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As a teacher-training program for failing public schools, Teach for America (TFA) has become an increasingly prestigious non-profit for graduates from elite universities. However, criticism has plagued the organization from the beginning. When TFA celebrated its fourth birthday in 1994, leading author and educational policy researcher Linda Darling-Hammond lambasted it as a “frankly missionary” program whose main beneficiaries were the graduates rather than the students they taught (23). Teach for America continues to stir controversy in public discourse as educators debate the efficacy of its “corps members” with five weeks of training and no theoretical teaching background as compared to traditionally certified teachers with degrees of Masters of Arts in Teaching from yearlong university programs. Darling-Hammond’s inflammatory article continues to spark debate today as to whom the program is truly benefiting; TFA tries to strike a balance between helping poor K-12 students and attracting enough top college graduates to send to failing schools. Teach for America seems to benefit its college recruits more than the public school students, certified teachers, or the overall education system. Teach for America is an attempt at short-term solution, but its faults make the organization a partial solution at best. Ultimately, TFA is like slapping a Band-Aid decorated with pictures of Superman on a gushing chest wound.
According to Teach for America’s founder, Wendy Kopp, this non-profit organization exists to fulfill its goal that “one day all children in our nation should have an opportunity to attain an excellent education” (Kopp). In order to achieve this vision, Teach for America recruits and channels competitive college graduates into underperforming public schools through its alternative teacher education program (Popkewitz 8). Wendy Kopp believed that future teachers should be recruited as forcefully as future Wall Street executives; this idea led to the creation of Teach for America (Kopp). Recruiting for TFA is just as serious and selective as for elite business positions with higher salaries. This contributes to the prestige of being accepted to TFA and encourages highly competitive, ambitious, idealistic graduates to apply–even if they do not have interest in teaching as a long-term career.
Since its inception in 1990, TFA has trained recruits known as corps members in a summer institute that currently runs for five weeks just before the beginning of the recruits’ two-year teaching commitment (“Training”). With just five weeks of training, corps members are placed in schools and receive a typical starting salary with benefits for public school teachers in the region they are placed, ranging from $27,000 to $47,500 (TFA “Financial Support”). Teach for America accepts applications from people with all kinds of “backgrounds, academic majors, and career interests” as long as they have proven themselves to be relentlessly persevering achievers (TFA “Admissions and Program Overview”). This means however, that TFA corps members do not possess the academic training or theoretical knowledge that other teachers possess beyond what Teach for America imparts to them during the five week training session. By recruiting such a wide variety of people, the focus of TFA clearly is not on teaching as a profession but as a service experience, similar to the Peace Corps. In fact, both organizations call their recruits “corps members.” The organization acknowledges that its approach is not “the ultimate solution” but believes that by recruiting some of the nation’s top young leaders interested in different careers, it will create “a massive force of leaders in all fields” who care about educational inequality (“Our Mission and Approach”). This goal appears to be a reality according to TFA internal alumni surveys – a reported 93 percent of alumni still support eradicating educational inequality through careers, graduate research, or volunteer experiences (“Alumni Impact”).
Alumni corps members do stand to gain from their Teach for America experience. The alumni network of Teach for America is definitely beneficial for corps members finished with their commitment, especially if their desired career lies in education or educational policy. With around 17,000 TFA alumni and the increasing number of corps members being accepted each year due to more funding, networking in Teach for America is easy (“Our Impact”). Finding jobs after TFA is made even easier with TFANet, the website for both corps members and alumni that provides career coaching, mentors, job boards, and other resources (“Admissions and Program Overview”). With Teach for America connections, during their two years corps members can also complete degrees like a Master of Arts in Teaching or a Masters in Education for free or at very low cost; after the corps experience, alumni can also choose to go to one of the many graduate school programs – whether business, law, medical, and so on – that TFA has formed partnerships with for alumni scholarships and deferred enrollment (“Graduate School Partnerships”). After Teach for America, alumni are poised to either continue teaching or to switch careers.
