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.

 

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Comments

Very interesting article. I wonder if TFA could start a program to help teachers LEAVE the profession when they realize it's time to move on. It is hard for many of us, when we're young--or old! :-) to know which kind of work suits us best, and we mature and change anyway. So, after young people have gone into teaching, filled with energy and enthusiasm, and then realize it's time for a career change for them, it is very very hard. And teaching is very very hard.

I wish we had a path to get "good" teachers in for say, ten years, but had a sort of guaranteed career path for them out, if they wanted--i.e., not graduating into school administration, but into another respected profession or work. Just musing, thinking about some time I spent in a local very good high school. Joy Hahn, San Fran

Dear Joy: I think your comment applies to more than the teaching profession. For many people in the work environment, sometimes they come to a recognition that their useful time in their job is pretty much up--but they're stuck, without a good path to what should be an appropriate and productive next career. Of course, in all professions, there are also those people who should realize that their time is up, but they don't get it. Thanks for the comment.

FIRST: The success and failure of large-scale, factory based education, public or private, is based on the premises that we can substitute process for individual adult attention.

I mean we train kids and adults to suppress the fact that they are social animals. We con them into believing in the effectiveness of an educational process that chooses the least effective pedagogic pathway available. This choice is founded upon on an authority-based, hierarchy-worshiping economic system.

The reason Teach For America succeeds at instruction is because of those teachers’ hyper-passionate investment of personal emotional energy in the educational process. This passion overcomes the personal social isolation of students from teachers presenting in the classroom structure.

This emotional energy is anti-hierarchy. That is why these teachers burn out, or are booted out, after three years. That is why the program works for the system. The loose cannon are eliminated from the process before they can do lasting damage to the bureaucracy. Real teachers with that degree of intensity are simply not tolerated in most places.

The elimination of seasoned, trained professionals, in favor of naïve enlistees, is a fundamentalist, classicist assault on workers. Workers create intrinsic value. In the Latter Days of Puritan Capitalism, their human sacrifice sustains those for whom measures of value must be created, dare I say contrived: Ideologues and financiers.

Hi - Great article! As someone who worked for a nonprofit that partnered with our local school district for many years to support public school teachers in their classrooms, I have found the nationwide adulation of TFA puzzling and finally grating. I think its success is due to a confluence of factors -- the championing of a private corps of individuals by conservatives who see support of TFA as essentially bashing of the traditional public school systems and teachers' unions (see also its championing of Charter schools); our society's adulation of all things new, young and "bright"; the almost wholesale acceptance of transferring the culture and practices from the tech business sector; and the desire for upper and middle class college students to obtain authenticity by parachuting in (and then out) of a "gritty" urban experience. My first reason explains the Bush admin support of TFA, my second the Obama admin support of TFA. Perhaps the TFA leaders should study the ACORN model and learn. Believing your own PR and building a network of supporters in the public sector does not necessarily translate to long term success. By the way have you noticed the partnership between TFA and KIPP?

Thanks for the comment, all good points (except that I'm not quite sure what you meant by "study the ACORN model"--do you mean that regarding "believing your own PR"?). Re the relationship between KIPP and TFA, the executive director of KIPP was one of the original staff at TFA. According to this 2008 article (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/19/education/19teach.html), the KIPP executive director, Richard Barth, is married to TFA founder Wendy Kopp.

and besides the familial relationship between KIPP and TFA, I noted this in an article from Bloomberg News today: "About two-thirds of KIPP’s principals and a third of its teachers are alumni of Teach for America, a New York-based nonprofit that recruits graduates of Ivy League and other top colleges to teach in high-poverty areas for two years. Feinberg and Levin met when both joined Teach for America in 1992." (http://www.blueavocado.org/comment/reply/484/1919)

The link for the Bloomberg News article in that note is http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601109&sid=afQOvU9A45vA&pos=15. Sorry, I thought i had it in there, must have lost it.

This is a new article about teachers, unions, school reform, performance and use of TFA teachers that might be interesting to all who were piqued by Mr. Cohen's article.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/03/02/michelle-rhee-threatens-e_n_171...

