Teach for America: Doing More Harm Than Good?

Somewhat coincidentally, I’ve come across two interesting pieces on Teach for America, both in the last week , which I’ve found illuminating, yet also mind-boggling. The first was this 2010 study on TFA teacher effectiveness. This is an extensive, peer-reviewed study that compares TFA teachers to a number of other teacher groups, comparing their success by the academic gains of their students as measured by certain standard assessments.

The groups compared include novice TFA teachers, novice untrained teachers and novice certified teachers. They also look at more experienced teachers. The conclusion was that TFA teachers performed about the same as novice teachers with no or minimal training (though they did marginally better in math), worse than new teachers who came out of a recognized teacher certification program, and worse than more experienced teachers.

This isn’t really a knock on TFA teachers, per se. They are, after all, non-certified and minimally-trained and ought to compare to other teachers with that kind of background. And I expect many of them really feel they are doing a good thing and not merely padding their curriculum vitaes with the prestige that comes with all exclusive clubs. But it is a knock on Teach for America itself, since it calls into question the fundamental ideas with which the organization was founded.

The basic idea of this non-profit, now more than 20 years old, was to fill teacher shortages in low-income, urban school districts, with the brightest, most ambitious recent graduates that could be found.

It sounds laudable. And it wasn’t long before Teach for America had developed such prestige that top-quartile graduates were routinely putting off their applications to Harvard Law in order to do their two-year stint in the educational trenches, theoretically giving these kids the kind of inspirational, dynamic educational experiences they’ve never had before.

But there are a number of facts that I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around:

The very concept of a non-certified teacher. In Canada, where I underwent my teacher training, post-graduate education programs are enormously competitive. A friend of mine is now taking her PhD in history on a full scholarship; it’s her back-up plan, after her education program application was rejected, twice.

As an overwrought working student, my undergrad B+ average was amongst the lowest of anyone I knew in my education program cohort. My only saving grace was the low number of applicants with a physics major. The general acceptance rate for the program has been below 10% for the last few years. It’s always filled to capacity.

How is it that American schools find themselves forced to hire individuals with virtually no training or experience to teach?

The audacious privilege of the elite. Teach for America began as the cause of a very particular kind of liberal. The kind of person that has everything and feels bad about it. How can I make such a claim? It’s in the very idea that “America’s future leaders” will step in to failing schools and fix everything, and don’t need to undergo the same training as traditional teachers in order to outperform them. The assumption is that the problem with America’s schools today is that the teachers just aren’t smart enough.

There may be just the smallest grain of truth there. TFA teachers did outperform other untrained teachers in one subject: mathematics. Though the difference was slight, it does suggest room for improvement in college-level math education. But with that bare exception, elite TFA grads performed no better than other non-certified teachers.

And real teachers, those who actually deigned to prepare for their career in a recognized educational faculty program, clearly outperform both non-certified groups. The elite are offering to postpone lucrative careers in law or business in order to help our failing schools, but what our schools actually need are qualified teachers.

The disdain for experience. The idea that TFA’s highly-selective application process simply comes up with a better class of people than normally go into teaching doesn’t just allow them to forgo training. It’s also assumed that TFA teachers are so much better than regular teachers, it doesn’t matter if they leave after their two-year commitment (only one-third stay longer and some others don’t even stay the full two years).

But this study tells us what every teacher already knows. Even with significant training beforehand, the first year or two are always a challenge.  A school stocked with nothing but inexperienced TFA teachers will always perform unfavorably compared to a school which retains its teachers and benefits from their accrued wisdom. Now that most districts are experiencing teacher surpluses rather than shortages, contracts requiring a certain number of TFA hires are actually pushing out career teachers who are prepared to stick around more than two years.

PR is everything. I was mulling a lot of these things over when a few days later I came across this anti-TFA screed from Andrew Hartman. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but like me, Hartman hates the union-busting, teacher-bashing behavior that has become a Republican pastime of late. Like me, he feels that American schools are getting something wrong, but doesn’t blame lazy or greedy teachers.

Yet he’s not happy about TFA, an ostensibly liberal initiative, either, and in explaining why, he managed to put his finger on just what it was that was bothering me most about this Teach for America study the last week.

I must have read half a dozen articles in 2011 about TFA, and all were glowing, though the evidence is almost exclusively anecdotal, quotes from school board members, principals, superintendents and rarely some data from TFA itself. Without any actual evidence, one gets the definite impression that smart, exuberant young TFAers beat out traditional teachers — those who have chosen the profession, trained for it and made a life-time commitment to it — every time.

It isn’t true. But the impression is pervasive. As Hartman says, organizations like TFA and the charter school system provide endless ammunition for Republican reformers and union-busters: they imply that the nation’s public school teachers are incompetent and stupid, and that non-traditional teachers need to swoop in and save the day.

TFA teachers are likely to be so well-connected already, and the TFA program has itself become so prestigious, they have a better chance after their two-year stint of ending up writing educational policy a few years later than actual trained teachers who spend decades in the classroom. The program has proven a great stepping-stone for those with political aspirations. But what do the schools get out of it?

TFA teachers cost about $5,000 more per person, apparently to offset their five-week training program, though others say it is a sort of signing bonus to help them pay off their student loans. Is it worth it? Instead of attracting, retaining and supporting career teachers, Teach for America marginalizes them further by perpetuating the belief (trumpeted by politicians on the Right) that their professional training is irrelevant. Meanwhile, teaching as a career becomes a little less attractive. Is this how we will save the day?

Read more:

Teach for America Alumni: Dedicated or Disengaged?

