Retooling Teach For America

Originally published by The Los Angeles Times

Commentary | | July 10, 2012
K-12 Education, Teacher Quality

When I meet new people, I like to do a small social experiment. When asked what I do for a living, I sometimes say "I work with Teach For America." Other times, I leave that out entirely, and just say "I'm a teacher."

The responses often are vastly different. As a kid right out of college, I thought using the Teach For America line was great. Girls would actually talk to me and even seemed impressed by my association with TFA. But when I told people I was a teacher and left out that piece, you could almost see them start to wonder just how bad my LSAT must have been for me to have ended up teaching.

According to a recent news release, TFA is now the top employer of graduating seniors from schools such as Yale, UC Berkeley, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Howard University. At first glance, it seems encouraging that so many of America's brightest young graduates are going into teaching. But I worry that the prestige and selectivity TFA uses to sell itself to high-achieving college graduates may be doing more harm than good in terms of how recent graduates view the teaching profession as a whole.

For one thing, TFA attracts top graduates in part by requiring only a two-year commitment. And when the two years are up, the prestige of the organization, along with TFA's connections with graduate schools and businesses, will help them as they pursue their real long-term careers.

This recruitment technique has proved incredibly successful. Ivy League graduates brag about their employment with TFA. But will this ultimately be good for the teaching profession and for America's students?

Being a great teacher has to be one of the hardest jobs in the world. I knew I had found my passion the first time I stood at the front of a classroom at Jordan High School in South Los Angeles during my TFA summer training five years ago. But it took me several years of teaching psychology, government and world history to feel truly competent. Those first couple of years in the classroom are a huge learning curve for any teacher, and it seems arrogant to think that just because the TFA kids went to good schools and got good grades, they'll instantly be able to teach. It's no wonder the longtime teachers at some schools resent these upstarts. The two-year commitment means that many of the program's participants leave just as they're getting to the point at which their students will really benefit.

Last October, Kappan magazine reported on a survey in which 60.5% of the 2000-'02 cohorts of TFA teachers reported that they continued teaching after their two-year commitment. But after five years, only about 28% remained in teaching. More recently, a study of TFA teachers in Jacksonville, Fla., found that only about 22% continued teaching after their two-years.

Ultimately, TFA needs to change its recruitment model and the two-year commitment contract. TFA should sell the teaching profession to college graduates rather than the prestige they will gain from their brief stints as educators. The best way to change the focus would be to increase the commitment to four or five years with the emphasis on long-term teacher development and not the two-year quick stop on the way to more "prominent" careers. But that doesn't seem likely.

Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of TFA, addressed this issue last month in an interview with NY1 news: "Our applicant pool fell in half when we asked for a three-year commitment. It doubled if we asked for one year. The reason this plays out is that 22-year-olds think that two years is the rest of their life."

But Kopp misses the point by focusing on the number of applicants rather than on potential longer-term benefits to public education. Rather than bend to the student's perception that teaching is not prestigious enough to do long term, TFA should instead use its vast resources to encourage students to see teaching as the end goal, and TFA as a viable means to that end.

TFA was started with the best of intentions as a way of improving the quality of education for all children. But dropping new teachers into classrooms for a couple of years isn't going to achieve that. Nor will it promote collegiality between the TFA teachers and the rest of the staffs at their schools. Initially, there was considerable tension between TFA and non-TFA teachers at my school, and the leading cause of the tension was that TFA teachers weren't seen as having a long-term stake in the profession or, more important, the students.

Many of my teaching colleagues are still torn on how to view TFA teachers. There is rarely a question about the passion with which corps members approach their two-year commitment. Many TFA-ers end up coaching a sport that was previously without a coach or staying after to tutor students well past their contract hours. Call it idealistic, but the TFA teachers I know truly believe in their students and that great things are possible for them.

TFA makes the case that its alumni will remain committed to furthering education even when they move on to other professions, and that it's crucial for the nation's professionals in all fields to have knowledge of the public school system and its needs and challenges.

OK, great. But the achievement gap that TFA says it is committed to closing will require new, gifted teachers to join the profession and stick with it for far more than two years. TFA has built up impressive financial support and an incredible reputation among college graduates. Here's hoping they use those assets to improve the esteem of all teachers, not just those with TFA attached to their names.