Teach for America has faced criticism for years. Now it’s listening — and changing

Teach for America has faced criticism for
years.
Now it’s listening — and changing

by Dana Goldstein

Robert Schwartz loved being a Teach for America teacher. After his two-year commitment to the organization was up, he continued to teach for five more years at Stevenson Middle School in East Los Angeles, where he worked with Latino kids living in poverty. He left the classroom a believer. “TFA was a great thing for me,” Schwartz said.

But then he took a job as an administrator at an LA-based charter school network called the Inner City Education Foundation. It was there that he started asking questions. He realized he wasn’t interested in hiring brand-new Teach for America corps members. He wanted to hire experienced teachers who were familiar with his students’ neighborhoods — not fresh recruits to the profession, most from other cities, who’d been through just five weeks of training and could only be counted on to stay for two or three years.

“My argument was: let’s take the resources you’re investing in a corps member — tens of thousands of dollars per year — and put that into professional development for training current staff on campuses,” Schwartz said. “You’ll see teachers that are going to stick around longer and are really invested in the community.”

Today, Schwartz is a consultant working in educational technology — one of the 32,000 Teach for America alums still working in education. And he is not alone is criticizing the organization he admires. Since its founding in 1989, critics both from within and outside the tight-knit Teach for America family have called for the group to reassess its model of recruiting elite young college graduates and career-changers to teach for two years in low-income schools after a brief summer crash course. They have argued that teaching is a complex skill that cannot be adequately taught in such a short period of time. They have said that asking young people to commit just two years to the job sends the wrong message: that teaching is temporary missionary work, not a respectable, lifelong profession. They have also urged TFA to send its corps members only to schools facing true teacher shortages, such as those in rural areas or in smaller towns, and not to cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, which are now experiencing teacher layoffs and hiring freezes.

These questions have always been debated — vigorously — by Teach for America’s leaders. But the organization’s charismatic founder, Wendy Kopp, felt the group’s ability to attract top college students was a function, in part, of how easy Teach for America made it to become a teacher: no special coursework; no long training period; in charge of a classroom right from the start. Teach for America did evolve over the years, improving how it trains corps members to teach. But the core quick-prep, short-commitment model did not budge. Until now.

With its track record of turning Ivy Leaguers into do-gooders, Teach for America once enjoyed rhapsodic media coverage. Yet as the economic conditions for public schools changed during the recent recession, so did perceptions of the group, which charges districts and charters $2,000 to $5,000 for each corps member they hire. Last year, Olivia Blanchard’s essay in The Atlantic, declaring, “I Quit Teach for America,” went viral. “I don’t believe that American education can be saved by youthful enthusiasm,” she wrote. Catherine Michna, another TFA alum, announced on her blog that as a professor of education at Tulane, she refuses to write recommendation letters for students who want to join the program. “TFA members do not work in service of public education,” she argued. “They work in service of a corporate reform agenda that rids communities of veteran teachers, privatizes public schools, and forces a corporatized, data-driven culture upon unique low-income communities with unique dynamics and unique challenges.” Slate picked up Michna’s essay, and it garnered 30,000 Facebook likes and 1,300 tweets. This year, two large school districts, Pittsburgh and Durham, North Carolina, rescinded contracts with TFA, citing corps members’ lack of preparation and low retention rates. At the same time, a number of young TFA alumni, especially in Detroit, were becoming active in charter school unionization efforts, the type of old-fashioned lefty politics anathema to the technocratic parent organization.

In May 2013, I emailed a Teach for America spokesman — one who no longer works for TFA — to say I was reporting on the organization for my book, The Teacher Wars. I explained that I would like to observe several Teach for America events, including “Institute,” the five-week training course held in 11 cities each summer. We set up a phone call. After a cursory greeting, he asked if I planned to write a hit piece attacking the organization.

Yet despite the initial nervousness, to its credit, Teach for America allowed me to attend an alumni conference in Detroit and an Institute session in the Bronx. What I saw surprised me. From the outside, Teach for America looked defensive, but internally, it was engaged in profound self-exploration and self-critique. In response to many of the arguments against Teach for America — that it is white and elitist, short on pedagogical seriousness, and disdainful of career educators — the organization, under new leadership for the first time in its history, was considering a significant policy change.

Everything about Teach for America is being subjected to internal debate, from the length of the five-week training and two-year placements to the very language it uses to describe its mission and impact. What does TFA’s evolution mean for a national school reform movement built upon the organization’s ideals?


