Teaching For America…And Learning From It

Teach for America (TFA) was founded in1990 by Wendy Copp based on her undergraduate thesis at Princeton University.  Its goal was to eliminate educational inequalities in what seemed at the time to be a broken educational system.  To do this, Teach for America aimed to employ recent college graduates from a variety of educational backgrounds to teach for terms of two years, or more in various underperforming schools across the U.S.  The goal of this organization was for individuals to make short term impact on students, while simultaneously making a long term impact on the state of the U.S. education system. At first they began with a corps of just 500 members teaching in 6 regions across the U.S.  This soon grew to 730 in the next year, and has now reached upwards of 10,000 members spanning across the entire country (“Teach For America”).  In this essay, I will examine Teach for America’s past contributions to the U.S. educational system, as well as the impact they are making today, and then present several prevalent criticisms of TFA’s operation.  With this information, I will attempt to discern the ethical implications of TFA’s actions.


Impacts of TSA on US Educational System:

To understand Teach for America’s impacts necessitates knowledge of the condition of the U.S. education system in 1990 when TFA was founded.  Firstly, there was a major shortage of teachers particularly in low-income areas.  Statistics from the late 90’s show that 58% of schools claimed to have difficulty finding teachers for at least some positions.  Furthermore, turnover rates were high which increased costs for school districts, and decreased consistency for students.  Of the 191,000 teachers that entered the field in 1990, 174,000 (about 91%) left the profession altogether in the next twelve months (“Is there really a teacher shortage”)It is easy to see the necessity for Teach for America corps members in this educational landscape.  While TFA teachers only had a tenure of two years that is still longer than most teachers in these areas were staying.  In addition due to the teacher shortage the quality of career teachers in disadvantaged schools was lowered, making TFA corps members often as, if not more effective.

Today Teach for America operates on a very different level.  It has over 10,000 members teaching for their first, and second years in schools across the country.  Teach for America still recruits individuals out of college, however they now also accept professionals who wish to reduce educational inequalities by teaching as a temporary position as well.  The program received over 48,000 applications in 2012 with an 11% acceptance rate, which shows both the increased interest, and reputation the program has garnered over the years. 

Most Teach for America corps members are not certified teachers when they enter the program.  Instead TFA provides alternate certification through a five-week intensive training program that all corps members must complete in the summer prior to beginning their teaching positions.  Furthermore, members must complete the next level of certification at a local institution during their time teaching.  Often members elect to go one step further, and pursue opportunities that allow them to earn their masters degree as well during their two-year tenure.

While Teach for America has always been a highly regarded program, the risks involved in becoming a corps member have changed over the years.  While it has become increasingly competitive to be accepted into the corps, TFA now has a strong network of schools, and fellow teachers that greatly aid in facilitating the placement, and teaching process.  Veteran members are able to assist, and mentor new members so as to increase their effectiveness, and reduce the high learning curves that new teachers face.

Teach for Americas mission has remained unchanged since it’s founding in 1990.  However, the environment in which it operates has undergone several changes that have brought TFA’s true value into question.  One of the most important criticisms of TFA is its negative impact on employment in the public education sector  [See Chart 1] Employment went up by 58% since 1990 (Coulson, 2012).  TFA operates by placing its members into public schools.  This means hiring more inexperienced teachers at the expense of veteran teachers who are facing increasing layoffs.  This can be contrasted with the relatively small 20% increase in public school enrollment over the same period.

The U.S. has taken explicit measures to reduce the achievement gap in the past 20 years particularly with the No Child Left Behind Act.  This legislation aimed to set standards for education, and develop consistent assessments for the mastery of basic skills.  As you can see in chart 2 from Education Week, the achievement gap, while still prevalent has lessened significantly between 1990 and 2004.  This trend that has continued in the past 8 years.

