Teach for America: Icon with Feet of Clay?

Why does Teach for America (TFA) attract so much adulatory praise, so much vitriolic criticism, so much government and foundation money, and so much jealousy/resentment from other nonprofits? And did we mention so much money? Held up as the exemplar of social innovation and civic engagement, the TFA model merits closer attention as to what it really means for public education, to the nonprofit sector, and to society at large. TFA's positive press is so well known that this article focuses on the less-heard concerns and questions about the model:

It's hard to imagine a nonprofit entity that encapsulates the emerging definition of social innovation more than the Teach for America juggernaut. Founded in 1990 by young Princeton graduate Wendy Kopp, TFA now needs no introduction; it has nearly the same brand recognition enjoyed by nonprofits like the United Way and American Red Cross.

But as the nation moves toward defining social innovation and handing over the federal Social Innovation Program to private foundations, it cannot hurt to recognize TFA and other vaunted models for what they are: real-life nonprofit organizations with lots of good things going for them, but not without limitations, controversies, and trade-offs in what they purport to achieve.

It takes only a few moments on the Internet to find lots of positive stories about TFA, countered by relatively few negative ones. The common theme is the enthusiasm and commitment of the TFA teachers. The stories attest to a common finding about stipended volunteer programs: that AmeriCorps-affiliated youth service programs like TFA take pretty highly engaged young people and make them even more community minded.

(For examples, see the Abt Associates study for the Corporation for National Service and the stories of TFA alums Chris Praedel of Kalamazoo who is running for the Michigan State Legislature and Brian Bordainick who is organizing support for the construction of a new high school stadium in New Orleans.

However, a recent study produced by a sociology professor from Stanford University (funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation) at the request of TFA suggests just the opposite: that TFA alums' dedication to improving society did not seem to extend past their TFA service, and in fact, "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." This disconcerting research finding has the TFA leadership nonplussed and hits at a core element of the program's self-described benefits to participants.

$100 million in federal grants and $100 million in foundation grants

Maybe at its heart, critics simply don't like TFA's ability to glom more and more from foundations and particularly government, while school districts trim full-time employment and other education-focused nonprofits can only look at TFA's fundraising with envy. Based on an analysis of data from USAspending.gov, TFA secured over $80 million in grants between FY2001 and FY2008, including $44 million through the Department of Education, $32 million from the Corporation for National and Community Service, and $4 million from NASA.

And while health care reform, cap-and-trade climate protection, and other legislation in front of Congress have been viewed as largely Democratic Party initiatives, Teach for America has been politically ambidextrous over the years. A good chunk of this funding was achieved by earmarks under the Bush Administration, but the Obama administration seems to share the same eagerness to fund TFA. The President's FY2010 budget targeted a $15 million earmark for TFA. That was less than the $25 million targeted by the House of Representatives for TFA.

TFA's political flexibility has also proven remarkably successful with foundations as well, particularly important since the federal Social Innovation Fund will be defined and administered by foundation regrant-makers (oh come on, we all know that! and if not, see Blue Avocado's recent article). Grants from the politically conservative Walton Family Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the F.M. Kirby Foundation sit alongside philanthropic support from the more left-leaning Atlantic Philanthropies, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand. The Foundation Center's online database suggests that TFA national and its local affiliates received $43.875 million in foundation grants in 2007 and, with totals still far from complete for 2008, $33.17 million in that year.

With this kind of revenue, TFA hardly seems like a likely candidate for a federal Social Innovation Fund grant to help it "scale up." Whether or not TFA receives foundation re-granted SIF funds, it represents a model that foundations will be seeking to fund.

A brilliant cure or sending the least prepared to the most needy?

While successfully straddling ideological barriers in securing huge amounts in federal and foundation support, TFA has nonetheless encountered opponents in the course of its development, critics whose concerns cannot be dismissed as arising from jealousy over TFA's fundraising success.

One area of criticism centers on the premise that TFA teachers are better than credentialed, experienced teachers. [TFA teachers receive five weeks of training prior to classroom placement.] While an early goal of TFA was to meet teacher shortages, today credentialed, experienced teachers are being laid off in countless communities and newly credentialed teachers cannot find jobs, completing the TFA trajectory from one that fills gaps to one that claims to be better than the professionals currently on the job.

Stanford University's Linda Darling-Hammond is a high profile educator whose 2005 study compared TFA teachers in Houston with those coming to the profession with traditional training and credentials: "Uncertified TFA recruits are less effective than certified teachers, and perform about as well as other uncertified teachers. TFA recruits who become certified after 2 or 3 years do about as well as other certified teachers in supporting student achievement gains; however, nearly all of them leave within three years. Teachers' effectiveness appears strongly related to the preparation they have received for teaching."

