The Influence of TFA

EDITOR’S NOTE: In concurrence with the launch of John Merrow’s book, The Influence of Teachers, he’ll be using this space as a place to discuss some  central ideas explored in the book. All proceeds from the book, available on Amazon for $14.95, are being donated to Learning Matters, a 501(c)(3) organization committed to independent coverage of education. We invite you to join in the conversation by commenting on these posts or reviewing the book online! Learn more about the book at

By all reports, Teach for America’s 20th Anniversary Celebration in Washington last weekend was a star-studded event–as well it should have been given TFA’s growing importance. What began as a Princeton student’s senior thesis has become the proverbial 900-pound gorilla in education, a leader and a lightning rod. I’ve been part of what I believe has been balanced coverage of Teach for America, on the NewsHour, in a web-based series, and in my new book; that is, I’m not in either of the two large camps—those who love TFA and those who detest/fear/suspect it. The middle can be lonely, by the way.

Quick story here:  We followed seven Teach for America corps members in New Orleans for an entire year, part of our NewsHour coverage. We were being opportunistic: that is, we knew that only two or three of the teachers would make a NewsHour piece but we imagined that we could also get a pretty darn good documentary out of it.  By year’s end, we had some terrific material, and at that point I began looking for money.  I went to a number of foundations and individuals who have an interest in teacher education generally or in TFA specifically and made my pitch: 7 profiles, lots of good video of the nitty-gritty of the life of a first- or second-year teacher.

Fund-raising is tough sledding under normal circumstances, but this was downright depressing.  In every instance, I was asked a bottom line question, essentially “Is it all positive?” or “Is it all negative?”

Well, duh, of course it wasn’t.  We had captured reality, and reality is full of small victories and defeats.  A couple of the TFA teachers were splendid, seemingly born to teach.  Two were flops.  One got a raw deal from his principal and never hit his stride.  It was life, but no potential funders were interested in that story.
We ended up creating seven profiles and putting them on our web site, where you can see them for yourself and make your own judgments.
But it’s a shame that the world of teacher training has become so political. There’s no question that Wendy Kopp and Teach for America have changed the landscape and made a significant contribution.  But let’s not pretend that it’s all good or all bad.

As I write in my book, “It may well be that Teach For America’s greatest contribution to education will not be the kids who are helped or the talented young men and women who develop a connection with and affection for public education, but its relentless self-examination – a process that quite simply puts the rest of teacher education to shame. If Teach For America can work hard to figure out why some of its trainees become better teachers than others, why can’t regular schools of education?”

13 thoughts on “The Influence of TFA

  1. John, I’m sorry to have been quiet for so long — the Hart’s haven’t even officially welcomed you siince you moved to NYC! It is not for lack of interest or of reading/seeing your great material. I am now Emeritus on TC board and have been overly committed to other organizations..

    I am wondering if you have asked your question and gotten it answered at TC? e.g., do they have a program for figuring out why some of their teacher trainees turn out better than others? They try to select “the best” at the admissions end – are they successful, and are they active/successful in following up on the quality of performance of their graduates?

    I ask because i’m trying to be a little bit of help in their preparation of the Case Statement for the next Capital Campaign, and I am hoping this document might become a bit more “accomplishment “oriented.

    Thanks so much, and all good wishes! Marjorie


    • Marjorie, John, After ten years on the President’s Advisory Council at TC I have resigned under the cover of not having anything more of intellectual validity to offer. What I endlessly observe and have said to the teachers in P.S. 6 with whom I tutor, is that nothing I ever did on Wall Street ever equalled a day in a fifth grade class room. With rare exceptions, in a start up position on Wall Street you are cosseted with support, guidance, learning on the job, even mentoring because the organization has money invested in you and wants you to succeed. Many teachers work alone without immediate support, lacking peer contact as they stand in a doorway during class change, have, at least at the A.B level little meaningful feeling for the demands of class room dynamics and are modestly salaried to face the costs of further degrees. I find the political struggles of school systems to be a huge impediment to feeling good about the career and of course in urban settings, the challenge of working against sad family backgrounds. The selectivity of highly competive universities, as we know, has a lot to do with the outcomes as generally measured, for the graduates. Incidentallly, I graduated very close to the bottom tenth or less in my Princeton class and had nothing but a nurturing experience in my banking career. Go figure.


  2. John,

    Your final question is incredibly significant. I believe that those young people who were in TFA, for the most part, came through rigorous academic programs that demanded analysis and accountability whereas so many in the profession had far less demanding academic experiences and find accountability to be threatening. Confidence in self in combination with confidence in subject matter frankly breeds successful teachers; and, sadly, far too many of the professional teacher training programs don’t breed confidence, especially when their “curriculum” comes face to face with the real world.

    Thanks for your good work.



  3. Read the live blogs hosted at ednotesonline sent from the Summit by a skeptical NYC TFA alum in her 6th year in the classroom who works with the Real Reformers at the Grassroots Education Movement. Certainly a strong point of view but relevant to the discussion. She may be a minority in her point of view but maybe a TFA teacher who doesn’t leave the classroom and feels TFA is part of the attack on public education is indicative of a trend.

