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The Teach For America Mystique

Teach For America continues to amaze me.  Despite a mixed track record, it manages to garner wide media attention ("Teachers Are Losing Their Jobs, But Teach for America's Expanding. What's Wrong With That? The Nation, Apr. 15). To a large extent, I think its ability to do so is the result of its roster of high-profile financial supporters and its mission to put graduates of elite colleges in failing schools with overwhelmingly poor students. This kind of noblesse oblige has irresistible appeal.  

Yet the real question is whether its corps members are benefiting their students.  I'm still skeptical ("Top Collegians Won't Solve What Ails Classrooms," The School Administator, Sept. 2008).  I've never understood how five weeks of training can possibly prepare corps members for the realities of the classroom.  I realize that there will always be a few naturals who will be effective from the start, but they are outliers.  (TFA recently announced a pilot program to train 2,000 recruits during their senior year in college.)

I'm also confused by Wendy Kopp's claim that TFA is a "leadership development organization, not a teaching organization." If sending its corps members to classrooms does not qualify as teaching, then what does?  I suppose she means that only 30 percent stay in the classroom, while 63 percent remain in education in other capacities.  

With its high classroom turnover rate, TFA helps to deprofessionalize teaching, whether it realizes it or not.  Teaching needs dedicated college graduates who want to make a lifetime career directly instructing students.  TFA may look good on a resume, but it does little good for most students. 

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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