TFA ascended from a college senior thesis to a multi-million dollar national nonprofit over the course of about twelve months in 1990, led by founder and current CEO Wendy Kopp (Kopp, 2001). The decade before Kopp’s thesis, President Reagan sought to fulfill his campaign promise to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education by commissioning a blue ribbon panel to report on the sorry state of the nation’s education systems. Called the National Commission on Excellence in Education. In 1983 this panel produced A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. The commissioners argued our nation was a small step away from losing its place in the world due to an ineffective and inefficient education system. The culprits? Teachers who didn’t know the subjects they were supposed to teach or how to teach them, and the universities that prepared them. The report was both sensational and filled with inaccuracies.
In this climate of fear, panic, and despair, TFA argued that the education system described in A Nation at Risk and similar reports could be fixed by recruiting the nation’s best and brightest to lead us out of the darkness. By teaching for two years, then using that frontline experience to fight for systematic change in the education system, the so-called achievement gap between rich and poor, minority and majority could be closed.
To legitimize its entry onto the scene, TFA needed a villain. So, intentionally and unintentionally, the organization cast several groups as the Banditos of the Education System: teachers, teacher unions, teacher educators, teacher preparation programs, and school and district leadership. TFA “spinoffs” like The New Teacher Project, the Knowledge is Power Project (KIPP), the Relay Graduate School of Education and even the chancellorship of Michelle Rhee in Washington DC all reflect TFA’s beliefs about the “limitations” of working within the system, and the need to overhaul public education from top to bottom. Recruits seek acceptance to TFA because they feel that teachers aren’t doing their jobs well, or systems are failing communities, or unions are holding the system hostage, or they remember the bad teachers they had when they were in school. (Fischman & Diaz, 2012)
While demonizing unions, TFA praised others as the saviors of public education: business leaders; certain elected officials; philanthropic foundations; wealthy institutions and individuals. “Bad teaching” is the enemy, not the dismantling of public assistance programs meant to combat poverty and redistribute wealth. Low quality teacher education programs are the villains, not local chambers of commerce that fight for lower tax burdens for corporations that shrink public coffers. Teacher unions are “terrorist organizations,” as Secretary of Education Rod Paige publically called them, but at the same time philanthropic foundations that use their wealth to push an ideology of privatization and limited government were to be respected. The Administration of George W. Bush was among the most vocal supporters of TFA, even commending the organization in a State of the Union address. And providing more publicity, First Lady Laura Bush, and her daughter Jenna, donated all the profits of a children’s book they authored to TFA.
In one of the first books about TFA, curriculum theorist and professor Thomas Popkewitz (1998) described the majority of corps members as privileged people “struggling for their soul:” simultaneously trying to save themselves from the damnation of corporate greed and the legacy of institutionalized racism while saving the souls of unfortunate youth born into poverty through no fault of their own. Others, less generously have described teacher corps members as “résumé builders.”
Rhetoric aside, Teach For America is founded on one very problematic assumption, namely, that TFA first- and second-year teachers are better than other teachers. TFA teachers are expected to teach more effectively and efficiently, and to lead their students to higher academic achievement than the people who might otherwise hold their position in a school. The experience, training and commitment of that other person does not matter.
The best answer to the question “How good are TFA teachers?” is “It depends.” The data on TFA teacher effectiveness are contradictory. Some studies indicate that TFA teachers are as effective or slightly less effective as beginning teachers who have graduated from traditional university teacher training programs, while other studies show they are slightly more effective. TFA’s website features a review of studies conducted by research institutes and state departments of education that support the effectiveness of TFA teachers, entirely contradicted by a review recently published by the National Education Policy Center (Helig and Jez, 2010). Perhaps all these reports are right. In some places, TFA teachers do better than their peers, and in other places, TFA does worse. And when we explore what we mean by “peers,” we add even more to the complexity of finding an answer to the question “How good are TFA teachers?”
It is hard to say whether TFA teachers are better or worse than other teachers. But, we can certainly challenge an assumption that the entire organization rests on – that their first- and second-year teachers will be the force in schools that will bridge the achievement gap. In addition, as many critics of TFA have pointed out, TFA has problematically and significantly contributed to the mission of conservative, neo-liberal movements to destroy unions and public education. TFA adds weight to the notion that any smart, young person can outperform old, tired, union-dues-paying school teachers. Smart, young people also cost less money, and are not likely to complain as much when the pensions and health care programs of older teachers are gutted. And, if teaching school is nothing but a trade that anyone can be trained to do in a five-week summer program, it hardly deserves the autonomy, respect, and pay accorded to real professionals. Nearly every TFA success can be cited as a justification for “non-traditional” teacher certification programs that condense teacher training to a few months or a few on-line courses. Thus Texas, filled with neo-conservative policy makers, now has about 50 percent of all new teachers coming out of TFA and other non-traditional teacher education programs. These novice teachers have experienced enormously variable training, and almost all of them teach poor and minority students. The set of beliefs that are the cornerstone of TFA, along with data suggesting that relatively untrained teachers of the poor may be as good as traditionally trained teachers, provide neo-conservative reformers support for their negative views about teachers, and helps mask their indifference to economic injustice.
Summer 2013 brought with it a well-organized attack on TFA by a large number of its alumni. The TFA critics were especially angry over their organization’s role in support of the privatization of education. They saw privatization, ultimately, as the goal of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision in 2013 to close 48 schools and lay off 850 teachers and staff. But at the same time he planned to welcome 350 new TFA corps members who are likely not to do well, and are likely to leave the profession in 2-3 years.
Fischman, G. E. & Diaz, V. H. (2012). Teach For What America? Beginning Teachers’ Reflections about their Professional Choices and the Economic Crisis. In D. R. Cole (Ed.), Surviving Economic Crises through Education. New York: Peter Lang. Hartman, A. (2011) Teach For America: Liberal mission helps conservative agenda. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/teach-for-america-liberal-mission-helps-conservative-agenda/.
Heilig, J.V. & Jez, S.J. (2010). Teach For America: A Review of the Evidence. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved July 8, 2014 from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/teach-for-america .
Kopp, W. (2001). One day all children: The unlikely triumph of Teach For America and what I learned along the way. Cambridge, MA: PublicAffairs/ Perseus Books.
Popkewitz, T. S. (1998) Struggling for the soul: The politics of schooling and the construction of the teacher. New York: Teachers College Press.
Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.