TFA needs long-term commitment

Amy Recupero

Whenever I mention to my Villanova undergraduate and graduate friends that I have some major reservations about Teach for America, I immediately become the grinch who stole youthful idealism. It’s not that I deny the overall message of Teach for America, that the severe educational inequity that plagues many students in poverty-stricken areas is a troubling and urgent social problem. In fact, as a student pursuing a master’s degree in secondary education, I’m very much in-tune and concerned with the educational problems in our country. It’s TFA’s method of attempting to solve these deep-rooted problems that makes me balk.

For those unaware, TFA is an organization affiliated with AmeriCorps that places young people just out of college with no background in education into our nation’s most disadvantaged schools for two-year stints.

Particularly at Villanova, a school whose students strive to uphold the values of “Veritas, Unitas, Caritas,” the TFA pitch is certainly appealing: You, an individual fresh out of college, can help “save the world” by eradicating the most pervasive injustice in the country today with just your sheer motivation and dedication. I don’t doubt that most students interested in TFA have nothing but good intentions.

But when it comes to TFA, I happen to agree with Oscar Wilde’s remark, “It is always with the best intentions that the worst work is done.”

Criticisms of TFA are nothing new. For years, many educators and administrators unhappy refer to TFA teachers’ lack of preparation and their low retention rate teachers after they complete the required two years of teaching. The results of a 2005 study by researchers at Stanford University reflect these claims.

The study linked the achievement data of more than 130,000 fourth and fifth graders to the certification status of over 4,000 teachers in Houston. The students took six different reading and mathematics tests over a six-year period, and those taught by certified teachers consistently out-performed the students of uncertified teachers (including TFA teachers).

TFA advocates that while their teachers are not certified, they still must take a five-week training course before they are placed in poverty-stricken schools.

Five weeks? A mere five weeks of training pales in comparison to other credible and extensive teacher certification degrees such as a bachelor’s or master’s in education.

The Stanford study indicates that teachers with just content-area specialization aren’t enough to make strides with students and that an extensive training in child development, learning theory, and teaching methods shouldn’t be rushed in five weeks.

In a “City Journal” article, Joshua Kaplowitz, a 2000 TFA corps member who taught in Washington, D.C., also criticized the five-week training.

“The [TFA] training program skimped on actual teaching and classroom-management techniques, instead overwhelming us with sensitivity training,” he wrote.

Even more troubling is the fact that TFA does not even require their recruits to hold a bachelor’s degree in the subject that they are asked to teach. In other words, an English major who knows something about biology may be asked to teach biology without actually having a solid foundation in that subject.

Another criticism mounted against TFA is the fact that the organization doesn’t prepare its corps members to make a lifelong dedication to teaching. This fact is painfully obvious in TFA’s low retention rate. For example, data show that 43 percent of its teachers who started in Chicago public schools in 2001 stayed on the job in 2004. Of those who started in 2000, 39 percent stayed for a third year, according to TFA.

Why won’t TFA teachers stay teachers? The problem seems to be rooted in the basic ideology of TFA and the mindsets of their young teachers.

“The program doesn’t encourage people to make a career-long commitment to teaching,” said Professor Maryann Dickar of the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University. “It assumes that you can come in for two years and make a difference, but it takes time to develop as a teacher, even if you come with a lot of potential.”

What happens to the schools after TFA teachers pick up and leave? Many do not look back to see the chaos they leave behind. Educational gains require a stable learning environment. With TFA teachers leaving the nation’s neediest schools every two years, the schools must scramble to replace them.

Administrators who hire TFA recruits typically don’t look ahead to when these teachers will pack up and leave; they are seduced by the low hiring costs of the younger, less-qualified TFA teachers. Largely due to a shortage of funds, many poor school districts are forced to avoid hiring large numbers of qualified teachers because they must be paid more.

Due to the increasing selectivity of TFA, the program has also become an unbeatable resume builder for advantaged college students. In an added insult to the field of education, many TFA teachers see their two year stint as a mere stepping stone on their way to “real” jobs in medicine, government, law, or business. On the Web site, TFA explains how its alumni will decrease the achievement gap even if they don’t stay in education.

“Others enter other [career] sectors – from policy and politics to business and journalism to the arts and to the sciences – and work from those sectors to impact priorities and practices of our nation,” according to the TFA Web site.

This sweeping generalization is painfully broad; does TFA truly believe that all of their alumni (no matter what career field they find themselves in) will strive “to impact priorities and practices of our nation”? I doubt it.

While the TFA Web site glorifies two examples of alumni who helped impact education through their business jobs, I can’t help but wonder what became of the thousands of other TFA alumni who entered the world of business, law and medicine.

So who are the real losers in this situation? Little attention is ever focused on the students in these impoverished areas. How can it be a good thing for the most difficult, most in-need students to have under-qualified teachers come into their schools, attempt to teach without a solid foundation, and then most likely leave after two years?

In a 1993 “Phi Delta Kappan” article, Jonathan Schorr, a former TFA recruit speaks on behalf of his students: “Perhaps like most TFAers, I harbored dreams of liberating my students from public school mediocrity and offering them as good an education as I had received. But I was not ready.

As bad as it was for me, it was worse for the students … I was not a successful teacher and the loss to the students was real and large.”

TFA explains that our nation’s achievement gap is the reason why we have educational inequity and then easily explains that because of their efforts, “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to have an excellent education.”

It has been 16 years since TFA was founded, but the achievement gap has widening each year. When will this “one day” magically appear to save our nation’s poor children from horrendous educational injustices?

We can’t wait another 16 years to see if TFA will fix our nation’s pervasive educational problems. Real change must be made through crucial political and policy reforms.

No matter how talented and motivated these TFA recruits are, systemic injustice cannot be eradicated single-handedly by teachers hoping they can personally lift students’ test scores and motivation levels.

I would rather see our nation implement true educational reform than rely on well-intentioned but ineffectual do-gooders attempting to achieve a Sisyphean task.