What a lot of people don't seem to know/understand about TFA is that the real power of its alumni network doesn't just go away if corps members leave teaching or even education after their two-year stint. The achievement gap is such a monster, it needs to be attacked from all sides. It's tied to poverty, health care, social services, city planning, immigration, real estate, employment, racial relations, law, and I don't know how many other intricacies of urban life.

No matter what their career plans, TFA teachers' perspectives have been changed forever by this incredibly humbling, eye-opening experience. The idea is to shape their viewpoints so that whatever they do end up doing in life, they consider the effects their work will have on communities like the one they served during those two years. Teach for America WANTS its corps members to become doctors and lawyers and politicians and social workers (and teachers/administrators, of course) because it's impossible to do anything about the tragedy of public education without far-reaching systemic change.

The big picture is about so much more than the classroom. We NEED people to leave teaching so we can have advocates in all sectors of society.
I know you're trying to present an alternative view to the overwhelmingly positive picture the media paint, so I won't go into most of my disagreements with your article, but I would like to touch on one: the claim that experienced teachers are let go and replaced with less expensive TFA teachers is a complete fallacy. Teachers unions are unbelievably powerful, and, although I'm a supporter of unions in general, I cannot count the number of teachers I encountered at my placement district that would have been fired in a heartbeat for inefficiency and poor performance at any other job. When layoffs occur, it's a strict "last hired, first fired" policy. No exceptions. Talent and performance have literally nothing to do with it. Even as a current school teacher, I sincerely believe districts' inability to get rid of horrific teachers is one of the most serious obstacles to education reform.

Dear Anonymous: We were trying to paint a balanced portrait, since most of the coverage of TFA is pretty much over-the-top positive. A broad-brush critique of teachers unions is just as bad as a broad brush critique of TFA'ers. And there's no question that we see the TFA'ers' exposure to education as getting them engaged in education after their TFA experience.

But let's avoid the broad-brush stuff on the unions too. The HuffPost article cited by a previous commentator was a very indepth review of the DC Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee's quite broad-brush attack on the teachers union here. While I'm no defender of THIS teacher's union, I am quite unhappy with how Rhee's critique of the union (and its defense of teachers hired through "traditional processes") affects non-TFA teachers. Remember, this past October, Rhee fired 266 teachers in DC (after hiring teachers in the summer, including TFA teachers) ostensibly for budget reasons. Just recently, she said in an interview with Fast Company magazine that she fired teachers who were sexual predators and corporal punishers. All 266? Some? One? Two? The budget explanation disappeared, and her comments constituted a horrible attack on some decent people (just take the teacher who was fired at my daughter's school, he was the best, and not a predator, abuser, or anything else--but now his reputation and those of 266 others are besmirched with that nasty charge). The teachers union here, handicapped by a really bad recent spate of corrupt leadership, provided lackluster defense of the 266 teachers. We need people committed to strengthening the public education system, and if TFA grads are bringing that energy to our society, that's great. And I don't think that was negated by the article.

Broad brush adulation or condemnation of anything, TFA or the unions (look at the history of teachers unions, why they exist, what they did and in many cases still do for the teaching profession), isn't really necessary. Thanks so much for the comment. Much appreciated.

I was surprised reading your reply because my comment wasn't intended to be broad brush condemnation of teachers unions. Like you said about TFA, there's always room to improve an organization, and one way to improve teachers unions and school districts would be to make hiring and firing decisions based on competence rather than tenure.

Michelle Rhee is obviously a controversial figure and the DC situation and her comments about it, however tasteless and unfortunate, aren't really a microcosm of the larger educational picture in the US. That's why she gets so much press--because she does things that nobody else does. I'm certainly not saying that's a good thing--just saying that situation is not the norm.

I agree with you that TFA grads brining energy to society was not negated by the article. The comments about what alumni can do outside the field of education was meant as a reply to the purported problem that TFA'ers come in for two years and then leave, never returning to education. The statistics about who stays in education don't include all the people who work outside the field but are still contributing to the betterment of conditions that affect the achievement gap.

Hi Anonymous: I didn't intend to mean that you were painting with a broad brush on unions, but I was simply making the point about TFA'ers and unions together. My apologies.

