This Sunday, an article in the Education section of the New York Times quickly caught my eye with three simple words – Teach for America. For those unfamiliar with TFA, it is an organization that recruits recent college graduates to teach for two years in some of the nation’s most troubled public schools. Teach for America has become a phenomenon on competitive college campuses. Last year, 35,000 people applied to Teach for America, up almost 50% from 2008. I am always interested to hear stories about TFA, as I strongly considered participating in the corps and quite a few of my colleagues chose that inspiring, challenging path.
The article reported on a study by Doug McAdam, a sociologist at Stanford, which found that after two years of teaching, TFA corps members score lower on civic engagement measures than applicants to TFA who were accepted but did not matriculate or than corps members who dropped out before completing their two years of teaching.
Author Amanda Fairbanks reports this information as if it is a sign that Teach for America alumni lose their drive or become disillusioned by the educational disparities they witness. If this were the case, that would mean that TFA is not accomplishing its mission to “to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our nation’s most promising future leaders in the effort.”
I don’t think we can jump to that conclusion. The study’s metric for “engagement” is based on voting rates, charitable giving and public service work. Yes, these are all logical ways to measure civic engagement. However, I don’t believe that they are the methods of civic engagement that Teach for America alumni look to. TFA is meant to build leaders who have a vested interest in improving education. While community service and charitable giving are certainly important to society, they are not the most effective ways to initiate real change. Instead of simply operating as a “good citizen” in society, TFA alumni should be, and likely are, using their talents and experience to make tangible improvements to our school system.
Of the 17,000 TFA alumni, 63 % remain in the field of education and 31% remain in the classroom. This illuminates a huge question – what is the best way for these leaders to improve education? Is it to stay on the ground, in underperforming schools, helping their students as much as possible? Or, is it to move on and try to help the broader system, by working in government, law, etc?
I don’t have the answer to that question but in my view, Teach For America alumni are not backing away from the challenge of improving the education gap. Since I work in an inner-city school myself, I understand how the experience can be somewhat disenchanting, and could produce jaded alumni. However, for every moment that I feel frustrated and disempowered, there are ten more in which I see the hope and promise in each of the students at my school. I’m confident that TFA alumni feel the same. To me, TFA alumni are still figuring out the best way to engage with and lead society, not as model citizens, but as champions for a very important cause. I would guess that if we found a way to measure their educational civic engagement, Teach for America alumni would do “better” than their colleagues.