In the fall of 1988, Princeton senior Wendy Kopp was the editor in chief of Business Today, a nationally distributed magazine for college students. Kopp had joined her classmates in applying to jobs on Wall Street and with consulting firms. (Princeton had a teacher certification program, but she hadn’t heard much about it.) Then, at Business Today‘s fall conference, an event where students interested in corporate careers networked with executives, Kopp attended a session on the national teacher shortage. As Kopp and the other conference-goers learned about the crisis in teaching — 12 percent of first-year teachers across the country were uncertified, clustered in urban and rural areas — they started to discuss whether they should teach. Most said they’d be open to the idea, as long as they didn’t have to major in education. Though their cohort of college students had been parodied as the Me Generation, motivated by money above all else, they were also enthusiastic about community service. In the senior thesis she crafted proposing Teach for America, Kopp called this ethos “the new idealism,” a “yuppie volunteering spirit” that inspired New York City bankers to staff soup kitchens. What if elite young college graduates could be convinced to do more — to teach in low-income public schools, even for a short period of time?

The organization, which launched its first cohort of teachers in 1990, has succeeded in harnessing that idealistic impulse. About 10 percent of Ivy League seniors apply to the program, and nationwide, on average, less than 15 percent of Teach for America applicants are accepted each year. By redefining urban teaching, at least on a two-year basis, as prestigious and cool, Kopp helped solve the teacher shortage problem; today, in many cities, there is actually a surplus of certified teachers for most subjects and grades.

And then, Kopp’s rhetoric shifted. Teach for America was no longer about filling a great, unmet need for teachers. It was about recruiting superior teachers.

By the mid-1990s, Kopp was arguing that impressive academic credentials, mission-driven energy, and rising student test scores were more important measures of teacher quality than years of training or career longevity in the classroom. Teach for America also claimed that great teaching could negate the socioeconomic disadvantages that many children bring with them from home to school. In her 2011 memoir, A Chance to Make History, Kopp wrote that “education can trump poverty” as long as a teacher accepts her responsibility as the “key variable” driving measurable student outcomes. Teaching as Leadership, TFA’s handbook for new recruits, states, “We” — not parents, neighborhoods, school funding, health care, racism, or stable housing — “control our students’ success and failure.”

Teach for America was not the first, nor the only, alternative-certification program for teachers. But its data-driven mindset, and the inspiration it drew from the culture of business schools and management consultants, attracted unparalleled support from corporate philanthropists across the political spectrum. Teach for America’s major donors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; the Walton Family Foundation, run by the heirs to the Walmart fortune; the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation, run by the real estate billionaire and Democratic donor; and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, where hedge-fund dollars are used to support causes ranging from criminal justice reform to reducing the costs of public pensions (including those held by veteran teachers).

High teacher turnover is an epidemic in low-income schools. Only
about half of urban teachers are still in the classroom after four years.

President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, were fans of Teach for America dating back to their time in Chicago. Under their watch, federal funding for the program grew, and it now has 11,000 corps members teaching across the country. In 2014, it seems that in white-collar America, everyone has a daughter, nephew, colleague, or friend who “did” TFA. Indeed, the group has become so influential that much of the Obama school reform agenda echoes the Teach for America worldview: a relentless focus on raising poor children’s standardized test scores, removing underperforming tenured teachers from the classroom, and recruiting impressive young people into the teaching profession, even if they don’t plan to stay very long. Research had demonstrated that ineffective teachers were more likely to quit jobs in high-poverty schools than effective ones. Many reformers concluded that teacher turnover was therefore justifiable, since it weeded out bad apples and allowed potentially better candidates — like Teach for America corps members — to take their place.

But now, new social science produced using the reformers’ favorite method, value-added measurement of student test scores, is calling that theory of change into question. In education, it turns out, career longevity does matter. An unprecedented eight-year study of 850,000 New York City fourth and fifth-graders found that in schools with high teacher turnover, students lost significant amounts of learning in both reading and math compared to socioeconomically and academically similar peers at schools with low teacher turnover. Unlike previous research, the 2012 study, conducted by Matthew Ronfeldt, Susanna Loeb, and James Wyckoff, looked not only at how teachers impact their own students, but also considered schools as communities, in which what happens in one classroom may affect the kids next door. It turned out that it did. Children in high-turnover schools did worse even if their own classroom teacher was not new, and even if overall teacher quality at the school remained constant. The negative effects of teacher turnover were even higher in schools with many low-achieving or black students.

