Teach for America: Icon with Feet of Clay?

Rick Cohen delves into the less-heard concerns and questions about Teach for America, and its effect on the education sector.

Teach for America: Icon with Feet of Clay?
16 mins read

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

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, D.C. 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:

About the Author

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Rick Cohen‘s investigative reporting appears in every other issue of Blue Avocado. His articles on the Decline & Fall of the Vanguard Foundation recently won a Min Award for journalism. A memory from his days as Director of Housing and Economic Development for an unnamed city in New Jersey includes giving a conference speech in Atlantic City on real etate tax abatements, and then playing blackjack at the “cheapo $5 table” the rest of the day while waiting for the mayor so they could go home.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

100 thoughts on “Teach for America: Icon with Feet of Clay?

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Fantastic stuff – thanks for posting this Rick. How about a series of similar articles on other "sacred cows"??

    1. 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.

  4. 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

    1. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    1. 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.

  7. 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. 

    1. 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.

  8. 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?

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

  9. 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

    1. 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).

  10. 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.

    1. 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.

  11. 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!

    1. Dear Anonymous: That’s for the great response. Your comments stand on their own merit and I appreciate the feedback.

  12. 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.

    1. 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.

  13. 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)

    1. 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.

  14. 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:
    http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/11/new-york-on-less-monday/
    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.

    1. 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.

  15. 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!

    1. 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.

  16. 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?

  17. 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?

  18. 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.

    1. 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.

  19. 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?

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  20. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

          1. 🙂 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.

  21. 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

  22. 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

    1. 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.

      1. 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?

        1. 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.

        2. 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)

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

  23. 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.

  24. 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_171041.html

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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!


    1. 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.

  29. 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!

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

    1. 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.

  34. 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

    1. (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.

  35. 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

    1. (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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

    1. 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.

  38. 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.

    1. 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.

  39. 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#ixzz1EMo2GdxQ

  40. 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#ixzz1EMo2GdxQ

  41. 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.

  42. 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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