Teaching for America or Learning on the Job?

To what extent is classroom teaching a skill?  How long does it take to learn those skills, and is there a best way to learn them?

Teaching for AmericaThese are important questions at any time, but I submit they are of particular importance today, with Teach for America (and other alternative routes into the classroom) growing in popularity.

No doubt about Teach for America’s ascendancy.  During the presidential campaign both candidates spoke favorably about the program, and President Obama often speaks highly of it.  Here’s one example: when he signed the Serve America Act last April he went out of his way to cite the growing popularity of TFA as evidence of young America’s commitment to public service, saying in part, “I’ve seen a rising generation of young people work and volunteer and turn out in record numbers…they have become a generation of activists possessed with that most American of ideas – that people who love their country can change it…they are why 35,000 young people applied for only 4,000 slots in Teach For America.”  (That’s a 42 percent increase over the previous year.)

Many of those young people come straight out of our finest colleges and universities.  Thirteen percent of Harvard’s class of 2009 applied, and TFA is more popular than top Ivies.   ‘Only’ 69 percent of those accepted into Princeton choose to attend, but 77 percent of those selected for TFA choose to join.

And when I linked President Obama and TFA in a Google search, it produced nearly 9 million citations.

At his Senate confirmation hearing in January 2009, Obama’s choice for Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, had high praise for Teach for America and Kopp herself.

Teach for America has become a household word in its short history.  I suspect everyone knows that Wendy Kopp developed the idea as her senior thesis at Princeton in 1989 and then founded the program in 1990.  As it prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary, TFA has put more than 14,000 teachers into hard-to-staff classrooms, usually for two-year stints.  Less than a quarter remain in the classroom beyond two years, but over 60 percent of TFA ‘graduates’ stay connected to public education.  Prominent alumni include KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin and Washington, DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

In a funny way, I was ‘in’ Teach for America long before Wendy Kopp came up with the idea.  I had been accepted into the Peace Corps and was scheduled to teach English in East Africa, but then I failed the physical just a few months before my Dartmouth graduation in 1964.  Even though I had taken only one education course at Dartmouth, I was determined to teach.  And so, two months after my spinal fusion and still in a brace, I began teaching at a high school just outside New York City.

I worked long hours, spent most weekends grading papers, made a lot of mistakes, tried to bring imagination and creativity into my lessons.  There were four other rookies on the staff that year.  We supported each other, and, to be truthful, we shared a certain smug attitude toward many of the veteran teachers, who, we felt, were just putting in the hours and didn’t care as much about the kids as we did.

Teach for America RecruitsBy the end of my second year, I hit my stride and was doing a pretty good job.  That’s when I left to go to graduate school.

As a reporter I have been in a fair number of classrooms with TFA corps members.  They are almost always fun to be around, because they are bright, energetic and outgoing.  Their idealism and goodness virtually ooze out of every pore.  What’s not to like?

Well, to be honest, sometimes their teaching is not to like.  After all, they are first-year teachers who have had just five weeks of summer training and a 1-week orientation in their assigned city.  They make all sorts of rookie mistakes.  Occasionally I recognized in them that smug attitude I once exhibited toward veterans.

This week we are releasing the first two of a series of video profiles of Teach for America teachers at work, scenes from their classrooms in high schools in New Orleans.

I think you will end up liking all of these young men and women.  We certainly did.  And you would be thrilled to have some of them teaching your children.  But probably not all of them.

10 thoughts on “Teaching for America or Learning on the Job?

  1. As an experienced educator, I find TFA a complete hoax. They just want inexperienced recent grads t work at the neediests schools and there is no research-based data indicating tha the program works. Someone out there is making serious money while kids are not learning much.


  2. Another insightful blog on an important topic. It reminded me of a recent conversation with a student attending one of the top colleges you mention. His double major inlcudes education. I asked him what grade level he wanted to teach and he said he didn’t want to be a teacher but he was thinking about Teach for America. The troubling disctinction went right over his head.


  3. John: You’re right that it’s time to gain some perspective on Teach for America, given the current “ascendancy” of both the program and attacks on it. Back in December 1979’s KAPPAN I wrote an article on “Reducing the Confrontation Over Teacher Accountability,” in which I predicted increased focus on teacher performance and accountability. One of its points was that a major unrecognized problem was that the low reputation of teacher education programs obstructed recruitment of high quality teachers, and it urged increasing alternative routes into public school teaching to alleviate this serious problem. TFA has demonstrated that there are indeed many talented and highly motivated undergraduates that public education had not been attracting. It has also demonstrated, however, that such recruits need better preparation and support, and that the existing unprofessional culture of many bureaucratic public school systems resists this needed preparation and support of “outsiders.” Hence my focus since 1979 has been not just on improving teaching (as seems to be the current fad) but on the fundamental transformation of public education into a high-expectations, teamwork institution, rather than the low expectations bureaucracies that have developed over the past 100 years. Unfortunately just arguing about TFA, pro and con, distracts from this crucial agenda that remains largely unimplemented so far.


  4. I agree with Dave. There really shouldn’t be a debate over whether or not to have programs like TFA (and there are other programs like it around the country), but rather what does it take to truly prepare the kind of teachers our children really need. All new teachers, whether TFA, alternate route, or traditional program need more (not less) classroom-based preparation, under supervision of highly accomplished veteran teachers. I’ve helped train teachers in an alternate route program, and like the TFA members you reference, they are enthusiastic and really want to help children learn. My last words to them at the end of the program were always: I’ve only been able to give you a good start; there’s much, much more you’ll need to learn to do this well.” Let’s stop fooling ourselves that there’s a quick and cheap way to prepare good teachers.