In a way, these results are common sense. At high-turnover schools, principals spend more time recruiting, interviewing, and hiring, when they could be focused on improving instruction. When many teachers resign each year, institutional memory is lost, and ties to the community weaken. Effective veteran teachers spend less time working on behalf of their own students and more time training inexperienced colleagues. In short, there is less adult expertise, and it gets spread more thinly among students.

High turnover is an epidemic in low-income schools. Only about half of urban teachers are still in the classroom after four years. Even fewer Teach for America recruits — one-third — stay that long, and of those who do continue teaching, 85 percent leave their original placements to transfer to a more desirable school. That level of churn may have been acceptable in the past. In an era of high teacher unemployment, is it still?


At the COBO Center in Detroit last summer, I followed Teach for America’s new co-CEOs, Matt Kramer — a former McKinsey consultant whose wife did TFA — and Elisa Villanueva Beard — who began her career as a TFA teacher in her native Rio Grande Valley — to a basement meeting room. They were scheduled to host a “listening session” with alumni. Kramer and Villanueva Beard are an effective tag team. Their patter is formulated to appeal to the mind (him) and the heart (her). He is short and balding and wears a suit; she has a heart-shaped face, makes intense eye contact, and seems kind, yet tough-minded. Since Kopp had stepped down three months earlier to launch a new organization bringing the Teach for America model to the developing world, the new CEOs had hosted dozens of these listening sessions across the country. The purpose of the tour was to open up a more honest conversation about TFA’s mission; about its shortcomings as well as its successes; and about its future.

The Detroit meeting played out like a family therapy session. Some 30 alumni listened solemnly and nodded as their leaders shared some tough feedback.

Kramer began by acknowledging that 35 percent of principals nationwide who supervise Teach for America teachers complained the two-year time commitment was too short. A number of the charter schools founded by TFA alumni were underperforming. “Honestly,” he said, “most of the stories we heard were about how most of the schools were still not working and not adequate for most of the kids” — no matter how many TFA teachers had been placed in them.

Now that a Teach for America placement is so coveted, the organization
can raise the bar for recruits, without much diluting the applicant pool

Then Villanueva Beard took over. “Are we destabilizing communities?” she asked. “That is one question we’ve got to take and really critically examine. And the culturally competent piece is very real. Are we bringing teachers into the classroom who deeply understand themselves and are educating kids so they understand their role in society? Not just sticking them into white middle-class aspirations? I want it to be impossible for people to say, ‘TFA? They’re just cultural tourists.'”

One of the new CEOs’ first changes, Villanueva Beard told the alumni, had been to prioritize placing teachers in regions to which they had personal ties — where they had lived, attended school, or volunteered. And despite the stereotype of a Teach for America teacher as a rich white kid from Harvard, the organization had built a special recruitment team to seek candidates at 103 historically black colleges across the country. Forty percent of corps members placed in the Rio Grande Valley in 2013 were Latino.

A sporty-looking blonde guy in his mid-thirties rose, identifying himself as an administrator for a small network of Harlem charter schools. He was proud of Teach for America; it had “injected a huge amount of human capital into education,” he said. But he was deeply worried about income inequality and the fact that one-fifth of American children were living in poverty. School reformers did not often acknowledge these issues, he complained. “Poverty is not getting better, it’s worse than five years ago. Unemployment is higher. Poverty is hugely influential in how kids do at school. An enormous thing we can do is help parents make more money. But we on the education reform side are being caricatured as not caring about poverty because we’ve made a strategic choice to focus on one part of the problem, education. … I’m not proposing we turn TFA into an economic justice organization. But how can we expand our messaging?”

In March, Villanueva Beard and Kramer began to publicly share the soul-searching that had been taking place behind closed doors within Teach for America. They announced two pilot programs that seemed to question the group’s quick-prep, high-turnover model. The first will provide a full year of pre-service training to select corps members. Called the Education for Justice Pre-Corps Pilot Program, it rolls out this year to 50 to 100 college seniors who applied early-decision to TFA and were accepted during their junior years.

According to Teach for America spokesperson Takirra Winfield, the program has three major components: discussions on the “history of inequity in the United States”; teaching recruits to view poor children’s families and neighborhoods as “assets” to academic achievement, not liabilities (a concept borrowed from African American educational theorists like Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings); and introducing corps members to classroom management tactics. Participants may have the chance to observe real-world high-poverty schools. But because they will be spread across the country, much of the instruction will take place online, Winfield said. Corps members may play “classroom simulation games” in which they practice student discipline. (One such game presents the following scenario to prospective high school teachers: “The school is under lockdown! A student just cursed you. Respond to simulated events before encountering them in a real classroom.”)

