What No One Else Will Say About Teach for America

Learning, Teacher Quality

There’s an interesting debate unfolding on the New York Times web site today around this question: Does Teach for America Improve the Teaching Profession?
Unfortunately, too many of the featured contributors — who have sparked hundreds of readers to offer their own feedback — chose to cast TFA in one of two terms: as either the White Knight of education reform (e.g., Donna Foote’s “A Corps of True Reformers”) or as the down-n-dirty Devil himself (e.g., Margaret Crocco’s “A Threat to Public Schools”).
As I wrote last week, in a piece titled “What Gandhi would think of The Lottery, this sort of polarized rhetoric is the latest iteration of the “I/It” way of seeing public education, and it will get us nowhere. So as someone who neither loves nor hates TFA, let me offer a succinct summary of how I see them, since no one seems to want to acknowledge the fuller picture of what they represent:
First, the good news: TFA is closer to a key recipe for systems improvement than any other entity in either the traditional or alternative teacher certification route — they have figured out how to make their program among the most highly competitive in the country. As the Times reported earlier in the week, 18% of Yale’s most recent crop of seniors applied to TFA — nearly one out of every five graduates — and 46,359 candidates across the country applied for just 4,500 spots.
It may seem odd to praise TFA via the research of Linda Darling-Hammond, but LDH’s most recent book, The Flat World and Education, cites as a key component of the Finnish success story its ability to raise the competitiveness of its teacher preparation programs (which now accept only ~15% of those who apply). So we should all celebrate — and learn from — TFA’s ability to attract so many bright and passionate young people to a profession that still scores low on the prestige scale.
Now, the bad news: One thing TFA does NOT do that has also been essential to Finland’s success is invest deeply in preparing teachers for a research-based professional career. Finland’s teachers don’t drink from a fire hose and then inherit a classroom of high-needs children — their preparation includes both extensive (and excellent) coursework on how to teach, and a full year of clinical experience in a school associated with their university of study.
This is not a foreign concept in the United States — it’s called medical school. Or law school (with its summer internships). Or just about any other graduate degree that’s designed to prepare people for a top profession. Which gets us to the crux of the problem with TFA — on the whole it takes us further from, not closer to, the establishment of teaching as a truly prestigious profession, rather than merely a noble way to gain valuable experience as an individual on the evolving path of twenty-something life. We would never tolerate Doctors for America in our most overused emergency rooms. We would never send Architects for America to Haiti to experiment on earthquake-resistant housing design. Why then do we not only embrace the concept of placing our smartest and least experienced teachers before our neediest children, but go even further and suggest that the TFA model is actually what all teacher preparation should look like?
To be fair, part of the void that was filled by TFA existed because so many of our graduate education programs are, well, sucky. And until they change and get better, we can’t begin to aspire to the sorts of transformations other countries have been able to bring about.
If we really value learning and teaching, as Finland and other countries do, we need to invest deeply in the creation of a true long-term teaching profession, and not just a short-term teaching force. That means both traditional and alternative certification programs need to raise their game. And while TFA has much to teach the field about attracting the best and the brightest to our nation’s classrooms, until it revises its preparation model it will unintentionally perpetuate the illusion that reforming our education system simply means smarter, younger teachers. It’s just not that simple. And we can do better.