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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