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Teach for America Alumni: Dedicated or Disengaged?

Teach for America Alumni: Dedicated or Disengaged?

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.

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5:43AM PST on Jan 27, 2010

Interesting article...

6:38PM PST on Jan 26, 2010


6:29AM PST on Jan 12, 2010

In response to Ann's comment...

Although TFA is only a two year commitment, the goal of the program is to establish leaders who will fight for education after their time as inner-city teachers is up. Having field experience, and being exposed to all of the issues that these underperforming school's have, TFA alumni are in the ideal situation to continue to make tangible changes after they finish their "fellowship." The selection process is extremely grueling, and I know that the TFA recruitment team looks for people who will continue the fight far beyond their 2 years.

That being said, I don't think that all teachers have this expectation, but I certainly think TFA looks for candidates who will be devoted not only to their job, but to the cause.

1:06PM PST on Jan 11, 2010

Interesting, thanks.

12:12AM PST on Jan 10, 2010

Great article. I greatly appreciate what teachers do for our community.

7:17PM PST on Jan 9, 2010


2:58PM PST on Jan 9, 2010

Maybe somebody can correct me if I am wrong, but when I went to school if you did something like that Stafford school loans would forgive your debt which could be substantial.

8:20AM PST on Jan 9, 2010

interesting read.thankyou.

9:06PM PST on Jan 8, 2010


9:04PM PST on Jan 8, 2010


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