Teach for America or The Collapse of the “Public” in Public Education

(After much lurking in the shadows and posting the occasional odd comment such as this one or that one, I have decided to make my initial post as a full-fledged contributor to Geek Buffet. I promise that others won’t be on such serious topics as this one. Enjoy!)

The Background Story: I was at a small departmental gathering last night and – after much food and drink – the topic of conversation turned to Teach for America, since our host’s daughter is going through their training program as we speak for a Denver teaching position in the fall. Not being one to hold back his opinions, I made several disparaging remarks about Teach for America, including that it A) encourages people to see teaching as an altruistic resumé-builder that a privileged recent college grad could do rather than as a serious profession that must be done by our best and brightest, B) has a low rate of participants who continue in the field as teachers, C) doesn’t sufficiently train their participants to deal with the tough educational environment of poor rural and urban public schools and D) is a stop-gap feel-good solution for a much wider educational equality problem of income tax disparities between districts. These opinions reflect both research published in various educational journals and in the Education training I received at Grinnell College, particularly from Drs. Jean Ketter and Kara Lycke.

Needless to say, the whole room eagerly jumped down my throat to stop my heart. The counter-arguments were admittedly valid: Teach for America does convince our best and brightest that teaching is a serious profession, many folks who wouldn’t end up teaching suddenly become inspired and go on further in the field, the teachers-to-be get 5-6 weeks of intense training and then have to apply for positions at individual schools on their own, and, the real heart-string-puller, these inner-city kids need enthusiastic warm bodies in their classrooms NOW. It turned out to be a complicated and heated subject of conversation as liberals circled the wagons against a radical lefty (me) who believes that Teach for America should be helping to overhaul the whole public education system in this country for the better, not support the continuous, monotonous moralizing discourse of American poverty and education that has ensnared plans for real reform. Let me explain my wacky position.

My Internal Debate: My ideological dissatisfaction with Teach for America stems from five major questions – five axes, if you will – about what the program actually accomplishes, given its 20 years of existence in an educational environment that has become increasingly stratified:

• Does the program encourage new teachers to enter – and remain in – the profession?

• Do the secondary school students benefit from having young, enthusiastic, dubiously credentialed post-undergrads as opposed to older, jaded/seasoned, certified-to-a-T teachers?

• Are the short-term benefits of Teach for America valuable enough to encourage the program?

• Are the long-term benefits of Teach for America valuable enough to encourage the program?

• Does the aggressive, corporate-style Teach for America branding and marketing campaign undermine its commitments to remedying inequities in American education?

I will offer a subjective response to each and then open the floor for comments from the larger Geek Buffet readership, as I know this topic can incite some intense discussions…

Question 1: Does the program encourage new teachers to enter – and remain in – the profession?

Sort of. As of July 2007, there were 12,000 Teach for America (TfA) alumni. Of these, a third have continued on as new teachers, and another third have entered into the field of education in some other way – as administrators, non-profit education reform advocates, AEA coordinators and… well, as Teach for America employees. These teachers are culled from the ranks of the nation’s “best and brightest” – recent graduates of Yale, Amherst, Kenyon, Notre Dame, Wellesley, Grinnell, and so forth – given 5 weeks of training and plopped into uncontested job positions at struggling rural and urban schools. The “2/3 of these bright people are now in education” statistic is very attractive to parents, investors, prospective, applicants, etc. because it signals that A) the program is successful at getting people jobs right out of college, B) the participants are statistically likely to retain them or launch some similar career and C) participants who grew up in particularly privileged background can immediately and almost sanctimoniously claim a moral and professional high ground.