While the careers of TFA alumni clearly benefit from involvement with Teach for America, it is questionable whether the public school students benefit as well. With past teacher shortages in the 1990s, TFA may have been beneficial for preventing classes from having to suffer through an endless parade of substitutes, but in the current economic slump, high unemployment rates have rendered that argument less relevant. Now teachers’ unions are up in arms over schools hiring green TFA corps members instead of experienced teachers, calling it “Teach for Awhile” (Delawala, Weir). Certified teachers claim that TFA’s primary function is to create “a way for do-gooders of privilege to pad resumes before moving on to more lucrative careers, while taking spots from certified professionals” (Delawala, Weir). From traditionally certified teachers’ viewpoints, TFA corps members do appear to be opponents, and not only because they are usurping certified teachers’ jobs. TFA corps members pay nothing but transportation fees for five weeks of teacher training, while traditionally certified teachers pay a large amount of tuition for graduate programs (“Admissions and Program Overview”). Traditional certification programs require “year-long student teaching experiences” along with extensive class work in educational theory from child development to curriculum development (Darling-Hammond 32). One teacher, who was originally accepted to TFA but decided to go to the traditional route with a university graduate teaching degree program, believes that the TFA approach “cheapens education” with its minimal training and learning on the job mentality (Darling-Hammond 33). He notes that no one would hire doctors or lawyers with less than two months of training, and TFA “gives you the idea that anyone can teach” (Darling-Hammond 32). Now that unemployment is rising and more certified teachers are searching for jobs, TFA no longer prevents low income students from suffering through substitutes; the hiring of inexperienced corps members keeps students from benefiting from experienced teachers.
TFA’s short training period has long been questioned as to how effectively it prepares its corps members. This training period cannot adequately replicate the traditional teachers’ program of a year’s worth experience of student teaching, so TFA corps members essentially learn on the job. Sarah Sentilles, a 1995-1997 TFA corps member, regretted the lack of training in her book Taught by America (32):
One of the things that troubled me the most when I was in Compton was that I was practicing how to teach on real children. I learned by doing. I learned how to teach in a real classroom, filled with brilliant, difficult, troubled students, all by myself. I was thirty-six children’s real first grade teacher, and then I was thirty-six more children’s real second grade teacher. I was the adult in charge of their classrooms, but often I felt like I was in a play, as if I had stepped onto the stage in the role of “teacher.” Usually I felt like I had forgotten my lines.
An intelligent graduate from Yale University, while Sentilles deeply felt the profound change that her students had on her life, she had no qualms in discussing her view of Teach for America’s deficient preparation. The lack of preparation keeps Sentilles and other TFA corps members from adequately meeting their students’ needs.
Another obstacle to effective teaching, besides the lack of preparation, is the disparity of backgrounds between the typically privileged Teach for America corps members and the low-income students they teach. One co-director and teacher at an urban school for previously failing students argues that TFA recruits aren’t likely to succeed with poor students because corps members will not be able to understand their students experiences; she suggests sending TFA members to privileged private schools where most would relate to the students and not doom the students to lifelong poverty if they failed as teachers (Darling-Hammond 24). While private schools do not require teacher certification, the majority of private school parents would be upset if an inexperienced teacher without an education background taught their children. If so, I feel that sending teachers that private schools would reject to underperforming public schools works against Teach for America’s goal of erasing the achievement gap between privileged and poor students.
In addition to requiring empathy for students with disadvantaged backgrounds, Teach for America corps members need fortitude to fulfill their two-year commitment. Corps members theoretically know of the hardships that teaching students below grade level in communities that, for the majority of TFA members, live in poverty and circumstances beyond their previous experience. However, actually living in these communities proves to be a shock, as Sarah Sentilles wrote in her book about her TFA experience in urban Los Angeles, “The occasional gunfire that punctuated my teaching experience in Compton, although terrifying and horrific, was minor compared to the daily violence of the school environment itself. Poverty is violent” (77). Not only are TFA corps members in a stressful and unfamiliar environment, but the demands of being both a Teach for America corps member and a public school teacher also take their toll on the corps members’ quality of life. Corps members are told that in order to be considered successful by TFA, they need to achieve at least one of several goals for their classes: “move student learning forward by 1 ½ grade levels, close achievement gaps by 20 percent, or ensure that 80 percent of students have met grade-level standards” (Sawchuck 3). These goals are difficult enough for experienced and certified teachers in school environments without pervasive poverty and violence, much less ill-prepared corps members fresh from school themselves.
It is easy to get discouraged by the overwhelming funding and structural issues in these under performing schools and by TFA’s mandate to single-handedly fix the academic problems in a class of thirty-six students. For TFA corps members placed in high schools and middle schools, such as the aforementioned TFA drop out, they are responsible for helping multiple classes of thirty-six students, all with their own needs and issues. Teach for America corps members find it especially hard to maintain a balance of both work and private lives. All of the corps members that author Foote wrote about enjoyed working with the students but felt that the lifestyle of a corps member was “not sustainable” and even wished that they worked for just the local school district and not TFA (140). While education inequality is a pressing national concern that needs to be solved, too much pressure is put on the shoulders of individual corps members, contributing to burnt out teachers and inadequately taught students.