Equal is Better: What’s Missing from the Debate on Education Reform

Bloomberg Targets Teachers’ Unions in State of the City Speech

Photo credit: woodleywonderworks


Donna S.
Donna Smallwood5 years ago

If you want your child to have an academic education, send them to either a very academically oriented private school or home school them well. If you want your children to have a social education, send them to public school.

It is rare that public schools educate children to the point that they are ready for college. Most students from public schools have to take an entire year of remedial education before they can begin working on the pre-requisites for any Bachelors degree.

It is a survival of the fittest culture in public schools, and sometimes in private schools too. What doesn't kill them, either scars them for life or just makes them prepared for the dog-eat-dog system of the workplace.

We do not prepare our young people for professionalism and progress; instead we teach them the GOOD OLE BOY way with the double standard lacking integrity and honesty. We really have a long way to go before we can see progress in education or for that matter, as a nation.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal G5 years ago


SeattleAnn S.
Ann S5 years ago

Thought-provoking article and comments.

Pamela T.
Pamela T5 years ago

I am relieved to hear some reasoned criticism of TFA here on Care2, can I send a green star to the author?? Lately, Care2 has been sponsored by StudentsFirst, a Rhee campaign, that also assumes teaching is just something you are born with and training can't possibly make a difference in the quality of your teaching (and by extension, then, why bother with a credential, etc.) School districts have laid off new teachers all over, teachers who spent upwards of 20K on their credential and have significant student loans relative to teacher pay in favor of TFA candidates because their salary comes from elsewhere, so with all the budget cuts and layoffs, there are teachers who wanted to be in the classroom, who prepared for it, who intended to make a career out of it, unemployed because of TFA candidates with little training and a minor commitment of 2 years. TFA candidates get money to pay off their student loans for their BA, but teachers with a BA credential (in CA, that's 50 more units, more than a masters) get nothing of the kind unless they can teach secondary science, pretty much, and even that requires a 4 or 5 year commitment in the school. It's unfair to teachers and to students.

And the comment about TFAers going on to write policy after that tiny bit of experience, instead of teachers with the 10-15 years experience that would be a solid base we'd expect in other professions, is dead on. And SCARY in that it continues the guinea pig experiments on an even bigg

Brian M.
Past Member 5 years ago

Education begins in the home. All the good teachers in the world won't help kids that aren't ready or willing to learn.

Anne G.
Anne G5 years ago

I always thought this program was started on the assumption that any teacher is better than no teacher. Nothing can take the place of education and experience, but I remember engaged student teachers having a lot more impact on us students then some of the older more experienced ones. It's really a shame that today, where so many restrictions are put on teachers, it makes it nearly impossible to be creative and innovative and engaging.

New G.
W. C5 years ago

Thank you.

Pat M.
Pat Mencke5 years ago

I agree that teacher training is very important but I would also say that young teachers without classroom time teaching could always use help. And another thing, as our whole education system has been destroyed, teacher training is probably not as good as it once ways.

I consider myself a liberal but if these stats presented here are efficacious, the TFA programs should be disbanded and we should do something else.

I do think that as we raise our entire Educational System, which we can and must do, it will bring parents and legislators up to better standards also. And I think that as we do this we will have to make some better decisions than we have been making lately.

Letting “people in the street” and students determine what is and what is not going to be taught, is not acceptable. We have been catering to our lowest common denominator. It is not acceptable to allow students to raise such disturbances in classes, as we have allowed them to do on college campuses in regard to Evolution and thinkers who are part of our cultural historical Western Civilization who have come to conclusions other than religious beliefs, to stop teachers from teaching and other students from getting the educations they want and are paying for.

No school board and no university should be able to dictate what will be taught in classes and any school or university should not be licensed who is not teaching what the best of our thinkers and scientists and researchers have dis

monica r.
monica r6 years ago


A big part of the problem is these kids' parents were like that, too. Many don't have a high school diploma or GED. Our society needs to make education valuable again. Not everyone used to get one. Certainly EVERY person in America is not college material, nor do they want to go. I'd have happily been a construction worker like my dad but my mom insisted on college. I finally made my way into teaching but it is not for wimps or sissies.

I've been knocked to the floor, jumped on, head injured, stabbed twice, and sexually touched once. I've bought about 3000 pencils (most of which get deliberately broken and end up in the trash), dozens of notebooks and folders, markers, even my own copy paper and toner when we didn't have textbooks. I've stood outside alone at 9pm waiting for my bus home in a neighborhood most people wouldn't walk through in broad daylight. If you want America's best and brightest, you may need to fork over more than $34K a year for that.

I'm sure the certified, traditional program teachers were maybe better than me. But they aren't exactly lining up to work in the war zone schools, either.

monica r.
monica r6 years ago

Well, I was not in TFA, but I did do an alternate route program to be a teacher. We were expected to mean it as a career, though, and not just a short stint. The tens of thousands of grad school tuition alone to complete the program should guarantee that only the serious need apply. (TFA were in the same classes, same tuition, by the way)

My first two years I had experienced mentor teachers in my room, each one came at least once a week. They helped with issues, modeled teaching techniques, answered questions, observed and gave suggestions to improve practice. Yes, the first months were hard, but it got better and we did not lack for support.

My greatest challenge as a teacher is that kids aren't taught to value education. I teach inner city minority kids. They "don't give no f***" about education, since they will, ALL apparently, be either famous rappers or sports stars. Is there nothing else they can aspire to? Nobody wants to be an astronaut anymore? Hell, the real money is being a hedge fund manager (who does less hard work than rappers or sports figures), why hasn't anyone told them that?

They go home with failing grades at report card time (not all of them, but the ones who never come, or do come but never do ANY school work) and still get $200 outfits as a reward. My parents would have killed me if I got less than an A unless I could prove I tried my best but literally could not do the school work successfully. Just not doing it wasn't an option.

A big part