For the past few years, Teach for America has garnered an impressive amount of headlines. Excessive, maybe, for a non-profit organization that aims to “eliminate education inequity.” With such a feel-good goal, how can TFA be so controversial? As the application deadline for the newest batch of TFA corps members looms, it’s time to clear the air.
At its roots, Teach for America can be boiled down to an alternate teaching certification and placement program. College graduates go through the TFA training program and then teach in struggling classrooms for two years, paid by the school districts themselves at their standard starting teacher salary. TFA does offer their corps members “need-based transitional funding,” often in the form of no-interest loans, and AmeriCorps benefits, which include qualified loan forbearance, accruing interest payment and a maximum “education award” of $5,645 per year. These education awards can be applied to loan repayment or educational expenses, like future graduate school or current teacher certification costs. However, AmeriCorps benefits are not guaranteed to TFA corps members, although TFA does assure applicants that they have been available to “nearly all” corps members in the past.
Now, each state has its own teacher certification requirements and tests, but a traditional teacher-to-be either goes through a state-certified teacher education program or earns a master’s degree after college. On the other hand, TFA teachers go through a selective application process, usually during their senior year of college, receive readings and preparatory materials during the school year, attend TFA’s summer training institute and then enter the classroom as a full-fledged teacher in the fall. TFA has just introduced an early acceptance program for college juniors, who will then receive extra preparation during their final year of school, but the majority of the 5,300 new corps members still go through the application process their senior year.
TFA operates in 35 states, with 11 regional summer institutes to train its newest members. Illinois is one of the 35 states that accept both alternate and traditional certifications, but the programs have significant differences. A traditional Illinois licensure program takes anywhere from 18 to 30 months, as do most other traditional programs. TFA teachers train for five (unpaid) weeks. A traditional program has a full-time student teaching requirement, fulfilled by 15 weeks of classroom instruction. With Illinois’ minimum 5-hr long school day – lower than many other states’ - that’s an average of 375 hours of teaching before ever being hired. TFA members teach “an average of two hours each day” during the summer institute – a total of 70 hours, if we’re generously assuming that the summer school students go to class on weekends, too.
This training program was devised in 1990, TFA’s founding year. And it made sense then. 1990 was marked with a national teacher shortage: 2.76 million teachers taught 46.8 million pupils, putting the average pupil to teacher ratio at nearly 17 to 1. States needed teachers fast. They weren’t worried about creating career teachers; they were worried about keeping schools running. Gary Rubinstein, a current teacher, author and TFA alum from its second class all the way back in 1991, articulated the prevailing thought of the time. “A permanent teacher is going to be better for kids than a substitute teacher,” Rubinstein said of then-popular attitudes, even if permanent only meant two years.
But today, there are more than 3.5 million teachers, decreasing the average classroom ratio to 15.5 students to every teacher. While there are certainly still regions suffering from teacher shortages, it’s less of a widespread issue than it has been in the past. The national debate has shifted away from teacher recruitment and more to teacher retention. Constantly hiring new teachers is costly, not to mention extremely detrimental to student success. Being a teacher isn’t for the faint-of-heart, regardless of training: nationally, 46 percent of new teachers leave the profession in their first five years. TFA cites internal statistics showing that two-thirds of corps members teach longer than their first two years, and they do have new programs in place to support third, fourth and fifth years in the classroom. But an external poll showed that 72 percent of new TFA teachers leave the profession in their first five years: 26 percent more than the national average.
“There are people who have really challenging experiences,” said David Omenn, the Vice President of Recruitment at TFA. “That’s because this is really challenging."
But what is it that makes TFA so challenging that corps members leave the profession so much faster than the average teacher? It could be due to the training process, as many argue. This issue has been brought up very recently in Pittsburgh, where the school board shut down its active TFA contract at the end of 2013 partly due to concerns over teacher readiness with so little training. Rubinstein, now an active critic of the program, talks of teachers being trained to teach high school students and then winding up clueless in front of an elementary school class. He’s pushing for TFA to add another year to their program model, devoted at least partly to student teaching, but has yet to find a constructive response from the organization.
But TFA teachers’ low retention rate could also be due to their placements. Corps members are given assignments in traditionally low-achieving areas, often in impoverished urban neighborhoods or poor rural communities. National teacher retention in these communities is much lower than the average, with some schools losing more than half their teaching staff every five years.
Corps members are also often placed in charter schools. And although TFA will be quick to point out that the majority of TFA members teach in traditional public schools, 30 percent of them do teach in charter schools, a disproportionate amount when compared with the fact that only 5.8 percent of public schools are charters. In Chicago, it’s even more extensive: Almost two-thirds of TFA teachers are placed in charter schools. The ethics and effectiveness of charter schools are a whole other debate, but they do have higher turnover rates, more expulsions and lower salaries than the national average, indicating a taxing work environment and a troublesome future.
In the face of these negative numbers, TFA has switched its phrasing to center on “developing leaders” instead of developing teachers. As Northwestern alumna and TFA recruitment manager Amie Ninh put it, TFA’s long-term mission is “creating a critical mass of leaders who are advocating in all different sectors and fields.” Their success stories focus on public figures like Michelle Rhee, Kevin Huffman and other alumni who work in politics, policy and administration. The structural problems at the root of the American education system are huge, and getting more leaders into that system is an incredibly laudable goal. Having some sort of teaching experience can only help one’s abilities in those spheres, as could TFA’s extensive corporate and political connections. TFA’s separate lobbying arm, Leadership for Educational Equity, offers extensive post-teaching support for TFA alumni in the form of fellowships and political contributions.
So if you want to get in the classroom, but aren’t quite ready to commit to a career of teaching, TFA’s minimal training, limited timeframe and later job opportunities could be the right choice for you. But as far as if it’s the right choice for students, that’s a far murkier question. TFA often cites a controversial statistic that TFA teachers provide learning gains equivalent to 2.6 extra months of teaching, out-performing traditional teachers “nationwide.” However, there are a lot of criticisms about this study: too small a sample size, a non-representative sample selection, statistically miniscule differences in test scores and more. Rubinstein equates it to “immoral lies” and “teacher bashing” against traditional educators.
Educational achievement is difficult to attribute to one factor, and is also difficult to measure simply in test scores. Student instruction is one of the top contributing factors, but more teachers isn’t the same thing as better teachers. Teach for America will accept an estimated 50,000 applications on October 24. That means 50,000 bright young students and graduates want to become teachers. That's a pretty promising start. Now the question is: How do we make them the best teachers they can be for the longest time possible?