Teach For America is Finally Getting the Scrutiny It Deserves

After James Ceronsky's article in the The American Prospect "Teach for America's Civil War" went viral last week, the Free Minds, Free People conference in Chicago gained national attention for its roundtable "Organizing Resistance to Teach For America," comprised mostly of Teach For America (TFA) alumni and current TFA corps members  With a surplus of highly qualified, well-educated teachers seeking employment, Teach For America needs to refine its vision and find new ways to reshape public education in the 21st century.

Teach for America, founded in 1989 by Wendy Kopp (and based on her undergraduate Princeton thesis), offers graduates of prestigious colleges the opportunity to teach for two years in an under-served urban or rural school district. The program has grown significantly since its inception from six to 26 geographic regions and nearly every state has at least one school district contracted with Teach for America. 

TFA has glamorized the profession of teaching, something that is admirable in a late 20th century American context, a time when the economy was stronger and well-educated college graduates were less likely to consider a career in education, let alone working with at-risk students. In the 1990s, Teach for America put its talented and enthusiastic young teachers in the classrooms where no one else wanted to teach. It was an imperfect system, but it filled a real need. 

Between 2004 and 2008, more than 300,000 veteran teachers left the work force for retirement. Even though these Baby Boomers are retiring, nearly 300,000 educator jobs have been lost nationwide since 2008, according to a 2011 study conducted by the National Economic Council, the Domestic Policy Council, the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and the Department of Education. As teachers retire, vacant jobs are not necessarily emerging.

When jobs are available, some districts have reserved positions for TFA corp members rather than conducting a traditional candidate search. A criticism of TFA, as explained in the Washington Post, is that, "some veteran [teachers] are now losing their jobs to TFA corps members, because TFAers are less expensive to hire." Under increasing financial pressures, some school districts will lay off veteran teachers while still offering contracts to TFA corps members. 

TFA corps members, although highly educated, are still novices. A study by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future indicates that it takes about seven years for a teacher to truly master his or her craft. Students experience the most gains when under the instruction of a master teacher. The students with the greatest need, however, are often taught by a rotating cycle of TFA corps members who are contracted for two years, rather than master teachers with extensive experience.  

Although young teachers bring idealism and enthusiasm to the classroom, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future indicates that many of the late 20th century practices of teacher recruitment (including, but certainly not limited to TFA), do not spend enough time investing in the professional development of their workforce, and often view teaching as a temporary career. They estimate that one-third of all new teachers leave after three years, and 46% are gone within five years. The National Center for Education statistics confirms that the average turnover rate for all teachers is 17% and for urban teachers it climbs to 20%. 

TFA alumni are no exception to this trend. According to Zach Schonfeld of the Atlantic Wire, "One study found that roughly 57% of corps members planned to teach for two years or less when they applied, while only 11% intended to make teaching a lifelong career. TFA has claimed, however, that 36% remain in the classroom as teachers. But their recently announced partnership with Goldman Sachs, which provides TFA recruits with jobs at the banking firm after two years of service, doesn't entirely help their cause."

Teacher turnover hurts students. It is in a student's best interest to have a master teacher (or someone with the intention of becoming a master teacher) guide their instruction. With a surplus of highly qualified, well-educated teachers seeking employment, Teach For America needs to find new ways to reshape public education. Although the effects of the Free People Free Minds conference have yet to be seen, this roundtable will hopefully be the first of many discussions about how Teach for America can provide an authentic service to the students with the greatest needs.