Darling-Hammond is not alone in her concerns about the limited training of TFA teachers. Suggesting that the good intentions of TFA participants are only half the battle, a not-unsympathetic observer from Minnesota concluded, "It is ridiculous to think that anyone with a five-week summer course and a license waiver is ready to teach . . . To put untrained graduates barely four years older than their students in a class without proper training does a disservice to education in Minnesota. Teach for America members should not have control of a class. They are not well-enough trained. They should serve as assistants to licensed, experienced teachers and help them give students the education they deserve and that we as Minnesotans demand."

Carlton College's Deborah Appleman offers a trenchant critique about the program, describing the "problematic assumptions" behind TFA, such as:

  • "[the assumption that] anybody who is smart can be a good teacher." (Appleman says there is no correlation)
  • that teaching is more instinct than knowledge. (Appleman says it's a combination of both)
  • that students who are most in need will do the best with the most underprepared teachers in the country. (Appleman thinks that idea is crazy).

TFA has also had to navigate some accountability road bumps. For example, a 2008 federal audit of monies granted for summer training sessions found that TFA couldn't properly account for more than half of the $1.5 million in expenditures.

TFA's political apparatus

TFA is quick to challenge critics, for example, pointing to studies that counter Darling-Hammond's, including a 2004 study by Mathematica that purportedly concluded "that Teach for America corps members outperform even the veteran and certified teachers in their schools in a statistically significant way."

And TFA goes beyond debating the principles to taking political action against those it sees as detractors. For instance, when Linda Darling-Hammond was selected for the Obama education transition team, TFA was fearful that she would end up with a high post. Through a mass e-mail in late 2008, TFA alerted its network to the possibility of TFA critics emerging in the Obama White House, directing them to Leadership for Educational Equity, a 501(c)(4) TFA affiliate. Created in 2008 ostensibly "to support [TFA] alumni in the later stages of readiness for political activity" the Leadership for Educational Equity has become a fierce political defender of all things TFA.

This political arm of TFA struck out at Darling-Hammond with an article on its website titled "Education Secretary Fight Could Affect Teach for America's Mission." As one TFA blogger and board member of an "education reform" PAC commented about Darling-Hammond: "She's influential, clever and (while she does her best to hide it) an enemy of genuine reform." The result was that Arne Duncan, generally supportive of TFA, got the top job at Education over Darling-Hammond.

Unions vs. TFA

Part of conservatives' attraction to Teach for America, much like their love affair with charter schools, is TFA's existence largely outside of the control of unions such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). The union reactions to TFA seem to have steadily become more pointed over the years: witness sharply worded critiques on TFA from the Boston Teachers Union and Education Minnesota this year from unions hardly comparable to the scandalously obstructive teachers unions in Washington DC and Miami.

In some localities, the unions have a solid argument. School districts are laying off credentialed -- and more senior, higher paid -- teachers and replacing them with TFA short-termers (usually signed up for two-year stints). [Contrary to the commonly-held view that TFA teachers are volunteers or are paid stipends by TFA, TFA teachers are often paid by school districts at the same rates as beginning credentialed teachers.] Such situations have been reported in New Orleans, Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and elsewhere.

In individual schools, it appears that teacher opposition to TFA does not prevent good relationships from forming between TFA newbies and the teachers already there. But to union leaders such as John Wilson of the NEA, Teach for America is less an experiment in education than an effort to become a "political force" aimed at undoing traditional, that is, unionized, educational systems. With TFA's 501(c)(4) arm aiming to connect TFA alumni to the political world (29 alumni listed as holding public office and 4 more running for election), this does begin to feel like the political movement that Wilson fears.

Why is TFA so irritating?

But there are many nonprofits that neither compete with TFA nor participate in debates about public education that nonetheless find themselves annoyed with the vaunted TFA. Their concerns are not with TFA, but with the model that TFA represents. For example, one reason for annoyance may be because the praise of TFA's young teachers-for-two-years echoes the notion expounded elsewhere in the nonprofit sector that volunteers and near-volunteers can substitute for trained staff who earn professional-level salaries. Just as credentialed, experienced teachers with union-level pay resent the notion that they can be replaced by TFA'ers, nonprofit staff resent the idea that their work does not require much training, or pay, for that matter.

Another reason for nonprofit resentment may be due to the praise of TFA centering on the benefits for the young TFA participants, rather than the benefits for low-income students or schools. In a similar way, service learning is touted for its beneficial impact on the service-learner volunteers often without statistical evidence showing much tangible effect on K-12 students or, perhaps more importantly, on those that these volunteers are enlisted to help. At a time when the nonprofit and public agency host organizations often find themselves burdened with volunteerism that uses nonprofit resources for the benefit of the volunteer, nonprofits are suspicious of programs such as TFA that trumpet the positive effects on volunteers and stay relatively silent on the effects on the ostensible beneficiaries.