Yet the cynical person in me says that it’s much harder these days for an immediate college graduate to find a job, even if they come from a highly credentialed school, so TfA is a resumé-builder that transforms into a kind of missionary experience: white upper middle-class students aiming to have a long-term paycheck doing something can benefit in any case by applying. Though people like me decided early in college that becoming an educator was my destiny and took appropriate steps, TfA applicants sort of fall into it, begin teaching with virtually no training in the law, theory, and curriculum in the most challenging scenario imaginable, and wind up with far better-looking credentials (and sexier education background) than boring ol’ certified teachers like myself. And the love of teaching certainly grips that 1/3 that remain (or the promise of a steady job somewhere…) in the profession as teachers, but I see that statistic more as “2/3 of TfA graduates aren’t going to actually want to teach when they’re done.”

Compare that statistic with, oh say, the ratio of people who pay lots of money to go through teacher certification programs at their colleges and universities who then end up as full-time teachers somewhere and you’ll find it’s staggeringly higher. TfA on the one hand offers a means to bypass all the oft-nightmarish certification and training B.S. and awaken the inner teacher in the participants for their lifetime. On the other hand, it’s a paying fast track to get a job in ANY white collar profession, and most flee the classroom for something they’re better prepared for.

Question 2: Do the secondary school students benefit from having young, enthusiastic, dubiously credentialed post-undergrads as opposed to older, jaded/seasoned, certified-to-a-T teachers?

No. According to the recent U.S. News and World Report book review of Donna Foote’s Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches With Teach for America, the journalist discovered that “there was a very palpable tension between the old-timers and the new-timers over the notion that these young, smart things would just come in and know it all.” She goes on to elaborate that, one-on-one, these tensions tend to evaporate, but that there’s still “quite a bit of resentment throughout the profession from people who have gone to schools of education for two years and trained traditionally, who then see these young kids come in after five weeks as teachers of record.” The older, experienced teachers seem willing to work with these enthusiastic upstarts but are not inclined to hand them the keys to the profession, particularly due to their effectiveness in the classroom.

The question is about the kids. In a 2002 study by Idiko Laczko-Kerr and David C. Berliner on primary school children, they found that the students of the under-certified teachers whom TfA offers so generously to these school districts experience 20% less academic growth than their certified peers. This study is, of course, disputed by TfA’s contrary data in mathematics assessment (which means that they’re currently locked in a data war with academia…) but nevertheless demonstrates the kind of degeneration in educational quality that a “stick a warm, smart body in the classroom” approach seems to engender. Then again, I think it has to do with the fact that there is less socio-cultural respect – from the students to their parents – for teaching as a profession in this country than there is in, say, Japan or Germany (since I know many of our Geek Buffet writers have participated in teaching programs abroad and have had much success in them).

Question 3: Are the short-term benefits of Teach for America valuable enough to encourage the program?

For the kids being taught, no. For the post-undergrads looking for something to do after they graduate, absolutely! The question is: whose interests are more important here – the corporate-encouraged sense of altruism of these boot-camp-trained benefactors or institutional continuity and stability in every public school in this country, no matter how high their incomes are.

Question 4: Are the long-term benefits of Teach for America valuable enough to encourage the program?

In a way, yes. TfA encourages people who’d ordinarily be merely contemplating law school or investment banking or engineering school or medical school into taking an interest in the dire educational situation in our country. As TfA members rise through the ranks of our public sectors, one finds that public school policy is changing to reflect more demographic realities rather than institutional fantasies such as those fueling Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation, which is a can of worms I’ll leave shut for now. Unfortunately, this leads me to…

Question 5: Does the aggressive, corporate-style Teach for America branding and marketing campaign undermine its commitments to remedying inequities in American education?

Yes, and in a big way. The thing that struck me about TfA while I was undergoing my own teacher training in a small, underfunded rural district in Iowa was how corporate and moralizing the propaganda for TfA was in comparison to the reality. It had a hero complex. It was slimy. It portrayed my chosen profession as this altruistic, tough, almost militaristic experience where one’s moral and intellectual capacities were sharpened to a superhuman degree. I was thinking to myself: people can now go teach in schools for two years and then come out saying “I’ve been there, I know what it’s like, I got to know my students as people and I was an agent of change.”