Lately I've seen a lot of broad swipes at the unions and at the qualities of traditional teachers. Oh boy do I dislike it--I presume as you do--when I see sweeping generalizations about classes of people (like teachers) and organizations (like unions or nonprofits) based on relatively little information. In my position as a columnist asked to write "opinion", it's an easy thing to do. That's why I try to find research and cite people who have looked at and studied issues in some depth. Thanks for the reminder, much appreciated.

Rick,
Thank you for posting this interesting article on Teach For America, and you raise some interesting points!
Of course, you overlooked a few important details that I think are worth noting:
There have been lots of studies done on TFA (some good, and some not do good), and you only included one of those studies.

As you probably know, the education policy journal Education Next recently issued a report card analyzing and grading the most frequently cited studies on Teach For America released before 2008. While the studies varied widely in methodology and findings.
The Darling-Hammond study (which you used) received a "C" as a result of its poor methodology.
On the other hand, a 2004 study done by Mathematica Policy Research received an "A" for being a gold-standard study, and the key finding was that "students of Teach For America corps members attained greater gains in math and equivalent gains in reading versus students of other teachers, including veteran and certified teachers."

Other RIGOROUS studies on Teach For America have shown basically the same thing: Teach For America corps members are about as good as, and in some cases better than, traditionally certified teachers.
One of your anonymous posters wrote on January 8: "TFA should be evaluated for the effectiveness of its teachers in the classroom."
That's right, they should be.

That's why you should know that a 2008 study by the Urban Institute and CALDER found that "Teach For America teachers were more effective than other teachers, including more experienced teachers and those fully certified in their field. "
More studies that found a positive impact of Teach For America corps members can be found here: http://www.teachforamerica.org/about/research.htm
Thanks for taking the time to do some "surface level" research on TFA. Of course, a more in-depth report would have allowed some of the facts to rise about the myths that the unions would love to have us believe!

Dear Anonymous: Thanks very much for your comment. There's so much for all of us to learn about the state-of-the-art in education research. My article was certainly limited by its length, which I guess makes it "surface level" in your analysis. I was simply presenting some of the material out on both sides of the TFA issue, and my article referenced the positive studies as well as the less positive. I may have given a bit more attention to the critics simply because they get so much less airplay than the pro-TFA commentary.

In any case, I know the magazine, Education Next, and I had seen the grades given to the various studies. Education Next is an interesting example to cite. Two of its three sponsors are the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a well known conservative think tank, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a well known proponent of school choice. In fact, the senior editor of Education Next is (or was, I may not be up to date) Chester Finn, who is the president of the Fordham Institute, and Mike Petrelli, a senior guy at the Fordham Institute (who edits the Institute's Education Gadfly) is (or was) listed as one of Education Next's executive editors. Others on the Education Next website listed as executive editors are Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute (another conservative think tank), Terry Moe (who I recall as a school vouchers proponent and has written rather negatively about the impact of unions on public education, cf. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122748933977852023.html), and Herbert Walberg (who was and may still be chair of the board of the Heartland Institute, yet another conservative think tank).

I like looking at Education Next (though the latest issue's article on Michelle Rhee as "DC's Braveheart" is a bit tough to take), and some of its writers are really excellent (for example, I have long loved ED Hirsch's writings on cultural literacy, for example). But Education Next's evaluation of various studies might--might--be contradicted by some other differently politically motivated analyst's evaluation, perhaps reversing the grades of the cited studies. The last line of your comment, that "a more in-depth report would have allowed some of the facts to rise about the myths that the unions would love to have us believe," I think indicates something about your political lens. These are all fascinating issues.

Perhaps, in the future, the Avocado can invite more "in-depth" reporting pro and con about TFA to deal with th shortcomings of my "surface level" research. Thanks again for the critique of my piece.