TFA corps members must learn to deal with emotional stress as well as the financial strain of a beginner’s salary. These same graduates would be able to earn higher salaries sooner if they accepted jobs in the fields they are interested in or pursued graduate study in those areas. It is possible that Teach for America corps members may decide that teaching is their passion and to remain as teachers as it is seen as a secure job with benefits (Olson). Yet while a Teach for America corps member does make a typical starting salary, he or she may not receive enough to both pay for living expenses and for supplies in their classrooms. The schools that corps members teach at often do not have adequate supplies or funds for supplies – a common problem for many public school teachers. In the case of TFA teacher Sentilles, she “spent thousands of dollars on supplies for [her] classroom. [She] bought books, pencils, paint, paper, construction paper, chalk, crayons, watercolors…[she] even had to pay for [her] own photocopying” (105). Not all TFA corps members are as dedicated, but it would be difficult to bring students up to grade level without basic classroom supplies. Corps members pay emotional and financial costs for their quick, cheap training.
Teach for America corps members are admirable in their desire to end educational inequality in the United States. They perform a difficult job with only the “satisfaction of helping kids” and potential TFA networking in future careers to reward them (Foote 168). Teach for America can arguably be beneficial for students if the alternative is a string of substitutes, but hiring new TFA corps members instead of veteran teachers could harm students’ education. Contrary to popular belief, Teach for America may not be the best employment option for graduates because few other jobs require the personal and financial sacrifice that it does. To make Teach for America a better short-term solution, the organization could increase the training period’s length or have another training session between the first and second years of teaching. Teach for America could also try pairing student teachers with veteran teachers for the first year so that each pair shared teaching responsibilities for two classes. Both students and TFA corps members would benefit from the certified teachers’ experience. Teachers’ unions might oppose TFA less if members from both organizations worked together. This new plan of action could also reduce TFA corps members’ emotional stress and thus encourage them to remain teachers for longer. More widespread reform on the national level is needed. This may be where Teach for America is most successful. As TFA alumni become more powerful in their chosen careers, they will still be sensitive to the need for educational reform. Teach for America’s methods and results are not going to fix the educational inequality in the United States, but if the current generation works toward a renovation, there is hope.
“Alumni Impact.” What We Do. Teach for America, 2009. Web. 5 Nov. 2009. .
Darling-Hammond, Linda. “Who Will Speak for the Children? How ‘Teach for America’ Hurts Urban Schools and Students.” The Phi Delta Kappan 76 (1994): 21-34. JSTOR. Web. 28 Oct. 2009. .
Darling-Hammond, Linda, Deborah J. Holtzman, Su Jin Gatlin, and Julian Vasquez Heilig. “Does teacher preparation matter? Evidence about teacher certification, Teach for America, and teacher effectiveness.” Education Policy Analysis Archives 13.42 (2005). Colleges of Education at Arizona State University and the University of South Florida. Web. 3 Nov. 2009. .
Delawala, Imtiyaz, and Bill Weir. “Teach for America Grows Up.” Abcnews.com. 31 May 2009. Web. 7 Nov. 2009. .
Foote, Donna. Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America. New York: Knopf, 2008. Print.
“Graduate School Partnerships.” After the Corps. Teach for America, 2009. Web. 5 Nov. 2009. .
Kane, Thomas J., Jonah E. Rockoff, and Douglas O. Staiger. “What does certification tell us about teacher effectiveness? Evidence from New York City.” Economics of Education Review 27.6 (2007). ScienceDirect. Elsevier Ltd., 13 Oct. 2007. Web. 2 Nov. 2009. .
Kopp, Wendy. “Charisma? To Her, It’s Overrated.” Interview by Adam Bryant. Business: Corner Office. The New York Times, 4 July 2009. Web. 3 Nov. 2009. .
Olson, Elizabeth. “Taking the Fast Track to a Second Career in Teaching.” New York Times 15 Oct. 2009, late ed., sec. F. Proquest. Web. 5 Nov. 2009. .
“Our Impact.” What We Do. Teach for America, 2009. Web. 5 Nov. 2009. .
“Our Mission and Approach.” What We Do. Teach for America, 2009. Web. 5 Nov. 2009.
Popkewitz, Thomas S. Struggling for the Soul: the Politics of Schooling and the Construction of the Teacher. New York: Teachers College, 1998. Print.
Sawchuk, Stephen. “Growth Model.” Education Week. Editorial Projects in Education, 16 Sept. 2009. Web. 5 Nov. 2009.
Sentilles, Sarah. Taught by America: a Story of Struggle and Hope in Compton. New York: Beacon, 2005. Print.
Teach for America. Admissions and Program Overview. Teach for America, 2009. Print.
Teach for America. Financial Support. Teach for America, 2009. Print.
“Training.” The Corps Experience. Teach for America, 2009. Web. 5 Nov. 2009. .
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