Not to use a primary school expression, but I can’t resist: “Well, DUH!”

As a teacher, of course you’ve got to go to work everyday, probably in a building that resembles a prison, where students feel like prisoners. As a teacher, you know what it’s like because you can’t survive in the classroom if you don’t: constant assessments of the learning environment, social atmosphere, short and long-term educational objectives, and so forth. As a teacher, you get to know your students as people because it’s part of your goddamn job – to teach them, the students that are in your classroom, and you can only teach them if you have an intimation of how they might think. As a teacher, you get to change students because students are changing all the time, some for better and some inevitably for worse, but you get to be there, be affected by it and try to affect your own kind of change. Again, the nature of the profession. So why can’t TfA people go through the whole pedagogy course rigamarole and get certified like the rest of us schmucks?

Because our profession isn’t respected as a profession; it’s become volunteer work.

Our profession isn’t paid well enough; it’s become a noble cause.

Our profession isn’t “sexy” enough; it’s got to be dolled up and MTV-ed out in order for young and confused undergrads to seek it out.

Public schools aren’t public anymore; they’re proving grounds for a behemoth, corporate-sponsored non-profit to show how Ivy Leaguers and other privileged people are still better than the rest of us

As a certified teacher and the son of a long-time teacher, I think you can tell what side of the controversy my heart remains on. My alternate solutions to TfA are simple: reform our income tax-based educational funding system so that there’s no such thing as wealthy or poor public schools, but “just” public schools. And pay K-12 teachers higher salaries… through the generous donation of corporations who care about the long-term well-being of our country’s education system.


12 Responses to Teach for America or The Collapse of the “Public” in Public Education

  1. Kevin says:

    Excellent first post, Evan. Welcome to the community of occasional GB posters (I think I’ve got four posts under my belt).

    Three comments:

    A) Don’t knock hero complexes (I’m working on a three-post series on superhero films, and I have said complex). 🙂

    B) In questions 2 and 3, you cite a study that finds that TFA-taught students do less well than their certified-teacher-taught peers. You then go on to conclude in your section on question 3 that the short-term benefits for the students are none, after having said, and I’m paraphrasing, that secondary school students do not benefit from these teachers. I think you mischaracterize the point of TFA. It isn’t to provide teachers who are better than, or even equal to current teachers. It is to provide teachers where otherwise there would be none, or few. The appropriate question is, “do TFA teachers improve the outcomes of students who otherwise would be under-served by the teaching community?” If you have a claim against that point, then make it. Otherwise, your responses to question 2, and the student-part of your answer to question 3, seem off-base. It is clear to me that teachers like you, who dedicate their own education to pedagogy and specialized subject-knowledge, are going to be better teachers than the upstarts at TFA. It is less clear to me that these TFA teachers aren’t still making an important impact.

    C) In your final conclusion, you seem to resent that these less-qualified teachers are in the market; you lament that your profession has become volunteer work. I think your resentment leads you to under-value the effect the program has on its alumni. If your profession is under-valued, then people aren’t going to just adopt your reform proposals without some convincing – prejudices like that rarely change overnight. Instead, what better way to enact reform than to have tens of thousands of well-placed adults who care about the system, who want to see it improve, and who have the communication skills (in part from teaching to impoverished children) to convince the rest of society that we need more than No Child Left Behind or any testing regime to improve America’s schools – we need a sea change in the way people think about it. If you have a better way to change the minds of millions of Americans, that’s what I want to see. There is no magic wand that suddenly makes your reform proposals happen. And that’s where I think TFA has its strongest argument, that by convincing its alumni of the need for a more equitable education system, it is also convincing America, one community at a time.

    But if you have proposals for other ways to convince millions of Americans to completely overhaul our education system (and that is certainly what your final paragraph calls for), something that will cause upheaval and disagreement across the country, I’d love to hear it.