Thank you for giving a voice to the silenced majority. As a TFA alum who is still in the classroom, I can tell you I often feel bullied by the very organization that recruited me. My ideas and criticisms are taken with fake smiles, and later ignored. TFA leadership is not interested in trying to make the organization better. It is run by a bunch of type-A, immature adults who have way too much power and influence. Those of us who remain in the classroom are constantly bombarded with stories of "more impressive" corps members who left the classroom and are impacting the society in "more meaningful ways". When you do speak up, you are punished for ruining the "survey results". Two examples are worth noting here. One time, too many members of my corps year gave negative feedback on a survey. We got a stern talking to about how these surveys are viewed by the public and we needed to change our attitude. For the end of year survey everyone decided to lie, TFA got the results that they wanted, and we were praised for having some of the best survey results in the country. As another example, I have always been an outspoken member of my corps. One year I decided that I wanted to share my knowledge of teaching at Summer Institute. I was encouraged to apply and did so. I didn't receive the job. At first I was upset; I knew I had student mastery scores and assessment passage rates that were among the best in the city. I later found out from a friend who works for recruitment that there were concerns about my view of TFA and that I might corrupt new recruits. I ultimately lost the position to someone who was leaving the classroom and who was a terrible teacher [he mastered the art of lying about his data]. These and other incidents have led me to the understanding that TFA is not what these communities need. Too many corps members join for the wrong reasons and pretend to leave for the right ones. These are army of resume padders. They know who they are and have an interest in keeping people like me quiet. They leverage their new positions and influence to aid TFA in keeping the silent majority from making headlines. In addition, corps members are known to lie about student data. Unless the study is carried out by a reputable researcher or uses state standardized assessments, don't believe any of the hype surrounding significant gains in the classroom. I teach an assessed subject and get graded by the state. This is much different than teachers who get to make their own tests and later say look how much my students learned. And finally, TFA needs to stop sending me emails about drinking and happy hour. This is supposed to be a non-profit that works with children. If people want to drink, that's their personal right to do so. I just think it is extremely unprofessional and risky to fund the drinking habits of recent college grads in the name of building corps culture. We are teachers and should behave accordingly when representing the name of our schools and organization. I am waiting for the day when corps member are caught on facebook wearing their corps shirts and getting tipsy. Talk about a public relations nightmare.

Thank you for giving a voice to the silenced majority. As a TFA alum who is still in the classroom, I can tell you I often feel bullied by the very organization that recruited me. My ideas and criticisms are taken with fake smiles, and later ignored.

TFA leadership is not interested in trying to make the organization better. It is run by a bunch of type-A, immature adults who have way too much power and influence. Those of us who remain in the classroom are constantly bombarded with stories of "more impressive" corps members who left the classroom and are impacting the society in "more meaningful ways". When you do speak up, you are punished for ruining the "survey results".

Two examples are worth noting here. One time, too many members of my corps year gave negative feedback on a survey. We got a stern talking to about how these surveys are viewed by the public and we needed to change our attitude. For the end of year survey everyone decided to lie, TFA got the results that they wanted, and we were praised for having some of the best survey results in the country.

As another example, I have always been an outspoken member of my corps. One year I decided that I wanted to share my knowledge of teaching at Summer Institute. I was encouraged to apply and did so. I didn't receive the job. At first I was upset; I knew I had student mastery scores and assessment passage rates that were among the best in the city. I later found out from a friend who works for recruitment that there were concerns about my view of TFA and that I might corrupt new recruits. I ultimately lost the position to someone who was leaving the classroom and who was a terrible teacher [he mastered the art of lying about his data].

These and other incidents have led me to the understanding that TFA is not what these communities need. Too many corps members join for the wrong reasons and pretend to leave for the right ones. These are army of resume padders. They know who they are and have an interest in keeping people like me quiet. They leverage their new positions and influence to aid TFA in keeping the silent majority from making headlines. In addition, corps members are known to lie about student data. Unless the study is carried out by a reputable researcher or uses state standardized assessments, don't believe any of the hype surrounding significant gains in the classroom. I teach an assessed subject and get graded by the state. This is much different than teachers who get to make their own tests and later say look how much my students learned.

And finally, TFA needs to stop sending me emails about drinking and happy hour. This is supposed to be a non-profit that works with children. If people want to drink, that's their personal right to do so. I just think it is extremely unprofessional and risky to fund the drinking habits of recent college grads in the name of building corps culture. We are teachers and should behave accordingly when representing the name of our schools and organization. I am waiting for the day when corps member are caught on facebook wearing their corps shirts and getting tipsy. Talk about a public relations nightmare.