Perhaps it's because for many, a TFA stint has become just exactly the right thing to have on one's resume (for graduate school or political office) rather than the beginning of a lifetime commitment to teaching.

Or perhaps, like Appleman, what gets the nonprofit goat is the "overbearingly noble tone" in TFA's pronouncements. But the noble cause stuff is exactly what is so enthusiastically devoured by the mainstream press, the epitome being this encomium from the U.S. News and World Report: "Sooner or later change is coming to education and when it does Teach For America will have played an instrumental role in fueling it."

Questions raised by TFA's success

TFA in many ways epitomizes the type of social innovation that has attracted former President Bush and his successor: building on the enthusiasm of its stipended volunteer participants to address the deficiencies of public school systems and their entrenched teacher unions. But despite its champions in the press and philanthropy, TFA's model merits examination by nonprofit and government agencies without its critics being demonized. Is social innovation that relies on large government and foundation subsidies really cost effective? Can two-year service terms by young Americans do more for low-income students than increased teacher pay and smaller class sizes? Is TFA a model for universal two-year service stints? Should we build TFA-like organizations in healthcare and higher education? Would a TFA model work to revitalize another industry with retrograde ideas and entrenched unions: the auto industry?

The overall, unfolding story of TFA is not contained in its funding, its political prowess, the odd negative audit finding, or even the stories -- some inspiring, some disillusioning -- from its participants. It will be played out as the nation defines social innovation and how socially innovative nonprofits supplement, revolutionize, subvert, or instigate social change.

P.S. As a follow-up to Rick Cohen's earlier story on the Social Innovation Fund, note that the Obama Administration has released its draft Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) for the Social Innovation Fund.

See also:

Rick Cohen is Blue Avocado's newest columnist; his columns appear in every other issue. Rick's background includes community organizing, municipal government, executive positions at LISC, Jersey City government, and the Enterprise Foundation, and eight years as Executive Director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. He is National Correspondent for the Nonprofit Quarterly, and lives in Washington, D.C. where he never has a shortage of things to be grumpy about.

Comments (83)

  • Rick, thank you for doing this very important article. No doubt Teach for America does great work in many classrooms, but there are so many organizations that have told me how frustrated they are with how Teach for America works in their communities and they can't respond openly. This is just exactly the kind of article I'm proud that Blue Avocado can publish.

    Jan 07, 2010
  • Excellent article, Rick. TFA should be evaluated for the effectiveness of its teachers in the classroom. Clearly, the organization is very skilled at marketing, fund raising, and making political connections. But is it improving educational achievement in our schools? That's the only question that matters.

    Jan 08, 2010
  • Fantastic stuff - thanks for posting this Rick. How about a series of similar articles on other "sacred cows"??

    Jan 08, 2010
  • Great idea. There are sacred cows out there that you think sometimes are coated with teflon. This piece wasn't suggesting that TFA is bad, just that there are more perspectives out there on TFA than the adulation it typically gets in the mainstream and often nonprofit press. I've been involved in parts of the nonprofit sector that have been slammed by non-nonprofit critiques as focusing too much on their own wonderfulness, so to speak, and not listening to the critics of their shortcomings. In one of my former jobs, we always worried about believing the PR too much, and it's hard not to. But when you do, and you write off the critics as sort of automatically wrong and misguided, you often don't hear the critical feedback you need to make organizational and subsectoral improvements.

    Jan 08, 2010
  • Wait...if TFA funds aren't being used to pay the TFA teachers, what have they been doing with the $200 million in grant money?

    Jan 08, 2010
  • From the TFA website: "Corps members receive the same salaries and health benefits as other beginning teachers, and they are paid directly by the school districts for which they work...Corps members generally receive the same health benefits as other beginning teachers. As with most health plans, this means that the district pays for medical and dental insurance premiums, and corps members make contributions directly from their paychecks." (http://www.teachforamerica.org/corps/financial_arrangements.htm) This was information that I learned from my brilliant Blue Avocado editor, so in response to your question, I'll pull the TFA 990 and give it a gander.

    Jan 08, 2010
  • Rick,
    This is the best, more universal and cogent assessment that I've seen of TFA - the good, bad, ugly and interesting. Thanks for bringing this all together in one place.
    Allison Fine

    Jan 08, 2010
  • Allison: That's so nice of you to say. Getting that kind of feedback from you means a lot for me and for the Blue Avocado. Thanks.

    Jan 08, 2010
  • Excellent, insightful and asks relevant tough questions. As a former TFA faculty member in the early years of the movement, I found the article gave voice to some of my long held questions and concerns.

    Jan 08, 2010
  • I think it's a little early to compare TFA's renown with the Red Cross and United Way. I've been involved in the nonprofit industry for six years, five as a state regulator, and this is the first I've heard of them.

