Why Teach For America

Remember the headline about Teach For America that came out in The Onion a couple of years ago (TFA Chews Up, Spits Out Another Ethnic-Studies Major)? Well, TFA’s come a long way since then, but it is no less frustratingly problematic.


According to a new article (Why Teach For America)
in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, the original TFA was small and
marked by its idealism and its focus on getting bright people into
classrooms and doing some immediate good for poor children. The “new”
TFA is much much larger and features corporate-style recruiting efforts
and a hyper-aggressive PR operation.Folks from the early years probably
couldn’t get accepted to TFA if they applied today, and it’s not clear
that many of them would want to.

More important, TFA now wants to be judged both as a short-term
intervention and as a broad-based reform movement whose scope includes
everything from KIPP to Michelle Rhee to scores of alums in elected
office.This was either part of the plan all along or a slick
“re-engineering” of TFA’s original mission to address widespread
concerns that putting smart newbies in front of poor kids for two years
wasn’t going to solve any real problems.

One big question is whether or not this two-pronged approach is fair
or not to TFA teachers and the kids and colleagues they work with
during their brief teaching stints.Another is whether TFA should have
been focusing on expanding its members’ longevity and impact in the
classroom rather than on increasing its numbers of districts and
candidates.Last but not least – the verdict is out here – is whether
TFA alums are more powerfully involved in school reform than they would
have been anyway, and what good comes of it.


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  • The difficulty with TFA as a contributor to school reform (which, as I remember, was the core question in the original post) has nothing to do with the class, race, or age of the TFA-ers. It has to do with the fact that a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for schools to improve as "communities of learning" is the long-term collaborative relationship of a group of strong and creative teacher-leaders. The two-year-and-out people will contribute little if anything to this effort. Let's invest in the people who are committed to staying.

  • One of the benefits of the TFA crowd that you are all forgetting is that they are warm bodies. Too often, the worst schools simply can't attract teachers of any quality at all, so the students are condemned to a string of sub-par subs or an unsuitable teacher. Schools in Wheaton and Oak Park have no problem attracting teachers because they pay fairly and don't ask the teachers to put up with violent, disruptive students and they do have enough materials, supplies etc.

    As far as the rich paying their taxes and then the schools would be better: most of the money that pays for schools comes from the local tax payer. The Feds pay a tiny portion, usually for special programs like Title I or special ed. In IL, the state (who pays maybe 30% of the cost of education) has a constitution that forbids a graduated income tax, meaning if you want to raise taxes on the rich, the middle class will get it too. The County and local taxing districts do the heavy lifting in IL and I don't think a lot of people in Cook County or City of Chicago believe our taxes are particularly low.

    I see nothing wrong with TFA. So they're do-gooders, big deal, so are a lot of new teachers. SO they don't stay, big deal neither do a lot of new teachers. I would like to see them have a special group of TFA alums whose job is to parachute in when a teacher leaves a post in the middle of a school year so the students don't lose the rest of the year.

    The other thing is I can't believe it is bad for teaching as an industry if people who have actually taught wind up in the halls of power. They will have had more hands-on experience than any of the architects of NCLB, for instance.

  • There are two recent pieces in the NYT that relate: In today's New York Times, Bob Herbert, a liberal columnist, had the following lines in his piece on education in America:

    "The first [way to improve what is happening in the classroom] is teacher quality, a topic that gets talked about incessantly. It has been known for decades that some teachers have huge positive effects on student achievement, and that others do poorly. The positive effect of the highest performing teachers on underachieving students is startling.

    "What is counterintuitive, but well documented, is that paper qualifications, such as teacher certification, have very little to do with whatever it is that makes good teachers effective."

    Part of TFA's requirement is that they have to take the first gig they are offered. And these are often in the places that are in the greatest need of teachers. Are they all great? No. Are all the teachers who come out of local programs great? No.

    I am not surprised that there is little difference between those who go through teacher ed programs and those who do not. I know that the teacher prep program I went through was completely worthless. The most important piece of advice from my homophobic professor was that I should not have such a "limp-wristed style" when I teach. That sure was helpful.

    In fact, if I had skipped a vast majority of my education classes and taken more courses in my subject area, I would have probably been better early on.

    Now, if college teacher prep programs were better, there might be a difference, but as long as colleges continue courses on how to put up bulletin boards, I say bring on TFA or any other program that brings in people who want to make a difference.

  • And really, more than a waste.

    I am an engineer. I was educated in this skill at Loyola on the lake front. I was taught by a series of PhDs and MS holders who worked in the profession (they taught night classes). I learned far more of the technical skills needed from the MS teachers than I ever did from the PhD teachers. The PhD teachers excelled at teaching theory, which is important, but theory doesn't get you a job. I figured this out as a freshman and so took most of my major classes at night leaving my days free for history, physics, philosophy, literature (hey it's a Jesuit institution--they have delusions of turning out well-rounded people) and pure mathematics.

    Not everyone is going to go on to college. Not everyone has the money or inclination. If there are going to be vocational classes, and I feel strongly that they should be an option, the classes should be run by people who have worked in the field and are at least journeymen if the vocational class is in a trade where there is such a thing. But not only should the classes be taught by such people, but people who have worked in the trades should be in charge of deciding which courses will be offered. It made no sense to teach punchcarding in the early 80's but some vocational programs were teaching it. It makes little sense to teach carpentry using hand tools--except maybe as a foundational class for complete novices and automobile mechanics classes probably shouldn't teach about carburators except maybe as a historical feature of cars. A good vocational program should feature moving students from high school to decent-paying jobs.

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