Teach For America: Salvation or ‘Disservice’?

By Millicent Lawton — July 26, 2016 13 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Two-and-a-half years ago, a Princeton University undergraduate named Wendy S. Kopp wrote a senior thesis that raised its share of professorial eyebrows.

It embodied a sweeping, idealistic vision of a national teacher corps that would lure recent graduates of selective colleges to work in inner-city and rural classrooms plagued by teacher shortages. The idea met with more skepticism when, after her 1989 graduation, Ms. Kopp sought the seed money to make her vision a reality.

As it turned out, her thesis got an A, initial funding rolled in from the Mobil Foundation and Union Carbide Corporation, and today Ms. Kopp’s teacher corps, known as Teach For America, has grown into a high-profile, $5-million-a year enterprise.

Last school year, Teach For America shepherded nearly 500 recruits into school in six regions nationwide, garnering considerable media attention in the process. This coming school year, TFA plans to place some 1,200 new and returning corps members in schools in 11 regions. Yet, as the program prepares to enter its second year, observers continue to disagree over its merits.

Some hail Teach For America as a bold and admirable effort that brings a pool of otherwise untapped talent into teaching. And benefactors ranging from the Texas entrepreneur H. Ross Perot to the Xerox Corporation to the actor Paul Newman have seen fit to bankroll the idea.

Others, however, say the program places pedagogically underprepared teachers in charge of classrooms full of the at-risk students who populate inner-city and rural schools.

“I think [the program) does a disservice to these kids by exposing them to teachers who are not as well prepared” as they could be, said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

A New Pre-Service Model?

Indeed, critics of the program typically focus on the preparation its member, receive before facing the challenges of the classroom.

In many ways, the dispute over Teach For America’s approach reflects the larger debate raging in teacher-education circles about how best to balance traditional pedagogical training with a well-rounded liberal- arts background and in-class practice-teaching experience.

Once members are accepted into the corps they attend only an eight-week pre-service summer institute held here on the University of Southern California campus. Satisfactory completion of the institute earns participants 12 academic credits-the equivalent of full-time summer-student status-from Florida International University in Miami.

Ms. Kopp acknowledges that the program cannot, and is not meant to, make expert teachers of its graduates. “I don’t think there is a pre-service program in the country,” Ms. Kopp said, “whether it’s four years, or one year, or 8 weeks, that can prepare someone to be an expert teacher the moment they walk in to the classroom.”

Instead, she said, “we are creating a new model for teacher education on the theory that teachers learn through experience and through ongoing professional development,” as they move toward certification.

During its summer institute TFA tries, through study and practice teaching, to instill the “basic theoretical background and teaching techniques,” that corps members need to run a classroom, Ms. Kopp said. It is also meant to forge relationships between corps members and promote the exchange of knowledge. A new TFA teaching journal and an on-line computer service, both set to appear this school year, are designed to further bolster this dialogue.

This year’s program attracted about 750 new corps members-recruited from 150 college campuses and culled from 3,100 written applications, teaching auditions, and in interviews. Corps members were to spend the first six weeks attending lecture and seminars and for five of those weeks-practice teaching half days in the year-round Los Angeles Unified School District.

During that time, corps members also were to compile a professional portfolio, including case studies, sample lesson plans, and videotaped teaching session, and receive a faculty assessment.

Come September, this year’s crop of TFA teachers will work under existing alternative-certification procedures in districts with shortages, including New York City; Los Angeles; Oakland, Calif.; Houston; New Orleans; and Baton Rouge, La., as well as rural sites in Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. The young teachers do not displace fully certified teachers, and are paid a first-year salary that range’ from about $15,000 to $29,000.

Veterans Return

During the first week of this summer’s institute, the atmosphere was charged. With the enthusiasm and anticipation of the first-year members. “I think I’m about to begin the most exciting two years of my life,” said 22-year-old Mark Levine, a Haverford College graduate who hopes to get students excited about hi specialty, physic.

Reinaldo Montalvo, a 32-year-old U.S. Army veteran and Florida International University graduate, said he signed up because “the educational system need a big help with fresh ideas.”

Joining the novices for one week of professional-development workshops were between 200 and 400 returning “second summer” corps members. Later in the session, about 45 of the veterans were to return for two weeks as “teachers in residence” to assist the institute faculty in advising the novice corps members.

Leading virtually all of the sessions were members of the 80-person TFA faculty-largely classroom teachers together with some college-level instructors from the districts in which the corps members will be teaching. Hired on a year-round basis, they teach full-time at the summer institute and stay on as part-time consultants throughout the school year, TFA officials said.

Institute instruction for the new corps members focused on such basics as the psychology of learners, creation of an effective lesson, and classroom discipline.

The second-year corps members, meanwhile, swapped ideas for lesson plans and boned up on cooperative learning techniques or on the use of theater games as a learning tool. Evening sessions offered opportunities for group reflection on the year past.