    Not that I have any investment in TFA – I just think you’re undervaluing its worth. It’s an imperfect – but still necessary – program for an imperfect time.

  2. Evan Torner says:

    Hi Kevin!

    My comments to your three comments.

    A) By all means, carry on! Just as I see a difference between laws that treat individuals and laws that treat corporations (whereas our legal system only makes this distinction some of the time), there is a difference between being an individual with a hero complex and an institution with a hero complex.

    B) Sure, they’re making an important impact, but to me it seems asymmetrical… again in favor of the traditionally privileged: the kids get an inexperienced, enthusiastic teacher who at least thinks they’re doing a valuable service, but this same teacher has a world of career opportunities and connections within the world of education and outside that open up for them just by signing on to TFA for 2 years. They get a career boost whether or not they’re effective teachers from an evaluative standpoint, whereas the kids and their fellow teachers don’t benefit from the same kind of career benefit. It’s probably well-founded: 2 years in such difficult schools would toughen up plenty of teachers and make them indispensable colleagues in education. But what the kids are getting out of such teachers constantly circulating through their school system, I’m uncertain about. What’s more important is that, as the nation’s self-proclaimed “largest provider of teachers to low income communities,” TFA should be pouring its mega-millions into making their program a top-quality, academic-approved quick certification program for eager young teachers who want to reach their students, rather than expanding and expanding their mediocre quality services. But maybe what you say is correct and I’m undervaluing the impact that these teachers are having…

    3) I agree with you that the alumni impact is the most important thing. But I’m also watching many of our local school districts collapse and close schools due to lack of funds, many of which provide invaluable services to low-income rural and urban students. Is TFA going to simply help provide jobs with bodies in our imperfect time, or will they help us keep those jobs available… especially because the kids are still there. They’ve been in existence for 20 years, and now many of us teachers are asking them to put their money (which they have much of) where their mouth is in terms of reforming our educational system to be more equitable.

    Plus, on a personal note, I reiterate that their “holier-than-thou” advertising creeps me out.

  3. Dana says:

    It was very interesting that you wrote this post right after my mother sent me a link to this quick review of a study, which found student performance improved in TFA classrooms by one-tenth of a standard deviation. I interpret this as either a “no change” result, or slightly positive, since my mother says that the organization doing the quick review of the study tends to be extremely conservative in what it’s willing to say is significant. She sent it to me because she remembered me expressing similar Grinnell-education-department views about TFA.

    I do, of course, think your argument about the overall attitude toward education in the US to be convincing, and many of the arguments you make about TFA and holier-than-thou altruistic volunteerism are strikingly similar to what I’ve been hearing from others in developing nations concerning the Peace Corps. Lots of benefit for the alumni, not as much as we’d like to think for the supposed recipients of service.

  4. Anna McNulty says:

    Hi. Long story short, I’m a Grinnell ’06 alum who checks in on Geek Buffet occasionally. And I just completed my second year in the classroom through TFA. I teach high school English in inner-city St. Louis, and I’ll graduate with my Masters in Secondary Education this Saturday. I think you do raise a number of valid objections – objections that I had as I considered TFA, and objections that I continue to do my best to answer for the good of my students on a daily basis.

    First and foremost – yes, there’s data that says that TFA teachers hurt or have no significant impact on student achievement. There’s also data that says that TFA teachers promote student achievement and post stronger numbers that should be expected of early career teachers. You’re absolutely right to say that TFA is locked in a battle with academia. I could throw up statistics and studies here, but, punchline is, there’s evidence both ways. If you’re interested, TFA (of course) has links to and summaries of a lot of the positive evidence here: http://www.teachforamerica.org/mission/our_impact/corps_impact.htm . I’ll spare you the summary. 🙂

    With regard to your questions, I only feel qualified to speak for myself and my close friends in TFA. I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations. I do just want to lend my perspective on the very valid questions you raise – in particular, questions 1 and 2.