Thank you for giving a voice to the silenced majority. As a TFA alum who is still in the classroom, I can tell you I often feel bullied by the very organization that recruited me. My ideas and criticisms are taken with fake smiles, and later ignored.

TFA leadership is not interested in trying to make the organization better. It is run by a bunch of type-A, immature adults who have way too much power and influence. Those of us who remain in the classroom are constantly bombarded with stories of "more impressive" corps members who left the classroom and are impacting the society in "more
meaningful ways". When you do speak up, you are punished for ruining the
"survey results".

Two examples are worth noting here. One time, too many members of my corps year gave negative feedback on a survey. We got a stern talking to about how these surveys are viewed by the public and we needed to change our attitude. For the end of year survey everyone decided to
lie, TFA got the results that they wanted, and we were praised for having some of the best survey results in the country.

As another example, I have always been an outspoken member of my corps. One year I decided that I wanted to share my knowledge of teaching at Summer Institute. I was encouraged to apply and did so. I didn't receive the job. At first I was upset; I knew I had student mastery scores and assessment passage rates that were among the best in the city. I later found out from a friend who works for recruitment that there were concerns about my view of TFA and that I might corrupt new recruits. I ultimately lost the position to someone who was leaving the classroom and who was a terrible teacher [he mastered the art of lying about his data].

These and other incidents have led me to the understanding that TFA is not what these communities need. Too many corps members join for the wrong reasons and pretend to leave for the right ones. These are army of resume padders. They know who they are and have an interest in keeping people like me quiet. They leverage their new positions and influence to aid TFA in keeping the silent majority from making headlines. In addition, corps members are known to lie about student data. Unless the study is carried out by a reputable researcher or uses state standardized assessments, don't believe any of the hype surrounding significant gains in the classroom. I teach an assessed subject and get graded by the state. This is much different than teachers who get to make their own tests and later say look how much my
students learned.

And finally, TFA needs to stop sending me emails about drinking and happy hour. This is supposed to be a non-profit that works with children. If people want to drink, that's their personal right to do so.I just think it is extremely unprofessional and risky to fund the
drinking habits of recent college grads in the name of building corps culture. We are teachers and should behave accordingly when representing the name of our schools and organization. I am waiting for the day when corps member are caught on facebook wearing their corps shirts and getting tipsy. Talk about a public relations nightmare.

Enjoyed the read. I am a teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Last year almost 400 teachers were laid off and this year 500 have already received notices that they will lose their jobs. The criteria for cuts is indiscriminate and inconsistent at best. However, CMS is still committed to taking on at least 150 NEW TFA recruits for the 2010-2011 year and is engaged in fundraising efforts to get as many as 250 NEW recruits. The greatest bone of contention is that if, in fact, cuts are being made due to economy--why are we "hiring" these TFA'ers?

I have chosen teaching as my profession. I am highly qualified. I am highly effective in my classroom. I have chosen to find a job outside of CMS for next year BECAUSE of a growing disregard for teachers in our system. Next year, our high school classes are looking at 40-45 students per class. We don't have the money to keep staff, but we DO have the money for TFA recruits. We don't have the money to keep highly qualified teachers with experience (because they do cost more) so they are being replaced by TFA "scabs". And now... North Carolina is not a Union state--we are not allowed to have teachers union. For the past 2 years, the state has frozen our pay scale. Now, CMS is choosing to replace staff with lesser qualified individuals. Morale is low. Ultimately, at the end of the day, the students and families of my community are being cheated and short-changed due to mis-mangagement and poor decision making.

Thanks for your comment, but I'm sorry to hear about the layoffs in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools--and your departure from the system as well. My recent article for the Blue Avocado on public policy related to volunteerism (and stipended volunteerism) suggests that we have to pay attention to how public policy may be inducing, perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not, the substitution of low-paid (stipended) staff for higher paid personnel in nonprofit and public sector agencies, in your case and here in DC where I live, laying off teachers while recruiting new TFA personnel. There are many difficult labor policy issues to be addressed here, but many people seem to take questions about the policy and employment impacts of stipended personnel replacing full-time career path personnel as affronts to the sincerity and depth of their community service beliefs. I'm very glad that the Blue Avocado has taken up this issue in a couple of articles and stimulated a very vigorous dialogue with its readers. Good luck to you in your next stop as a teacher, I'm sorry that it won't be in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system.

