Teach For America's Effectiveness Rests Beyond the Initial Two Years

Note: This piece is part of a continuing debate series on education reform in America. For an opposing perspective, see PolicyMic Contributing Writer Julia Gregory's article on this topic.

Teach For America (TFA) has been consistently active in the national debate on educational reform, with both President Barack Obama's and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's nodding their heads to the program. Supporters have argued that TFA is providing many low-income classrooms, both urban and rural, with a critical need: fresh teachers. Critics assert that TFA does little more than allow college graduates to build their resumes with two years of teaching experience and then move on to the rest of their lives, leaving communities behind.

Both of these portrayals, however, miss the real strength of TFA: the long-term effect that it will have on our society’s treatment of the educational achievement gap. As my PolicyMic colleague Zahreen Ghaznavi writes, the long-term effectiveness of TFA is more important than its impact in the first two years.

TFA concentrates on more than just placing qualified, motivated teachers in classrooms. Education is not just the business of educational professionals who directly influence the learning of students, but the concern of every citizen. It is the most central aspect of our society because social mobility depends on the quality of education that people receive.

Some of the most respected alumni of the program have done the most good outside the classroom. Former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system Michelle Rhee founded The New Teacher Project, which has been one of the most effective programs in building high-quality teachers. Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg created the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), which serves over 26,000 students throughout the country. These alumni, like many others, chose not to stay in the classroom; however, they have continued to impact students.

Last school year, more than 46,000 people applied for about 4,500 TFA teaching positions. There could have been numerous reasons for so many people to apply to work in poverty-stricken schools: a poor economy, a longing to learn more about the issue of education, or an aspiration to make the world a better place. Whatever their reasons, they signed up for a crash course on the deep inequities in our education system. I agree with the critics who say that this two-year crash course is not enough to make them great teachers; however, it is enough time to instill in them a sincere dedication to this issue.

Rhee, Feinberg, and Levin did not have to stay in the classroom to make a difference, and neither do other TFA alumni who find their callings elsewhere. True, we need more teachers, but we also need more businessmen, politicians, professors, doctors, journalists, and many others who are just as dedicated to education. TFA is creating the groundwork for such a movement.  

TFA’s effectiveness rests not in the vocation of education, but in the concept of education. The corps offers young people from various backgrounds a chance to experience what educational inequity feels like and then go out and fight for equality over a lifetime in whatever career they choose. Teachers, as important as they are, cannot do it alone. The two-year commitment is the training ground for a lifelong commitment to educational reform. With over 20,000 alumni in a diverse array of fields, TFA is leading the nation in training people to tackle the achievement gap.  

As TFA continues to attract some of our country’s brightest minds at higher rates, we will soon be able to see this broader impact and the true effectiveness of the program.

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