Hardly a day goes by that someone is not lauding or condemning the existence, principles, mission, and personnel of Teach for America. I like to hear as many perspectives as possible, so I follow people on the whole Rhee to Ravitch spectrum. Usually, I refrain from responding, because the rhetoric tends to be more reductive than rational, as tends to happen in 140-character conversations. Tonight, due to lack of stimulation from driving 12 hours across the desert today, I responded to Mary Beth Hertz's (@mbteach) tweet about Teach for America's partnership with J.P. Morgan: "More proof that TFA is not in the business of preparing young people for teaching careers. This makes me sick bit.ly/Lw81mX". (For the record, I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for Ms. Hertz as an educator, this is merely one tweet of many to which I chose to respond.) I replied: "to be fair, they don't *claim* to be in the business of preparing people for teaching careers. They're transparent about the 2 yrs" and braced myself for an onslaught of digital clucking. Since I don't believe Twitter is the best forum for making a cohesive argument, I'll outline my thoughts here and will appreciate your comments below.
Full Disclaimer: I am the archetypal TFA-er. I am white, grew up in a wealthy suburb, went to an ivy-league school, taught for three years, and am now leaving the classroom for a job with a venture capital firm. Case closed, right?
BUT WAIT! When I entered my commitment with TFA in 2009 as a bright-eyed, bleeding-hearted, 22 year-old, I was committed to being a career educator. I would have bet my life on it. It was my calling. My purpose. My reason for being on this earth. In fact, the main reason I joined Teach for America in lieu of the "traditional" path was because it happened to be the cheapest way to get a post-Bacc teacher certification, and I was able to simultaneously get my Master's in teaching with the help of the AmeriCorps scholarship. The plot thickens!
So is Teach for America good or bad for education?
"Teach for America is taking jobs away from career teachers"
TFA teachers work in schools where almost nobody else wants to work. Why? The environments may be hostile, violent, dangerous, resource-depleted, or any combination of the above. On top of that, they teach the kids who are the farthest behind academically with the highest rates of exogenous challenges, which may include poverty, abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and academic/behavioral/emotional disorders. The last time I checked, people were not lining up for these positions. And when they do, the majority of them are out in 5 years or fewer (that accounts for all teachers, not just TFA corps members). If you teach at a school with a below-average number of special education students and students living in poverty are the minority of the student population, I can pretty much promise you, a TFA teacher will not be taking your job. There is no TFA-Orange County or TFA-Andover because there is no need for TFA to exist in those districts.
Now, in the rare case that Teach for America exists in a region where there is actually a steady supply of teachers, I completely agree that they should pull-out of that region immediately. In theory, TFA's goal should be to close its own doors. I think Wendy Kopp would agree that it will be a great day when there ceases to be a need for TFA because districts across the country are inundated with resumes from talented, certified teachers. This is the area where I think Teach for America as an organization has fallen off track with their mission. Every TFA region should have the goal of annually reducing their corps until they reach 0, at which point the district has a sufficient supply of certified teachers and TFA can leave the region. Instead, TFA has been increasing their corps every year. This either means that the teaching shortage is increasing, or Teach for America has lost sight of their own mission in their quest for expansion. I fear it's the latter. A better approach would be for Teach for America to work more closely with district officials to design and implement a plan to reduce teacher attrition, keep excellent teachers, and attract, support, and train new talent.
"You can't learn to teach in 5 weeks"
I learned to teach five different ways. I took education classes as an undergrad at Penn's Graduate School of education, which were a mix of pedagogical theory and student teaching; I went to TFA institute; I completed a Master's in teaching at Johns Hopkins; I watched great teachers teach; and I taught for three years. Of those five, I solemnly swear that the least helpful forms of preparation for my job were the university level teaching programs. TFA Institute was the most helpful preparation in terms of classroom management, which is about 80% of the battle in a challenging school environment. I used TFA instructional and evaluation methods for about the first semester, and then I developed my own style. So, no, you can't learn to teach in 5 weeks, but you can't learn to teach in a 2 year long top-university Master's program either. Nobody learns brain surgery from reading a book or writing a paper, (and that's what teaching really is: brain surgery without a scalpel).
"Teach for Awhile"
On a regional level, Teach for America is very transparent in its two year teaching commitment. District officials know this when they agree to partner with TFA - there are no false promises of legions of career teachers. Furthermore, the district communicates with Teach for America to estimate the number of teachers they will need each year. This means that either the district is so desperate for teachers that they agree to have TFAers for 2 years rather than no teachers, or they have found the quality of TFA teachers to be desirable additions to their teaching force. Either way, districts choose to enter this partnership, whichs demonstrates that TFA teachers are necessary in the region. Being angry at people who leave the classroom after 2 years is akin to asking someone to loan you $20 and then being angry when they don't give you $100.
"TFA is just a resume builder for the privileged elite"
When was the last time in American history that you saw the country's "best and brightest" clamoring for teaching positions in inner city and rural schools? Never. When a major field experiences a brain drain (especially ones with vast social ramifications like science, education, or medicine), it's in a country's best interest to start a program that will attract talent.
In 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act that established NASA with a $100 million annual operating budget. The Sputnik crisis created an urgent need for the United States to ramp up efforts in the space race, so they created and funded a program that would attract the country's best aerospace engineers.
We have an education crisis in this country, but not everywhere. There is no education crisis in the town where I grew up, but in Baltimore City, and many other disenfranchised school districts, we have a Code-Red, Sputnik-level crisis. Based on what I've seen during the last several years, we should be doing everything possible to attract our nation's best thinkers to these districts. There is no "Investment Banking for America" organization, because it's already lucrative and prestigious. America socializes young people to believe that if they are intelligent, they should pursue something lucrative and prestigious. Teaching may not be lucrative, but TFA has bestowed a new level of prestige upon the profession, which is a hallmark of successful education systems around the world.
We have an education crisis. It's in our country's best interest to attract our top talent to the field. However, teaching is not right for everybody. Usually, people leave teaching because they want to do something else. The fact that a teacher is choosing to leave the classroom does not in-and-of itself mean that person was an ineffective teacher. Furthermore, just because people are leaving the classroom, does not mean they are abandoning the mission to improve education. This is important. The problems in education are not limited to education, which means we need people with a thorough understanding of the education system to do good work in the tangential sectors of healthcare, social services, law, politics, engineering, and business.