    Jan 08, 2010
  • In terms of brand value (there is a site that measures the value of corporate brands), the United Way and Red Cross are very high. But my point was that Teach for America gets huge play in the White House (Obama and pre-Obama), Congress, and the mainstream press, and for many people in the educational sector and the nonprofit sector, TFA has a brand cache that is pretty remarkable for its age.

    Jan 08, 2010
  • My friend's daughter was a TFA teacher. She was raised in a wealthy white suburb, and was placed in a classroom in Washington DC with 100% poor African American students. She could not control the classroom and was calling her mother all the time crying.

    She was very clear that it was her fault and not the students being uncontrollable. In the classroom next door there was a veteran teacher who was African American who had a perfectly controlled classroom and kids were really learning. Same population. My friend's daughter could see the difference, but she couldn't make her classroom work.

    In my opinion this was a failure to the students and a failure to my friend's daughter. 

    Jan 08, 2010
  • Having a daughter in the DC public schools (I'm a public school kind of guy) and spending a lot of time volunteering in the schools (and being familialy engaged with the PTAs in my my daughter's elementary and middle school years), I can tell you that I've seen veteran teachers who haven't done all that well with their kids too. But I can also tell you that I've seen the value of teachers who are well trained and seasoned. I'm sure that there are education schools whose training and credentialing may not be worth all that much, but I can tell you how much good training and preparation adds to the quality of a kid's educational experience (here in DC) and what long term teacher commitment means. And if anyone says it's because of the DC demographic, that's completely wrong (my daughter's elementary school was basically African-American, Latino, and Vietnamese, and I can give you a guided tour of some unbelievably good--and well trained--teachers). I'll be back there for my annual reading of Dr. Seuss books on Dr. Seuss's birthday, partly because I admire the teachers there so much.

    Jan 08, 2010
  • Hello editor and Rick Cohen  -

    Thanks for writing about Teach for America. I’ve never thought much of what they were doing and all the credentialed teachers I’ve spoken to over the years, including my sister, are not sanguine on them. It reminds of all the technology companies who flooded schools with technology and never thought to ask who knew how to use it and support it.

    Jan 08, 2010
  • You're right, but it reflects what another commentator below mentioned, which is the fact that many public school systems are resource-starved, so the offer of low-cost resources--teachers from TFA or technology from commercial companies, just to name two--is pretty attractive. Your comment makes me think of Chris Whittle's original formulation of "Channel One," an advertising-supported news show that was offered to public schools. The criticisms were that the kids remembered more about the ads than the news, and that the news offerings were largely fluffy. But I remember the interest of schools as having a resource-starvation feel, like "grab it and we'll figure out how to use it later." Ultimately, the question isn't one of finding outside sources to supplement public school systems (remember Rob Reich's 2005 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, http://www.ssireview.org/pdf/2005WI_Feature_Reich.pdf, "A Failure of Philanthropy," which contrasted the successful fundraising of public school foundations in wealthier communities with the less successful fundraising of school foundations in poor communities whose schools are needier), but generating a national commitment to adequate public funding of public schools.

    Jan 09, 2010
  • Super article!! Balanced, thoughtful and inspires thought. thank you, Rick! Clara Miller. P.S. I really like the idea of "Weld (or Rivet) for America" for the auto industry. Where can I sign up?

    Jan 08, 2010
  • Thank you, Clara. Means a lot from you! We'll have to check with Jan on the Weld/Rivet sign-up sheet.

    Jan 08, 2010
  • Wow! Cynthia Brandt, the author of the referenced dissertation, is my sister. Go Cynthia!

    Jan 08, 2010
  • Congratulations to Cynthia, it's an important study.

    Jan 08, 2010
  • I sense some axe grinding here. Linda Darling-Hammond’s beef with TFA
    is old news. (Could it be that Arne Duncan’s experience running
    Chicago’s public schools and personal relationship with Pres. Obama
    trumped Darling-Hammond’s qualifications for DOE secretary?) Since
    when did working for a “noble cause” early in one’s career become a
    bad thing? Why slam an effort that’s brought additional human and
    financial resources into many poorly-resourced public schools? Please be a sport and give TFA a chance to respond.
    Terry Savage

    Jan 08, 2010
  • Sorry, but no axe-grinding here at all. I did see the misphrasing that emerged to suggest that TFA killed Darling-Hammond's candidacy for DOE secretary. That wasn't quite what I meant, but TFA was pretty active in opposition to her, and I never saw her research as a "beef." I think that's sort of the point. Discussing some of the other perspectives on TFA doesn't mean a "slam" or "axe-grinding" or a "beef." And of course we're sports, which is why the Blue Avocado maintains an active website with lots of room for comment--pro and con (with and without beef, I guess).

