A Critical Look at Teach for America

Berating yet semi-personalized emails. Coffee-house documentary screenings. Promises of making a difference with a two-year commitment. All of this, followed by a slew of opportunities ranging from grad school admittance to offers from Forbes 400 corporations.  For these reasons, and more, it is easy to see how Teach For America has branded itself as not just the most honorable, but also the most promising of places to start a career.  It provides, as the private non-profit claims, the opportunity to “join our generation’s civil rights movement.” Eighteen members of Claremont McKenna's Class of 2011 have accepted offers to join TFA, which will likely make the organization CMC's single largest employer this year. These graduates will serve as elementary, middle, and high school teachers for two years in our nation’s public and charter schools.  Thirteen Pomona students, ten Scripps students, and one Pitzer student have also been accepted.

Prior to this stint, each corps member will attend a five-week institute that attempts to prepare them for their tour of duty, training them in classroom management and lesson planning. In a mere 35 days, Teach For America tries to educate newly minted college graduates on the challenges of high-need classrooms. The organization then provides supplemental support and education while corps members work full-time.

Unfortunately, with the timeframe they have created, TFA cannot and does not succeed in cultivating the set of skills teachers need to successfully translate their knowledge into digestible material for students. As Deborah Appleman writes, “good teachers need more than idealism.”

How is it a good idea to source fresh college graduates– who have yet to decide on a career to serve as an architect, a lawyer, or a construction manager– to instead serve as a teacher for two years, after five weeks of training? TFA's answer is twofold: it works because these individuals are smart, and because they are interested in making a difference– or will learn to be, with time. They can therefore better America’s public schools.

Forget the precedent of research that proclaims teaching is a learned ability that increases with experience over years (between three and five, not one or two).  Forget the fact that many of the corps members have limited experience in dealing with kids, let alone kids raised from incredibly different upbringings.  Instead, TFA gives us an alternative version of history. Rather than just help the rich get richer, you can actually make a difference. And you can do it on the way to Goldman Sachs, or Harvard Law.

After their two-year tour, over 50% of TFA corps members will bow out from their posts as teachers to never come back– perpetuating a cycle of rookie teachers in a field where many argue experience is everything.  Research has shown that a teacher reaches high levels of performance after three to five years of performance, not two.[1] In this respect, a cornerstone of TFA's modus operandi– that inexperienced, young, college graduates unsure of a career can learn to teach, and learn to teach well– is operationally flawed.

This criticism falls flat on many TFA supporters. Ultimately, Teach For America is not primarily addressing the national standard for quality teaching (a cause that, admittedly, nobody seems to know how to address). Instead, the organization seeks to plant an awareness of the gaping needs of American education in the cream of the crop: college graduates that will go on to be successful businessmen, bankers, politicians, lawyers, and, hopefully, reformers.

Amy Jacobson '11, CMC's student representative for TFA, advocates this position.

"One of TFA's main focuses is in the classroom, but it is also working to build a movement to lessen the achievement gap by way of utilizing recent college grads and future leaders," Jacobson said. "That doesn't mean it is necessarily a fix to the whole system, as TFA is working on specific aspects and working to bring educational inequity into the spotlight."

But here lie other failures.

For one, TFA may not even be honoring this presence. A study done by Doug McAdams at Stanford University demonstrated that,  “in areas like voting, charitable giving and civic engagement, graduates of the program lag behind those who were accepted but declined and those who dropped out before completing their two years.”[2]

However, 63% of corps members remain in the field of education after the program, and civic engagement does not directly translate to awareness of possible treatments for flaws in education. So McAdam's study alone isn’t enough to exemplify the demerits of TFA.

Yet after its two main premises fall into serious question– that the program can produce quality teachers quickly, and that it can breed a generation of civic activism focused on education– there still exist two more unfortunate truths. And those are that Teach For America has a misguided incentive structure, and that it proclaims to have a role as a functionary of reform that it has not necessarily earned.

Teach for America, a now constant in "Best Place to Start a Career" lists, is not just concerned with change. As a private company, it is equally concerned with brand.  Protecting this brand has become more than just following through with its ambitious goals of reform. Because of the promises it has made, the organization now must maintain its role as a potential stepping stone for idealistic college graduates. Such pressures are heavy, especially for an organization that calls itself a modern-day civil rights movement.

Finally, and most importantly, TFA fails to address the roots of education inequality: the wealth gap.

Education inequality is rooted in the widespread de facto segregation and systemic poverty that has come to define America’s cities, of which poor teachers are a symptom. The causes of such a predicament are vast, but trace back to housing segregation, discrimination in the labor market, and the shortcomings of the civil rights movement when it came to breaking these forms of segregation– particularly evident in cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, and Boston.  Little progress has been made in desegregating our schools.  Dana Goldstien cites the UCLA research on contemporary school makeup. “The average white child in America attends a school that is 77 percent white," Goldstien writes, "and where just 32 percent of the student body lives in poverty. The average black child attends a school that is 59 percent poor but only 29 percent white. The typical Latino kid is similarly segregated; his school is 57 percent poor and 27 percent white.”[3]

The 1970s and early 1980s witnessed widespread legally mandated integration. During this period, the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that achievement gaps between blacks and whites diminished.  When forced integration came to a halt, so did progress.[4] This was particularly evident in Charlotte where “"the highest-performing teachers fled schools that became predominantly black and poor" after the district ended the 30-year long bussing program.[5]

So the problem is clear: our schools are overwhelmed by the obstacles of poverty upheld by an abandonment of integration programs.  The problems of our schools lie in factors that originate outside of classrooms.  Teach for America has failed to show it is capable of attacking these flaws in the short run, it misses the point by believing change will come from inside the classroom with inexperienced college graduates.  It can defend itself by claiming at least these teach for a while teachers will go on to be successful leaders focused on education reform, but foundational flaws, as I have shown, lie in these claims as well.

Teach For America, a corporation, presents itself as the missionary.  It advertises a message that places its business model at the fulcrum of success for our nation’s education system. At the end of the day, TFA ships off privileged college graduates, within months of commencement, to neighborhoods they have likely never spent time in before, with limited training in order. Its followers fail to understand the broader context. But worst of all, the effects it has on teaching are deeply harmful, as it brands the field as a discounted form of charity work for those waiting out a bad economy and holding out for better offers.


[1] http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentary/49234672.html?page=2&c=y

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/04/education/04teach.html?em

[3] http://www.danagoldstein.net/dana_goldstein/2011/01/on-mlk-day-some-thoughts-on-segregated-schools-arne-duncan-and-president-obama.html

[4] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/18/AR2010111802148.html?nav=mbot

[5] http://www.danagoldstein.net/dana_goldstein/2011/01/on-mlk-day-some-thoughts-on-segregated-schools-arne-duncan-and-president-obama.html http://www.prospect.org/csnc/blogs/tapped_archive?month=05&year=2009&base_name=what_happens_when_desegregatio