Teach for America: Effective solution or resume builder?

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.

6 Comments

  • Trey says:

    Teach for America made a dramatic difference for my rural school district in Northeastern NC. Quality teachers could not be recruited to that area and the district had a history of holding on to poor performing local teachers.
    The district brought in 18 new TFA teachers the first year. The standard of what quality of work students were capable of and expectation for great things these kids in the future immediately caused excitement for learning again.
    The insertion of TFA teachers also caused the long term teachers in the district to become revitalized and become excited about teaching again.
    TFA is almost the only high quality move that can be made in areas that do not have the ability to hire high quality teachers in any significant number. If places like this are to pull away from century old poverty, TFA may be the only good answer.
    I would note that the local political controls in that district were not able to sustain the work of TFA.

  • Katie says:

    TFA is a wonderful program that is both an effective solution and a resume builder.
    To being an effective solution for in-need schools, it brings in fresh teachers that view the schools in a new light. They have a new energy and will be put through teacher-education programs simultaneously. They are also given mentor support. As the above comment stated, “it also revitalizes the veteran teachers”.
    As to being a resume builder, this is also true. TFA was designed to bring in non-education majors. Their intent was that some of them would remain in teaching while others would take their experience into their next careers. There are many politicians, journalists, etc. that now have a personal understanding of the educational world.

  • Lodus says:

    I’ll be working with an inner city school in it’s tenth year of Needs Improvement, with several TFA teachers this upcoming year. I’m hoping that they bring a much-needed revitalization to the faculty.

  • dj training says:

    For the effective solution in schools, I think the have to bring the fresh and knowledgeable teachers who can teach the students very well.

  • William L says:

    I did TFA in LA in 2005, and I’ve been in the classroom for 7 years now. I think it’s hard the first year, and I continued making mistakes my 2nd year. Even in my 7th year, I’m still learning.
    My opinion is that its a good program. The Institute and the support structures (in friends that are doing the program and the professional learning communities) during the year are helpful. I like that 67% of its alums stay in the classroom in some capacity, even if its not the school that they were initially placed at. I like that those that leave the classroom pursuing other professions sometimes still fight social justice on other fronts. Fundamentally, poverty and healthcare are the causes of low education.
    William L
    http://www.lulu.com/alastingwill – Classroom Resources For All

  • Teach for America made a dramatic difference for my rural school district in Northeastern NC. Quality teachers could not be recruited to that area and the district had a history of holding on to poor performing local teachers.
    The district brought in 18 new TFA teachers the first year. The standard of what quality of work students were capable of and expectation for great things these kids in the future immediately caused excitement for learning again.
    The insertion of TFA teachers also caused the long term teachers in the district to become revitalized and become excited about teaching again.
    TFA is almost the only high quality move that can be made in areas that do not have the ability to hire high quality teachers in any significant number. If places like this are to pull away from century old poverty, TFA may be the only good answer.
    I would note that the local political controls in that district were not able to sustain the work of TFA.
    +1

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