    Jan 08, 2010
  • Great article. Another area of concern is the amount of stress and mental health problems that these young graduates experience in TFA. Education and teaching needs a model that is not only fiscally sustainable but doesn't burn out the human that is in charge of bringing about change.

    Jan 08, 2010
  • Truth be told, I've seen plenty of young teachers suffer stress in the teaching profession (certainly in watching the comings and goings of teachers in my daughter's schools here in DC, as just one set of experiences). But burnout I think is an issue in many parts of the nonprofit sector. It's sort of strange to see how many nonprofits don't pay much attention to the on-the-job stress that leads to burnout.

    Jan 08, 2010
  • As with any organization, Teach for America has its pros and cons, and I appreciate that the author references some of the positive articles that have been published about Teach for America amid his criticisms. I believe much of what this article says is relevant and valid, and as an alumni of Teach for America myself, I would also be curious to know how all of the money raised by the organization is allocated. I was also interested in the findings about the civic engagement of Teach for America alumni. How disappointing that in the aggregate we are voting less, giving less, and being less civically engaged than our peers!
    On the other hand, some of the statements in this article were not adequately researched. It is important to call into question the effectiveness of Teach for America teachers in comparison with our peers. However, if one study is going to be cited, all other relevant and available studies merit mention. In addition to the 2004 Mathematica study that showed that Teach for America teachers were more effective than their peers, a study by the Urban Institute (http://www.urban.org/publications/411642.html) came out with similar findings. My read on all this is that the jury is still out as to whether Teach for America teachers are more or less effective than their peers. I believe more research needs to be done (and hopefully Teach for America will fund such research) that examines the effectiveness of Teach for America teachers throughout the country.
    Second, the references to Teach for America teachers' short stays in the classroom and resume padding were hard not to take personally as a Teach for America alumni in my fourth year of teaching in my original placement school. However, more important than my own feelings about the matter are the facts: 36 percent of TFA alumni have continued as classroom teachers (http://www.educationsector.org/analysis/analysis_show.htm?doc_id=359029).
    Finally, Appleman is cited as saying there is "no correlation" between being smart and being a good teacher. I agree that not every smart person can be a good teacher. However Appleman's statement causes us to avoid examining one of the greatest tragedies in our education system. While I know dozens of wonderful, brilliant teachers, I also encounter too many teachers who are unintelligent. Because of the way the teaching profession is viewed and teachers are compensated in our country, it does not attract as many high achieving individuals as other professions. And being smart does increase a person's ability to be a good teacher. "Tests that assess the literacy levels or verbal abilities of teachers have been shown to be associated with higher levels of student achievement." (http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/books_teacher_quality_execsum_intro/). Furthermore, a study (that I unfortunately can't site because it was an internal document at a consulting agency) showed that a teacher's verbal SAT score was the highest predictor of student achievement in his/her classroom (higher than class size, higher than experience).
    The intention of this article is obviously more to examine Teach for America as a non-profit than to explore the questions of teacher effectiveness and Teach for America's model of teacher recruitment. However, as these questions of educational reform are the ones most near and dear to my heart, I felt compelled to respond!

    Jan 08, 2010
  • Dear Anonymous: That's for the great response. Your comments stand on their own merit and I appreciate the feedback.

    Jan 08, 2010
  • This is a really interesting and eye-opening article. I work in higher education, and we hosted TFA last summer. I never really understood what they did until now - since my best friend was considering joining a few years ago (who has a BA & MA in elementary education), I assumed that all corps members were actual teachers going through an intensive training and were supported by TFA stipend once they completed their summer. I'm not sure how I feel about this program now; my feelings are a bit more ambiguous. It's interesting that the college I'm at needs them so bad to support their own bottom line.

    Jan 10, 2010
  • Dear Anonymous: Your comment links to one of the previous ones about resource-starved public school systems. It's striking how so much of the nonprofit and public sectors operate on a principle of scarcity. There's a story right there.

    Jan 10, 2010
  • Didn't know much about TFA until I read this article. But recognise good journalism when I see it. Have sent on to teacher friends who have told me how much they appreciated cogent overview. Also, thanks for replying to comments - you don't need to reply to this one! - but that is a positive attribute that is sadly lacking with a lot of blogs. PAULA McNULTY, AL!VE (Association of Leaders in Volunteer Engagement)

    Jan 11, 2010
  • Dear Paula: Sorry, I'll disobey and reply! Thanks for the kind comment. And you're right about responding to comments. I think it's important for authors/bloggers to do that. Oddly, I've been discouraged from doing so on some sites that I write for and encouraged (in this case, strongly so by the Avocado's leadership) on other sites. I like it, because I learn so much from the comments.

    Jan 11, 2010
  • Thank you for this thoughtful piece! Yes, the model needs scrutiny, and everyone should welcome deliberation. This hit a nerve! Bravo!