Rick, Thank you for a good article. I just came across it as I am new to the non-profit world and to blue avocado. My fiancee is starting with Teach for America in the fall, and several of the questions you raised were similar questions we considered. My fiancee has a passion for helping in schools and being a part of closing the education gap, but of course she also knows that the program is a good opportunity for her resume in case she decides she does not want to teach as a career. Your points about less skilled workers not being as helpful as they may seem is definitely more than valid, but she is happy to have the opportunity to be a part of a program that gives her a chance to make less money to start with but to have an obvious chance to make an impact in the lives of students. Also, the idea of TFA teachers taking jobs away from other teachers disturbed us from the beginning, yet that did not mean she wanted to pass up the opportunity. I know this article focused more on the concept of TFA and offering a healthy critique, but I would love to hear any advice you might have to a teacher going in to TFA. Are there any ways that you notice she could help bring positive change to the TFA program, address problems she sees, relate with non-TFA teachers, etc.? Thanks again for a thought provoking article. Andrew

(From Rick Cohen): Having watched my daughter's public school teachers here in DC, my thoughts are as follows:

(1) Learn from the older teachers: I've been saddened by the press reporting on schools in DC as though the poverty of the kids somehow can be thoroughly negated and corrected by their teachers by virtue of having the kids in classes for a few hours a day. Lots of older teachers have a ton to teach young teachers, TFAers and others, about education, and they deserve the respect of being sought out for their experience and wisdom. It's not a matter of past being prologue, but learning from and absorbing their experience as young teachers chart new ways.

(2) Work on alternative credentialing: I've seen a lot of coverage recently that suggests that there might be a way of training and credentialing teachers that is some steps up from the TFA model but different than the traditional ed school model. If TFAers come to the table to work with "traditionally credentialed" teachers to jointly think through new models, something positive might result.

(3) Work with all teachers on labor issues: As the teacher layoffs combined with TFA hirings in DC, Detroit, and other cities show, sometimes TFA teachers get put in the awkward position of manipulated on labor issues. While the teacher's union here in DC is nothing to write home about, there are lots of good reasons for why teachers unions exist. I'm not arguing for the unions, I'm arguing that TFA teachers have to think of themselves as colleagues of the teachers already in the schools, not something apart, and they have to be willing to stand with other teachers when school administrations engage in unjustified layoffs and other dubious labor actions.

(4) Engage in the politics of TFA: I've noticed a lot of the recent defenses of TFA (for example, in the wake of the recent decision in Minnesota regarding TFA teachers) that have strongly conservative political undertones that I don't think many TFA'ers necessarily buy into. During and after their TFA teaching experiences, TFA'ers ought to be fighting against political efforts to make TFA one of the tools in the quiver of strategies against rather than for public schools. TFA could be and should be developing a cadre of advocates for public education, not for the increasingly insidious efforts toward privatizing schools. These are my off-the-cuff thoughts. Good question, Andrew. Best of luck to your fiancee.

As the wife of a certified teacher, I was very interested in this article. My husband is highly qualified in two areas and has been fortunate to keep his job. He constantly hears of teachers who are being laid off yet the individuals who are part of Teach for America keep their jobs because they are being funded by the government. One of his colleagues has been in this program for 2 years, but is leaving teaching already (not certified yet) to pursue and entirely different degree. Many organizations are formed because it seems that the government cannot adequately meet our needs. It appeared for a while that we did not have the number of qualified teachers in the classroom. This is not just in education, unqualified people work in many number of jobs, but this doesn't mean that the government should pay to put them somewhere else and see what happens. The basic idea is good, please don't get me wrong, but with all good things there are some problems.

Public policy is more complex than advocates or opponents of particular policies would have us believe. That's the important point you make in your last sentence.

