Teach for Students, Not For Yourself

Caitlin Whittemore, Si Yun Zou and Noah Potash

Last week, an article promoting Teach for America, written by two future members of TFA, appeared in this space. We believe that this piece was tantamount to self-promotion, and presented an inaccurate portrait of TFA, an organization with lofty goals but questionable results, and a negative effect on schools and students nationwide. TFA was evidently hoping that the Brown Bag would function as another tool in its aggressive recruitment program targeting Colgate students, and was dismayed to find that many of the attendees, including many education majors, have serious concerns about the work that TFA actually carries out. The points made in last week’s piece are inherently misleading, since they were based on a careful selection of statistics designed to make TFA look as good as possible, and we seek to clarify and refute these points.

Ms. Lewis and Ms. Feshbach claimed that there is “a growing body of rigorous research on TFA,” and went on to cite several sources which TFA lauds on their website. A closer examination of this research reveals that far from painting a clear picture, studies’ findings on the effectiveness of the TFA are at best inconclusive. A writer for Education Week examined the 12 sources listed by TFA, finding four to be “irrelevant” to their claims, seven “problematic or mixed,” and a single one positive, although it is a “one-page summary from a survey of principals,” rather than a rigorous study. Furthermore, the majority of the studies TFA cites are not peer-reviewed, and they failed to include several peer-reviewed studies which reached negative conclusions about their work.

Last week’s opinion piece engaged in similar cherry-picking of data; for example, the study by Mathematics Policy Research which they note “found that TFA teachers have a positive impact on student achievement in math” also found that there was no corresponding impact in reading. It is worth mentioning that most of the studies rely on standardized testing to measure impact, a measure which arguably has little to do with whether children are actually learning and engaging in the classroom. An honest presentation of the data cannot provide an unambiguously positive verdict on Teach For America.

The “Colgate for America” piece makes much of statistics (compiled and released by TFA) which tout its members’ continuing commitment to education beyond their first two years. TFA claims that 61 percent of its members return for a third year. As recently as 2008, the Harvard Graduate School of Education found the number to be just 43 percent. It is possible that TFA has simply experienced a massive surge in retention in the past few years, dragging the totals upwards. However, 2 years later, The Washington Post quoted a study which found that, “More than 50 percent of Teach for America teachers leave after two years and more than 80 percent leave after three years.” The window for TFA’s numbers to skyrocket enough to explain its own statistics is exceedingly narrow.

By comparison, the National Education Administration states that about half of all teachers nationwide remain in the classroom for five years or more. When viewed against the bigger picture, even the TFA’s optimistic numbers are less than impressive – and the situation looks even worse when you realize that most TFA members who remain involved in education past the first two years are not staying in the low-income schools where they started, but transferring to less challenging areas.

Just as telling as the information, which last week’s piece misrepresents, are the facts which they leave out altogether. For one thing, the “summer of rigorous pre-service training” which newly-minted TFA members receive? That training takes five weeks. Normal teacher certification can take two years, and even those teachers often gain years of experience before they feel fully qualified. Becoming a good teacher takes time – a lot of it. Enthusiasm and intelligence are not enough. All of this would not be such an issue if TFA was solely assigning its crash-course trained members to teach where there are major shortages.

But they are not doing that. Many TFA members take jobs held by veteran teachers, people who have received proper training. And they are given the jobs not because they are more qualified – they aren’t – but because it is much cheaper to pay a recent college grad a beginner’s salary than pay tenured teachers what he or she deserves. After these jobs have been taken by college students, many of whom never intended to pursue education as a career and have received less training than it takes to prepare for a marathon, by the TFA’s own estimates, 39 percent of these students leave after just two years. The kids who they were responsible for are left hanging.

Si Yun and Caitlin both have long planned on becoming teachers. They are willing to devote their lives and careers to the betterment of young minds. Some TFA members feel the same, and will go on to become great teachers, but many others will not. When someone without the intent to pursue teaching in the long term joins TFA, and leaves the moment their two years are up, they are not teaching for the children, or for America, but rather teaching for themselves, in an extended gap year where the ones who pay the price are the fired teachers and under -educated students they leave behind.

This is wrong. It is the opposite of what education is supposed to be. Education is about children. Not test scores. Not a temporary job to hold while waiting for something better to come along. In some countries, teachers are the most respected profession of all. If that is ever to be true here, it cannot go on being a job which one can train for in a month.

Contact Caitlin Whittemore at [email protected],

Si Yun Zou at [email protected]

and Noah Potash at [email protected]