    This model is fueled ever onward by several toxic societal beliefs: our unflagging worship of Youth above all evidence; our wistful longing for an alchemy that transforms inexperience into sustainable solutions to our chronic systemic failures; our lack of fortitude to tackle those failures by way of adequate funding and decision making; our unfortunate 21st century political cannibalizing of our public institutions; and our capitulation to private wealth the right to drive the direction of public good provision.

    When will we try the model of adequately funding institutions to complete their missions? Our society obsesses about excellence, but we focus mistakenly on individual performance at the cost of supporting system-wide functioning. Both need support and attention! We seem to expect education (and other public good-generating fields) to run marathons on broth and crumbs from our taxes, plus random scraps thrown to them by private sources, digestible or not. When the system falters, understandably, just short of the finish line, we fault the individual teachers as weak and throw money to private sector-backed runners (organizations beyond our society-wide political control). They then try to scamper closer to the finish line, sponsoring foundation names writ large on their jerseys, and garner greater praise for smaller distances gained, which only further undermines morale generally.

    I fear this model will prove insidious; it is already ubiquitous. Just today the NYTimes has an article on newly minted attorneys having to defer work at expected high-powered firms for a year-long stint of service in the most challenging courts with the most vulnerable clients. See:
    When will we learn that the most difficult challenges should be matched to the most seasoned performers, whatever the profession? Otherwise the clients bear the burden of the volunteer’s steep learning curve.

    Jan 11, 2010
  • Sarah, you've raised some very important points, and your phrase "When will we try the model of adequately funding institutions to complete their missions?" is remarkably succinct and compelling. Thank you for an eloquent and thoughtful addition to this discussion.

    Jan 11, 2010
  • Dear Rick,
    This is exactly the article I've been waiting to read about TFA since I left it myself in 1997, after one year of service in the Washington, D.C. corps. I had very quickly come to feel that if TFA really and truly had the welfare of disadvantaged students and schools at heart, its mission should have been to ultimately obviate the need for itself as an organization providing poorly trained, stopgap teachers. You have neatly summarized almost every issue I had with the organization itself - most importantly that the level of training and support did not come anywhere near what I would have needed to be a decent teacher. It seemed there was no way that I could in good conscience continue teaching at the level I had been during that first year.
    TFA does a very good job of publicizing the stories of their most successful corps members and those few alum who have become movers and shakers in the worlds of education and public policy, but as a teacher mine was certainly not one of those stories - and I suspect I was part of a largely silent majority. My current contributions to the welfare of young people, through volunteerism and through training to become a school counselor, will probably not merit much lofty praise from the powers that be at TFA either. I must say, though, that it's very reassuring to read I'm not the only one who left and found other paths to civic engagement and involvement in the lives of kids. Thanks for a thoughtful, well-written, and balanced article!

    Jan 11, 2010
  • Dear Anonymous: Thanks for the good comments. Congrats on the school counselor route (which I know requires training). I think that's one of the undervalued roles in public education, we talk about teachers and principals, but I can't tell you how important the role of counselors I've encountered in the public schools. It might not get lofty praise from the social entrepreneurs, but it gets my applause, for however much that counts. Good luck with it.

    Jan 12, 2010
  • Thank you, Mr. Cohen, for this provoking article. As a former TFA-er who finished her two-year stint and promptly left teaching 14 years ago, I have battled through reflecting on my own experience. As the other former TFA-er above notes, you point out my own criticisms of the program based on my experience. I am certainly part of the "silent majority" anonymous mentions, struggling to make sense of our experience as well as with our participation in the 'pitfall' aspects of TFA.
    I am now in a career and follow a life approach that contradicts the findings of the recent Stanford University study. To be sure, my experience in the classroom was indeed a positive influence on me and my life's path. But what about my former students? Was their experience as beneficial as mine?

    Jan 12, 2010
  • I recently read an article on Teach for America that explained how they evaluated their most successful teachers and changed their recruitment criteria in response to what they found.
    The biggest indicators of success were applicants who had persistence ("grittiness") and who had prior success in leading significant changes as demonstrated in their extracurricular activities. This seems like a sound way to select only those who have the best chance to endure the challenging assignment. How many other nonprofits periodically assess their successes and failures and redesign their programs accordingly?

    On another note, my friend is a school counselor who told me that teachers in his district secure tenure after teaching for three years. What other profession leads to this kind of job security in such a short time? Where is the motivation to improve? Part of the problem with improving education has been with teachers' unions who have consistently opposed performance-based reward systems for teachers.
    While Teach for America has its problems, its basic premise that performance is important to measure in teachers and to make adjustments accordingly is something that I support. Rather than blaming the students (that they are uneducatable), teachers need to look at how to improve their teaching so that even the most hard-to-reach students can learn.

