Setting the Standard in Education

The Lasting Effect of Teach For America

In Uncategorized on July 18, 2010 at 6:45 pm

It seems I should go away more often. I had the two busiest days of traffic this week while I was travelling to New York for some interviews. Hopefully it keeps up. I’m still in New York, but the interviews are over, so I finally have some time to rest.

In the intervening days, there have been a number of articles about Teach For America. While the arguments aren’t new, I don’t believe I’ve covered the topic, so I thought I’d give my two cents. Fair warning: I’m a Teach For America alumnus, so obviously I’m a little biased. I will attempt to be as even-handed as possible. Hopefully I can dispel some common ideas about the program as well.

One articles in particular has garnered a lot of attention, mostly because it’s from a major publication. The article, from The New York Times last Sunday focuses on the difficulty of getting into the program. It seems to be everyone’s favorite line about TFA that it draws so many Ivy League graduates. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen glowing praise over the fact that less than a quarter of those from those schools get in. I also can’t think of how many times I’ve read someone calling Teach For America a bunch of white elitists who think they’re going to have no problems when they get into the classroom. With 12% of students from Ivy League schools applying, many of the proponents and detractors seem to think that those are the overwhelming majority of applicants to the program. Wrong. Corps members (CMs) come from an extremely wide variety of institutions. In the school where I worked, there were TFA corps members and alums from Brigham Young, Miami, USC, Michigan, MIT, Baylor, Western Washington, Randolph-Macon, Denison, Scripps, and yes, there was one from Penn… who was Hispanic. While all of us were intelligent hard-working people (yes, I’m patting myself on the back), we were by no means “elites,” unless that means people who did well in school.

When I hear people calling the organization a bunch of white, female missionaries, I have to laugh. Yes, Teach For America is 70% white and 68% female. However, the teaching profession itself is worse. Women make up 80% of all teachers and 90% of teachers are white. The NEA reported in 2006 that 40% of schools in the US have no minority teachers. In fact, TFA puts a huge focus on diversity. They strive to educate all of their corps members to understand how to navigate with those from different backgrounds from themselves. The biggest expectation CMs are supposed to come out with is that they should not expect any one thing when they enter the classroom. TFA also makes it a mission to recruit a high number of teachers with similar backgrounds to those they will be teaching. They are constantly reevaluating their strategies and practices, adapting their corps to match the populations being served.

Of course, the other big criticism of Teach For America is the short length that teachers stay in the classroom. Most of the data I’ve seen on this is hazy. For example, the New York Times article cites one study that said that half of CMs in New York left their schools after their two year commitment and 85% had left after four years. That doesn’t mean they left teaching. In contrast, TFA claims that 63% of alumni are in education. About half of those are K-12 teachers. Another 19% work in schools or districts and 17% in education non-profits. I’m sure I was probably counted as working in “higher education” this past year, since I worked with college students, although I don’t know if I’d personally count it as working in education. With only about 30% of alumni still teaching in K-12 schools, it would seem that most alumni are “abandoning” teaching. This ignores a few nuances, though. First of all, only half of teachers stay in the profession for five years and the numbers are much worse in low-performing schools, into which TFA teachers are generally placed. For thirty percent of alumni in TFA’s 20 years to still be in the classroom, it sounds as though they last just about as long as other teachers in comparable situations. While the turnover rate is higher than what one might want, it’s not the travesty so many make it out to be.

It's at least better to have the one step, right?

Teach For America also touts a dual purpose. While putting highly qualified teachers into the classroom is part of closing the achievement gap, just as important is creating an alumni base that advocates for changes to the system. With so many working in an education-related field, Teach For America has started to produce a powerful and growing force in education reform. Hundreds of TFA alumni have been put into places of power from Michelle Rhee, DCPS’s superintendent, to Jonathan Fish, who was just elected to be a judge in Orange County’s Superior Court. And unlike what Rachel Tompkins thinks, TFA teachers are not “just passing through” the rural areas they teach in. The most recent issue of One Day highlighted the efforts of TFA alumni in the Mississippi Delta. Alumni are now working as teachers, principals, and education advocates across the Delta. Some are even starting KIPP schools in the area.

Don’t forget as well that Teach For America has proven that its first and second year teachers consistently outperform teachers with more experience than them. The Wall Street Journal ran an article last Saturday that pointed out an Urban Insitute study’s finding that

On average, high school students taught by TFA corps members performed significantly better on state-required end-of-course exams, especially in math and science, than peers taught by far more experienced instructors. The TFA teachers’ effect on student achievement in core classroom subjects was nearly three times the effect of teachers with three or more years of experience.

Another study cited in the article found that middle school math teachers from TFA accounted for an extra half of a year of improvement in their students. One of the reasons is that Teach For America has revolutionized the way their teachers are hired. While traditional methods have two different organizations training and then being responsible for the results of their teachers, TFA does both.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe Teach For America is perfect. In their drive to get kids to learn basic skills like reading and math, they often overlook teaching students things like character and critical thinking. These tend to be skills those students aren’t getting in their poorly performing schools and some may argue they are a critical component of giving students 21st century skills (I would). Focusing on basic skills while students at schools in the suburbs and in private schools get projects that work their problem-solving skills marginalizes them. It continues a cycle of separating the classes. The wealthy stay wealthy while the poor aren’t equipped to pull themselves out of poverty. CEOs have skills that are not taught in a math book or a literature textbook. However, when it comes to improving classrooms in the long-run, Teach For America is doing a better job than any other program out there. It has put prestige into teaching that there simply has not been in this country since arguably the formation of the United States. It has pushed more individuals to look at the classroom and how it can be improved than there has ever been. The teaching corps that TFA creates might just be a bandaid, but the coming transformation of education will be a lasting impression made by a program that emphasizes doing something For America, rather than oneself.


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