The second pilot program will encourage corps members in 12 regions-Baltimore, Charlotte, Chicago, Connecticut, D.C., Dallas, Nashville, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, San Antonio, South Carolina, and St. Louis — to commit to teach for up to five years. It will provide some of the participants with continued training and support, such as instructional coaching and stipends to pursue graduate studies in education. “Teaching beyond two years cannot be a backup plan — it has to be the main plan,” Kramer said in a speech announcing the changes.

It was a conceptual shift — from five weeks of training to a full year, and from two years in the classroom to five. Just a few years earlier, Teach for America’s major news had been a partnership with Goldman Sachs, in which recruits were guaranteed jobs at the investment bank directly following their two years in the classroom, and were placed in Goldman internships during the summer between their first and second years as teachers. “We’re a leadership development organization, not a teaching organization,” Kopp had declared in 2011, later telling me, “We spend some time around here asking ourselves if enough of our people are leaving [teaching]. Are enough of them going into policy… are enough of them going into business?”

In part, it is Teach for America’s past success that makes the new pilot programs possible. Now that a TFA placement is so coveted, the organization can raise the bar for what it asks of recruits, without much diluting the applicant pool. “TFA has the most powerful brand in teaching and they’ve got tons of kids with great resumes lining up at the door,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute. “If they say, ‘This is what the game is now, you have to do a year of preparation,’ people who would have backed away 25 years ago might now say, ‘Yeah, whatever it takes.'”

The summer training schedule was grueling. At an afternoon
workshop, several corps members nodded off in the back of the room.

Teach for America’s messaging shifted even further this past July, at its second annual educators conference, held in Las Vegas. Villanueva Beard gave an entire speech focused on poverty, in which she acknowledged that the organization’s work “is never just about academics.” The speech began with the story of Adeeb Barqawi, a Houston corps member who had taught homeless students, and then, in his third year as a teacher, launched a campaign to build a community center to provide children with extracurricular activities and health care. (Barqawi’s effort sounded a lot like the “wraparound services” and “community schools” that teachers’ unions have been pushing for over a century.)

“There will never be superheroes in education, and you cannot change a system overnight,” Villanueva Beard said in the speech. “Many of us stay in the classroom — and we encourage this — but others attack the system in other ways, and we need that, too. Some will focus on housing, others on healthcare, some on the justice system. The truth is, we need all hands on deck.”

True to Villanueva Beard’s commitment to recognizing the cultural differences across the many regions in which TFA places corps members, the Mississippi Delta will become a hub for training TFA teachers headed to rural areas, where the demand for first-year teachers is much higher than in many cities, and where corps members will encounter a different type of poverty. A number of TFA’s newest and highest-priority regional partnerships are in rural America, such as the Piedmont Triad in North Carolina; Pueblo, Colorado; Muskogee, Oklahoma; and on Indian reservations.

Last month, TFA announced that its latest class of 5,300 recruits is far more diverse than the American teaching profession as a whole. Only 17 percent of American teachers are non-white, but in 2014, 22 percent of TFA’s corps is black, 13 percent are Latino, and a third identify as first-generation college students. One hundred of the new teachers are armed services veterans, and a third are recent graduate students or career-changers, not undergrads.

“We want to be clear about the rationale for diversity,” said Winfield, the spokesperson. “It’s not diversity for diversity’s sake,” but rather an acknowledgment that Teach for America’s own internal research suggests that people of color and other nontraditional teachers had “an additional impact with their students. They were influencing them in ways studies don’t always illuminate. Beyond math scores. Like maybe the students stayed after class to talk. There was a relationship.”


Whether Teach for America can defend its reputation depends, in part, on how seriously it rethinks the way it prepares its corps members. TFA acknowledges that it takes much more than five weeks to fully train a teacher. Teaching requires both knowledge and skill: knowledge of subject matter like biology or history, and skill to impart it to students. Though the program has long been heralded as an alternative to hidebound education colleges, with their low admission standards and overly theoretical approach, the reality is that TFA’s short training has replicated many of the problems seen in traditional programs. Like some college education departments, Teach for America’s Institute has suffered from a lack of subject-specific training and from short student-teaching stints with much smaller class sizes than teachers are apt to encounter in the real world.

