It’s time for Teach For America to fold — former TFAer

TFA founder Wendy Kopp
TFA founder Wendy Kopp

Teach For America is one of the most controversial school reform organizations operating today. TFA recruits new college graduates, gives them five weeks of summer training and then places them in some of America’s neediest classrooms, presuming that just a little over a month of training is sufficient to do the job. Critics point out that high-needs students, who are the ones who get TFA teachers, are the children who most need veteran teachers. In fact, some veterans are now losing their jobs to TFA corps members, because TFAers are less expensive to hire, and some school teaching communities are becoming less cohesive because TFA members promise only to stay for two years and leave teaching at a greater rate than traditionally trained teachers.

With this backdrop, here is a piece by Matt Barnum, who was an eighth-grade language-arts teacher in Colorado Springs for the Teach For America – Colorado 2010 corps, who makes a compelling argument that it is time for TFA to fold. He is currently a law student at the University of Chicago, but still writes regularly about education.

By Matt Barnum

Last year, when I was finishing up my two years teaching eighth grade through Teach For America, a fellow corps member reached out, asking me to give to a TFA fundraising drive. I almost did. TFA had, after all, changed the course of my life, offering me two years that were at once mind-numbingly challenging and mind-blowingly rewarding. More importantly, TFA has had a huge – and in my view positive – impact on education since it started more than two decades ago. But ultimately I chose not to fork over any money.  In making that decision I realized something that at the time was hard to admit to myself: TFA had run its course.

Consider TFA’s two original missions: first to help understaffed school districts fill teaching positions with talented, energized college graduates, and second to create a broader education advocacy and awareness movement. On both counts, TFA has had an impact, but ironically as TFA continues to grow, in many ways its impact is fading.

No longer are TFA corps members only filling spots that would otherwise go to long-term subs. In some districts TFAers are replacing veteran teachers who have been let go.  Other districts, like the one I used to teach in, appear to cycle through corps members every two years, with high turnover among TFA teachers who are in turn replaced by a fresh slate of bushy-tailed, ill-trained corps members.

Here I have only my own experience to draw from; the validity of my claims can only be judged by other corps members’, educators’, and district leaders’ experiences. I’ve come to fear that many schools have become overly reliant on TFA as a teacher pipeline.  Think about this way: A district has trouble filling all its teaching slots, so it hires many TFA corps members; inevitably, a large number of those teachers leave after two or three years; the district then fills those vacant slots with even more novice teachers. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Perhaps this model is not all bad. If TFA teachers are exceptionally effective while teaching, sure, it’d be great if they stayed in the classroom longer, but two years of effective teaching is better than none. The research on this is mixed (surprise, surprise), but my interpretation is that although corps member are probably a bit better than traditionally trained novices, they’re not significantly better (and perhaps worse) than veteran teachers.

The other problem is the wasted investment a school makes in a teacher who leaves after just a few years. Sadly, I’m a poster child for this. I remember my last day at my school in Colorado, as I made the rounds saying goodbye to veteran teachers, my friends and colleagues who had provided me such crucial support and mentorship. As I talked of my plans for law school in Chicago, and they bade me best wishes, I felt an overwhelming wave of guilt. Their time and energy spent making me a better teacher – and I was massively better on that day compared to my first – was for naught. The previous summer I had spent a week of training, paid for by my school, to learn to teach pre–Advanced Placement classes. I taught the class for a year; presumably, I thought, someone else would have to receive the same training – or, worse, someone else would not receive the same training. All that work on classroom management and understanding of the curriculum, all the support in connecting with students and writing lesson – it would all have to begin again with a new teacher. (Indeed, my replacement apparently had a nervous breakdown and quit after a few months. She was replaced by a long-term substitute who one of my former colleagues must write lesson plans for.)

If Teach For America disappeared next year, I imagine that my old district and many across the country might suffer in the short term. (If TFA did ever close shop, phasing itself out slowly would surely be preferable to shutting down immediately.) But in the long term, I think it might be better for schools. Perhaps the loss of TFA would force districts to work on improving working conditions or pay, in order to retain top teachers. Perhaps it would help create more stability in schools. I admit this is speculative, and that many of these problems existed before TFA. It’s just as speculative, though, to suggest that TFA is currently having a positive influence on schools and students.

Nevertheless, some still believe that TFA is on a balance a force for good. Even taking that for granted, I am extremely skeptical that TFA is whatsoever cost-effective. Needless to say, this is important because money is scarce; money spent on education is even scarcer. If TFA is crowded investment into more effective organizations, then its money could be better spent.

