After 20 Years, What Have We Learned from Teach for America?

BlogHer Original Post

Teach For America, an organization that puts its recruits through fast-track training to teach in U.S. regions where students have fallen behind in academic achievement, is now recruiting for its 20th cohort of new teachers.  It's not surprising, then, that TFA recently has received extra scrutiny in the U.S. press. The verdict is still out on the effectiveness of the program—it depends, really, on how you measure effectiveness—yet it's still sending thousands of teachers into U.S. schools each year.

According to Amanda Ripley's article on TFA in the January Atlantic Monthly, in 2002 TFA opted to evaluate its teachers based on how many academic years their students progress in a single year, based on the results of standardized tests given in each state. For example, an exceptional teacher might take a fifth-grader performing just below fourth-grade reading level and bring her up to speed or even into sixth-grade reading. In its study of its teachers, TFA classified teachers into three groups: those who increased student progress by 1.5 grade levels or more, those who pushed students forward one to 1.5 years, and those whose students made less than one year of academic progress.

Ripley reports that, in addition to setting big goals for their students, TFA's most exceptional teachers

had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

Another big factor in predicting success as a TFA teacher, according to Riple? Perseverance in all aspects of one's life, as well as a general satisfaction with life.

Writing for Mother Jones, Andy Kroll was dumbfounded by TFA's findings—and not in a good way:

That's it?! 6,000 words to tell us that great teachers are good planners with big ambitions, that perseverance and good grades and a glittering resume equate to future success in the classroom? Correct me if I'm wrong, but that describes predictors of success in just about every profession out there.

Ripley also summarizes the results of the only independent study that compared TFA teachers with their more conventionally trained counterparts; the 2004 report showed that students of TFA teachers significantly outperformed non-TFA teachers' students in math and matched their progress in reading.

Who applies to become a TFA teacher? TFA is a very popular career choice for new graduates.  According to Ripley's article, 11 percent of Ivy League seniors applied for positions in its teaching corps. And yet—despite the qualities exhibited by TFA's most successful teachers—few of them persist, either as TFA teachers or as major contributors to civic life, according to a New York Times article by Amanda Fairbanks. Fairbanks reported on a study by Doug McAdam and Cynthia Brandt.  According to the researchers,

In areas like voting, charitable giving and civic engagement, graduates of the program lag behind those who were accepted but declined and those who dropped out before completing their two years. [...]

The reasons for the lower rates of civic involvement, Professor McAdam said, include not only exhaustion and burnout, but also disillusionment with Teach for America’s approach to the issue of educational inequity, among other factors.

Critics of the program cite other problems with its approach to teaching. Witness, for example, the comments on one of the videos made by PBS for its series on public education in New Orleans: TFA's pedagogical training is inadequate, its recruits don't get to spend sufficient time observing master teachers, and they're sent into the classroom with unrealistic expectations about a teacher's workload. In addition, commenters criticize PBS for examining TFA in a vacuum instead of comparing its teachers to credentialed and established teachers. TFA's defenders do show up in the comments to refute some critics' claims, and the comments overall make for interesting reading, no matter what one's opinion of TFA.

PBS is in the middle of posting a series of videos on Teach for America. Each short video examines a TFA teacher's first year in a New Orleans school. The videos are a bit formulaic, but they are interesting in that they illustrate the disconnect between teachers' expectations of students and students' expectations for themselves: behavior problems are rampant, ranging from general disrespect of teachers to walking out of the classroom to theft and even to assault.  The videos suggest the first year in a TFA classroom is about learning to establish control in the classroom through a complicated application of disciplinary carrots and sticks.

For more on TFA, check out these blog posts:

For first-person accounts from TFA classrooms, see TeachFor.us, a blog community set up specifically for TFA teachers.

What are your thoughts about, or experiences with, Teach for America? I'd love to hear them.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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