I saw some of these challenges when I observed the 2013 summer institute at the Hyde Leadership Charter School in the Bronx. On each day of the five-week program, 70 recruits were bussed to Hyde from college dormitories in Queens, arriving by 7 a.m. They supervised the kids’ breakfast, then spent the morning teaching under the watchful eyes of mentors — generally young TFA alumni with just two or three years of classroom experience. The mentors flooded the newbies with advice: Speak louder. Move around the room. Stick to your lesson plan. In the afternoons, corps members attended workshops on topics like how to teach students who are learning English (use a lot of hand gestures, they were told, and it’s okay to speak the child’s native language on occasion — a useless strategy for corps members who were not proficient in their students’ languages). Recruits then went back to the dorm and planned the next day’s lessons.

The schedule was grueling. At the afternoon workshop on English-language learners, several corps members nodded off in the back of the room.

But looking at Samantha Arpino, a petite native Brooklynite with an eyebrow ring, a nose ring, and long, dark curls, you’d have never known she was tired. Arpino, a 2013 graduate of the state University at Albany, knelt on the floor in a floral-print dress, in front of five cross-legged black and Latino first-graders, all clad in the Hyde uniform of khaki pants and navy polo shirts. (Though she was training with a group of five kids, the average first-grade class size in the New York City public schools is 25.) Arpino spoke with the nasal, drawn-out vowels of a working-class New Yorker; she was the first in her family to attend college, and she is determined that her students will be the first in their families, too, she said.

The goal of the day’s lesson was to help children understand that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. To do that, Arpino read the kids “Beanie and the Missing Bear.” It was not great literature, but rather, a stapled-together, photocopied pamphlet designed to help young children understand the basic literary concepts outlined in the new Common Core standards: setting (a house), character (Beanie and her sister), and timeline (Beanie loses her teddy bear and finds it again). Every time Arpino introduced a new idea, she repeated herself several times in a sing-song voice, answering her own question. “I’m thinking,” she said, tapping her temple with her index finger, “that this happens in the middle of the story. In what part of the story does this happen? The middle, the middle, the middle.” This type of teacher-centric, repetitive pedagogy — sometimes called “direct instruction” — is a hallmark of TFA’s strategy.

So is strict discipline. It was almost lunchtime, and the kids were yawning and fidgety. Arpino stopped every few minutes to enforce rules on how to sit. “I’m waiting for all my scholars to sit in criss-cross-applesauce!” she demanded, “with their hands folded and back straight. We have to grow our brains for first grade! Because why? Why do we grow our brains?”

“For second grade!” said Melvin.

“Yeah, but what’s the big goal?” she asked.

“College!” cried a little girl named Chanel.

“Yes, college,” Arpino repeated. “And then we can change the world.”

Later on, I visited the fourth-grade math class of Tarik Walmsley, a lanky University of Washington graduate who was homeschooled at his students’ age. Walmsley’s lesson was on the idea that multiplication and division are inverse operations: that 8×2=16 and 16÷2=8. He passed out small plastic blocks and had the kids arrange them in various groupings: four groups of four blocks each, two groups of eight blocks each. Student behavior had been a challenge, Walmsley told me. One girl sometimes got up from her seat to dance across the classroom. A boy with a special-ed diagnosis could answer problems on paper, but had trouble speaking up in front of his classmates. On a quiz, he wrote Walmsley a note: “Teacher, you think I’m stupid, but I’m not.”

On the wall was a chart showing a ladder, each level representing one behavioral demerit. Step 1 is a warning. At Step 3, a child is sent to the “icebox,” an isolated chair at the back of the classroom. By Step 5, a parent is notified, and the child is removed from the classroom. Each student’s name was written on a wooden clothespin, and as he or she accrued demerits, the pin moved up the ladder. Like Arpino with her kindergarteners, Walmsley spent an extraordinary amount of time policing how his fourth-graders sat. Were their eyes “tracking” the teacher? Were pencils resting in the pencil groove of the desk? He didn’t hesitate to give demerits for small infractions. “Remember how I was talking about chocolate milk? How milk and chocolate are our products?” he asked the students, referencing the previous day’s multiplication lesson. When a boy named Anthony answered, “Yes!” he earned a demerit for speaking out of turn. By the end of the period, Anthony’s clothespin had moved up the ladder, and Anthony was sitting in the icebox, scowling.

