In 2012 I began a challenging two-year commitment as a Teach For America (TFA) corps member in the Lawrence School District in Massachusetts. With a dropout rate of 52.3% in 2011, many Lawrence students lacked basic skills necessary to succeed in college. I helped found a school working with the most underserved population in the system: court involved teens, former dropouts, teen parents, and students with disabilities. Despite active recruiting for the important cause, the only teachers the leadership team were able to commit were first year teachers, all of whom came from alternative teacher training. Most were Teach For America corps members. Three other non-TFA teachers were slated to start, but they dropped off at the last minute because of the pay, demanding hours, and skepticism towards the school’s vision. No other traditionally trained teachers joined until the school’s second year when the goals were being actualized.
This weekend, Teach For America is celebrating its 25th anniversary at an education summit in Washington, D.C. The well-known organization that works to ensure all children have the opportunity to obtain an excellent education has been under fire in the media and from traditional school training models. No organization is perfect, and Teach For America would be the first to admit it is far from it, but TFA also has plenty of evidence to support its success. All good teachers are needed in the fight against education inequality, so why so much mudslinging?
One common complaint is the quality of the five-week summer training program. However, between 2009 and 2013 statewide research from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana found TFA is among each state’s top teacher-preparation programs. High achieving, passionate leaders are selectively recruited to the program and make the most of the training and go on to lead transformational classrooms. Many substantial studies have shown TFA corps members perform just as well or outperform other first year and veteran teachers.
Another issue people often cite is that TFA corps members steal jobs from veteran teachers. In reality, TFA candidates have to apply and interview like any other candidate for newly available positions. Principals make decisions based on who they think makes the best applicant, and no special contracts are negotiated. I had to pass the same state certification tests and interview with three different principals before I was hired, similar to the process any other teacher would go through.
The frustration often vented that I find most disturbing is the claim that TFA creates a “revolving door” of teachers, when actually the organization is deeply invested in long-term change. Research says 88% of teachers stay for a second year, and a good majority of corps member who complete the two-year commitment continue on in the education field. As of February 2015, 65% of TFA alumni continue as education professions in the classroom, as school or district leaders, or as policy makers. The data show 84% of alumni work in roles impacting education or low-income communities, and 30% continue as life-long teachers. The TFA impact is much greater than the two-year window most critique. There is a longer narrative to examine and celebrate.
And then there is the “it’s too difficult” argument. When I tell people I was a Teach For America corps member, I often get a startled response or questions oozing with negative skepticism. “How was it?” or “I heard from so-and-so it was awful.” As a TFA alum, I feel it is imperative to remember and talk about how how rewarding the work was. In truth (and those closest to me can attest), some days were awful. Some days and weeks were downright miserable. But it had nothing to do with Teach For America, who gave me all the possible support an outside organization could give (including a mentor, grad school courses, online resources, lesson planning aids, and dozens of ongoing training events). It also didn’t have anything to do with the kids, who had all the potential in the world. It had everything to do with the reality of our current education system and coming to grips with the blatant achievement gap. It had everything to do with serving students who battled homelessness, hunger, violence, abuse, inadequate healthcare, the foster system, and trauma from having family members deported or murdered. It had everything to do with helping 16 year-olds who read on the third grade reading level believe in themselves again despite years of negative rhetoric from schools who assumed they were not going anywhere anyway rather than intervening. These are realities in our school system we should all be deeply troubled by, whether or not we are in the classroom.
When I joined Teach For America I signed up to fight this disparity, not take a walk through the park. It was supposed to be hard. It will continue to be hard, but hard is not an acceptable excuse to avoid doing something important. We need all of the qualified and child-believing teachers out there to help join the fight, from Teach For America or anywhere.
And so I take my hat off to Teach For America. Happy 25th birthday.