Finally, bureaucracy, and government regulations have minimized the frequency of educators with a humanistic approach to learning.  This entails a decreased focus on students themselves, and an increased focus on managing the administrative bureaucracy, and competing for government funding.  Competition over funding has become so fierce it has given birth to a generation of charter schools whose strategies focus on dropping low achieving students to maintain test scores rather than helping them (Spellings, 2010).  In addition, increased regulations, and requirement’s (resulting from No Child Left Behind, as well as other government acts) have changed both the amount of time teachers have to spend on students, and the way teachers interact with their students.  Teachers who spend half their day filling out paper work have that much less time to teach.  Similarly, teachers who are taught never to put an arm around a crying student in fear of a lawsuit will not be able to form a strong relationship with that student.  As a result of these environmental changes, it is necessary to reevaluate institutions such as Teach for America so as to discern how they have, or have not adapted to these conditions.


TFS Weaknesses and Challenges:

To begin, I would like to point out five common arguments against Teach for America, and briefly present their counter arguments.  Most of these touch back on TFA’s inability to adapt to changing educational scene.

1)    Due to teacher surplus’s veteran teachers are losing their jobs to TFA corps members.  When TFA was founded, they had the idea that they were sending relatively inexperienced teachers to teach in classrooms that would otherwise be taught almost exclusively by rotating substitute teachers.  Now however, with a supposedly ample supply of teachers some argue that this is not the best strategy.  What must be taken into account with this issue is the nature of the so called teacher surplus in the U.S.  The fact of the matter is that in mid to high income areas there is fierce competition for teaching positions.  Despite that, low-income areas still face incredibly high turnover rates, and significant teacher shortages (Schug and Holahan, 2012)  This creates a simultaneous state of surplus, and shortage which hides the extent to which there is in fact a need for TFA corps members.   Confusion over where there are in fact teacher shortages fuels continuing debate on this topic.

2)    Teach for America was a guerilla tactic to combat the extreme achievement gap.  Now more subtle tactics are needed.  As mentioned earlier, TFA was originally meant to be a last resort claiming that their highly motivated, yet poorly trained teachers were better than no permanent teachers at all.  Now that permanent teachers are potentially available, some wonder if these core members are still an effective option.  This issue comes down to the question of what make a teacher effective in the classroom.  If experience is in fact the key factor, then perhaps TFA is not a schools best option.  However Teach for America would argue that leadership ability, motivation, and overall competency make their volunteers more effective than other teachers in low-income areas.

3)    Teacher retention rates are low among TFA volunteers.  This argument centers on the fact that since TFA is a two-year program there is a very high teacher turnover in schools that hire corps members.  This leaves administrators struggling to fill teaching positions, and students with no consistently available mentors in their schools.  Research from Education Weekly suggests that more than half (56.4%) of TFA corps members leave their initial placements after two years (Courrege, 2011).  In response to this, one must examine the overall impact that corps members are able to make during their tenure.  With this in mind, one must ask if that impact outweighs the detriments of high teacher turnover such as inconsistency, and increased administrative costs.

4)    Teach for America volunteers are unprepared to enter the teaching field.  Many believe that the five week training prior to teaching, and continued training during teaching is simply not enough to make a teacher effective in the classroom.  Particularly when competing teachers have earned traditional degrees in teaching, and spent significantly more hours in the classroom.  Going along with this, critics assert that TFA’s methods of assessment focus too strongly on standardized test scores with do not accurately reflect the effectiveness of corps members in the classroom.  While this argument remains valid, it is reductive to say that TFA volunteers solely measure their progress through test scores.  Volunteers are encouraged to measure progress through both quantitative, and qualitative measures and utilize similar, if not the same progress indicators as any other qualified teacher.

5)    Teach for America does not honestly portray its success’s and failures.  This critique accuses TFA of only publicizing the success stories of ex corps members, despite the fact that their failures are just, if not more common.  This is particularly relevant to the subject of charter schools.  Particularly at its start, many ex corps members going into the education sector sought to make an impact by starting a charter school.  Unfortunately, many of these schools simply dropped their lowest achieving students so as to report high achievement, which in turn reflected positively on TFA earning them funding, and increased support.  This argument, while relevant is backed by little data and thus must only be taken with a grain of salt considering there are undoubtedly a plethora of factors affecting a charter schools success, and student retention rates.