  5. John, Thank you for this. Like you I applaud the call to service that draws some people to TFA, and I certainly admire the idea behind the project itself. Furthermore, I have taught students both before and after they participated in TFA and every one of them has been impressive. But you are also right to raise the questions you raise because few people in the public eye are raising them. TFA has a remarkably savvy media machine and a number of the claims they make have not been carefully researched or independently verified. For example the statement that “over 60 percent of TFA graduates stay connected to public education” could mean a whole lot of things. It could mean someone who has continued to teach, and it could mean someone who sends her kids to public school, and it could also mean someone who advocates for policies that would be harmful to public school. So thanks for taking your usual evenhanded look at an important program that, while clearly worthwhile, warrants fair scrutiny.


  6. John, I think there’s a facet of the TFA adventure that’s more important than the research that attests to the effectiveness of TFA teachers or the number of fine young people who have been induced to pursue careers in education. I think that TFA’s most important long term effect will derive from the fact that its recruiting pool comprises young adults who will be our nation’s future leaders.
    Disproportionately, people from that pool will serve in the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Cabinet. The same pool will provide our governors, mayors, and county council members; our NGO and business CEOs, and the holders of other positions of influence.
    It seems to me that having taught in a seriously challenged school will leave a TFA graduate—even one who teaches for only the minimum two-year enlistment—with a different and deeper understanding of the challenges facing those schools than (s)he otherwise would have had. Less certain, but in my opinion likely, is that while engaging in whatever leadership role (s)he ends up performing, the TFA graduate will understand and treat education differently from how (s)he would have without the TFA experience. If that happens, an increasing cadre of informed leaders will participate in setting our education policy. Instead of advocating paradigms and policies because they work in another industry, they will advocate paradigms and policies because, in their personal experience, they are likely to work in education. That would be very big indeed.
    I believe the same insight came to Wendy Kopp herself some years after she founded TFA, and I realize that it is now enshrined on TFA’s website. However, I’m a long-time private-sector CEO, not a recent college graduate, and I’ve been involved in education for only a few years. I had this insight within minutes of someone beginning a superficial description of TFA, years before I looked at the website. It will be some years before we can know if the premise pans out, but that it’s a premise to anticipate and track is a no-brainer for me.


  7. TFA would be much more successful if there were more community involvement.
    National Defense required three years of commitment . That meant Model Cities and Title 1 schools for me where community involvement was an important component.
    National Defense paid for my Masters.


  8. Mike Rose – while you’re thanking John Merrow for his “even-handed look” at TFA, remember that he used the phrase “over 60 percent of TFA ‘graduates’ stay connected to public education” without bothering to define it. This suggests to me that he is perptuating the myth that a majority TFA grads remain dedicated to education for a long period, perhaps a lifetime. The original way I heard that misleading fact was that 60% stayed in “education” after 2 year TFA term was up, not mentioning how long or what they were doing. One more year of teaching, perhaps? Grad school? There’s no telling. It’s all smoke and mirrors, focused on heaping praise on these rookie teachers and getting more funding for TFA and has nothing to do with the kids they are supposed to be helping.

    Mr. Merrow – since you were accepted by the Peace Corps, you would know that, unlike TFA, it was not advertised or praised as a replacement for foreign aid or as being superior to existing efforts in the countries that volunteers were assigned to. No, it was a way for idealistic Americans to help people while learning their language and living in their culture. That’s about the most you can expect from a 2 year program. Volunteers received a stipend, not a salary, and while the program was selective, it didn’t tout itself as the best and the brightest the way TFA constantly does. Those were the days.


  9. I work as a mentor with several Teach For America corps members. They are generally bright and hard working, and like most other teachers, they struggle to find their feet in their first few years. Most of them are very young, and come from a different culture and class than the students they are working with.

    After a three years, about half are gone. After four years, only about one third remain.

    We have a systemic turnover problem that TFA addresses with a solution that perpetuates the problem it is there to fix. TFA did not cause this turnover, so it is unfair to blame TFA. But I think it is important to witness the side-effects of the turnover problem that are not fixed by rotating TFA fellows. Roughly half of the science teachers in my district are in their first three years. This has a big effect on the professional development for all of our teachers. Most science PD in the district is focused on supporting novices. We have organized a team of experienced teachers to serve as mentors for the new teachers, with the goal building a collegial community and retaining them. But it is a struggle, made more difficult by a program that recruits very young individuals with an express two year commitment.

    I believe students in struggling schools need teachers ready to invest in them for the long haul. They need teachers who become knowledgeable about the community, and build relationships with the local families and community leaders. Our schools need teachers who build professional cultures of collaboration and delve into systematic inquiries into what strategies will work to inspire these particular children.

    When the emphasis is on the new teacher, we spend a great deal of time focused on the basics of classroom management. We tend to use canned curricular approaches and test preparation strategies to make sure the scores are decent. The deeper kinds of professional discussions don’t often occur with teachers in their first year or two.

    I have to say there are some outstanding TFA alumni who are emerging as excellent teachers and leaders in our district. So the program must be credited with recruiting bright individuals and helping inspire at least some of them to dedicate themselves to their students for the long haul. But I am frustrated that we are not looking at the systemic reasons for the turnover that extends way beyond TFA. Until we address and repair the things that are driving that turnover, our schools will continue to struggle.


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