Teach For America: Is The Next Generation Still Relevant?

As I write this post, about 4,000 new "corps members" are spreading out around the country to attend one of Teach For America's 17 "summer institutes" as their first step towards becoming classroom teachers in some of the most difficult low income rural and urban public schools in our country.

TFA is a national phenomenon, now at 25 years old, with over 50,000 alumni and a crazy-low acceptance rate that rivals getting into Harvard. Yet most of the press that it gets focuses on the recruiting problems they continue to have. It's no longer, it seems, as cool to take two years out of your life to go teach. As a recent Washington Post article says, quoting a Stanford professor about their graduates getting in to TFA: it's now seen as "all about you" rather than "is that going to be best for the kids?"

I get it. I'm writing a review right now of a special journal issue devoted to analyzing TFA, and some of the criticisms are harsh indeed. (I am also a TFA "insider" as one of the founding staff, so I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly up close in its first years.)

But I think much of the discussion around TFA misses a central point: that it is really difficult to attract anyone to teach for any substantial period of time in our most under-resourced low income public schools.

Don't get me wrong. Teaching is an exciting and enormously important job. I have been a teacher and have worked in teacher education almost my entire adult life. All teaching is tough. There is nothing harder or scarier than being a new teacher and facing a roomful of kids twenty minutes into a lesson and knowing that you have no idea what to do next; and that they know it too. It's not pretty.

But teaching in Oakland or NYC or rural New Mexico is really tough. In Oakland, for example, almost three in four teachers will leave the district within five years. In NYC, seventy percent of teachers seriously consider leaving the teaching profession every year. And that's just the teachers who filled out the survey.

A huge amount of data shows that teachers leave such schools and districts because they get burned out and are deeply dissatisfied with their working conditions. This isn't a small problem. We're talking about literally hundreds of thousands of teachers across the country leaving each and every year because they just don't want to deal with the difficulties of their job.

So what if we did a thought experiment that TFA just ceased to exist...poof!

What would change?

Unfortunately, not much. Those four thousand classrooms would simply get filled with other new teachers, who, just like the TFA teachers, would be uncertified and new to teaching. And some classrooms won't get a permanent teacher at all. It is far too common for many urban districts to be desperately searching for literally dozens of positions just days before school opens. Many of those won't get filled and kids will walk into their first day of school with, at best, a substitute teacher welcoming them.

TFA is far from perfect and it is never perfect and deeply problematic that the kids and schools in most need of additional support all too often get the least. But as the saying goes, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. TFA recruits top-notch candidates, provides five weeks of intensive summer training, and has ongoing professional development and support for these teachers across their years of teaching.

Much can be debated - good and bad - about TFA's model and alternative solutions. We can propose policy alternatives such as expanding the teacher pipeline, creating additional incentives to teach in hard-to-staff schools, or foster stronger local "grow your own" teacher preparation models.

But the inequities in our schooling system are deeply embedded in and influenced by historical, political, social, and economic conditions that will not change overnight. New solutions are never unanimously supported, correctly targeted, thoroughly thought through, or simple to implement. If they were, we'd have done them already.

So, yes, for better or worse, TFA will still be relevant for many years to come. We live in an imperfect world, and while TFA may not be a perfect solution, neither are the conditions for recruiting and retaining teachers in urban and rural schools.