In "systems," there are often occasions in which interventions and actions (such as TFA in education, or stipended volounteerism in my current Blue Avocado article) lead to unanticipated results. It's not because of bad intentions, but because the systems we're dealing with are complex, interrelated, and dynamic.

So the fact that in some school systems, TFA teachers (who are there because of their desire to help children in the poorest performing schools and to help bridge school performance gaps) get used as ploys in teacher contract negotiations (replacing more expensive teachers with less expensive teachers, or replacing unionized teachers with teachers who aren't or are unlikely to become union members) simply demonstrates your point that "with all good things there are some problems."

The challenge for us in the field--and for public policy makers--is to look at the anticipated and unanticipated consequences of public policy interventions, examine the results, and determine what kinds of adjustments in policy and practice need to be made--and then to be on the lookout for the next set of anticipated and unanticipated outcomes.

Thanks very much for your comment.

Rick, I really appreciated your article. I currently work with a Title 1 School full of TFA teachers. They certainly do have enthusiasm. Having said that, they do NOT have data that shows they did any better than the seasoned, certified teachers in the school. Most of them are conceited about who they are and do not like to do things the way the school suggests; rather they only want to do things the 'TFA' way which is not always the best according to different populations.

I am so discouraged with this program. So few stay in the classroom and therefore do not really commit to a long term mind set. Most just want the Master's Degree and the nearly $10,000 at the end of the two years. All of our TFA teachers started way above the salary offered to other certified new teachers. What a shame. I think there is hype and really good publicity about the oraganization and really very little data comparing ther efforts to other certified teachers.

Dear Anonymous: Thanks very much for your note. I've gotten similar emails and comments in response to this and other articles I've written recently. What is interesting is that the research really doesn't do or say what the TFA advocates say it does. But belief seems to trump the research. This is one issue, and I guess it's not uncommon, in which ideology (I don't mean this pejoratively) wins, regardless of the data.

Very informative article. I am the parent of a 2010 corp member and can tell you my daughter has had her school principal in her classroom ONCE in nine weeks. She has received NO mentoring from the TFA organization. When she asked for help she was reprimanded and told to be more independent. i'm tired of hearing how great the TFA corp members are. They throw them to the sharks and both the staff at her school and TFA have been no help at all. It is very sad indeed. GSL

Dear GSL: I can imagine that the school staff might be resentful of and not necessarily helpful to the TFA teachers, since they come into the schools without having had to address the educational and credentialing hurdles of "traditional teachers," though I think as a matter of course, anyone working with the kids in the school should get supported--it's the kids who lose out. But the lack of support from TFA itself is not good news. Teaching is one difficult profession, it shouldn't be a "throw them to the sharks" OJT learning experience. The kids really lose out in that circumstance. Thanks for the comment.

Here's a quote from Time that everyone may find interesting:

"Pretty much every article about TFA states the boilerplate assertion that the research about its effectiveness is "mixed" or "inconclusive." Actually, that's only true if you think the best way to consume research is to literally pile all the different studies up and see which pile is higher. Again and again, the most rigorous studies show that TFA's selection process and boot-camp training produce teachers who are as good, and sometimes better, than non-TFA teachers, including those who have been trained in traditional education schools and those who have been teaching for decades. "The weight of the evidence suggests that TFA teachers as a whole are at least as effective as other teachers in the schools they end up in," says University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, one of the nation's leading researchers on teacher effectiveness. Another solid indicator? The marketplace. Superintendents and principals, who are on the hook for results, can't get enough TFA teachers.
But it's worth noting that while the TFA corps overall turns in strong results, that doesn't mean all of its teachers can walk on water. Some of them turn out to be total duds. One recent example: when then-schools chancellor Michelle Rhee (herself a TFA alumna) told principals in Washington to get rid of low-performers as part of a budget reduction measure, there were some TFA teachers who got booted as a result. Being better on average doesn't mean universal excellence."

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2047211,00.html#ixzz1EMo2...

Thank you for a thought-provoking article.