    Question 1.) Emphatically yes, Teach for America brings people into the profession who wouldn’t have entered it otherwise. I took an Intro to Education class at Grinnell, wasn’t challenged, certainly wasn’t impressed, and decided against taking further classes. I got far more worthwhile intellectual fodder in my classes within other departments. This isn’t to indite the whole department… just my experience. Education had long been my passion, though, and TFA gave me the means to pursue something I cared deeply for in a way that would give me support and that would push me to continually get better – something I had to do if I was to feel I was actually doing a service to my students. Now, I’m entering my third year teaching in a challenging inner-city high school and finishing my Masters. Do I intend to stay in the classroom forever? Honestly, no. At this point, I’m planning to teach for another year or two, then get a Ph. D. in Social or Public Policy and work to fix the larger, systemic issues that keep my students from getting the education they deserve. NONE of this would have happened otherwise. I’d be beginning to write my dissertation in political philosophy right now, had I not panicked and decided to go try out the “real world.”

    Question 2.) I gave you links to more statistics above. I’ll let that rest. I think it’s pretty easy to find statistics that go either way at this point. Call it a draw, if you want. I can tell you that my freshmen’s ACT reading scores went up 6 points, their math scores went up 4 points, my AP students left my class writing at the level they need to be at in order to succeed in college, and that my students’ AP test scores were the highest in the building, out of 7 AP classes offered, in spite of my being the least experienced teacher given AP.

    I don’t normally tout stuff like that. Just thought I should note that before the next paragraph. I try to stay humble, keep my nose to the grindstone, and demonstrate my commitment to my students through my actions.

    I can also say that the tension between TFA and non-TFA teachers is very palpable. I teach with a broad spectrum of teachers. Some are exceptional, in spite of teaching in pretty surreal circumstances for some 30 years. And others show movies daily, curse out my students and face no disciplinary action, hit students and face no disciplinary action, and neglect to teach their students with no fear of repercussions because, frankly, the administration doesn’t notice. My administrators and some of my colleagues appreciate and depend on contributions that I make to the building, serving as AP coordinator and also writing proposals for much-needed reading intervention, extracurricular, and tutoring programs. At the same time, I’ve been called a racist, judged, mocked, and berated by other colleagues for doing what I’ve just described – the things I can to improve things for my students. The issues here are too many and too fraught to really fully explicate.

    To be 100% honest, I wish that TFA didn’t have to exist. I wish that teaching was a profession that was truly respected by the public, that schools received the funding they needed, and that every student had the opportunity to receive an excellent education. That day is not here. It wasn’t the slick advertising that brought me into the program. The handful of Corps Members who are lured in by that pretty disgusting moralizing, well, they tend to be less effective than others. The ability to affect change, while receiving actual support, regular observations, and being pushed to constantly reflect on my students’ performance are the things that won me over.

    Speaking of that Masters… I should go finish my last project. Just wanted to add my two cents. Thanks for such a well thought-out post… sincerely. I think you raised a lot of questions that need to be asked, and I can only hope that I hear as many thoughtful answers on how TFA, its teachers, and the system can all improve for the benefit of our students.

  5. Evan Torner says:

    Ooh, more comments!

    Hi Dana: The study seems to focus on math and science improvement as the key areas of interest, which I think reflects the TfA students that they’re most aggressively recruiting: those in mathematics and hard sciences who want to make a difference in the world while juggling a lot of activities, etc. As for the Peace Corps comparison, I think we’re speaking the same language. With all the blue-chip stock support that TfA gets (as cursorily mentioned in this recent NY Times article) though, there ought to be some middle ground between this general kind of “sexy” social entrepreneurship and the actual needs of public institutions which, like it or not, still provide the backbone to our country’s social and cultural well-being.