Lisa Peterson, a 1990 Yale University graduate who taught last year at William J. Fischer Elementary School in New Orleans, said last year’s summer institute did a “decent” job. But she found it difficult to reconcile the “progressive” teaching methods she learned there with the more traditional practices in her school, which drew students from a low-income housing project.

“People over the summer told me one thing, and people in New Orleans told me another,” she said.

Critical feedback from corps members about last summer’s institute led to a number of changes in this year’s session, Ms. Kopp said. The changes include a less self-congratulatory and more child-centered tone, clearer expectations, and a more structured curriculum. Having faculty members with classroom experience in the placement sites was also new this year, she said.

Another major change is that this year’s new corps members will spend the final two weeks of the institute being trained in the districts in which they will be teaching. The change, TFA officials say, reflects the recognition that a teaching experience in Los Angeles does not necessarily resemble that elsewhere.

The organization has also beefed up its much-criticized support structure by hiring experienced educators to work in the regional office that oversee in-school support such as mentor teaching-a sore point with the last year’s corps members who received little or no feedback or supervision.

The ability to make such change are a part of TFA’s “real strength,” Ms. Kopp said.

“We are unbelievably responsive,” she said. “We approach this whole thing with the idea that we’re going to do a lot of things wrong, we’re going to li ten a lot, and we’re going to change anything as soon as we figure out there’s a better way to do it.”

‘Avant Garde’ Curriculum

That spirit of innovation appears to carry over to the content of the summer curriculum.

Described by one second-year corps member as “avant garde,” the curriculum emphasizes cultural sensitivity and multicultural approaches to learning, a nonjudgmental attitude toward a child’s potential level of achievement, and cooperative learning rather than academic tracking or grouping.

Indeed, a distinctly iconoclastic air pervades the institute, whether manifested subtly in seminars held on the grass beneath a shady tree or more explicitly in a guest lecture by Jeff Howard of the Efficacy Institute, a not-for-profit educational-consulting organization, who lambasted what he called the “American model” of education-a belief that innate ability, rather than effort, guides a students’ academic development.

Similarly, in a talk on the first day of the institute, Ruben Zacarias, associate superintendent for school operations in the Los Angeles school district, advised the audience of first-year corps member: “Don’t worry about methodology.”

Mr. Zacarias, who entered teaching by an alternative-certification route and told the corps that it is an “advantage” to forgo traditional teacher education, drew thunderous applause when he added: “If you’re doing it by the book, you’re doing it wrong.”

For Ms. Kopp, breaking the mold also means carrying her vision beyond merely supplying motivated young people to teach in understaffed schools.

Her organization also aims to reverse the “downwardly mobile” image of public-school teaching, Ms. Kopp said, “by showing the public that thousands of outstanding people compete to enter the profession and find it incredibly challenging.”

The organization is also beginning to work with corporations to develop teaching models to improve teacher retention, as well as methods for helping TFA and its members work with states and cities undertaking school restructuring.

By seeking out minority and male teachers and those skilled in foreign languages, mathematics, and science, TFA also hopes the composition of its corps departs from teacher- education norms.

Of last year’s 500 charter corps members, 44 percent were men and 26 percent were members of minorities- 16.9 percent of whom were African- American. By comparison, TFA officials said, in 1989 roughly 18 percent of teacher-education students nationwide were men and some 8 percent were from minorities.

This year, however, the organization was somewhat unsuccessful in attracting a diverse corps, according to Ian M. Huschle, TFA’s director of communications, planning, and development. Of the 750 novices, 38 percent are men and 23 percent are minority-group members.

Preparation Troubling

The content of the institute’s curriculum and TFA focus on talent, youth, and diversity may not trouble observers in the teacher-education community, but the amount of preparation certainly does.

“I have a real problem with Teach For America,” said Ms. Darling-Hammond of Teachers College.

“Teachers prepared in this [emergency credentialing) fashion ... with very little attention to getting a grounding in how children grow and develop are less effective with students,” she said.

''I’m sure there are some [TFA teachers] who are succeeding,” said Ms. Darling-Hammond. But, she added, “I don’t know how you can justify as public policy…writing off students” by giving them teachers “haphazardly learning by trial and error.”

Arthur Wise, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, agreed. He also criticized the program’s request for a mere two-year commitment, saying it “conveys the idea that teaching is something you do for a few years before you move on to ‘important work.’”

But Carl Grant, a professor of curriculum and instruction and Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, finds much merit in the program.

Mr. Grant, who directed last year’s TFA summer institute but is no longer affiliated with the group, said he signed on because he was impressed with the dedication of Ms. Kopp and her staff.

The TFA member, Mr Grant said, were living out President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural-address call to altruism by giving something back to their country.

“As far as educating all kids, but especially kids in urban and rural areas, we have not found all the answers,” Mr. Grant said, “and here was a group of individuals who were at least willing to test ... one way of being successful.”

The program also helps in the recruitment of talented liberal-arts graduates who might not otherwise pursue teaching, he said.