TFA embodies a conundrum I have thought about for a very long time, going all the way back to Manifest Destiny with teachers and missionaries sent to--for example--the Philippines at the turn of the century (I am Filipina-American). The attention by critics and supporters tends to focus on the individual volunteers, their intention and self-sacrifice, and less on the the invisible, more complex systemic issues that are the context for volunteers, irrespective of their heroism or effectiveness. The very name, "Teach for America," is resonant with the iconic, mythic journey of the idealistic Mr/Ms America. It is impossible to critique that without appearing to be ungracious, at best, and unpatriotic at worst. There are competing, if not conflicting, world views embedded in the debates about TFA.

I offer a term "iatrogenic service," borrowing from medicine the term "iatrogenic" to indicate medical treatment that causes unintended harm. The intractable issues of miseducation in the context of resource deficits, include volunteerist teaching that--as a system, not necessarily on an individual level--is incommensurate with what it will take to effectively and ethically address the issues. I don't "blame" TFA founders/leaders/volunteers. However, we need to figure out how to make best and responsible use of people with good hearts, who want to "do good" by offering their services, while also addressing the systemic failures and dysfunctions that require their volunteerist heroism in the first place.

Any update on where all their funding goes?

I am grateful to find this article, even 1 1/2 years after its publication, as it echos my experience. I am currently completing the Teach for America (TFA) 2011 Los Angeles Summer Institute, and have been shocked by the program's focus on the Corps Members (CMs, or teacher recruits) at the expense of our summer school students. I am a non-traditional Corps Member, meaning that I am not a recent college grad (I completed my Master's degree in 1986) and am the mother of two teenaged children in low-income public schools themselves. It was my experience volunteering in inner-city public schools serving underprivileged students that led me to enthusiastically apply to TFA.

Once on the inside of the program, I was shocked to meet numerous credentialed teachers who joined TFA as their only way to get a job and "clear" their credential, after being laid off due to budgetary cuts and low seniority. They actually need to join TFA to secure a job? And TFA pays for them (but doesn't pay them) to replicate their training, only at a much lower level of quality and engagement with the essential skills required to be an effective teacher.

I can assure all readers that TFA does not pay the teacher recruits, rather school districts do. I have an offer to teach high school math for two years, but my salary, health benefits, and pension are all the district's responsibility. TFA pays their own staff, almost all of whom are former TFA recruits now out of the classroom, to "oversee" the new, hastily-trained recruits to make sure they are not too far off the mark in their teaching. The success stories TFA holds up are of young, single people who devote their lives -- mornings, evenings, and weekends -- to their students until they burn out. How can that be a sustainable model for developing devoted teachers, who need to balance their life and their work regardless of how passionate they are to help others?

Sadly, I am so exhausted by the intensive Summer Institute schedule, often referred to by TFA staff members and new recruits alike as a form of "hazing" or boot camp (it is almost impossible to get more than 4-5 hours of sleep a night, which is not nearly enough for this perimenopausal lady, together with a tearing down of individual persona, as the military does as well as cults, to rebuild the new recruits into the desired soldier or disciple ) that I now doubt I have the stamina. And I want to be a teacher. This is no resume-filler for me, and not for the other non-traditional CMs I've met. We are here for the credential and job, unable to afford school without pay with families to feed. Wouldn't you think we might be exactly the answer, people dedicated to teaching and willing to switch careers for the low pay but high impact of teaching? Instead TFA fosters a fraternity-party ambience, at least here in Los Angeles, and makes no accommodation for older CMs. My first roommate was 21, right out of college, and invited ten people to our room for vodka shots before dinner.

TFA seems to care more about the lesson plans we turn in than the effectiveness of our teaching in the classroom. I am passionate about teaching, and dedicated to closing the achievement gap, but have sadly found that TFA is not the way for me to rise to this huge challenge and make my contribution.

And where does all that money go? To pay the high salaries (much higher than teachers are paid) of TFA alumni, who join the regional TFA offices after they burn out, to oversee the new TFA recruits. It is a kind of Ponzai scheme, with ever larger numbers of recruits needed to justify the foundation and grant money to pay for the increasing numbers of alumni, who use the revolving door to "stay in education" by joining the TFA regional offices. Many of these teach or supervise new recruits at the Summer Institutes across the country, where 5-6 weeks of work pays close to a teacher's yearly salary... and their salaries again are paid through TFA's funding...

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