    Jan 12, 2010
  • Regarding your point about nonprofits examining their successes and failures, I agree; wouldn't it be wonderful if nonprofits (and corporations and public sector agencies) took hard looks at where they've failed and made appropriate changes? But the "learning from failure" movement is a tough one for most nonprofits, averse as they are to admitting to failures for fear (generally correctly) that they'll be rewarded with zeroes from their funders. So many times, PR and marketing make the opportunities for learning from failure just about impossible.

    Regarding short timeframes for gaining tenure, I don't know that 3-years is the norm for achieving tenure and I don't believe that most underperforming school systems are sitting on their haunches to protect underperforming teachers, the pressures to improve are just too ubiquitous in our economy now. But I wouldn't make the implicit comparison that TFA's self-evaluation of its teachers contrasts with a process substantially lacking in public schools with traditionally credentialed teachers.

    And the other part of this is the mistake that we all make is making a simple cause-effect analysis here, it's teacher-skill/pupil performance. I've certainly seen research talking about the importance of school principals (certainly borne out in my experience). And I've seen the resource issue. I was long involved as a Jersey City municipal official in the Abbott v. Burke cases regarding school financing in New Jersey, and I know that there are plenty of other cases arguing the same point, that inner city schools are frequently facing big educational responsibilities with horribly insufficient resources. That corresponds to the points raised by other commentators here about our national problem with leaving resource-starved institutions to function with inadequate resources and make do.

    I get to watch teachers here in DC (traditionally credentialed teachers) who personally pay for materials such as books, paper, art equipment, and more for their pupils, out of their own pockets notwithstanding their salary standings. Many teachers are subsidizing their school districts. We can't ignore the resource question and shift the issue too heavily onto personality (grittiness) and technique. We have to face up to the fact that as a nation, we've shortchanged investment in education, and it shows in the financial inequalities between urban and suburban per-capita school revenues and expenditures.

    Jan 12, 2010
  • Thank you for this insightful article. You have identified and fairly described the main issues that I, as career educator, perceive as problematic with employing Teach for America Fellows in our public schools. Originally this model was purported to be a temporary staffing strategy that was intended to deal with the personnel shortages in some resource poor schools. Students needed to have a teacher in their classroom while districts figured out how to attract and hold onto certified and effective teachers. It provided immediate relief to children in classrooms without a teacher.

    It seems now that the TFA model is becoming the convenient solution for addressing hard to fill teaching positions. As a result school districts that employ the TFA model have less of an incentive to seek permanent solutions to their staffing shortages.

    As a principal of an urban elementary school and a member of the personnel site selection team at a full site selection school, I have consistently resisted the suggestions of my school districts’ central administration to consider utilizing Teach for America Fellows (TFA) to fill teaching vacancies at my school. The members of our school site staff selection team are interested in hiring intelligent, energetic, and passionate individuals. The teacher candidates we choose to interview are people who have expressed the point of view that they intend to make education their career.

    It takes an enormous amount of energy and focus on the part of our school team to support a novice teacher. In addition it requires years of practice, reflection, commitment to continuing education, and life experience for a teacher to become an effective educator. We see no sense given this perspective to hire someone who plans on remaining at our school for only two years. This is one of the two main reasons we are not interested in hiring TFA fellows.

    Our second and equally important reason for not utilizing this potential staffing pool (TFA) is our concern for the long-term well being of our students. Many of the children we serve have suffered too often from the lost of an adult who they have grown to trust. How well would we serve our children who need stability in relationships as well as environment to set them up for yet another potential sad lost when the TFA teacher moves onto another educational pathway or other career?

    Jan 13, 2010
  • It often takes a lot of energy and focus on the part of parents to support novice teachers as well. Education is a tough job. I can vouch for your point about stability in relationships, again based on my experience as a parent monitoring a daughter in the public school system here in DC. Thanks for providing the perspective of a school principal.

    Jan 13, 2010
  • Keep them out of your district. We let them in and now we can't get rid of them. They are constantly setting us up for litigation because of their lack of experience, and they have an extremely difficult time of connecting with the students. Kuddos to you for resisting the temptation of flashy cheap resources.

