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Why Teach For America?

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Remember the headline about Teach For America that came out in The Onion a couple of years ago (TFA Chews Up, Spits Out Another Ethnic-Studies Major)? Well, TFA’s come a long way since then, but it is no less frustratingly problematic.

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According to a new article (Why Teach For America) in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, the original TFA was small and marked by its idealism and its focus on getting bright people into classrooms and doing some immediate good for poor children. The “new” TFA is much much larger and features corporate-style recruiting efforts and a hyper-aggressive PR operation.Folks from the early years probably couldn’t get accepted to TFA if they applied today, and it’s not clear that many of them would want to.

More important, TFA now wants to be judged both as a short-term intervention and as a broad-based reform movement whose scope includes everything from KIPP to Michelle Rhee to scores of alums in elected office.This was either part of the plan all along or a slick “re-engineering” of TFA’s original mission to address widespread concerns that putting smart newbies in front of poor kids for two years wasn’t going to solve any real problems.

One big question is whether or not this two-pronged approach is fair or not to TFA teachers and the kids and colleagues they work with during their brief teaching stints.Another is whether TFA should have been focusing on expanding its members’ longevity and impact in the classroom rather than on increasing its numbers of districts and candidates.Last but not least – the verdict is out here – is whether TFA alums are more powerfully involved in school reform than they would have been anyway, and what good comes of it.

1 Comment

I think your questions are fair except for your final one -- I have no doubt that TFA alums (and, for that matter, alums of other similar programs) are more powerfully involved in school reform than they would have been anyway. TFA and other programs give idealistic young people first-hand experience inside some of the worst schools in our country, and this experience motivates change more than could anything else. As an alum of a TNTP program currently pursuing a degree in education policy I've witnessed a huge influx of TFA/TNTP alums into similar programs -- people who likely would not have been entering these programs if their experiences hadn't convinced them that this is what they need to do with their lives.

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