Why We Need To Reform Teach For America

February 9, 2011  |  

by Joe R. Rogers, Jr.

This Friday, February 11th, Teach For America (TFA) will kick off its 20th Anniversary Summit in Washington, D.C. Thousands of TFA teachers, alumni and supporters from across the country will converge on our nation’s capitol for three days of celebrating, networking and hearing CEO and Founder Wendy Kopp’s vision for this much-celebrated organization’s future. At this auspicious moment, low-income communities of color and allies in the movement for educational equity are joining in a petition addressed to Ms. Kopp demanding that she announce the long overdue reform of her teacher preparation program.

Currently, TFA systematically assigns brand new teachers with only five weeks of summer school training to teach Black and Latino children in low-income communities. In addition, few TFA teachers remain in the classroom beyond TFA’s two-year requirement, depriving our children of experienced educators. These are bold injustices in a perpetually unfair education system that denies our children the critical resources they deserve and need to reach their full potential. The status quo educational inequity that assigns well-prepared teachers to middle class and wealthy White children and inadequately prepared teachers to our children must end.

Specifically, we call upon Teach for America to:

1. Adopt a 12-14 month, clinically based teacher preparation model (which might begin with their current five-week summer preparation program) and require that all prospective TFA teachers commit to teach for a minimum of four years (including the full year of preparation) in the district in which they were prepared

2. Use the $50 million of our federal tax dollars they received in 2010 to plan and implement the evolution of the five-week model to a yearlong model

3. Invest in research and development geared towards recruiting academically accomplished undergraduates and mid-career professionals, including increased percentages of Black and Latino candidates, who will make a minimum four-year commitment to serve in the districts in which they are prepared

4. Immediately stop exporting its current training model to low-income communities in developing nations through TFA spin-off Teach For All. Children in those communities are just as valuable and worthy of well-prepared teachers as our children.

Why is this important? 

Studies show that, on average, it takes TFA teachers at least two years to catch up to their traditionally certified peers. However, just as they are hitting their stride, most TFA teachers leave the classroom. The oft-cited statistic that two-thirds of TFA alumni are working in other positions in or related to education is little consolation. Certainly, we need education advocates in a range of professions, and advocates with classroom experience offer an indispensable (though often disregarded) perspective. But every education advocate’s agenda should include well-prepared, experienced, highly effective teachers so more of our children are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to become the primary advocates for their own schools and communities.

Clearly, the challenge of preparing teachers to serve low-income communities of color well is not TFA’s alone. Many other institutions, such as The New Teacher Project/Teaching Fellows and myriad university-based programs, would better serve our children by adopting a rigorous, extended clinical preparation model offering intensive ongoing support. (The Urban Teacher Residency model of preparation, now seeded in cities across the nation, provides a promising alternative that TFA should consider adopting or adapting.)

But Teach for America, an organization that has received hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, that seeks to portray itself as the vanguard of educational equity and civil rights in low-income communities and communities of color, and that exclusively targets our communities, bears a heightened obligation to offer our children only the highest quality educational services.

TFA’s emphasis on recruiting teachers who have themselves succeeded in the classroom as students is commendable. Our children deserve teachers with strong academic skills, and certainly there are teachers working in our schools whose academic skills (and ability to impart those skills) are lacking. But if cultivating and recruiting academically accomplished new teachers who understand the value of a rigorous, extended clinical preparation program and a commitment to teach more than two years presents a major challenge, let us not lower the bar for preparation, but instead focus our resources and energy on more equitable incentives and supports such as free or heavily subsidized preparation programs, career ladders and improved working conditions.
Our children will no longer be denied the educational resources they need to reach their full potential. Please sign our petition and help send a strong message to Wendy Kopp that the status quo of educational inequity has no place in our schools.

Joe Rogers, Jr. is a New York City-based education organizer, advocate and policy analyst focused on educational equity.  He launched Communities For Well-Prepared Teachers, a grassroots movement, in February 2011 to call attention to the systematic assignment of unprepared and inexperienced teachers to low-income communities of color.

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  • Erika

    the majority remain. 60% remain in the classroom after two years. that is the actual data.

  • Matthew

    I’m a 2004 TFA alum, and I must say that 5 weeks was NOT enough for many of us. In fact, it was kind of unorganized and many of the CMA “mentors” only had 2 years experience themselves. Weak…

    During my 2nd year my teaching drastically

    improved through experience and collaboration with colleagues (some TFA, some not). I’m now on year 7 of teaching and doing very well. It flows quite naturally now and my students benefit. Most of the TFA folk I entered with have bailed from education. Again, weak…

  • Jessica

    I am a 2005 TFA alum. I had an extremely positive and successful experience as a corps member. I have met some of the most wonderful and critical thinking people through TFA. I do not doubt their desire to do what is best for children. I have also facilitated the curriculum to the corps members in the summer institutes two times. That being said…
    1. Yes, corps members are successful. Some are really successful. Like in every profession some people are superstars, even when they are new. They are just naturals. They will be teachers of the year in their districts. On the other hand, many will be teachers of the year because other teachers are not that good. I believe Mr. Rogers point is not that TFA teachers are bad. But that it's not ideal to say anymore that "at least they are better than the bad."

    2. I wanted to be a teacher before I joined TFA. In fact, that is part of the reason I joined. This is my fifth year teaching. When I think back to those first two years in which I thought I was great and others thought I was good, I realize how much I was deceiving myself and my students. I was okay. I helped them. But not nearly as much as I help all of my students now. And I have a work-life balance in which I can continue to improve and help my students. I won't burn out and stop having the chance to improve because I tutor for hours every day after school or stay up all night making centers or trying to write a lesson plan. In my experience, my five years of experience plus graduate school has made me a much better teacher than all of my energy and passion my first two years.