Is Teach For America Still Relevant:

After hearing the history, operation, and controversy surrounding Teach for America the question remains; are they still needed in today’s educational landscape.  I believe this comes down to a few questions.  First, are they helping to close the achievement gap in the United States? The Journal of Policy and Management reported that TFA corps members achieved higher traditional exam scores than traditional teachers that would have been in their stead (Rubinstein, 2012).  Overall, this is the hardest measure to judge considering reports on achievement are generally biased.  Despite this, the overwhelming body of knowledge does support TFA’s effectiveness in the classroom.

Second, and equally important is whether or not TFA’s negative impacts outweigh their benefits.  In this area, the downfalls that are most prevalent are the high teacher turnover, and low retention rates.  While these statistics are inarguably important in improving the infrastructure of the educational system as a whole, and creating balance in the job market for teachers I do not believe that it is incredibly detrimental to the actual learning experience of students.

Weighing these factors against one another, I would say that Teach For America is still making a positive impact to the U.S. education system despite the recent changes it has undergone.  I believe many criticisms are reductive assuming TFA is significantly responsible for issues such as job loss among veteran teachers, or unethical behaviors concerning student retention in charter schools.  Being a mission driven organization, I believe Teach For America is still doing what needs to be done to facilitate change.

Ethical Challenges facing TFA:

While we can determine whether there is a need for Teach For America in the U.S. we must also ask whether or not TFA’s operation is ethical.  To do this I would like to draw from Kant’s deontological perspective that focus’s on a morality as an adherence to rules, and duties.  I will first focus on the intentions of Teach for America.  TFA, being a humanitarian organization has the intention of reducing the education gap, and improving the overall standard of the education system in the U.S.  Considering this goodwill is stemming from the inherent duty to facilitate positive change, I would consider TFA’s ideologies to be ethical.

With this said, their actions must then be examined.  TFA acts ethically toward its corps members, considering they treat the employment experience as both a means to an end, and an end in itself.  While the overarching goal is to educate children, an under arching goal is to develop the corps members as intellectuals, and individuals.  TFA’s stakeholders however extend far beyond its corps members.  TFA also acts ethically towards the institutions where it places its members, as well as the students themselves considering its core values entail improvement of the education system, and individual students as an end goal.  Furthermore, this value is shared throughout the organization and perpetuated through each of its members.

One potentially unethical aspect of Teach for America can be seen through the viewpoints of John Rawls on justice.  Rawls argues that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.”  By this logic, the social and economic inequalities created by TFA are to the disadvantage of currently employed veteran teachers who risk losing their jobs.  Furthermore, schools are often contractually obligated to hire TFA corps members making positions open to only a selective group of people.  In this case the social and economic inequalities detriment the teachers, and are only attached to career teachers exempting TFA corps members from their effects.

The Future:

Based on its current growth the future of Teach for America looks bright.  With increased interest and competition TFA is able to enlist more intelligent and effective teachers each year.  One big question that this increased interest brings up is when will it be the appropriate time for this growth to end.  TFA only remains effective as long as it is filling a need.  While at this point, I don’t believe there is conclusive evidence saying TFA corps members are intruding or damaging the current workforce of teachers it is only a matter of time before this assertion becomes a blatant reality.  For this reason I believe it is necessary for TFA to eventually cap their growth and maintain their numbers at a constant level.  This level will have to be reflective of the extent to which teacher shortages exist in the U.S. at any given point in time.  Secondly, one must ask if TFA will still be needed once the achievement gap is closed.  Considering this has been one of TFA’s core tenets since its founding, it will probably need to restructure and evaluate its mission once the achievement gap is no longer one of the biggest problems facing the education system.  Overall, I believe there will always be a need for effective teachers, and as long as Teach for America corps members are able to quantitatively, and qualitatively show their success in the classroom they will be an important part of our educational landscape.

