I am an enthusiastic participant in mentoring programs, and I have always enjoyed teaching and tutoring. Teach for America (TFA) therefore seems like a logical potential postgraduate destination. But it is with some dismay that I learn many regard TFA as controversial. To quote one Harvard University editorial, TFA is “working to destroy the American public education system,” through a nefarious combination of sending unprepared twenty-two year olds into the most challenging classrooms in America and replacing career teachers. A bit more digging reveals a veritable bookshelf of criticism: a Washington Post op-ed citing TFA as an “experiment in ‘resume-padding’ for ambitious young people,” and an Atlantic article eviscerating TFA for its lack of teacher training are just two of the many, many examples of TFA-related criticism I found in a simple Google search.
Yet these criticisms seem largely misplaced. While it is true TFA might be guilty of attracting more than a few “resume-padders” not concerned with American education, the program seems to have benefitted both students and TFA participants.
American students are the most obvious beneficiaries of TFA. On average, TFA teachers move secondary math students forward an extra 2.6 months in one school year. And in the three states (Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee) that rank teacher preparation programs based on student outcomes, TFA comes near the very top. These indicate the quality of education students receive from TFA teachers is at least as good, and probably better, than that from ordinary teachers.
TFA critics, conceding this point, might respond that TFA is a mere band-aid on America’s gunshot wound of an education problem. Yes, TFA teachers might be of high quality, but what is the point of a high quality teacher if he or she is only in the game for two years (the length of the TFA commitment)? The answer: TFA alumni are remarkably dedicated to improving American educational outcomes, and more broadly, to addressing American poverty. A whopping 86 percent of TFA alumni work in education or in “professions related to improving lives in our most marginalized communities,” in the words of TFA founder Wendy Kopp. Sixty-four percent of alumni work full-time directly in education.
Additionally, TFA’s most recently reported acceptance rate was about 11 percent, this of an applicant pool that includes one in five Harvard seniors. It seems that TFA is a valuable tool for recruiting some of America’s most talented college students and encouraging them to work in incredibly important professions. And so it seems obvious that TFA members undertake lifelong commitments to the TFA mission, neutralizing any criticism of their supposed lack of real passion.
Another criticism of TFA centers on TFA’s perceived usurpation of career teachers. “I don’t think you’ll find a city that isn’t laying off people to accommodate Teach for America,” said Boston Teachers Union President Richard Stutman in 2009. Resentment among teachers’ unions is high, yet this resentment seems misplaced. Even after TFA hires members, those members still must interview for jobs “just like everyone else,” says TFA spokeswoman Kerci Marcello Stroud. And anyway, TFA members are most often placed in the most low-income, low-achieving schools within cities and school districts, schools many tenured teachers avoid like the bubonic plague. Announcements of schools laying off hundreds of teachers while sparing TFA members are misleading, since, as one superintendent Peter Gorman said, TFA teachers are “placed at schools…where the placement of personnel has proven to be difficult.” It’s hard to blame school districts for sparing some of their best teachers (see evidence above) at their worst schools.
I have no experience with TFA, directly or indirectly. I have never even met someone who has taught through TFA. Yet I feel comfortable throwing my support behind this organization. As noted Harvard economist Raj Chetty has demonstrated, just one year of schooling under a teacher whose classes score highly on standardized tests can increase a student’s lifetime earnings by $50,000. This statistic, regardless of the veracity of the actual figure (though it does cover tax returns of more than 2.5 million students, and thus would seem to be accurate), demonstrates what Chetty and his colleagues call the “value-added” educational model. Under this model — and under my own model, the “common sense” model — a wonderful teacher can make an extremely significant contribution to a child’s life. Teach For America, which provides our country with competent and committed teachers and leaders, should be lauded.