Even if some corps member leaves teaching for more lucrative jobs elsewhere, there is value in the program, Mr. Grant said.

Because of the growing ties between education and corporate America, he suggested, having former TFA participants in the business world means “they move into corporate America with an understanding of education.”

“We should support this idea,” Mr. Grant said of Teach For America. “If it succeeds: Hallelujah!” he said. “If it doesn’t, the profession learns from it.”

Performance ‘Ran Gamut’

Once in their districts, TFA corps members seem to have been well received by administrators, union officials, and teaching colleagues, interviews suggest.

In New York City’s Queens District 27, Superintendent Josephine Schwindt declared her experience with 25 TFA teachers ''very positive.”

Of the 25 who started last September, 22 are expected to return this fall. “Some of them are going to be stars,and all of them brought an enthusiasm and a motivation to the job that was really stirring to all of the staff,” Ms. Schwindt said.

Without a traditional grounding in teacher education, however, the TFA teachers “did not come knowing how to plan lessons, develop units,” Ms. Schwindt said. “They did not come knowing the latest research on whole language or cooperative learning.”

But, at the end of the school year, some were ahead of where a neophyte with an education background would have been, some were as well prepared, and some were behind. “They ran the gamut,” she said.

Ron Gregory, assistant superintendent of the rural Vance County, .C., schools, said his seven recruits “did a very good job,” even though two decided not to finish out the school year.

One TFA teacher in Vance County has been so successful teaching high-school Spanish, Mr. Gregory said, that her principal doesn’t know how to cope with students’ demand for the subject. “Everybody wants to take Spanish,” he said.

Despite the challenging conditions that many corps members face, the program’s attrition rate seems comparable to the national average, according to Mr. Huschle of TFA.

Of the 489 corps members who were placed in one of the areas of teacher shortage, 53 failed to complete the year--an attrition rate of 10.8 percent, compared with the national rate of nearly 9 percent recorded between the 1987-88 and 1988-89 school years.

And the TFA attrition rate, Mr. Huschle said, stacks up “very favorably” with the 25 percent to 50 percent overall attrition rate of the regions that employ the corps members. Local union officials in New York City and Lo Angeles praised the program and said they have made efforts to include corps members in union activities.

Several veteran corps members, interviewed at random from among those who returned for this summer’s training session, described their experience’ in generally positive term, but peppered their comments with the adjectives “crazy,” “difficult,” and “intense.”

Some problems may have been unique to a Teach For America experience, such as too little instruction in lesson planning or an inadequate post-institute support network.

But other difficulties they cited were common to any neophyte, including difficulty in controlling student behavior and dealing with paperwork and school bureaucracy.

Some said they thought the institute preparation had not been enough, but they seemed to agree with M . Kopp that nothing but hands-on classroom experience can adequately prepare a teacher.

Denise Janssen, a 1990 Pennsylvania State University graduate who taught 3rd grade at the Jesse Owens School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, ran into a variety of difficulties in a community rife with “poverty, guns, drugs.”

The “hardest thing to deal with is realizing what you accomplish in 8 hours may be totally decimated by what happens at home in the next 14 to 16 hours,” he observed.

But Ms. Janssen, who was nominated by her principal for a national first-year teaching award, is not deterred and intends to make teaching her career.

“It’s worth it,” she said, “when you realize you’ve tapped into someone’s life--and they’ve tapped into yours as well.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 31, 1991 edition of Education Week


English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Nearly a Million Kids Vaccinated in Week 1, White House Says
Experts say there are signs that it will be difficult to sustain the initial momentum.
4 min read
Leo Hahn, 11, gets the first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. Last week, U.S. health officials gave the final signoff to Pfizer's kid-size COVID-19 shot, a milestone that opened a major expansion of the nation's vaccination campaign to children as young as 5. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Education How Schools Are Getting Kids the COVID Shot, and Why Some Aren’t
Some district leaders say offering vaccine clinics, with the involvement of trusted school staff, is key to helping overcome hesitancy.
5 min read
A girl walks outside of a mobile vaccine unit after getting the first dose of her COVID-19 vaccine, outside P.S. 277, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)
Education Biden Administration Urges Schools to Provide COVID-19 Shots, Information for Kids
The Biden administration is encouraging local school districts to host vaccine clinics for kids and information on benefits of the shots.
2 min read
President Joe Biden, and first lady Jill Biden walk to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. Biden is spending the weekend at his home in Rehoboth Beach, Del. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Education Civil Rights Groups Sue Tennessee Over Law Against Transgender Student Athletes
The state law bars transgender athletes from playing public high school or middle school sports aligned with their gender identity.
3 min read
Amy Allen, the mother of an 8th grade transgender son, speaks after a Human Rights Campaign round table discussion on anti-transgender laws in Nashville, Tenn. on May 21, 2021.
Amy Allen, the mother of an 8th grade transgender son, speaks after a Human Rights Campaign round table discussion on anti-transgender laws in Nashville, Tenn. on May 21, 2021.
Mark Humphrey/AP