With this being said, I would like to propose several areas that Teach for America should focus on going into the future.  The first of these is maintaining a committed, and passionate membership with shared ideals, and motivations.  TFA is very much a member driven organization that is only as successful as the individuals it chooses as its representatives.  Furthermore, maintaining an inclusive group of knowledgeable corps members who communicate readily, and proactively work to bring innovative practices into the classroom is the best way to succeed where traditional methods of teaching have failed.  Secondly Teach for America should engage in an aggressive fundraising campaign so they are able to improve the training programs, and support network available to their corps members.  This will allow them to assure that teachers are sufficiently prepared for their assignments.  In turn a high competency among teachers will improve TFAs public image allowing them to attract donors and perpetuating a cycle of improvement.  Lastly, Teach for America should actively work to identify areas with teacher shortages, and take that into consideration along with student achievement when placing their corps members.  This will make them appear as a more positive force to teachers, and assure that members are being placed in areas where they are actually needed.  In addition to this TFA should start separate initiatives to help train, and assist teachers in low performing areas where they do not have volunteers.  It’s evident that TFA volunteers cannot be everywhere, but this does not mean they cannot impact schools in need by holding workshops, and sponsoring activities.

Teach for America remains today as ethical, and important as it has been historically.  While it is true that the education system in the U.S. has changed in many ways over the past twenty years, it is also true that in many ways it has not.  The achievement gap is still a huge obstacle preventing low income, minority students from achieving a quality education.  In addition teachers shortages still exist in areas where teaching jobs are unattractive due to low pay, or environmental dangers.  These are the problems that TFA is working to solve.  To finish, I would like to temper the academia cited in this essay with a little realism by quoting a conversation I recently had with a graduate of a small charter school in the heart of Washington D.C.  In reference to teacher turnover rates, I asked him how many of his teachers were still at his school (now 3 years later).  He responded with “none”.  I followed up by asking if that bothered him.  He said it did not.  So I asked if any of the teachers there had been TFA corps members.  He replied that some had.  Finally, I asked what he thought about them.  What he said was that they were the most respected, effective teachers he had known.  Ironically, I had heard testimony from researchers, corps members, administrators, and teachers but this was the first one I heard from a student.  And oddly enough it made the most sense.

Chart 1

Chart 2

Works Cited

Baird, Andrea. Teacher Shortage Areas. Rep. N.p.: US Department of Education, 2012. Print.

Cavanagh, Sean. “Black-White Achievement Gap Narrows on NAEP.” Education Week:. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2012. <http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/07/14/37gaps.h28.html&gt;.

Coulson, Andrew. “Obama vs. Romney on Public School Jobs.” Cato Liberty RSS 20. Cato@Liberty, 11 July 2012. Web. 18 Nov. 2012. <http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/obama-vs-romney-on-public-school-jobs/&gt;.

Courrege, D. (2011, Dec 28). Teach for america has supporters, critics. McClatchy – Tribune Business News. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/912837026?accountid=9784

Ingersoll, Richard. “Teacher Turnover and Teacher Shortages: An Organizational Analysis.” University of Pennsylvania. N.p., 2001. Web. 18 Nov. 2012. <http://repository.upenn.edu/&gt;.

“Is There Really A Teacher Shortage.” Washigton.edu. Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy and The Consortium for Policy Research in Education, 2003. Web.

Rubinstein, Gary. “Why I Did TFA, and Why You Shouldnt.” Gary Rubinsteins Blog. Teach For Us, 31 Oct. 2011. Web. 18 Nov. 2012. <http://garyrubinstein.teachforus.org/2011/10/31/why-i-did-tfa-and-why-you-shouldnt/&gt;.

Schug, Mark C., and William Holahan. “The Case of the Simultaneous Teacher Shortages AndSurpluses: ANewExampleforTeaching About Labor Markets.” Journal Of Private Enterprise (n.d.): n. pag. University of Wisconson. Web. 16 Nov. 2012.

Senik, Troy. “The Teacher Surplus and the Economic Deficit – Ricochet.com.” The Teacher Surplus and the Economic Deficit. Richet.com, 9 July 2012. Web. 18 Nov. 2012. <http://ricochet.com/main-feed/The-Teacher-Surplus-and-the-Economic-Deficit&gt;.

Spellings, M. (2010). No country left behind: US education in the globalized world. Harvard International Review, 32(3), 68-71.

“Teach For America.” Teach For America. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2012. <http://www.teachforamerica.org/&gt;.

Teach for (some of) america. (2009, Apr 25). Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/399134027?accountid=9784


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