Wendy Kopp is amazing!
As a college senior, she proposed Teach For America in her Princeton undergraduate thesis. She was convinced that many in her generation were searching for a way to assume a significant responsibility that would make a real difference in the world, and that top college students would choose teaching over more lucrative opportunities if a prominent teacher corps existed.
Kopp raised $2.5 million of start-up funding, hired a skeleton staff, and launched a grass-roots recruitment campaign. During Teach For America’s first year in 1990, 500 men and women began teaching in six low-income communities across the country.
Today, Teach For America(TFA) has 8,000 teachers working in 60 cities across the U.S., in addition to a network of 20,000 alumni, including Colorado Senator Michael Johnston and Washington D.C. City Councilman Sekou Biddle.
And this weekend, TFA is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a summit conference in Washington, D.C.
But does Teach For America Work?
With just a 12 percent acceptance rate, a stint with TFA has become as prestigious for ambitious college students as admittance to a top-flight law school or an entry-level job at a consulting firm. The organization has plans to double in size by 2015, eventually sending 15,000 teachers into public schools each year while growing its influential alumni corps to 40,000 people.
Yet it remains an open question whether the program is moving the needle on the goal of closing the achievement gap between middle-class white children and their poor, minority peers.
“If you look at the data on the aggregate level, the achievement gap has not closed at all in the last 20 years. But I’m so optimistic,” Kopp says. “We have the chance to do something completely unprecedented in this country’s history and really the whole world’s history, which is to provide kids with an education that is transformational. We really haven’t done that, not on average.”
While research shows the average TFA teacher is slightly better than the average veteran educator at improving children’s test-score results in math, results in language arts are mixed.
There is also significant evidence that two years is not long enough for an educator to hit their stride; a teacher’s performance continues to improve until about year five according to some studies—or up until years eight and nine, according to others.
TFA says 85 percent of its recruits complete their two-year commitment, 60 percent of its alumni remain in the field of education two years after their commitment ends, and 36 percent remain in the classroom as teachers.
By comparison, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, it is estimated that 70 percent of teachers who receive their training in education courses remain in the classroom after the first three years of teaching, and 50 percent after five years.
Teachers Take Issue
Many in the field of education, including teachers’ unions, say TFA puts inexperienced 20-somethings with just five weeks of training in classrooms and most don’t stay after two years.
Others say that TFA is an organization that lets top graduates play in education for a while before going on to something else.
Indeed, just imagine those same 20-somethings getting a 5-week training in medical practice, before playing at being doctors for two years. Teachers justifiably resent the idea that anyone can teach, a notion that simply doesn’t exist in other professions.
A quick search online will bring up plenty of former TFA recruits who quit after a few months, mostly because the challenges were too huge, and they didn’t have the education background and training to deal with them.
“I don’t want anyone to practice or test out whether teaching is their profession on children,” says Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the biggest teachers’ union, with 3 million members. “We need to find out if teaching is your profession before you get in the classroom.”
Whatever the outcome of that debate, it’s clear that TFA has been tremendously successful. It’s also interesting that although TFA began as a direct challenge to the teaching establishment and its assumptions, today the organization has become very much a part of that establishment.
In October, the group announced a partnership with Goldman Sachs, in which TFA recruits are guaranteed jobs at the investment bank directly following their two years in the classroom.
And in January, the organization received $100 million from a group of philanthropists to launch its first-ever endowment in hopes of making the grass-roots organization a permanent fixture in education.
Wendy Kopp must be feeling pretty proud of her accomplishments!
Photo credit: EnergeticNYC via Creative Commons