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MSPnet Blog: “Teach For America: The view from where you are”

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posted January 16, 2015 – by Brian Drayton

Teach for America, about 25 years old, recruits college graduates, gives them 5 weeks’ training over the summer, and then assigns them to 2-year stints in K-12 education. About a third of its annual operating budget is funded by taxpayer money (federal, state, and local), additional funds coming from philanthropy and other sources.
During its early years, TFA was widely praised, and seen as akin in spirit to Peace Corps/Americorps, providing a conduit for idealistic young people to make a positive contribution to under-resourced schools (especially rural and inner-city). These were areas where recruitment of new teachers was a chronic problem, and the TFA program fit nicely with the growing fad for “alternative certification” programs being tried out around the country.

The evidence about the quality of TFA instructors has been mixed, and there has always been some discomfort (at least) that schools which typically have seen a lower proportion of good-quality teachers are the ones receiving TFA students with no real qualifications except good will.

New trends have emerged– TFA now places about 1/3 of its corps members in charter schools; more and more of the TFA placements are in districts where there is no teacher shortage, and the schools are better-resourced. Indeed, in some places, there is evidence that cheaper TFA placements are displacing more experienced teachers.   (The Hechinger Report and the Nation published an investigative piece on TFA last spring, which can be read here, which provides a useful introduction to some current issues.  See here for a September article describing how TFA in Mississippi has learned from its experience and is finding new ways to support challenged schools there, in collaboration with other community-betterment groups. )   Training for recruits is being increased.

Some districts (e.g. Durham, N.C.)  and at least one state have terminated their TFA arrangements;  recruitment is sharply down.

I find it interesting to see the range of reactions to this program, from gratitude and praise to mistrust or criticism.  Evidence of student impact is, as mentioned, equivocal.  Some of the positive benefits of TFA for school systems seem to come from the proportion of recruits who use TFA as a stepping stone into education, seeking certification and further education while remaining in the teaching profession.

But as I follow the stories around the Web, I begin to wonder if Teach for America, like so many features of the modern policy landscape, is yet another  “Rorschach test”— we see roughly what we expect or hope to.

So I’m curious: Has TFA been a presence where you work?  Has it helped?  Hurt?  Neither?  Both?  What have you seen, and what do you know?


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This blog post has 8 comments, showing all.

Teach for America

posted by: Martha Syed on 1/23/2015 11:12 am

Hi! Mr. Drayton, No I don't know knowledgeable facts about the program in detail but I have heard different small tag versions of the employment and educational opportunities that it has offered over the 25 years that it has been in existence. Right now I work for Americorp as a member(Tutor/Mentor for the AVID program that's in middle/high schools.) WE just received an offer from one of Americorp's Partners if we are trying to enter into the educational field as a Teacher by registering to join their "Insprired Teacher Certification Program: Motto: Teachers as Instigators of Thought" It's a 24 month Residency program teaching fellows in Washington, D.C. area. You earn a D.C. teaching liscense along with a Masters of Art in Teaching. You spend your 2nd yr in the District of Columbia teaching. THe Teacher Certification Coordinator is Mara Duquette in D.C.
I feel based on my general understanding of the TFA is positive and it has filled a void where needed, but I can understand how you can end up having the same problem if there is not enough well trained and educated personnel. If they aren't given enough time and space to truly understand their learning and knowledge in the public school setting and apply it properly according to the communities needs; I think if its truly used properly for its true intentions it can be an awesome program and employment filler. OF course if you start out wrong you will end up wrong and the ones that are affected are t he parents and students living in the community. I hope this helps your research and study of this area of question. Sorry for my late delay in reviewing this, I hate answering something in haste. Take care!!

Teach for America: The view from Detroit

posted by: Jennifer Lewis on 1/24/2015 8:10 pm

I see a lot of TFA in charter schools and some public schools in Detroit.. Some charter schools seem to be staffed almost entirely by TFA teachers and are run by TFA former teachers. In a few cases these teachers are good; in most cases it feels like they are playing school and not teaching. There is almost no deep wisdom of practice in these buildings, and teachers up and leave or are dismissed abruptly at alarming rates. The quality of instruction and of professional judgment is abysmal.
My biggest concern, though, has to do with what TFA and The New Teacher Project and other such "pipeline" teacher education programs are doing to the profession, not just their immediate effects in schools. The idea that a teacher can be prepared for the work of teaching in 7 weeks, without an apprenticeship with a high-quality preceptor in the field, conveys that there really is nothing to know in order to be a teacher. This has made it harder to attract people who see teaching work as a serious career choice and worth investing in for the long haul. Contrast this with teacher preparation in the world's best systems (Japan; Finland; Singapore) where teachers are highly regarded, decently compensated, and who experience rigorous training. TFA and TNTP get bodies into classrooms quickly, but in the long run we are undermining the stature of the profession, not to mention the quality of instruction.

