By Austin Block
There are few organizations more controversial than Teach for America (TFA), a nonprofit that sends high-performing college graduates to teach in low-income neighborhoods for two years. While some applaud the organization for creating a pipeline for highly motivated students to teach in under-resourced schools, others criticize it for inadequately preparing its recruits, de-professionalizing the teaching force, perpetuating already-destructive cycles of rapid teacher turnover and embodying the problematic “white knight” complex (which drives “enlightened,” upper-middle class people to move into urban neighborhoods to “save” their low-income residents).
For many Stanford students, this controversy is immediately relevant. According to data from Stanford’s Office of Institutional Research and Career Development Center, TFA was No. 4 on the list of “top employers by positions offered” for the Class of 2013. Given this polarized context, a natural question arises: When that friendly TFA email pops into your inbox, how should you respond?
You should respond by saying, “No thank you, unless you promise to place me in a school with a critical teacher shortage.” It must first be said that neither TFA nor its corps members are evil. In fact, most people who join TFA are well-intentioned people, and some of them are even good teachers. Many of my personal education role models – researchers, teachers and government officials alike – are Teach for America alumni, and they certainly made positive impacts in the communities in which they served.
So what’s the problem with the organization? Fundamentally, the problem is that TFA is a distraction from and a drain on more meaningful education reform. While journalists, bloggers, advocates and researchers argue back and forth over whether or not TFA teachers perform slightly better or slightly worse than other teachers, public attention is diverted from the things that really matter. How do we strengthen teacher preparation programs and improve teacher retention, especially in low-income communities? How do we make school funding more equitable? How do we support teachers with meaningful professional development and opportunities to work together? These are the questions we should be arguing about, and yet, outside of government and research circles, these questions, let alone answers, are nowhere to be found.
TFA does more than just consume the national spotlight. It also serves to steal government and philanthropic funds that could be better used on other, more clearly effective programs. The fact is that it is fairly expensive to hire from Teach for America. TFA charges partner districts for the cost of placing its teachers, and the high rate at which corps members leave the profession (especially among those who start TFA directly out of college) forces districts to constantly recruit new teachers, which imposes costs of its own.
Adding insult to injury, TFA’s under-qualified teachers sometimes replace fully credentialed teachers: While some recruits are placed in schools with critical teacher shortages, others go to work in cities like cities like Philadelphia and Chicago, which have been laying off teachers in reaction to severe budget cuts.
Of course, TFA hasn’t done it all wrong. The organization has brought much-needed attention to inequities in our school system, and its success in recruiting motivated students into careers in education may also have done some good (though some argue instead that even in this regard, the organization and its alumni have pushed education policy in the wrong direction)f.
Moreover, in an admirable show of humility, TFA seems to finally be acknowledging its flaws. Following a nationwide “listening tour” conducted by its two new CEOs, TFA recently announced a set of promising pilot programs that could lead to permanent organizational reform. For example, one pilot is trying out a model in which college seniors participate in a full year of “pre-service training” prior to entering the classroom. Finally, TFA provides an affordable pathway into teaching for those who cannot take on the financial burden of graduate school (although the new urban teacher residency movement is a better affordable route to alternative certification).
Ultimately, though, these caveats are too limited to support a decision to join TFA. For the current Stanford senior class, these basic facts remain: If you do TFA, you will become part of an organization that places underprepared teachers in high-need schools and then charges them for this placement. Some of those schools are suffering from a teacher shortage, in which case you’ll probably do a lot of good, but many others have no lack of hiring options, in which case you may not be a better teacher than the person you have replaced. Moreover, regardless of how well you teach, you will be siphoning away public and private dollars that could be better used on something else. Some day, Teach for America may, as the Harvard Student Labor Action Movement recommends, find a successful niche, as an organization that sends highly motivated graduates to alleviate critical teacher shortages while policymakers figure out how to fill those vacancies in a more sustainable way.
Until that day comes, though, say no to TFA, or apply only on the condition that you are placed in a school truly desperate for staff. Only by standing their ground can college students force the organization to change for the better. Low-income school districts don’t need under-qualified graduates to serve and then leave. They need well-trained teachers who are in the profession to stay.
Contact Austin Block at aeblock ‘at’ stanford.edu.