The Great Teach for America Debate

Mar 08, 2011

Every year, the Teach for America (TFA) program sends thousands of recent college graduates into troubled school districts to help low-income students. Due to some generous government grants and tremendous public relations, they've become a notable name in education nationwide. However, not everyone's on board with what TFA offers. What are the arguments behind this debate?

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By Eric Garneau

The Company

Teach for America (TFA) is a non-profit organization which aims to dispel educational inequity in the United States. They send bright young leaders (often fresh college graduates) into low-income urban or rural school districts on a two-year commitment. Once there, the newly-minted teachers work to help students perform at a better-than-normal level.

The Pros

After a competitive and exhaustive interviewing process, TFA selects the best and most passionate candidates to represent them. They look for individuals with a history of leadership and achievement who will bring their substantial work ethic and energy to classrooms in need. After their two-year tenure, many teachers who complete the program feel compelled to continue working to improve public education via positions of influence.

Education-wise, the TFA website reports numerous success stories of students under their charge outperforming those under other novice and even veteran teachers. They cite a number of studies, each conducted by independent organizations and each reporting varying degrees of success. However, most studies agree that TFA has at least some kind of positive impact on students ranging from kindergarten through high school.

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The Cons

TFA is not without its share of critics. Some complain about its emphasis on leadership ability over teaching skills; those accepted into the program get only a five-week training course on methods of education plus mentoring over their two years. Perhaps the most common criticism levied at the program: education reform requires teachers who make a lifelong commitment, not those who rotate in and out of schools every two years. On the Washington Post website, one educator even referred to TFA acolytes as 'a rotating crew of well-meaning missionaries.'

TFA defendants have responded that a teacher's veteran status does not guarantee quality. One parent wrote to the Washington Post about too many 'experienced' teachers who 'sit at their desk and watch movies all day after passing out worksheets.' That parent argued, and reasonably so, that he'd rather have an impassioned young mind working to help his child than '70% of the veteran teachers' he'd experienced.


Even many of its supporters would probably not claim that TFA is in itself a permanent fix to education inequality in the U.S. Temporality is built into the program's nature, after all. TFA would likely respond that more long-term work is being done by program alumni, who ideally will go on to enact lasting changes in America's educational system.

As a short-term fix, though, TFA seems to have its heart in the right place. Perhaps its competitive emphasis on leadership does not always make for the best teachers, but as even many of its critics would point out, TFA isn't responsible for the quality lacking in some 'regular' schools and educators. For now, then, those involved in TFA provide a stopgap service to fix a problem whose root eventually needs to be treated.

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