Revisiting data on TFA in 2014

posted by: Brian Drayton on 1/28/2015 12:27 pm

The National Ed Policy Center ( follows TFA regularly, and published a policy brief ( that reviews the most recent research on the impacts of the program. It bears out many of the concerns you raise, Jennifer. As Martha's post shows, there are systems where having some energetic young people added to the system is a help, but by and large it seems clear that the TFA actual impact on students' learning is minimal at best.
Still, I find it more troubling as evidence about how ed policy understands the issues facing American education. There is an a priori assumption that this kind of intervention will be a big improvement, and on that basis large resources are made available. But no care has been taken to build an evidence base, or treat the intervention as an experiment meriting careful attention and evaluation. I hate to resort to cultural buzz words, but in this as in so many of the education "reforms" implemented, we see evidence of "epistemic closure" -- commitment to something primarily on the basis of theory, in ways that are impervious to evidence and inquiry.
None of this negates the evidence that some TFA teachers stay in the program, stay in teaching, go through the prep needed for certification,and become effective teachers. For this, we can only be grateful. Is it an effect of TFA? Does this mean that TFA is justifiable as a mechanism for new-teacher induction and retention?

Epistemic closure

posted by: Andy Zucker on 1/29/2015 12:11 pm

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions." NCLB has more than 100 references to "scientifically-based research" yet I agree with Brian that policymakers often give only lip service to research, at best. A good example is "algebra for all." I believe Louisiana was the first state to require algebra for all and, unsurprisingly, no study was commissioned. Years later several peer-reviewed journal articles (not limited to studying LA) suggested that algebra for all is problematic, which many math educators expected in the first place. Ah! But the theory of algebra for all is so compelling! (I suppose to some.) In my opinion any revision of NCLB should largely or entirely throw out the scientifically-based research requirements. (Sorry if this is off-topic of TFA.)

Good intentions

posted by: Louise Wilson on 1/30/2015 7:25 am

Linking up your post - TFA as originally promulgated was to be a two year service to the community. Places which had no teachers would have essentially educated volunteers come in for 2 years to fill in the gaps. since the schools who could not get teachers were primarily for students in poverty, the students would then at least have an educated teacher. Sort of like the Peace Corp only for the US.
Suddenly it became a path to teaching without the learning. It became a way for districts to save money - why hire a teacher when you can get a warm body for essentially no cost? The road to hell indeed.
I told my district that when I saw the high schools start at 9am I would believe they were interested in "data-driven design." Still waiting....(7:30am start,some of my kids have to leave home at 5:30am to make it.)

Algebra for all

posted by: F. Joseph Merlino on 1/30/2015 8:18 am

The slogan algebra for all does not define what is meant by algebra and when it should be learned.

If by algebra one means the study of relations patterns and functions, that is the idea of association of two variables where one can be predicted by knowing the other than I would think the vast majority of semi functioning American legislators would say "yes", all should understand such things. When and to what degree should be an empirical question but on face it would seem to vary by the child.

Good intentions....

posted by: Brian Drayton on 2/2/2015 3:59 pm

Andy, I suppose algebra for all is off topic (****but would you like to write a blog post about it? I'm happy to share my pulpit!****) -- but it is interesting how similar problems arise throughout Reformia, the strangely shifting landscape created by technocratic reforms driven more by ideological models than by the "wisdom of practice," which could indeed include research findings....
I am reminded of a quote attributed to Dewey (though I think it's a paraphrase): Education is not preparation for life, it IS life. The point being that when education is construed principally as an instrument of policy (policy of other kinds, e.g. economics, national security, or whatever), then educational values are subordinated, and "evidence" is evaluated with this instrumental purpose in mind, so that "collateral damage" and outright failure are ignored...

post updated by the author 2/2/2015 Why TFA isn't as popular as it used to be

posted by: Brian Drayton on 2/18/2015 11:44 am

The online magazine had a story last week based on a new report about TFA which I have not had time to read. In sum, the story mentions several reasons why TFA has lost popularity (especially in terms of recruits). Some of these are indirect e.g. an improved job market for recent college grads. Others are the outcome of TFA's growth the more people you involve, the more likelihood of some bad stories.
However,it's also true that with the rapid expansion of the program, more scrutiny and criticism of the TFA model has appeared, of the sorts that we've seen mentioned in this discussion forum. TFA has not been very effective in countering these criticisms, and as a result potential recruits have been discouraged.
For the full story see