    3. This summer as a facilitator of the TFA curriculum, one corps member made the comment that it's like the summer school students were their guinea pigs. While teachers are always making mistakes and improving, it was so devastating to hear that comment. I honestly felt bad for the summer school students and for some of their future students. The corps members will work hard. They are smart people. Their heart is in the right place. And some will become effective teachers. But for a while their students will continue to be their guinea pigs. And then, after 2 years, just when the learning sharpens and the mistakes are more fine tuned, they will leave. Is this the solution? And not just a band-aid? Not just a quick fix? Is TFA the ultimate solution that will lead to fundamental change? No. And that's why our country's money needs to be spent differently in helping develop teachers that are in it for a longer run.

    4. In response to Ms. Ogden's last comment that "The problem isn't the TFA teacher, or the novice teacher, or even complacent administrations and seasoned veteran teachers. The problem in American education is a systematic inequity aimed at leaving our poorest children behind—we need to do a lot more than aim our ire at teachers."
    Well then, perhaps TFA is problematic. In a speech by Diane Ravitch at the education school at Rice University she stated that the greatest danger of TFA is the perpetuation of the belief that placing bright people in front of classrooms for 2 years will close the achievement gap. Not only should we not aim our ire at teachers, but we should also not claim that teachers alone will solve the achievement gap.

  • sasnnm

    Edify yourselves: Teach For America: 5 Myths that Persist 20 Years On http://bit.ly/fRb4Ez?xid=tweetshare

  • Sarah1741

    I am an alumnus of the TFA corps of 2000 who stayed in the classroom 3 years, and I can see a rather large hole in Mr. Rogers' argument: TFA does not place teachers in classrooms, school districts do. TFA provides a pool of teachers to districts, and districts are well aware of how they are trained. If school districts cared about the points the commentator brings up, they would place TFA teachers in the "easiest" schools and seasoned teachers in classrooms with students who have the greatest need. We can all imagine a variety of reasons why that doesn't happen. Mr. Rogers' solution is instead to demonize an organization that is at least trying to make a difference, and to demand that it change its standards, when really the problem is much more widespread and systemic to our American education system as a whole.

  • R.Jensen

    If, in fact, a highly qualified and effective teacher is the most important variable in a student's success, then 5 weeks and even a year is not enough. Actually, it is insulting to those of us who actually CHOSE to be educators and went through the hard work of getting a degree in education, and many who stay to get a Master's degree. Those years studying also include multiple classroom placements in a variety of school setting with master teachers who help one learn and hone their craft before ever being allowed to have the intense responsibility of teaching children to read, enumerate, behave, cooperate, etc. alone. I am offended that this is even an option for anyone to become a teacher. I wouldn't want a doctor who took a five week course nor a lawyer. Teaching is a PROFESSION with a specific body of knowledge, not a BABYSITTING job, contrary to public perception. Given all I am hearing is Finland, Finland, Finland….where they only recruit the smartest people to become teachers and require a Master's degree to do so, please tell me how five weeks or even a year is enough? I cannot even express my outrage that this is even allowed in any district.

  • Josh

    Thank you Kirsten. Your comment is exactly on point!

  • Jackfraks

    Camilla loves tfa teachers. Period!

  • Dave

    I don't think I understand this statement at all.

    "Why is this important? 

Studies show that, on average, it takes TFA teachers at least two years to catch up to their traditionally certified peers. However, just as they are hitting their stride, most TFA teachers leave the classroom. The oft-cited statistic that two-thirds of TFA alumni are working in other positions in or related to education is little consolation."

    So 66% isn't most? I'm not sure Joe Rodgers Jr. understands math. Maybe if he had one of the 66% of TFA teachers, who wouldn't even be in the education field if it wasn't for TFA, he would understand fractions.

    • Bonnie

      I'm not sure it's his math skills as much as your reading. You're comparing two different statements:

      "Most TFA teachers leave the classroom" (i.e. are no longer teachers — which is true)
      "Two-thirds of TFA alumni are working in OTHER POSITIONS in or related to education" (true)

      These do not contradict each other, as you suggest. He is saying we need trained teachers to remain teachers (i.e. in the classroom), not go on to other positions tangentially related to education. Part of the problem is that there is a wide range of positions considered "related to education," including returning to school, so it is not a helpful statistic. While it is good to have education advocates in business, law, etc., there need to be more teachers who remain teachers.

  • Traci

    My name is Traci and I recently applied for TFA. I had no idea that such a high percentage of teachers opted out of TFA after their 2-year committment has ended.
    If I am able to become a part of TFA, I will definitely remain in it. If I opt out after just 2 years, what is that saying to the kids. Believe me, I know kids in low-income schools can be very unruly and disrespectful, but the other children who want to learn need to see a friendly and familiar face on a regular basis.
    No matter how bad it may get, I'm going to stick it out for the rest of the children.
    I've never thought of myself as a quitter and I do love a challenge. The challenge that I will most likely face is discovering a way to get through to the kids who cause the most problems. I sure would love to try!

    • Erika

      Actually, 60% of TFA teachers remain in the classroom after the two years. I remained for 12…still going. The percentage of teachers remaining in the classroom after two years is actually comparable to non-TFA teachers if you look at the statistics. Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Not everyone can stick with it.

      • Guest

        Im the only TFA from my cohort left in my area who is actually teaching. Ive been here for seven years. Many of my fellow TFA alumni either opted to go to suburbs to teach, get out of education, attend grad school or work for tfa with only 2 to 3 years teaching experience. I have very mixed feelings about TFA.