Just a few months ago, Teach for America (TFA) was one of many programs facing severe cuts in the federal budget. It was spared and then some—it also has received a $50 million “scale-up” grant through the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) competition and, in early June, announced that this year’s teacher corps is the largest in the organization’s history.
TFA places outstanding recent graduates as teachers in struggling urban and rural public schools in order to fight educational inequality. Acceptance to become a corps member is fiercely competitive—of the nearly 48,000 applicants this year, only 11 percent were selected. And Glassdoor.com recently ranked TFA in the top 10 for toughest interviews.
The program has been praised as a win-win solution for low-performing schools and students who need bright, hard-working teachers and for TFA teachers who want to make a difference. But TFA also has detractors who question the effects that inexperienced, possibly culturally naïve, and transient teachers may have on student learning. In the article, “Teach for America and Teacher Ed: Heads They Win, Tails We Lose,” Stanford University researcher David Labaree argues, “TFA’s approach to teaching reinforces an old and dangerous vision of teaching as a form of slumming, a missionary effort by the White middle class” (p. 52).
Studies from Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee have shown that corps members have a positive impact on student achievement, but a 2010 review of evidence by University of Texas researcher and professor Julian Vasquez Heilig found that “students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers” (Executive Summary). He also points out the high cost to schools of replacing TFA teachers, who tend to move on once they’ve fulfilled their two-year commitment, and suggests policymakers support TFA staffing only when certified teachers are not available.
What is your experience with Teach for America? Do you believe that TFA helps at-risk students receive a better education? Or is it more of a “stepping stone” for ambitious young people who know it will impress potential employers in other professions?
Maura McGrath is McREL’s knowledge management specialist.