Does Teach for America Create Burnout-itis?

By Bryan Toporek — January 05, 2010 2 min read
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A recent study of college graduates involved with Teach for America in some capacity revealed a surprising lack of interest in civic involvement, according to a recent article from The New York Times.

The study, called “Assessing the Long-Term Effects of Youth Service: The Puzzling Case of Teach for America,” was conducted by sociologist Doug McAdam and his colleague Cynthia Brandt of Stanford University, at the request of Teach for America founder and president, Wendy Kopp. McAdam and Brandt surveyed every TFA candidate between 1993 and 1998, comparing graduates of the program to “dropouts” (those who entered the program, but did not complete their two-year commitment) and “nonmatriculants” (those who were accepted to the program but declined the offer).

It’s likely Kopp didn’t expect the results: TFA graduates were found to be unlikely to expand their civic engagement beyond the classroom. In fact, while graduates of the program were found to be more involved than their peer group, the dropouts and nonmatriculants were more likely to vote, donate to charities, and become involved in activist causes.

“There’s been a very clear and somewhat naïve consensus among educators, policy folks and scholars that youth activism invariably has these kinds of effects,” Professor McAdam said. “But we’ve got to be much more attentive to differences across these experiences, and not simply assume that if you give a kid some youth service experience it will change them.”

“To find that Teach for America graduates are more involved in education but are not serving in soup kitchens is interesting but not surprising — it’s consistent with their current mission,” said Monica C. Higgins, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard. “They’re not trying to make global citizens. They’re focused on education.”

One person who remains at odds with the survey’s findings is the person who asked for the survey in the first place — Wendy Kopp herself.

“It’s hard to see the incredible outpouring of interest among this generation and think of it as a lack of civic engagement,” Kopp said.

“Unfortunately,” she added, “it doesn’t seem as if this study looked at Teach for America’s core mission, by evaluating whether we are producing more leaders who believe educational inequity is a solvable problem, who have a deep understanding of the causes and solutions, and who are taking steps to address it in fundamental and lasting ways.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Web Watch blog.