kids are deadbeats anyway and not worth pouring their energy into. Our school cannot attract great, veteran teachers. We pay the lowest salary in the state, are located in the middle of nowhere, and have communities with high crime rates. No one is moving out here to make sure our students are getting the best education. If they WERE, I’d fire myself to make room for them. But the TFAs here are a focused, goal-driven, hard-working force in our district (3 out of the past 4 years our principals have awarded Teacher of the Year to current TFAs). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the past five years, our school is now reaching AYP consistently and graduation rates have increased 20%. (I want to reitterate that NOT all TFAs have been good for our students and school.) TFA is not the solution- it can't change the poverty or parental involvement or lack of leadership- but until those solutions comes, for our school at least, it’s the one hope our students have.
    (Sorry for the length! Got a little carried away….as a disclaimer, I am currently serving on our school leadership team and am part of the hiring board. As an invested part of this community and school, I can confidently say that I will continue to consider hiring, developing, and empowering TFAs as teachers for our students as well as new and veteran teachers will teaching degrees. We have to take what we can get!)
    Again, I enjoy your blog and the heart that you have for our nation’s students! Keep it up.

  12. (continued from the previous post)
    I wanted to make sure that my previous post didnt come across the wrong way. Re-reading it made me think that without the context of our school and communitiy, my comments could be taken in the wrong way. Let me clarify by saying that we have a some AMAZING teachers in our school. They come from educational backgrounds, have taught for several years, and have been important mentors for me. Most of the staff care deeply about the students- there's no denying that. I think one of the difference in our approach is that I try my hardest not to lower my expectations for my kids. It's easy to say that if you love them, you'll let them sleep after they've had a tough night. Or not give them homework because you know they have to babysit seven kids and make dinner when they get home. Or let them bully other students because they themselves have suffered abuse. But the directive I've received from families in the communitity and my principals and my own gut say that that isn't real love. In fact, students say the same thing. They want teachers to push them, trust them, set goals with them, and work hard for them. Changing school culture happens one teacher, one student, one class at a time. We need a sense of urgency not only about making sure the students in our classrooms are on a path to success, but also about fixing the larger issues on the district, state, and national level.

    (I'm sure someone will call my statements as general and rhetorical, which maybe they are, but they come from the heart! haha)

    Teach on, Teachers!


Post a Comment

Popular Posts