    Last night in Manhattan we previewed a rough cut of a movie responding to “Waiting for Superman” titled “The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman.” There is plenty of reality in the movie. Created by NYC teachers and parents, we didn’t look for funding. We made it with amateur equipment and our own labor. I would guess it cost us about $25 for the cost of video tape. After final editing based on input we are receiving we will make it available when it is completed.


  4. John, I am fascinated by your observations on the difficulty of selling complexity. I think all of us in jourmalism have experienced that — miracles and gotchas make much better headlines than the messy lives of real people in real schools. But you are absolutely right that it is vital to tell those stories and trust our readers/viewers/listeners (at least the ones who aren’t just interested in slinging sound bites) to think through the issues themselves.


    • When I was a working newspaper journalist, my perception was more that we lived for the “gotchas.” (As a Knight-Ridder employee, I was technically a co-worker of the Miami Herald reporter who followed presidential candidate Gary Hart back when and caught him canoodling with a young woman — and actually, I spoke out against that personal “gotcha” style of journalism.) I was unaware of ANY inclination to pursue and promote “miracles.”

      But when I left newspapers and become an education advocate (unpaid), I was astounded to discover how eagerly the press buys into “miracles” and how unwilling my ex-colleagues are to ask tough questions — anything that might dislodge the chosen miracle from its pinnacle. I’ve continued to wonder what happened to the skepticism I used to think I saw all around me. I know the big foundations are very bought into the “TFA is a miracle” viewpoint, but what is with the working press? What happened to the skeptical, sharp minds and gutsy, tough questioners I thought I worked with?


  5. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, John. I’ve worked with a number of TFA members. They are generally deeply committed to improving public education, and strong believers that schools can have a major positive impact on public education.
    I agree with you that all of them have not been equally effective with young people. My understanding is that TFA has continued to refine its training and its mentoring, based on what it has learned.
    I think TFA should be one option for how people are trained to be teachers.


  6. Not every TFA teacher who leaves education for another career will be a doctor, lawyer, or merchant chief, or a mayor, senator, or cabinet member. However, by virtue of TFA’s selection criteria, those who do leave education are likely to end up in leadership careers of some sort. I’m one of those who believe that in the long run TFA teachers who end up in non-education careers may nonetheless serve education well. They have first-hand experience with the challenges to be met as well as leadership positions to make a positive difference in any number of indirect ways. The jury will be out on that for maybe another 10 years, but I think that’s what we’ll find.

    Regardless of whether former TFA teachers in non-education careers are ultimately shown to be knowledgeable, effective advocates of education, we must keep in mind that relative to most teachers–most everybody in fact–they enjoy great upward mobility. The management practices one uses with employees when the immediate alternative is to get an MBA, go to med school or law school, or go to work for an investment bank are very different from the practices one uses when the immediate alternative is to complain to the union representative. I don’t hold out one of those as being more desirable than the other. I simply say don’t expect the two situations to respond to the same management practices.


  7. John
    I am aware that TFA has actively sought evaluations they have then used to support their own fund raising efforts. I am curious as to whether you have any views on whether independent examinations of TFA work have reached conclusions that are sound and, if so, whether they concur with those generated by TFA. People responding on my blog at http://www.communityandeducation,org tend to discount TFA’s claims of success but it is not clear whether they do so simply because they are competing with this program.


  8. I know this is a tease and a come-on, but I devote a fair amount of ink to these issues in my new book, The Influence of Teachers. Rather than go through everything here, I invite you to sample the book on Amazon or–better yet–BUY it or the Kindle edition. I apologize for my lack of subtlety, but these issues are complex.


  9. Full disclosure: I work for the UTeach Institute (but am not speaking for it). I fall into the middle camp of neither being a TFA lover or skeptic. I think TFA has done a great job in many ways, and especially in stirring the pot and inspiring some critical thought about teacher preparation, best practices, and the kinds of teachers we want in our schools teaching children.

    UTeach is another program doing good work but is often left out of this conversation, possibly because it lacks the novelty of being an “alternative.” As an undergraduate teacher preparation program that is anything but “traditional,” UTeach combines the two qualities Gordon mentions of deep science/mathematics content understanding and “confidence in self.” (For UTeach, this occurs both as a result of students’ self-selection in/out of the program, as well as via a highly articulated STEM pedagogical sequence that requires intensively coached classroom teaching experiences from students’ first semester in the program). UTeach also is relentless in its self-examination and in constantly seeking to improve its model (many pages to write on this, but I’ll stop there).

    UTeach graduates are not unlike TFA teachers in terms of the quality of their undergraduate experiences and preparation for leadership roles (in teaching, graduate or medical school, or another career), but unlike TFA, UTeach graduates tend to stay in the profession much longer even than the national average (82% are still teaching five years out). And as Ogden suggested, those who do leave the profession – and UTeach would say, even the program – leave with an understanding of education and teaching that they will take with them into their careers, into their lives as parents, etc.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s