The Problem with TFA
This week Teach for America (TFA) celebrates its 20th anniversary. I have sometimes thought that if I were graduating from college now, I would apply to join TFA. It attracts well educated, bright, idealistic young people. Their energy and commitment are impressive.
The problem with TFA is that it grossly overstates its role in American education. This year, TFA sent 8,000 young people into high-needs schools; they agree to stay for two years; some stay longer, but most will be gone within three years. This is a small number indeed when you consider that our nation has 4 million teachers. And our most compelling problem is attrition. Of those who enter teaching, 50 percent are gone within five years. These are terrible statistics. We need a stable teaching profession, not a revolving door. We need to recruit new teachers who plan to stay in teaching and make a career of it. New teachers should have a solid education and strong preparation for their work. They should have the mentors and support they need to survive the trials of the early years and to improve continuously.
TFA does not solve any of those problems and needs. Yet its spectacular public relations and communications strategy has encouraged policymakers in the federal government, the big foundations, and the major corporations to believe that TFA is "the answer." But it is not. The more it succeeds in promoting itself, the more it sucks the air out of any public discussion about restructuring and improving the profession.
And, wow, what a success TFA is! A few months ago, the U.S. Department of Education awarded it $50 million. A few weeks ago, a group of four foundations gave TFA $100 million. Corporate donors love TFA. Its 20th anniversary celebration last week was sponsored by the nation's biggest foundations and corporations and attracted a star-studded list of guest speakers, from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to charter school leaders to national journalists and urban superintendents. The 15 pages of speakers is truly a line-up of the nation's educational establishment.
TFA is a huge success story, but there is also something scary about seeing so much money and power assembled around its core belief that a brand-new college graduate with only five weeks of training is just right to educate our nation's most vulnerable students. Recently some 60 civil rights organizations wrote a letter to President Obama, with a copy to Secretary Duncan, contesting the claim that teachers with so little training should be considered "highly qualified." I attach links to and about their letter here and here. For more on this issue, Deborah, I urge you to read Barbara Torre Veltri's Learning on Other People's Kids: Becoming a Teach for America Teacher; Veltri has mentored many TFA teachers.
All the "right" people, all the powerful people have fallen in step behind TFA's banner. It is as though they want to see the Peace Corps take the place of the diplomatic corps. In 2009, a surgeon proposed in The Wall Street Journal that medicine needed something similar to TFA, which he called "Heal for America." After a brief training period, the members of his HFA would be qualified to advise patients about diet, hygiene, and exercise; they would know how to take patients' pulse, temperature, and blood pressure; they would tell them the correct dosages of prescribed medicines. But, he warned, members of HFA should never be allowed to substitute for physicians, physicians' assistants, or registered nurses. TFA, however, does not share the doctor's understanding of the importance of deep training and experience.
Perhaps unintentionally, TFA's success has stifled any national discussion about how to build a profession of well-educated, well-prepared, experienced educators who view teaching as a career rather than an experience. The alums of TFA are now taking their places in Congress, state legislatures, Wall Street, and the other corridors of power in public and private sectors. Will they recognize the need for a genuine national solution, modeled on the progress made in other nations, or will they simply continue to expand TFA's belief in the virtue of a revolving door of bright young people? The future of the teaching profession hinges on the answer to that question. What do you think?