Teach for what? Troubling questions surround the TFA model

November 14, 2012

For most students, landing a highly competitive and coveted job is a momentous occasion, complete with the obligatory call home to Mom, a boozy celebration with friends, and the immense relief that you won’t be living under an overpass after all. But for one student in my Democracy and Education class, acceptance into Teach for America was met only with a dismissive shrug, and she subsequently turned them down.

Now, it’s not that the program isn’t prestigious enough. TFA accepts only about 10 percent of students who apply, and she would be following a path well trodden by previous Hoyas, as Georgetown ranks third in TFA recruits for a school of its size. It’s not that she doesn’t want to be a teacher either, and it’s not that she doesn’t want to teach disadvantaged students. Her problem with the program runs deeper.

“I just don’t agree with their model,” she told me.

The model she referred to is Teach for America’s training program for new recruits, and I stand firmly with her judgment. The program consists of a five-week teacher bootcamp where hundreds of starry-eyed 22-year-olds fresh out of their graduation gowns are supposed to learn not only how to teach, but how to teach the most disadvantaged, challenging student populations in the country. Then they’re plopped down in classrooms from Anacostia to Appalachia with the expectation that their raw intellect and youthful drive will allow them to prop up the most troubled schools and inspire the most educationally-deprived students to academic success.

If it sounds like a recipe for disaster, that’s because it is.

Educational scholars and teachers of all stripes say it takes years to become competent in the profession, not weeks or months. Dwayne Williams, a teacher trainer and evaluator for D.C. Public Schools, tells his teachers they won’t be good at their job until they’ve spent at least 1,000 days in the field. With very few exceptions, TFA recruits simply aren’t properly prepared when they arrive in the classroom, and a growing body of evidence suggests they aren’t serving students as well as they could be.

A 2010 study commissioned by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice finds, for instance, that “students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers.” In other words, TFA may market itself as an organization that can help pull students out of poverty and deprivation, but they are, at least in the beginning, worse than the traditionally-certified teachers they wish to supplant.

What’s more, TFA recruits usually don’t stay in the profession long enough to become effective teachers. The same Great Lakes Center study found that over half of TFA teachers leave after their mandatory two years of service are over, and over 80 percent leave after three years. Comparing that to the 50 percent rate of attrition after five years for traditionally-certified teachers, it’s hard not to have questions about whether most TFAers actually end up helping a significant number of students.

Even so, the now 20-year-old program continues to grow. This year TFA will place over 5,000 eager college grads into classrooms, up from about 2,900 only five years ago. The organization seems to have found a niche in charter schools, where many experienced teachers have been kicked to the curb only to be replaced by green recruits. Last year over a third of TFA teachers were put into charters, a marked increase from 13 percent in the 2007-2008 school year.

If there’s any silver lining to this story, it’s that alternatives exist to both the TFA model and traditional certification strategies. Teacher residency programs popping up around the nation seem to hold special promise. Urban Teacher Residency United, for instance, puts prospective educators through a year long apprenticeship with a proven teacher acting as a mentor while providing for living expenses and subsidizing the apprentice’s master’s degree. The teachers commit to three years of service in their assigned district and are supported with observations and feedback throughout that time. At least from the standpoint of teacher retention, the program seems to perform well—85 percent of recruits stay in their assigned school past the three year mark.

The University of Chicago runs a similar residency—the Urban Teacher Education Program—and claims an even higher retention rate: 92 percent after five years. On the whole, teach residency programs like these offer a more serious and holistic approach to teacher certification than the fast and loose strategy of Teach for America.

In the end, no reasonable person can deny both students and the teachers themselves would be better served if every TFAer went through a year long residency rather than a five-week training spree. If our politicians and policymakers are truly serious about improving American education, they should reject TFA’s quick fix approach and embrace more comprehensive training strategies. Our children deserve better than undertrained teachers, and that means they deserve far better than what Teach for America is today.

Gavin Bade
Gavin Bade is a former Editor in Chief of The Georgetown Voice

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Why’d she apply to something she has a deep problem with? Dismissive shrug about taking a spot in a very selective program?

This would be like someone applying to Brown, being accepted while classmates weren’t and turning it down dismissively, ‘no core curriculum, psh’.

Hooray for real teachers

Not only does TFA put inadequately trained teachers in the field, the philosophy of the program is dangerous to teaching itself. For many of my peers, teaching has become a stepping stone to their real career as TFA helps pad resumes or law school applications. From the advertising I’ve seen from TFA, they encourage this view of teaching. Teaching, then, becomes simply a world-enriching hobby like backpacking through Europe rather than the real profession it is. Our society devalues and demonizes teachers enough as it is, TFA is only fueling that attitude by pretending that a good teacher can be created from an Ivy League degree and a summer boot camp.

Thanks, Gavin, for taking what I’m sure will be a very unpopular stance at TFA-crazy Georgetown.

Jennifer Parks

Bravo, Gavin! Taught as permanent substitute(;-)in Detroit Public Schools when I was a student at Wayne State University. Great experience! I, too, believe that TFA is too quick a fix, and undervalues the importance of the children that will be aught by these eachers. Agree that newer, more modern strategies can work better…and better Education Departments/Colleges are working on developing courses, practicums as you describe above, that mentor better, more committed teachers! Jennifer Parks, Holland, MI