Opinions

Troubles and TFA

Through the Teach for America program, a college graduate with a Bachelor's Degree in any discipline commits to teach for two years in an impoverished school after just five weeks of training. If you don't see a problem with this, then indulge me again by imagining that instead of happening at some unknown "poor school", this happened at your own high school.

By Richard Barrett

Let’s start with a hypothetical situation.

Suppose that you were in the hospital and had to have a medical procedure that could determine the quality of the rest of your life for the better or worse.

Now, imagine that right before the procedure, you find out that the doctor performing the surgery has only had a total of five weeks of medical training and that the hospital is aware of this fact. Taking into consideration this new information, how would you react?

I think that I can safely speak for everyone when I say that as a result, you would be outraged. The horrifying part about this hypothetical situation is that it’s not that entirely “hypothetical”.

Through the Teach for America program, a college graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in any discipline commits to teach for two years in an impoverished school after just five weeks of training.

If you don’t see a problem with this, then indulge me again by imagining that instead of happening at some unknown “poor school”, this happened at your own high school. Say, in one of your classes—a class that would have allowed you to be more competitive in the future (perhaps an AP course).

I imagine that you would feel that you had been cheated in a way, that an injustice had just been committed against you, that you deserved better.

But don’t kids affected by poverty deserve better as well?

The amount of training the program provides isn’t the only problem; there is also a problem of credibility. The program just doesn’t work as well as its advocates report.

In a 2010 study published by the Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) and the Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU) entitled “Teach For America: A Review of the Evidence” found that TFA teachers had outcomes that were significantly less positive when compared with their colleagues who had gone through a more traditional certification process.

In addition to problems with credibility, the TFA program experiences incredible shortcomings with retention; that is, how many teachers continue teaching after meeting their required two year commitment.

According to the same 2010 study, after two years in the program, more than 50% of recruits leave the program to pursue other careers. After three years, the percentage jumps to over 80% of recruits. Not only does this demonstrate a lack of commitment to the field, it also results in high financial costs for already struggling school districts by forcing them to foot the bill for continuous recruitment and training resources.

I don’t want to be completely negative about the program; it’s not all bad. Having a Teach for America candidate in a classroom is better than having no teacher at all in a classroom. In fact, Teach for America candidates seem to perform better than other underqualified candidates from other alternative teacher certification programs.

But it is problematic when a Teach for America candidate accepts a position that could be filled by a highly-qualified, highly-trained individual. This should be seen for what it is: the systematic deprofessionalization of the education profession.

Why are we relying on stopgap measures like Teach for America to solve educational inequity, when we can affect change through truly meaningful, lasting, and thorough reform that is based in the research and advice of real experts in the field?

If the program is of interest to you, I’d like you to think critically about the program as well as your reasons for wanting to join.

Ask yourself the following questions: Are you doing it for yourself or are you doing it for the kids? Are you truly committed to teaching or are you just looking for an experience?

Sure, teaching with TFA will look good on your résumé, and it will probably help you get that awesome high-paying career you’ve always wanted. But what does that mean for the kids?

For the kids, the parents, and the committed educators, I’m asking you to care.

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