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Do Teach for America Grads Become Lifetime Do-Gooders?

Does service in Teach for America mark the start of a lifetime of civic dedication? Not exactly, according to a study described in today's New York Times.

Researchers Doug McAdam and Cynthia Brandt surveyed every person who participated in Teach for America between 1993 and 1998. They found, somewhat surprisingly, that in areas such as voting, charitable giving, and civic engagement, program graduates lag behind both those who were accepted but declined to participate and those who dropped out before their two-year commitment had ended. (The TFA participants still scored higher than their overall peer group on these measures, it should be noted.)

The Times quotes McAdams saying:

"There's been a very clear and somewhat naive consensus among educators, policy folks and scholars that youth activism invariably has these kinds of effects, 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."

Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, who reportedly suggested the idea for the study, disagreed with the authors' take on their findings. "It's hard to see the incredible outpouring of interest among this generation and think of it as a lack of civic engagement," she says in the NYT article. She also points out—and rightly so—that creating an army of lifetime do-gooders was never her organization's core mission.

According to the article, the authors speculate that the reasons for the lower rates of civic involvement may have something to do with burnout, exhaustion, or disillusionment with TFA's approach to addressing educational inequity. But one education scholar who commented on the findings suggests another possibility. That is that joining Teach for America "is part of climbing up the elite ladder" and "joining the meritocracy." In other words, it looks good on a resume.

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