How TFA Can Save Itself, and American Education

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Teach For America (TFA) is facing some rather stiff criticism lately, with some even saying there is an “anti-TFA movement” in the making.  Elisa Villanueva Beard, TFA’s new co-CEO, in a recent speech and a letter to alumni, rejected the fiercest of those critics: “we adamantly reject unproductive and baseless attacks on Teach For America and our corps members and alumni.”  These critics, according to Beard, believe, “that TFA somehow represents everything they hate about school reform, from charter schools, to testing, to nonprofit organizations who are challenging the status quo.”

Beard reflected upon five big challenges for TFA, among them, “too many [TFA teachers] who didn’t feel adequately supported,” a need to get away from the idea that what “we’re trying to do can be easily measured and managed,” and a need to stop growing “for growth’s sake.”  But most of those challenges were phrased as calling for changes in how the organization “listens,” “interacts,” “invests,” and “builds relationships.”  As Beard put it, “Finally, we need to create more opportunities to engage, listen, discuss and debate tough issues.”  This may be true, but it won’t get to the crux of the issue.

The problem with TFA lies in the fact that it cannot accomplish its stated mission – “One day all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education” – with its current structure, in which few of its teachers stay in the classroom long enough to effect lasting improvement, either within themselves or their students.  According to a recent analysis by Harvard’s Strategic Data Project, TFA’s teachers in LAUSD have a positive effect ­– equal to two months of instruction in math – compared with other novice teachers. However, about two-thirds of Teach for America teachers, recruited from top colleges nationwide, leave the district after the program’s required two years.  As far as I know, both of these same trends play out in pretty much the same way throughout the nation.  TFA teachers, on average, do as well or better than other novice teachers.  But then, the vast majority of them leave the classroom.  Research has consistently shown that teachers in their first years are less effective than more experienced teachers, so TFA teachers are leaving the profession before they reach their peak effectiveness.

So here’s a better idea: Expand the time commitment for TFA teachers, gradually and deliberately.  Start with one city, say Los Angeles, and announce that applicants who want to teach in LA will have to sign up for a three-year commitment.  This might lead to a small decrease in the pool of applicants, but it will also likely lead to more committed applicants.  In 2012, TFA had 48,000 applicants for 5,800 positions, and in 2013, the number of applicants rose to 57,000, so a small decrease is unlikely to be a problem.  After a year or so, add another city, and then increase the time commitment in LA to four years.  Along with this increased time commitment, offer more support and on-going training to these committed teachers.  And then, once the organization can support a five-year commitment, those teachers who sign up for five years could spend their entire first-year as apprentices with gradually increasing teaching responsibilities and the benefits of close mentorship by four- and five-year veteran TFA teachers.  I’d imagine that within a short time, every TFA region would be itching to expand their time commitment.

This would gradually transform TFA into a residency model of teacher preparation, and it might also do one of two other things: First, it could put TFA out of business or drastically lower the numbers of TFA teachers.  Since teachers are most likely to leave the profession in their first five years, many more TFA teachers might stay in teaching for their entire careers.  One TFA teacher who stays for 30 years would mean there would be no need for the next fourteen TFA placements over the coming years.

But I doubt this would happen.  From my own experience as a 1995 TFA member and a teacher-advisor at the 2008 summer institute, I can state unequivocally that TFA has radically improved its teacher preparation, and the evidence of its impressive recruitment efforts is obvious.

More likely, then, I think that a gradual transition to a five-year commitment might mean an end to many other teacher education schools and preparation programs.  TFA has figured out a way to recruit and select potential teachers who are far more academically qualified than the average prospective teacher in the U.S.  If the organization could marry this accomplishment with a plan to get these ambitious, successful people to stay in teaching for their careers, that might not only put an end to the need for a revolving door of so many weakly qualified, inadequately prepared, and overwhelmed new teachers, it might actually bring us closer to that one day that all of us truly desire.

Note: This is neither a new idea, nor my idea alone – it’s been proposed in similar form and analyzed before.  But perhaps, with new leadership, now is the time that TFA can once again break the mold, this time altering both itself and the American educational landscape.

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2 thoughts on “How TFA Can Save Itself, and American Education

  1. Great idea! TFA’s current model almost insures that it cannot be effective. No matter how much time, money, and effort it pours into recruitment and training, it won’t matter if the basic expectation is that folks leave after two years. In fact, the more that TFA improves its training program, the more of a waste the two-year commitment seems to be.

    But I imagine that it would require a Herculean effort to get TFA to think beyond its current structure. Its leaders will argue that they won’t be able to recruit top people or underrepresented group (not just racial minorities but also math & science majors). They’ll insist that part of the point of TFA is to get people out of the classroom and into leadership roles, both in education and elsewhere. They’ll claim that it would undermine the organization. And it might, as you point out. It certainly would put a big dent in recruiting, and TFA would not be able to out-compete Wall Street firms as it currently does — but it would be the better for it.

  2. Pingback: Applauding Teach For America – and Demanding More | The Teaching Diablogue

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