    May 16, 2010
  • My daughter is in her first year of TFA. Even though many members of our family have had careers in education, we had never heard of the program until her involvement. She has had the typical exposure to poor teaching as well as the good, and can differentiate between the two models; she didn't need to be trained to make that observation. It's my opinion that many student teachers instinctively grasp teaching effectiveness because of their sharpened interest in the skill. This is the "smart" factor at work.
    TFA works terrifically at motivating these new teachers by emphasizing their role in society and I applaud this approach. For much of my professional career, I've heard derogatory comments about teachers' salaries from other professionals. It's great to see teaching becoming PC due to TFA's influence. Yes, the unions do view them as a threat and for good reason. If TFA had not made the position so desireable, they would not have attracted my daughter in the first place.
    Having gone through my own education training almost thirty years ago, I can emphatically assure you that the whirlwind 5-week training she received was comparable or better to what I received. It was by far and away more focused on classroom management than my undergraduate experience. The model may not be perfect, but in my opinion it is equal to the traditional. Intensive training works. The graduates TFA has seduced respond to that intensity because it's how many of them have functioned their whole lives.
    I appreciate this unvarnished viewpoint I've read here, though, because it certainly reveals more about the program. I still believe that education needs reform and TFA is one way to make that happen.

    Jan 13, 2010
  • Dear Anonymous: There's no question that TFA is part of the confluence of things happening to make changes and bring reform to public education. Almost 40 years ago, I took courses at an education school (I made education my minor at BU and took a bunch of courses at the School of Education). But that was 40 years ago for me. I can't imagine, with all of the societal focus on education, that things haven't changed substantially in education. There are still good programs and "less good" programs, good teachers and bad teachers, and "smart" people will always make an impact in all professions. But I'm increasingly convinced that smart and gritty (from a previous comment above), even with 5 weeks of good training, don't suffice in many of our professions. The nonprofit sector is increasingly seduced with the idea that stipended volunteers can take the place of professionals on long(er) term career tracks. Nonprofit service jobs, like teaching positions, ultimately require some long term professional training, development, support, and stick-to-ittiveness. TFA is part of the equation of bringing change to public education and stipended volunteers are certainly helps to nonprofits, but there's more to the equation in both.

    Jan 13, 2010
  • We can agree to disagree on "smart and gritty." TFA is tapping into the intrinsic motivation that makes a great professional. Without intrinsic desire, a teacher will not achieve greatness (another reason why rewarding better teachers monetarily is sure to fail). TFA appeals to those individuals; that is their selling point. Being in the field and gaining experience with good mentoring is mainly what a new teacher needs, along with a solid background in classroom management. You can't teach a class you cannot control, nor can you develop professionally if you have not the desire within.

    Jan 13, 2010
  • I don't think we disagree on smart and gritty, they're important attributes for success anyplace, in the classroom and on the frontlines of the nonprofit sector. Intrinsic desire, core motivation is crucial. But it's not sufficient. You need the desire within, but you also need, as you acknowledge, good mentoring. And I believe you need good education and training as well.

    I'm often surprised by how much at this old age of mine I still draw on what I learned as an undergraduate college student, as a grad student, as a work-study student (before the advent of "internships") in the anti-poverty world, as a young employee in nonprofit community development, and elsewhere. I treasure those mentors who guided my on-the-job learning, but also those mentors who guided my studies, my research, my classroom training too, and particularly those mentors who did both! Thanks so much for your comments here.

    Jan 13, 2010
  • :-) Last comment, I promise. I guess I didn't make it clear that she HAS received mentoring throughout the process. It's been constant. She has received everything you state in your first paragraph. That's why I must disagree with a lot of the criticism, based on her experience. I don't think she will be one that leaves the program early and I think she will continue to teach after her stint is completed. I acknowledge that perhaps she is having a unique experience in her region or perhaps TFA is responding to the criticism by altering their program. Whichever it is, that proves that choosing candidates based on their intrinsic desire, "smart & grittiness" is a great decision, and if you're a nonprofit that makes changes for the better, you've got a good thing going on. Thank you for the opportunity to present my views here.

    Jan 14, 2010
  • and thank you for the continued dialogue!

    Jan 14, 2010
  • Great work, as always, Rick. This is insightful and on the mark. The scary part of course is that TFA is just a poster child, but is joined by so many others that talk the same talk but fail the walk.
    Thank you for poking holes in the inflated claims and keeping accountability front and center.
    Andrew Crosby

    Jan 13, 2010
  • Thank you Andrew!

    Jan 13, 2010
  • Rick, 
    This is a great article and has inspired a discussion which, judging by the commenters, was clearly in need of a forum! Thank you for that.
    To add some fuel to the fire:
    Today we launched a video series which serves as a window into the actual experiences of 1st and 2nd year TFA teachers that we followed in the course of our education reporting for PBS. We encourage you and your readers to watch and react here: http://bit.ly/6Vca9G
    John Merrow has also blogged about the Obama administration's embrace of TFA, and the challenges of learning to teach while on the job: http://bit.ly/66cAL1

    Jan 13, 2010
  • Thanks for the links. Yes, I think that the amount and quality of discussion in response to this article suggests that the discussion was brewing and needed an outlet. We'll definitely look for the video series.

    Jan 13, 2010
  • Thank YOU for this fabulous TFA article; it summed up perfectly what so many of us have been feeling.

    Jan 13, 2010


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