    Hi Anna (whom I also know!): Your testimony on behalf of TfA is invaluable and I’d like to hear more of it. It sounds like TfA is adapting more to the “best practices” model that we embody in teacher training at most institutions of higher education: feedback, support and observations. At the same time, this is because the scales have largely tipped in TfA’s favor… it is unconditionally receiving large amounts of support from the government, colleges, corporations, and the coming generation of young teachers. Laudable efforts at reform and improvement have gone into the program to train these teachers to concretely help their students to succeed, but now there are high-stakes donors who more-or-less see this social entrepreneurship as the wave of the future in opposition to financially supporting – through taxes and lobbying – the public schools that TfA serves. My sense is that TfA is fundamentally a good program that means well, and is doing better than ever these days, but it has unfortunate ramifications for our public school system that equate it with the Third World, and many of the corporate sponsors who should be helping us invest MORE in our schools are instead investing more in a non-profit that I see as an emergency fix.

    Maybe it isn’t just a fix. Maybe all of our high-schoolers need to be taught by a mixture of committed, experienced older teachers and enthusiastic, can-do younger teachers in a marriage of public and private interests. I just wish that the private sector would be a lot more coherent about what they actually want from our battered public schools… because it sure seems mysterious to folks like me.

  6. […] have been several analogies I’ve come across between Teach for America and the missionary mentality – privileged […]

  7. Jackie Diane says:

    Hello Dana,
    I appreciate your post and your views. As a former middle school teacher who taught pre-TFA in the days that inner-city schools were the proving ground for newly minted and certified teachers, I listen to my son who is in his first year of TFA and am amazed at how much his situation mirrored mine more than 30 years ago.

    Although I was university-trained with courses in ed theory, curriculum-planning and ed psych, I was COMPLETELY unprepared for my first full time teaching gig. My student teaching expereince had been in a clean, middle class suburb. My students were bright and motivated and we read and wrote poetry in an open classroom environment with carpeted floors.

    My next stop was my first real job in an inner city school position in mid semester . I arived there after two certified male teachers had already left due to complete frustration. I won’t bore you with the details, but they left for good reasons. I stuck it out till the end of the semester and received practically no help from the more seasoned staff, my board of education supervisor (totaly inept) and the principal (also inept).

    In fact, sending my kids to the principal’s office was seen as a reward because he was completely ineffectual and they turned his office upside down.

    My son is a typical TFA teacher with no certification or educational training. The monthly TFA meetings he is required to attend on Saturdays are largely unhelpful since they focus on theory and do not help with classroom management , the area in which he (and most new teachers) need help. He works 12-hour days and then coaches middle school wrestling because he is a former varsity wrestler and this is rewarding for him.

    Basically he is working his heart out with little support. But I think he is making a big difference. Because I know from my experience that the few astudents you can reach ….will be better off.

    My point is that practically NO ONE is prepared to teach well in these kind of environments, especially during their first year or two of teaching. I believe the effective teaacher is not one who has been schooled and credentialed, but one who can reach the students and impart a sense of possibility, hope and intellectual curiousity…something that transcends the specific training.

    I think that TFA is a flawed program, but one that provides a means of connection between those from more fortunate backgrounds and those who must struggle every day, even though they are children. It is a stop gap program, to be sure, but an important one taht needs to continue while this country figures out what it wants from its public school systems.

  8. Dana says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Jackie Diane. Evan is actually the one who wrote the post, though.

  9. guyintheblackhat says:

    And now, according to this USA Today article, we are seeing the dark side of TfA that I alluded to above: the cheap young labor replacing the veterans. I’m not this cynical for nothing.

  10. guyintheblackhat says:

    I see this blog entry now as a repository for critiques of Teach for America. Now the Huffington Post has taken up my banner as well, thanks to a new study from Stanford on TfA as a revolving door mechanism for the elite.

  11. And here’s yet another well-founded critique. Most interesting is the spin control that appears to be at work whenever anyone seems to speak out. PR is the force that prevents us from having real conversations about real structural issues.

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