Founded in 1989 by Wendy Kopp based on her senior thesis at Princeton University, Teach for America recruits from the nation’s best universities and colleges the top students from all majors for a two-year commitment to teach in the nation’s most blighted schools. “These are the lowest performing schools, so we need the strongest performing teachers,” said Miami’s Holmes Elementary Asst. Principal Julian Davenport, pleased with his teaching staff of 60% from Teach for America. With a budget approaching $200 million, Teach for America recruits make up about 25% of teachers in 60 of the nation’s lowest performing schools. Armed with a new $50 million grant, TFA recruiters scour college campuses around the country for the best-and-brightest students now faced with dismal employment prospects. While school districts around the country lay off teachers, TFA keeps adding to the ranks.
Criticism of TFA surrounds two major fronts: (a) teachers are inexperienced and superficially trained and (b) zealous recruits leave teaching after a two-year commitment. “I think the jury is out,” said Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Tony Wagner, part of TFA’s first class of recruits in 1991. Today, TFA recruited 5,200 core members based on 48,000 applicants or roughly 10.8%. Accepting only 10.8% of applicants speaks volumes about the current economic conditions leaving college graduates scrambling for employment. Wagner’s research suggests that TFA members, that go through a rigorous six-week crash teaching course the summer before work assignments, isn’t enough to improve outcomes in blighted schools. Wagner’s research doesn’t take into account the dearth of any teachers discouraged from the career because of abysmal funding problems.
With strong corporate partnerships and generous government grants, TFA has become the envy of the non-profit teaching world, as well as state-funded school districts. Budget shortfalls and brutal cuts around the country have left the teaching profession without enough recruits to fill teaching ranks, whether in affluent or poverty-ridden school districts. “Nobody should teach in a high poverty school without having already demonstrated that the are a fabulous teacher,” said The Education Trust president Kati Haycok, a long-time advocate of TFA. Haycok knows that most experienced teachers shift teaching positions out of blighted schools into more affluent communities. Burnout rates among the most well-trained and experienced teachers stem from low-come schools where high percentages of language problems and learning disabilities make the classroom a nightmare.
Applications for TFA more than doubled since 2008, the year the U.S. economy went into a nosedive. Today’s dismal employment picture has given TFA and the nation’s graduate schools a superb applicant pool, providing highly qualified graduates to fill diminishing job openings. Suggesting that a lack of teaching experience accounts for the dicey outcomes in the nation’s poorest schools doesn’t take into account widespread demographic changes placing largely Spanish-speaking immigrants into the nation’s biggest urban school districts. “When we started this 20 years ago, the prevailing notion backed up by all the research was socioeconomic circumstances determine education outcomes,” said Kopp, suggesting now that TFA members were changing that reality. Whether experienced or not, inspired teachers go along way improving the outcome in challenging classrooms.
There’s no dispute that the nation’s biggest school districts have the highest percentages of immigrants, primarily Spanish-speaking, with language barriers and learning disabilities to overcome. Whether a teacher is new or experienced, they face the same barriers dealing with disproportionately high levels of learning-compromised students in the classroom. Former President George W. Bush’s “No Student Left Behind” program shifts too much responsibility to outcome measures, too often blaming teachers for poor test scores. “In reality, particularly in urban centers in America, is they aren’t there,” said University of Chicago’s Urban Institute director Tim Knowles, a founding director of TFA in New York City. Urban school districts—or others for that matter—don’t have the luxury of experienced, highly qualified teachers lining up for teaching jobs.
Teach for America serves a vital function of recruiting the nation’s brightest students to commit at least two years of post-graduate work to teaching in the country’s most challenging schools. Whether TFA recruits stay in teaching or move on to graduate schools or some other adventure is not valid criticism of a program designed to infuse a battered teaching industry with fresh, motivated recruits. Suggesting that inexperience handicaps outcomes in the classroom doesn’t counterbalance the reality of widespread teacher shortages for the nation’s under-performing schools. Slashing teaching budgets around the country makes teacher recruitment all but impossible, where recent grads steer away from a most noble profession. Bashing teachers and slashing education budgets doesn’t change the inescapable truth that more poverty and non-English speaking immigrants make teaching even more impossible.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.