It’s a dual question. Why Teach For America, and why teach for America? The oft-lauded and oft-criticized program has spent considerable time in the spotlight recently as more and more policy makers and philanthropists have begun to embrace TFA’s views and ideals.
Proponents say that the program places stellar individuals – America’s best and brightest – where they are needed most: the schools in low-income communities nationwide. Critics point out that TFA corps members, as they’re called, are often unprepared and asked to teach for only two years, hardly enough time to become experts. So why Teach For America? Is there any merit to the program? Do corps members significantly impact their students’ lives or are they just padding their resumes? Is teacher quality improving or being watered down by an influx of young do-gooders? Last year, Teach For America placed about 4,500 new teachers in classrooms all around the country. The organization loves to talk about the quality of its recruits – they come from the Ivy League, they’re damned smart, they work hard, they care, etc. Teach For America is right about its recruits. I know; I was one, and before I became a corps member, I spent a year as a student recruiter at Washington University in St. Louis. Teach For America’s strict recruitment guidelines disqualified many quality people, and I was stunned – and upset – when some of the outstanding individuals we did recruit were turned down.
So what? Critics point out that a degree from Harvard or Wash U doesn’t necessarily qualify you for teaching in a low-income community, and they’re right. However, it is worth noting that, while an Ivy League education isn’t a prerequisite, don’t want our teachers to be idiots either. While I taught for two years in Memphis, I met some incredibly good non-TFA teachers and some incredibly bad non-TFA teachers. Some of them knew their subject matter backwards and forwards, and others failed to pass the Praxis – the ridiculously easy teacher qualifying exams that most well-educated high school freshmen would breeze through. One teacher, upon finding out that I didn’t have a teacher’s edition for my textbook all year, even confessed that he wouldn’t know any of the answers without the teacher’s edition. A degree from Harvard isn’t necessary, but using the teacher’s edition to get the answers shouldn’t be necessary either. The other great thing about recruits from top colleges is that they’re extremely motivated. If you have a 3.7 GPA from Harvard, it means you’ve been working hard for four years. I don’t see how recruiting bright, motivated people to be teachers is problematic, and I’d question how much someone who does have an issue with that cares about the intellectual welfare of America’s students.
Furthermore, it is incredibly unfair, and untrue, to claim that Teach For America corps members are only interested in their resumes. It’s true that TFA looks great on a resume, and it’s certainly the case that some people join in order to further their career options. But to categorize the group that way is not only ignorant, it’s insulting. Most corps members are extremely passionate about what they’re doing. They work long hours and put in extra time to make sure their students succeed. That an improved resume is a byproduct of their efforts does not diminish what they do. Being an officer in the military looks good on a resume too, but I don’t hear people accusing Army Captains or Marine Lieutenants of resume padding. The vast majority of people who willingly do these types of things, choose to because they are committed to the ideals of service, not because they want to get ahead in life.
But back to the main issue, what good are 4,500 recent college grads? After all, even putting 4,500 stellar teachers in the classrooms each year is like slapping a band-aid on a wound that’s borderline gangrenous and screaming for amputation.
But that is exactly why Teach For America is not only effective, but necessary. There’s an unfortunate adage about teaching: those who can do, those who can’t teach. The truth is, those who can are only able to do because they had good teachers. Doctors, lawyers, and astronauts weren’t born as those things; they were taught by people who were incredibly talented and effective. America is built on educated people doing incredible things. Teachers are literally the cornerstones of our society and our way of life. Yet somehow, many have come to look upon teaching as a second or even third class profession for those who can’t do anything else. If we want our most talented college graduates becoming politicians and business owners, researchers and innovators, shouldn’t we also want them to become teachers? Teach For America wants this, and in this endeavor, Teach For America has been remarkably successful. The organization has made teaching sexy. Teaching isn’t the profession of money or glamour or stardom, but Teach For America has made tens of thousands of smart, motivated young people want to teach in some of the most difficult places in the country.
Teaching for two years doesn’t make you a hero or an expert. I know because I’m neither, but Teach For America recognizes this as well, and the organization has done much to address the problem. Although detractors like to point out that the program asks for a two-year commitment, many corps members stay in the classroom or in the field of education for much longer. In fact, many become life-long educators. Sure, many pursue other careers, but many teachers that come out of traditional Teacher Education Programs leave the profession as well. Teaching is a tough job, and some people realize that it’s not for them. Maybe it would be best if all corps members committed their lives to teaching, but that’s unrealistic. That many continue to strive to improve our nation’s schools is a testament to the ideals and effectiveness of the program. Furthermore, the educational problems that exist in America are multi-faceted. Teach For America recognizes that not all corps members will stay in education, and the program emphasizes the idea that no matter what corps members do after their commitment ends, they keep the experience with them and work towards reform and equality in whichever field they pursue. I fail to see how it is problematic to have socially aware doctors, lawyers and business people who strive for equality whatever their calling may be.
Results show that Teach For America corps members are – as a group – just as effective, if not more effective than teachers who come out of traditional TEPs. This isn’t an indictment of those teachers; I know from personal experience that many of them are outstanding teachers and outstanding people who labor constantly at a job that is unforgiving and unheralded. Those people are heroes. However there is no problem with introducing youth, vigor, and intelligence into any profession, particularly one that has been underperforming.
Teaching for America is important no matter what track one takes to do it. Teachers deserve more money and credit than they are currently getting. As a program, Teach For America isn’t perfect, but the organization is incredibly open and receptive to feedback, both positive and negative, and its goals have the best interest of our country and our country’s children in mind. Teach For America corps members, far from being egotistical, resume-building chest-thumpers, are working hard, some for two years, others for many more, to improve our nation’s education system. There’s no way around that fact. The movement does not aspire to replace traditional TEPs, nor does it aspire to be a steppingstone for ambitious young people who are interested in their resumes and nothing more. The growth and success of the Program are a testament to its mission and to the hard work of the individuals striving to make our country better.