TFA is now massive, with annual expenses (pdf) at $220 million in fiscal year 2011. According to the charity site Give Well, TFA’s budget 2009 budget came to a stunning $38,046 spent per corps member who started teaching; this was a more than twofold increase from 2005. (Corps member spending by TFA does not include corps members’ salaries, which are paid for by their respective school district. School districts also pay TFA a fee for each corps member hired.) Admittedly, a per-corps-member measurement is imperfect because it accounts for recruiting a new and ever-larger corps, as well as a ballooning alumni base. The question remains: if you have money to donate to education causes, is TFA your best investment?

Consider some of the main items in TFA’s budget (pdf): recruiting and selecting corps members (18%), management and general (9%), alumni support (8%). None of these makes corps members effective teachers. “Corps member development” (39%) and institute training (17%), on the other hand, purportedly do. Reality, as is its wont, is not so simple.

For many corps members, the required five-week summer training “institute” is close to useless. Why? Not, as some have argued, because it’s so short. Rather, it’s because for many of us the training doesn’t come close to simulating what it’s like to be teaching during the real school year. As alumni blogger Gary Rubinstein has pointed out, many institutes’ corps members teach for very little time in front of very few students.

That was precisely my experience. At the Phoenix Institute, I taught for four weeks, one-hour each day, in front of an average of ten exceptionally well-behaved sixth graders. (The first week of Institute did not involve any teaching.) And did I mention that there was no summer school on Fridays? In sum, I taught for a total of sixteen hours, in a room that often had half as many adults as students. At my middle school in Colorado, I taught an average of eighteen eighth-graders per class for about six hours a day, where I was almost always the only adult present. And these students’ parents had not elected for them to attend summer school. In other words, my placement school had more students, more hours, more days of the week, fewer adults, and a different student population (not to mention a different age group, and, for many, a different subject). TFA’s training model is not effective, yet $33 million is spent to doing a poor job teaching corps members to teach.

TFA loves to talk about the coaching of and professional development for its teachers. This sort of talk sounds good to prospective corps members, to districts, to donors, and to the media. Again, I can only draw from own experience and those of others I know, but with few exceptions, TFA’s continued support rarely made me a better teacher.

Managers of Teacher Leadership and Development (MTLDs) are supposed to be the first line of support for corps members struggling in the classroom. My MTLD – at the time, called a PD, program director – my first year did her best, but stopping by my classroom once a month, and having a half hour “debrief” after was little help. This support mirrored TFA’s training: not enough depth, not enough breadth, not enough time. My second MTLD was no better. I didn’t know her until a week into the school year, when she appeared in my classroom with no warning – I had not met her, and didn’t even know who she was as first – only to sweep out, fifteen minutes later, after leaving a post-it note that said something along the lines of, “Keep up the great work!” That about set the tone for the rest of our interactions.

This is the sort of corps member development that millions and millions of dollars are purchasing. Not to point to fine a point on it, but there are many, many other organizations that are doing great work that are far more worthy of donors’ money than TFA.

The second prong of TFA’s mission is to raise awareness of educational issues and develop lifelong advocates for educational equity.  On this point, TFA has undoubtedly been successful; some of the biggest names in educational policy started their careers as corps members. Although one can debate whether all these individuals have had a positive impact on education (I think most have), it will suffice to say that TFA alumni sit on all sides of education policy debate, and it is surely true that TFA has gone a long way in focusing much-needed attention on low-income schools and communities.

All that said, I suspect that TFA has reached a critical mass on this point. With an “alumni network” of nearly 28,000 it’s difficult to see how pumping in several thousand additional corps members each year won’t lead to diminishing returns. Indeed, when I was considering jobs in education policy, multiple interviews mentioned how often they interview many TFA alumni for a single spot. In the educational world, TFA alumni have become a dime a dozen.

What should come out of TFA’s ashes? I expect some would answer enthusiastically, “Nothing!” I disagree. There are many talented people who work at TFA and many alumni who want to use their skills to further public education. I believe that such talent can continue TFA’s mission in a different form. Perhaps that form should be an off-shoot that requires a five-year commitment, as one alum recently suggested. Perhaps it’s worthwhile to try to bring veteran teachers from high-performing districts into lower-performing ones. Perhaps a huge effort should be exerted to improve schools of education so teachers are more effectively prepared for the classroom. Perhaps a different social cause is worth focusing on. I can’t say, but I’m confident that the idealism that TFA has tapped into is, and should be, here to stay.

Responses to Teach For America are often polarized in the education world: either TFA has a nefarious mission that will destroy public schools or it will save schools and solve education’s problems. The truth, I think, lies somewhere in the middle. TFA has changed the education world for the better, focused energy and concern around low-income communities, and harnessed the idealism of a generation of college graduates. In other words, TFA has had a good run, but today – for the good of those it hopes to help – it is time to retire.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | February 28, 2013