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Teach for America: Not All It’s Chalked Up to Be

News & Features | April 7, 2010

Nobody wants a pop quiz outside of class, but bear with me: what program is more selective than Harvard Law School, more popular than the Peace Corps, and pays better than most entry level positions? The answer is Teach For America (TFA), and it’s taking college campuses by storm.

Teach for America is an organization that employs recent college graduates as teachers in some of the most under-resourced schools in the country—typically within low-income urban and rural communities. The program works to allocate more personal attention to underprivileged students and combat educational inequality nationwide. It is a very popular option for college graduates, particularly at Tufts, where eight percent of graduating seniors applied this year.

Offering only around 4,000 spots for 46,000 applicants, the extremely selective TFA rejected over 90% of applicants for the 2009-10 class of corps members, or TFA teachers. But 20 or more current Tufts seniors will join over 4,000 college graduates from around the country for five weeks of intensive summer training before becoming public school teachers in September.

Suzi Grossma

Welcome to Boston

Just last year, TFA began expanding into Boston, a move that has become quite contentious. 2009 saw the first group of corps members move into the Greater Boston region, which includes Chelsea, Cambridge, Revere, and Boston. This September, 75 more new teachers will arrive in the region, and 20 are headed to Boston—the flashpoint of a serious controversy.

Richard Stutman, the president of the Boston Teachers’ Union, has publicly lambasted both the district and TFA for adding corps members to Boston’s already swelled ranks of teachers. Indeed, because of budget cuts and resulting layoffs, many current teachers will not be returning to their classrooms in the fall; instead, they will be swapped for candidates with no former teaching experience.

“We’ve had people with three years’ experience moved aside for Teach For America candidates,” Stutman said. “Most people I represent feel it’s an insult. I really can’t buy that somehow it’s better to have a five-week program [than traditional certification]; I don’t even think the superintendent thinks it makes for a better teacher…how could it?”

Josh Biber, Executive Director of TFA in Boston, rebutted Stutman’s claims: “Our teachers apply for open vacancies and interview just like any other teacher candidate from anywhere else,” he said. “At the end of the day, the achievement gap is an enormous problem that unfairly holds too many kids back.” He argued how “our corps members, through their teaching, long-term leadership, and unflagging commitment to kids…can be one important piece of the solution.”

Elton Sykes (’09) began his teaching career in Tulsa, Oklahoma last September as a high school English teacher with TFA. Like Biber, he refuted Stutman’s concerns: “I do not agree with the criticism made by others,” he said regarding Stutman’s public comments. “I feel like those criticisms are not solving the problem of educational inequality and closing the achievement gap.”

But freshman Lauren Starr, who was taught under a corps member in a K-8 school in Minneapolis, backed up some of Stutman’s hesitations. “I remember liking these teachers on a personal level,” she said. “Unfortunately, their classes were often out of control and quite frankly we didn’t learn much…they were a bit too idealistic and lacked the experience and training necessary to conduct a successful classroom.”

Suzi Grossman

Adam Weldai, a member of the Malden School Committee and an incoming graduate student in the Tufts M.A.T. program, worries about the program’s impact on young teachers and students. “Quite frankly, you need more than two years to become a good teacher,” he said. “Sending unprepared teachers into low-performing districts is equally as harmful to the teacher as it is to the student, a student who needs a highly trained teacher with an education background to help them thrive.”

But Robbie Havdala, a senior who will be joining TFA next year as an elementary school teacher in New York City, disagrees with Weldai’s argument. “In my opinion, there is a certain unrecognized benefit, sometimes, of having fresh, new teachers. It adds creativity, new ideas, makes organizations more forward-thinking and challenges the status quo.”

While many disagree on how best to train teachers and reform education, everyone agrees on the need to address the achievement gap in schools. The question is how.

Is Teach For America Effective?

There are multiple ways to test a program’s effectiveness, but perhaps the best method is student testimony. Laurel Starr spoke of mixed feelings many seem to share. “I definitely sympathize with the goals of TFA and am glad that they are working towards fixing the horrendous achievement gap,” she said. “However, I feel that this program is a reflection of how public, inner-city schools are severely marginalized in our society. Why should we give our poorest students the added disadvantage of being forced to accommodate these [inexperienced] teachers? I see it as completely unjust.”

While various researchers have studied the impact of Teach for America, results have been incredibly controversial. In a 2008 study, The Urban Institute concluded that “TFA teachers tend to have a positive effect on high school student test scores relative to non-TFA teachers.” On the other hand, another study found that students taught by TFA teachers performed significantly worse on standardized tests than those taught by certified teachers (Berliner and Laczko-Kerr, 2002).

While daunting, this problem of educational inequality is not completely impenetrable, according to Biber. “I deeply believe the [achievement gap] is solvable, but it will take enormous commitment from people in all levels of education and in all sectors of society,” he said.

TFA stands as just one of many approaches attempting to close a widening academic achievement gap between high school students. However, there is no  current singlehanded solution to this problem; lest we forget, staggering inequality continues to exist between the school performance of black and white and rich and poor. So what should we do? The immediate answer is unclear, but TFA is one of many approaches out there, and until we can find an alternate solution, it is one of the only nationwide programs making a solid effort to level the playing field for underprivileged students all over the country.