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Engaging with Critiques of Teach For America
When Teach For America got its start in 1990, it forced many in the education world to think about teacher recruitment and preparation in a radical new way. Wendy Kopp’s idea, to recruit high-achieving recent college graduates to teach for at least two years in low-income urban and rural schools, was truly innovative.
As with many new ideas, it was met with skepticism from the beginning. Over the years, we’ve also heard from individuals who disagree with our approach and stories from those who’ve had adverse experiences.
We welcome critiques, as we have always been committed to learning and improving as an organization, and constructive dialogue can help us grow. At the same time, there are common misperceptions about TFA’s approach and beliefs. We do our best to clear up confusion and shed light on how we’ve evolved over the years.
Here are some critical questions we often hear, with a look at what’s really going on when it comes to these important topics.
ARE TFA TEACHERS UNCERTIFIED? ARE THEY PREPARED TO TEACH THEIR STUDENTS?
A background in education isn’t a prerequisite for any corps member—that’s a premise on which our model is based. Yet, all of our regions require corps members to complete steps to become highly qualified in the subjects they’ll teach before they start. Most regions also require corps members to work toward full teaching certification over their two-year commitment. Read more about the certification process.
Corps member are often required to complete education coursework while they’re actively teaching. Because of this, we partner with some of the best education programs and graduate schools in the country. We also offer several ongoing support structures throughout the two-year experience, including one-on-one coaching and continuous professional development, which contribute to the strong positive impact corps members have in classrooms.
Our training model is designed specifically for educators working in low-income communities, which is not typical of traditional education programs. Yet even with rigorous training processes and continuous support from us and school districts, our model actually starts long before training begins—when we select our corps members. Our selection process allows us to hire leaders who have the skills, mindsets, and experience to thrive in our unique approach to teacher development and be successful with their students.
Of the approximately 15% that we accept from our large pool of applicants, we believe each is able to successfully forge relationships with students and families and rise to the challenges with which they’re presented in the classroom. Our corps members also engage deeply in the coaching and resources available, in order to be the best teachers they can be.
Over the years, corps members continue to demonstrate that our model is effective. We evaluate the quality of our approach by centering on student outcomes, and we have found that our corps members have a positive impact with their students. Independent evaluations show that TFA teachers accelerate students’ academic growth at the same or even better rates than students taught be non-TFA teachers in the same school. Read more about the effectiveness of our teachers.
DO TFA TEACHERS LEAVE AFTER JUST TWO YEARS?
We know that it’s important to have strong, stable leadership in communities, working inside and outside of education, in pursuit of enduring change for children. A strong percentage of corps members actually teaches in the communities where they grew up, including 18% of our 2017 corps, and so they have been part of their communities for many years prior to serving as corps members.
Most of our corps members also continue working for students and their families after their corps commitment. We have found:
- When their two-year commitment is over, 55-61% of corps members choose to stay for a third year.
- Some corps members may leave the classroom after two years for other opportunities and then return to the profession years later, including a substantial portion of alumni who teach for five years or more.
- In 2015, we found the average total of years taught ranged from 9.1 years for those in the 1990 corps, to 2.9 for the 2010 corps.
- Of our 50,000 alumni, 69% work specifically in the education field.
- Nearly 85% of all alumni continue to work in roles that impact education in low-income communities.
It’s important to note that our goal is not actually to have every corps member turn into a career teacher. We believe deeply that educational inequity is a systemic problem that takes dedicated, sustained leadership from all career fields. Healthcare, housing, the criminal justice system, early childhood—so many sectors influence whether or not students receive fair, excellent educational opportunities.
The reality is that being a first- or second-year teacher is tough, regardless of how you got into teaching. All teachers face extraordinary challenges in their classrooms. Children growing up in historically marginalized and disenfranchised communities lack access to a broad spectrum of resources and opportunities and attend schools that are not equipped to meet their unmet needs. So teachers in turn take on many roles everyday, which can be difficult and exhausting. With challenges like these, it’s not surprising that many early career teachers move on to other roles and professions.
