Teaching Against America

Recently, I started applying to the Teach For America Corps, a program founded in 1990 to fulfill the increasing need for teachers in poor public school systems.  At its start, TFA volunteers were going into some of the worst run schools in the country, and teaching in class rooms that would otherwise have been taught almost entirely by rotating substitute teachers.  These volunteers were not professional teachers either, in fact only around 20 percent had studied teaching during their university careers.  Never less, the mentality was that even if these volunteers were not the best educators, they were consistent, and a lot better than the alternative.

In the past few years TFA has been under a lot of scrutiny.  While their program has grown vastly in the past 20 years, their strategies have not.  With the economy in a vastly different state, we now have an overflow of teachers, which has recently caused many layoffs.  In this environment, Teach for America volunteers are taking the jobs of career educators.  This is magnified by the fact that TFA volunteers generally serve a two year term in the corps, then puruse their careers in other fields.  This creates a high turnover for school systems, and an inconsistency for students whose teachers are never around after they graduate.  Many schools also have contracts with TFA that require them to hire a certain number of volunteers, which can cause them to layoff veterans to make space for new jobs.

After I finished my application, I sent my essay to an education professor and asked for their opinion.  What they told me was roughly the criticism written above, along with a suggestion that I reconsider my application.  Naturally, I took this to heart.

That same night, I had a talk with one of my friends.  He had gone to a small charter school in the center of Washington D.C.  I asked him if he had TFA volunteers in his school, and he said he had.  So I asked him what he thought of them.  What he told me was that he thought they were hands down, the best educators at his school.  He saw that they had replaced several veteran educators, however those people were simply not effective teachers.  He also mentioned that none of the teachers that were at his school four years ago are still there today, but this was more of an inconvenience, than a real problem.

These two contrasting opinions scratch the surface of the educational reform controversy that has been a focus of our nation for the past several decades.  I would like to delve into this organization for my second paper, and see how TFA truly operates.


11 responses to “Teaching Against America

  1. I think that Teach For America is a really interesting case study because it can either be a prime example of how an organization can ethically conduct itself for the good of society or it can be an example of how to ineffectively and inefficiently run an organization with strong ethical goals.

  2. I definitely see the point. I think Teach For America is a great idea, however I never really thought about the fact that these volunteers are taking the place of career educators to keep costs low. I still don’t believe their is an issue with the idea of TFA, however there should be a way to assure teachers currently working their jobs will be safe.

  3. The only thing that I had heard regarding Teach for America was that it is extremely difficult to get chosen. I think the strict requirements for the program result in successful teaching experiences for the TFA teacher and the students. Based on your friends experience, it seems that the teachers were very worthwhile. I think two years of teaching is perfect because you can teach at a high energy without risk of being burnout.

  4. I hadn’t even thought about the second part of your point. I know a feel people who have been a part of the Teach for America program and loved the experience; however, I hadn’t thought about the problems it may cause within the industry. Educational reform is a really interesting topic because it affects so many and I believe it will make a great paper.

  5. This seems like an extremely good topics for Paper 2 and I’d really be interested in seeing your response. Both sides of the argument are completely valid. From an economic stand point it makes perfect sense that sometimes markets reach an over saturated point. At the same time though, the services that TFA provides are extraordinary. To be honest with you, in my opinion, I think TFA is doing the right thing despite the fact that there are not as many jobs available for the amount of demand out there. Many students that major in education are not looking to graduate and then work in the poorest schools in the country. TFA does a great job at selecting high quality students that actually have fresh ideas that can really make a difference.

  6. Why are they called volunteers? They are employees of the school district they work in aren’t they?

    Of the people I know who did it, they called themselves corp members. But that was awhile ago.

    • you are correct, I don’t know why I was referring to them in that way. They are paid teachers that are compensated relative to the regular salaries in the school districts where they are placed. In their relationship with TFA I believe you are correct in referring to them as “Corps Members”

      • Thanks for checking… Volunteers is used in some contexts for people who are compensated, like AmeriCorps and the US military (“all volunteer army”). Still confusing in those contexts, to me.

  7. I wonder if TFA-placed teachers are in competition with traditionally-certified educators directly? What I mean is, there may be a surplus of teachers in the US, but not at each school. Math teachers in very rural or high-poverty urban areas may be rare. Teachers often shun those positions too. So, persistent shortages in certain geographic locations and/or types of teachers may still be a huge problems that the labor market for teachers can not solve.

    I doubt there are many art teachers in Bucks County or West Chester, NY who are TFAers… ahem.

    • I think this is the central question to the whole debate. What critics of TFA would say (like the ones in the linked article) is that 20 years ago, the situation you described is true (surplus in rich areas, and shortage in poor ones) but now this surplus has expanded across the entire spectrum of schools. What concerns me after the limited research I’ve done is more whether or not the teachers supposedly losing their jobs in low income schools are effective, or if they are the reason these schools are underperforming, and thus need to be replaced.

      • Your questions and comments are essential to the debate on schools, quality, mobility, justice, and performance. People spend their whole lives digging into this, so I can’t do it justice here.

        But to get at part of it. What is “under-performing?” We have to know the benchmark. The biggest reason schools with lots of poor kids lag other schools is that the kids are poor. Family educational level and the educational attainment of peers have long been known as the strongest determinants of school success for kids. Well,l and ability of the kids, too, I think.

        So, the “easiest” way to improve a school’s average performance is to get more education and incomes for the parents and higher achievement from the friends (whose parents also need more income and education).

        My point is that what we talk about in debates on schools will likely never have as much of an impact as the core factors effecting school performance.

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