Time to retool Teach For America

Teach For America should seek a four- or five-year commitment from recruits, writes teacher Jared Billings in Education Sector. Two years is not enough, even if some ex-TFAers go on to do other work in education.

Being a great teacher has to be one of the hardest jobs in the world. I knew I had found my passion the first time I stood at the front of a classroom at Jordan High School in South Los Angeles during my TFA summer training five years ago. But it took me several years of teaching psychology, government and world history to feel truly competent. Those first couple of years in the classroom are a huge learning curve for any teacher, and it seems arrogant to think that just because the TFA kids went to good schools and got good grades, they’ll instantly be able to teach. It’s no wonder the longtime teachers at some schools resent these upstarts.

In a survey of the 2000-’02 cohorts, 60.5 percent of TFA teachers said they continued teaching after their two-year commitment. But after five years, only about 28 percent remained in teaching. Only 22 percent stayed in the classroom after two years in a more recent study of TFA teachers in Jacksonville, Florida.

Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of TFA, addressed this issue last month in an interview with NY1 news: “Our applicant pool fell in half when we asked for a three-year commitment. It doubled if we asked for one year. The reason this plays out is that 22-year-olds think that two years is the rest of their life.”

. . . Rather than bend to the student’s perception that teaching is not prestigious enough to do long term, TFA should instead use its vast resources to encourage students to see teaching as the end goal, and TFA as a viable means to that end.

TFA is now the top employer of graduates from elite universities. However, “the achievement gap that TFA says it is committed to closing will require new, gifted teachers to join the profession and stick with it for far more than two years,” writes Billings.

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Comments

  1. It’s predictable that the views within Teach for America — a perversely anti-teacher concept at its heart — will converge with the views of veteran educators and public-education supporters as some TFAers stay in teaching long enough.

    This, of course, is exactly what we critics of so-called “reform” fads have been saying from the beginning: “[It] seems arrogant to think that just because the TFA kids went to good schools and got good grades, they’ll instantly be able to teach.”

    All defenders of TFA should be required to have their medical care performed by Surgeons for America and their transportation provided by Airline Pilots for America to demonstrate their deep commitment to the “bright-eyed beginners are superior to burned-out deadwood veterans” concept.

    • Oh, do teachers have the same urgency about kids learning as pilots have about the plane landing safely?

      But we could still explore the excitingly possibilities inherent in having unionized, civil service surgeons, who never have to demonstrate a lick of competence, operating on folks who think the current system is just dreamy.

      • Crimson Wife says:

        “But we could still explore the excitingly possibilities inherent in having unionized, civil service surgeons, who never have to demonstrate a lick of competence, operating on folks who think the current system is just dreamy.”

        Having spent 5 years as an Army wife, I’ve witnessed first-hand the overall mediocre quality of civil servant physicians. At best, they were inexperienced (like the TFA teachers) and at worst they were downright incompetent (like a good chunk of the traditional ed school graduate teachers).

  2. Any excuse to teacher-bash, Allen and Crimson Wife, but that doesn’t change the issue on the table. All who believe that all experienced professionals are burned-out deadwood and that fresh-faced beginner temps are superior, let’s apply that to all professionals we deal with, not to mention to our own careers.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Two separate issues there.

      Beginners, in most cases, probably are better than burned-out deadwood. I think you’d have to be having some sort of very special, very personal chemical experience to think otherwise. Beginners, at least, care; and there’s always hope that they’ll learn.

      The more important issue is the separate question of whether anyone actually thinks that “all experienced professionals are burned-out deadwood.” This was the premise missing in your first comment to this post.

      Except I doubt anyone actually thinks that — not even about teachers.

      The really operative inquiries are twofold:

      First — are the TFA candidates better or worse than what the particular schools in question would otherwise get in terms of quality?

      Second — are there any substantial side effects of the TFA program that might affect a utilitarian calculus?

      My guess is that the first issue resolves in favor of TFA. The schools where TFA candidates go aren’t bubbling over with committed, competent professionals. That’s not to say that such professionals don’t exist, or don’t even make up a majority of the faculty. But those spots aren’t open because someone got fired for being too good.

      I happen to think that the second issue resolves against TFA; I’m not a fan of the “safari to the underclass” resume polish that the program is treated as by so many undergraduates. I think it reinforces some very dangerous attitudes about class and entitlement and I’d just as soon see the commitment upped to 5 years. Or more.

      But really, that’s another blog post all of its own. The point of my comment is just to say that I think you’re being unreasonable in characterizing your opponents.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        “…I’d just as soon see the commitment upped to 5 years. Or more.”

        From the article:

        “Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of TFA, addressed this issue last month in an interview with NY1 news: ‘Our applicant pool fell in half when we asked for a three-year commitment. It doubled if we asked for one year….’”

        I’m guessing that at five years, you would see a *huge* dropoff in TFA enrollment (which would be a good thing from CarolineSF’s viewpoint, I think). Whether you or I or Caroline want to see this, I’m pretty sure that Wendy Kopp does not, so it isn’t going to happen any time soon.

        Plus … the kids could make the commitment and then drop anyway. The two year commitment isn’t enforceable.

        I have a former sister-in-law who went through TFA. She did not enjoy her first year of teaching, but stayed for her second because that’s what she had agreed to do. I can imagine that staying another 4+ years might have caused her to reconsider.

  3. lightly seasoned says:

    I think the sort of teacher that TFA attracts — smart, good at networking, possessing all those skills that get you into an ivy league school — do transfer to making a good teacher. I have several in my department who fit that profile and they are dynamite. As good as they were their first or second year, they are phenomenal with ten, fifteen, etc. under their belt. The crime of TFA is that they don’t stick around to become real teachers and have a real positive effect.