But we know that teaching prepares corps members to lead in all fields, helping to address systemic issues. We’re equally proud when corps members choose to stay in the classroom beyond their commitment as when corps members go on to lead in fields outside of education and drive change in other sectors that ultimately helps create excellent learning environments for students. View our alumni snapshot for more information about the career fields of our alumni.
DO TFA TEACHERS TAKE JOBS AWAY FROM UNIONIZED, MORE EXPERIENCES STAFF MEMBERS?
TFA teachers apply for vacant teaching positions in our partner districts, alongside all other teaching candidates. Corps members often go to schools where there is an urgent need for more teachers and where principals need them, but their hiring process is the same as everyone else’s.
We’re just one source of new teachers for districts and principals. Ultimately, they make the call on who gets hired—not Teach For America.
Corps members earn the same salary and benefits as other starting teachers in their school district, and they are members of the same unions as their peers, if their school is unionized. They’re also subject to the same standards and evaluation metrics as other teachers. And when districts have to make cuts, TFA teachers are equally subject to layoffs.
Our teachers and regional staff members also form close working relationships with non-TFA teachers, as they often have critical expertise to share with our first- and second-year teachers. We work side-by-side with all types of teachers and school leaders to learn and improve.
IS TFA PRO-CHARTER SCHOOL AND PRO-PRIVATIZED EDUCATION?
We believe in public education. Good public education. We’re not concerned about whether kids (or teachers) go to traditional district schools or public charter schools or innovative magnetic schools, and TFA takes no institutional position on school governance. We just want all kids to have excellent opportunities available to them, and evidence suggests that an excellent and equitable public education is possible in multiple models of school governance.
Depending on the region, different proportions of corps members teach in traditional district schools and public charter schools. Cumulatively, two-thirds of our corps work in traditional district schools and one-third work in charter schools. We’re equally supportive of our corps member who teach in district schools and charter schools.
Our alumni are teachers, principals, and administrators at all types of schools around the country too. According to data collected in our 2017 Alumni Survey, a large majority of alumni work in the field of education, with 51% serving as Pre-K–12th grade teachers, 55% of whom work in district public schools, 40% in charter schools, and 5% in private schools.
Many alumni also serve in school leadership capacities. More than 1,100 serve as principals, and 360 serve as school systems leaders across both district and charter school networks.
HOW DIVERSE IF TFA’S TEACHING CORPS, AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Since our founding, we have prioritized diversity in recruiting and developing corps members. In the last decade, we have grown the diversity of our corps significantly. Today, nearly half of our corps members are people are color, one in three is a first-generation college graduate, and 43% are Pell grant recipients, which is a common indicator of low-income background.
In 2007, we wrote our organization’s first diversity statement, which was a formal commitment to increasing the diversity of our corps and staff. This statement has continued to evolve over the past decade. Read our latest version.
Since that time, we’ve worked hard to increase our diversity and also invested in creating a common understanding for our corps members and staff on the importance of race, class, and privilege in the work that we do.
We know that those among us who are directly impacted by inequality must play a special leadership role in movements for social change. Research shows that teachers who share the backgrounds of their students have the potential to have a profound additional impact as educators. As a result, we actively work to recruit leaders whose personal backgrounds are similar to those of our students. Additionally, we’ve had more than 500 students of TFA teachers become corps members themselves.
We also think that those of us who come from economic and racial privilege have an essential role to play in our corps as well. They can be excellent teachers for students and choose to leverage their privilege to advocate for their students and expand access to opportunity.
Historical context and power imbalances in this country are real, and we choose not to ignore them at Teach For America. We believe people from all backgrounds can lead students to success, which is why having a diverse corps and alumni community is essential.
As we enter our 28th year, we continue to learn how to better meet the needs of our students and the interests of families who have entrusted TFA teachers with their child’s education.
We are steadfast in our belief that all children deserve the absolute best educational opportunities possible, but that there is no one solution to achieving this. We invite you to keep asking questions, challenging us, and putting forward ideas for how we can better serve children, schools, communities, our network of leaders and the broader coalition for change.