Last semester, I had the pleasure of teaching an undergraduate course at my college, Public Purposes of Education in a Democracy. To my horror, one of my students expressed her desire to go into Teach for America rather than our teacher education program (one of the top ranked teacher preparation programs in the country). While certainly university-based teacher education programs are not created equal across the US, TFA and other “alternate route” programs contribute to a deprofessionalization of the teaching force and is part of a systematic agenda to dismantle university-based teacher preparation- as well as contributing to the perpetuation of a stratified education system in our country. In case anyone else in my class was considering TFA, I prepared the following presentation that outlined the research and scholarly critiques of alternate routes and Teach for America. To be clear, although it is not explicitly addressed below, alternate routes and Teach for America (TFA in particular) are part of the larger “corporate education” agenda (for more on this, see Stan Karp’s “Primer on Corporate School Reform” on The Answer Sheet).
- Teaching is historically a feminized profession and has historically been one of low status/respect/pay- some regard it as ”glorified babysitting.”
- Everyone spends approximately 13,000 hours in school, leading them to think they know what teachers do.
- Due to their low status (and, some argue, the fact that it is a female-dominated profession), educators aren’t considered the “experts” in their field and are not the decision-makers in their profession; so those with policy-making power aren’t aware of what teaching really entails.
Alternate Routes and TFA
- Multiple studies have shown that alternate route teachers have extremely high attrition rates (up to 70% leave the teaching force by year 3, by Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond’s estimate); program quality varies widely in terms of coursework and mentorship.
- Beginning alternate route teachers are not as effective as university-prepared teachers in years 1-3. While studies do show that the ones that stay generally “catch up” to traditionally prepared teachers within a few years, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a small proportion of overall alternately prepared teachers (since most of them leave by year 3).
- Actual TFA research has been mixed: i.e., TFA recruits are better at math than some teachers in some cases but are not better in other subjects; or they are better than other alternate route teachers, but not better than those that have had clinical preservice preparation. A huge issue with the research that TFA has produced is that data is solely based on students’ test scores using statistical measures that the research community recognizes as hugely flawed (and some claim to be invalid).
- The data on TFA grads that stay in teaching is also mixed (and somewhat fishy on TFA’s part). While TFA claims that nearly half their grads stay beyond their 2 year commitment, non-TFA sources show the figure is MUCH lower; for example, Tennessee’s DOE data showed that 8% of TFA teachers stayed in the classroom, and researchers Heilig & Jez (2010) found that 80% of TFA grads were not in teaching positions by year three.
Scholarly Critiques of Teach for America
Educational researchers have presented the following critiques regarding Teach for America:
- “High Needs” schools (i.e., those with large populations of English language learner/special needs/high poverty/minority students) need teachers who plan to spend a career in the classroom.
- The two-year commitment only adds to the already heavy revolving door of teachers in our “high needs” schools, which creates instability and financial burden.
- What little preparation TFA offers is based on the “no-excuses” rhetoric rather than culturally/linguistically responsive, socio-culturally aware pedagogy.
- TFA emphasizes data driven, test-focused instruction over constructivist pedagogy that fosters critical thinking.
Social Justice Critiques of Teach for America
While some of these certainly overlap with scholarly critiques, the following are noted by social-justice focused educational groups, including grassroots community organizations.
- TFA is a cheap staffing solution for low-income schools: young, fresh, enthusiastic teachers who get low pay/no benefits and do their two years and leave before burnout sets in, to be replaced by another fresh face.
- TFA is more evidence for the stratification of our school system: in higher income schools, teachers are almost always “traditionally” prepared and properly credentialed; but young kids with no experience are “good enough” for our high needs schools.
- TFA provides character & resume building for affluent, (mostly) white college grads on the backs of our high poverty, kids of color, ELLs and special needs and promotes a “white savior” mentality. This has led to the nicknames “Teach for Awhile” and “Teachers for African-Americans.”
- Would you go to see a doctor who has only had five weeks of training?
- Would you drive across a bridge built by an engineer with 5 weeks of training?
- Would you let an attorney take a case for you that only had 5 weeks of training?