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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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