As a member of Teach for America's New York Corps, I read critiques of TFA obsessively.
The debate surrounding TFA's motives and impact has been prolific and ongoing, with critical voices emerging both outside and inside of the organization. Very often, the debate sheds light on real voids in TFA's programming and structure, and provides strong ideas for TFA's improvement.
In the last year, however, the internet has become a breeding ground for sensational negative commentary and misrepresentation of facts about TFA. Last week, the #ResistTFA hashtag went viral on Twitter, topping the Trend List on Monday night ahead of "Olympics", #JimmyFallon, and #TheTonightShow (on the night Jimmy Fallon debuted as host). The Twitter effort, coinciding with the TFA application deadline, was led by Students United for Public Education (SUPE), a grassroots, student-led organization, as part of a national campaign called Students Resisting Teach for America.
This recent media onslaught, with #ResistTFA at its forefront, has failed to identify the true adversarial agents of America's public schools. TFA is not the enemy. As an organization whose expansion is new and underdeveloped, it requires change, not resistance. Resisting TFA is not only unproductive, it bears a great cost to children who benefit from the organization's measurable, positive impact.
SUPE accuses TFA of "undermining public education": a shocking accusation for an organization that, with 11,000 teachers, comprises .3% of America's public teaching force. While TFA is far from perfect, more traditional modes of teacher preparation have not proven themselves to be more effective. In fact, upon examining the failures of our nation to recruit, train, and retain teachers, TFA stands out as a success.
SUPE's biggest gripe with TFA is that five weeks of training does not prepare teachers to take on the highest-need classrooms in the country. While the research comparing TFA and non-TFA teacher effectiveness was previously mixed, TFA teachers still generally ranked on par with their peers. The most recent, and widest-ever study by Mathematica showed that TFA math teachers were far more effective in their math instruction, producing an equivalent of 2.6 months of additional learning in the school year than their non-TFA peers at the same schools. While this may not necessarily reflect the superiority of TFA's five week training programs over other teacher preparation programs, it is a testament to the ability of the recruiting process of TFA, as well as its ongoing emphasis on professional development and performance metrics, to find and hone effective teachers.
More criticism for TFA comes from apprehension about its two-year commitment requirement. While these concerns are not misplaced, it is worth pointing out that 92% of first year TFA teachers return for a second year, while the same is true for only 82% of all first year teachers in low-income areas, and 86% of all first year teachers. 35.5% of TFA teachers remain teachers for more than four years, and 27.8% returned after a fifth year (in comparison to a closely matched 40% fifth year retention rate for all American teachers, who mostly serve neighborhoods with less financial need than those served by TFA).
The most significant point to note, with regard to the negativity about TFA's two-year commitment requirement, is the extent to which TFA alumni remain engaged with education: 79% of TFA alumni have a job that impacts education and 63% of all alumni still serve directly in education. TFA has been commended by an increasing number of Ed School students for leading them into education. Additionally, studies show that TFA is a pipeline for education reform. Its alumni lead all major organizations in producing leaders of entrepreneurial organizations in education, outranking various school systems and private corporations.
Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin didn't resist TFA. They went on to become founders of the Knowledge is Power Program, America's largest charter school network. Their membership in the 1992 Houston Corps ultimately led to the genesis of a powerhouse system of schooling that serves over 41,000 students in need. In 2012, KIPP students outperformed their peers on both Math and ELA exams across grades, and attended college at a rate of 93%.
Jason Kamras didn't resist TFA. Following his membership in the 1996 Washington D.C. Corps, his 9 year teaching career culminated with the receipt of the National Teacher of the Year award. Kamras has a lengthy list of subsequent accolades, including advising Barack Obama on education policy during his 2008 presidential campaign. Currently, as Chief of the Office of Human Capital, he serves the same school system he was placed in as a corps member--a system whose current and former chancellors, Kaya Henderson and Michelle Rhee, were TFA Corps members as well.
I didn't resist TFA, and neither did nearly half of the staff at my school in Brownsville, Brooklyn. In fact, my school's leadership is comprised of four non-resistors, including the Principal, Director of Operations, Director of Staff Development, and Instructional Fellow. Last year, we led Brooklyn Charter Schools in third grade test scores. More importantly, we have provided a safe, happy and highly effective learning environment for more than 400 students in one of Brooklyn's most disadvantaged neighborhoods. My co-workers and I work tirelessly for the students we love. What would have happened if we resisted?
The Twitterstorm produced by #ResistTFA has resulted in false claims and misdirected attacks in the name of education reform. Their vitriolic claims that TFA is the causing the erosion of the public school system is a far cry from the truth. Each retweeting participant in the #ResistTFA movement must ask themselves: who are the true enemies of reform in education? Who or what is in greatest need of resistance and counteraction? Public schools are understaffed and underfunded, and teachers across the board are inadequately prepared. There's a great deal to fix in every sphere of the education system, and TFA is no exception. However, combatting TFA keeps young, proven effective teachers out of classrooms at the cost of educating children in need. Resisting TFA means depriving students, not protecting them.