An Effective Source for Change? A Look at Teach for America

Recently, I read a blog post by a classmate of mine regarding this classmate’s own personal experiences with Teach for America (TFA).  This personal account really resonated with me because I found it strikingly similar to my own struggles when I grappled earlier this year with the decision of whether or not to apply for a Teach for America position.

I too was captivated by the idealistic notion of committing my time to making a difference in the lives of underprivileged children.  A Teach for America recruiter expressed her excitement at my interest and offered me the very rosy sales pitch for why I should join.  As I began to do my own research and as I progressed further through my Master’s in Education gaining a better understanding of the education system and of various education policy debates along the way, I quickly became very disillusioned with the idea that I would actually be doing some good as a Teach for America recruit.  With each e-mail that the recruiter incessantly sent me following our conversation urging me to apply, which was also mentioned in my classmate’s blog post as excessive and caused her to perceive TFA as “more commercialized and less competitive,” I increasingly questioned my desire to join until I ultimately chose not to.  It is here that I wish to shed some light on why.

My major is Globalization and Educational Change, and I am interested in just that: change. Education can easily be used as a tool to reproduce the status quo, but whether it is in my own backyard or somewhere across the world, I am passionate about seeing education increasingly being used as a force for empowerment and self-fulfillment.  Ultimately, I am skeptical that Teach for America is contributing to change in the entire system of education in a positive way.

Teach for America is an organization that sees itself on the frontlines of “A Solvable Problem,” and that problem is the achievement gap. [1] TFA representatives believe that all children, even those in poverty, can achieve at the highest levels – despite the challenges they face – if provided the opportunity. [1] This is without question a cause worth believing in, but what do the statistics show?

The Institute of Education Sciences’ National Center for Education statistics cites Hispanics as the fastest growing sector of the United States population. [2] There is certainly a story to be told by looking at fourth grade and eighth grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) from 1990 to 2009 for Hispanic students as compared to White students.  While the score for both groups overall have improved with time in mathematics, the achievement gap has largely remained unchanged. When looking at these groups nationally across all fifty states, Hispanic students have remained on average a steady 21 points behind in 4th grade and 26 points behind in eighth grade.  In reading, when comparing scores over time from 1992 to 2009, the picture is essentially the same with Hispanic students hovering right around a persistent average of a 25-point deficit in both fourth and eighth grade. [2]

In short, the achievement gap is maintaining a stubborn hold within our society, as it has persisted for almost 20 years, essentially unchanged.  Interestingly, Teach for America began in 1990 and has been operating ever since.  While one can argue that the achievement gap has not widened very much as evidenced above, it does not seem as though Teach for America is addressing some of the systemic ways in which our education system in the United States is failing certain populations of students.

I have long questioned whether our system could use more alternative routes into teaching, whether our standard methods of study and certification are ultimately leaving out large portions of individuals that, while they may not be able to afford to get a college degree or a master’s degree, could prove to be excellent in the classroom with some time and experience.  For example, Darling-Hammond, Holtzman, Gatlin, and Heilig (2005) explore how various pathways to certification affect the effectiveness of both TFA and non-TFA teachers in Houston, Texas.  The authors cite that alternatively certified teachers in Houston were particularly effective in raising students’ Aprenda scores, which is a standardized test given to students who receive reading and language arts instruction in Spanish.  Their rationale for this trend was that the Houston alternative certification program enrolls a very large number of Hispanic teachers, many of which are Spanish-speaking and may be better able to support the literary progress of Spanish-speaking students. [3] It is clear here that an alternative pathway to certification may prove to be very valuable in serving this population, especially given that a majority of students in Houston are Hispanic.

It may be argued that Teach for America is another one of these alternative pathways into teaching that ultimately places passionate and capable individuals in the classroom.  However, it is no secret that Teach for America recruits students at the top of their class from elite universities, as they have been criticized for becoming merely a stepping-stone for these elite students on their path to becoming something greater.  These recruits are then placed in ‘hard to staff’ districts to teach the most at-risk youth in the country.  Is this really changing at all the demographics of teachers that have access to the classroom?  While some of these recruits may be successful, others struggle to relate to their students and are unable to meet their specific needs.

The aforementioned article by Darling-Hammond et. al. (2005) also states that experienced teachers are significantly more effective than inexperienced ones, and that there is no instance in which an uncertified TFA teacher is as effective as a standard certified teacher.  I fear how teacher status would be affected by the assertion that no special training is needed to become a teacher and that one simply needs to be generally academically able and have strong subject knowledge to be successful.  Rather than staffing the most vulnerable classrooms with uncertified, and more importantly highly inexperienced teachers, I think we need to focus on the system as a whole and on relevant policies at all levels such as teachers’ pay, working conditions, and support.  We must create a climate in which a diverse pool of well prepared teachers are put into all of our classrooms and are there to stay for the long haul so that all students can benefit as they gain confidence and experience. [3]






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