Teach for America had offered Walmsley and Arpino a prescriptive set of directions on how to manage a classroom. The most important question about these strategies is whether they help kids learn. The research consensus suggests TFA corps members are about equally effective at raising students’ test scores as teachers from all other pathways, though better in math than in reading and writing. A September 2013 study from Mathematica Policy Research found that TFA middle and high school math teachers outperform other math teachers in their schools, by the equivalent of students gaining 3 points on a 100-point test. Those results are not surprising; it has long been clear that math is the subject in which teachers’ own education and knowledge matter most for kids. Teach for America actively seeks recruits who have been stellar students across the curriculum. That matters.

Yet education research calls some of the organization’s core practices into question. One gray area is TFA’s commitment to “no excuses” incentive-driven discipline strategies. When teachers provide constant, controlling behavioral feedback, as Arpino and Walmsley were being taught to do, they waste precious time they could be spending giving feedback related to the academic content of the lesson, which is far more powerful in terms of raising student achievement. In Visible Learning, a massive summary of research on how teachers and schools impact student achievement, scholar John Hattie writes that one of the challenges of training a new teacher is convincing him that “developing a strong desire to control student behavior can be inconsistent with implementing many conceptual approaches to teaching.” What’s more, TFA has long defended a relatively “content-neutral” approach to teacher training — despite persuasive research showing that methods courses in specific disciplines, like the teaching of science or the teaching of writing, help teachers improve student learning.

This evolution could add much-needed nuance to
the debate about teaching and school reform in America

Loosey-goosey training is particularly ill suited to teachers who will be working with special education and English-language learner students. Today, 14 percent of Teach for America teachers are assigned to special ed, ELL, or bilingual classes, in part because the oversupply of teachers in many cities has created a glut in the more mainstream subject areas.

Teach for America trainers defend the program’s reliance on “no excuses” discipline, saying it is the fastest way for corps members to learn to control a classroom, and that they are free to expand their disciplinary toolkit as their practice improves over time. (Of course, it is possible that corps members in the Bronx would have been able to learn more progressive discipline strategies had their instructional mentors been drawn from a broader pool of veteran teachers, beyond those who had participated in Teach for America themselves.) But at least on curricular content and special-ed training, TFA is taking the research evidence seriously. In another pilot program, new recruits in the Chicago region will receive training tailored to the subject area in which they will teach. In March, co-CEO Matt Kramer announced that Teach for America would launch a Special Education and Ability Initiative to provide corps members with additional training on working with these students.

Some education reformers — Teach for America allies — are concerned that the organization might dilute its core mission: to make it easier to attract the smartest young people into teaching, even if they are hesitant to make a big, life-changing commitment. “There is this notion that TFA becomes the Swiss Army knife of bringing teachers into the field. What TFA is talking about doing is great. But it would be a huge loss for TFA to abandon the role it has played,” said Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.

According to Winfield, the TFA spokesperson, if the pilot programs are successful, the organization may expand them to reach many more, eventually maybe all, of their recruits. If so, the Teach for America of tomorrow could look almost nothing like the Teach for America of yesterday or today. Corps members would declare their intention to become teachers during their junior year of college and receive a full year of pre-service training, targeted toward the subject matter and student population they are likely to teach. In order to avoid the ways in which high teacher turnover harms student achievement, recruits would be encouraged to teach for three to five years, and given incentives to do so. They would be as likely to head to rural placements, where there are actual shortages of teachers, as to urban ones, where teachers are being laid off. And recruits would hear, from day one, that poverty is a devastating influence on the lives of students, and that no “superhero” teacher can solve the problem through data-driven instruction alone.

This evolution could add much-needed nuance to the entire debate about teaching and school reform in America. Teachers’ skill and expertise do matter just as much as their youth and enthusiasm. Schools cannot function effectively if the adults who work within them are constantly rotating in and out. And the effect of poverty on education is neither a “myth” nor an “excuse,” as it has sometimes been characterized by prominent school reformers.

“Teach For America deserves a ton of credit for its longstanding commitment to continuous improvement,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank. “This willingness to be honest, ask tough questions, and follow the data seems baked into the organization’s DNA from the beginning.”

Teach for America helped build today’s no-excuses, high turnover, standards-and-accountability driven school reform movement. Now it might help to revise it, to transform it, and — yes — to reform it.

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One thought on “Teach for America has faced criticism for years. Now it’s listening — and changing

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