Teach For America: Let's Stop Encouraging Teachers to Leave After Two Years, Maybe?

One of the hallmarks of charter schools is the recruitment of young teachers. Fresh blood, it seems, is the solution to facing the same tired problem of low-achieving students in poverty stricken school districts. These teachers, many newly-minted in their first year of teaching, are the vivacious, gung-ho, think-outside-the-box answers to the beat-down cynicism of the curmudgeons at the end of their careers, clinging to tenure.

Young teachers in charter schools (many of which have only a year or two to their names as well) are supposed to save education in the United States. In reality, though, this supposed remedy is simply hastening the demise of public education. There is a very real danger in valuing inexperience in the teaching field, and charter schools — among others — are perpetuating the damage. 

The New York Times recently profiled YES Prep, a network of 13 charter schools, where teachers have an average of two and a half years of classroom experience. The profile opens with a 24-year-old teacher in his third year expressing interest in already moving on from teaching, and a principal at the ripe old age of 28. At YES Prep, youth is valued almost above all else, inexperience is seen as a promising attribution, and "[t]here is a certain comfort level" in knowing teachers will "not stay forever," at least according to their senior vice president of people and programming.

This isn't a belief unique to YES Prep. Two paragraphs later in the NYT profile is a quote from Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, promising that "Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers." Indeed, Kopp's blockbuster Teach for America, which recruits the best and brightest right from college to serve in under-achieving schools for two years, is built around this promise. For just five weeks of training, Teach for America participants lead a classroom for two years, slap it on their resume, and leave the school with a bevy of opportunities.

Perhaps this is a win-win. Perhaps the TFA participants get the benefit of a resume boost, and needy schools receive two years of teaching from high-achieving college graduates. That is, at least, the thinking driving support for TFA. The intentions are good; getting the best college graduates to give up two years for teaching is no easy task. The only problem is it's not helping the students.

Regardless of the quality of graduates entering TFA and similar programs at charter schools, one thing remains the same: teacher turnover is not good for students. These programs that pride themselves on quick stints in the trenches at America's worst schools aren't the self-sacrificing havens they appear. While TFA participants might feel good about the work they're doing, someone should tell them their two-years-and-out policy is actually hurting students. A study published in the American Education Research journal found that higher teacher turnover rates have "negative and significant [consequences] for test scores in both ELA and math" and that students perform worse when teacher turnover rates are higher. So while TFA might be a noble ambition, it's driving high turnover rates in already low-performing schools; the revolving door of teachers only makes students do worse.

Though charter schools represent a small portion of U.S. public schools (5% as of 2009), TFA places roughly one-third of its candidates in charters. The two combined make for a system where short teaching careers aren't a merely a symptom, they're expected. They treat teaching as just something to do, charity work that'll make you feel good and look good on a resume. They're embracing an already rampant problem facing the teaching profession: one-third of new teachers leave the profession after three years, and almost half are gone after five. No one wants to stick around in the classroom, and with stories like this, it's hard to blame them. But education reformers should be working to combat this problem, not exacerbate it.

Teacher attrition costs an estimated $7.3 billion per year. It's proven to have negative effects on student performance. So why are Teach For America and charter school networks like YES Prep encouraging teachers to have a "get out while you can" mentality in the classroom? We should be cultivating teachers who are in it for the long haul, who build steady careers based on longevity, who become the wizened old stalwarts who've been around the block a few times. Yes, there are problems with tenure and bad teachers sticking around too long, and those issues need to be addressed. But the exact opposite — getting teachers in and out as fast as we can — is certainly not the solution.

Fleeting teaching careers have become trendy in education reform. It's time to buck the trend.