Teach For America Explained

[box type=”1″ align=”left”] EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are following local news reports, you know that the decision to bring in TFA teachers to HCS has been controversial. Since many parents in Huntsville had never heard of TFA before Dr. Wardynski’s proposal, we asked local dad and Education professor, Jason O’Brien to explain what TFA is and why so many people are up in arms about its impending arrival.
[/box] According to their homepage, Teach for America’s (TFA) “…is growing the movement of leaders who work to ensure that kids growing up in poverty get an excellent education” (Teach For America, 2011). The program enlists recent college graduates and enrolls them in an “intensive five week summer training institute” at one of nine national locations. The premise of TFA is that committed and motivated college graduates can go into high-poverty schools and teach as effectively as traditionally-trained and certified teachers. TFA participants are paid the same salary as starting teachers who have spent two years in a traditional teacher education program and are eligible for the same health and retirement benefits as all other beginning teachers. TFA was originally created to provide teachers in areas where it was difficult to attract enough qualified teachers to teach.

While TFA’s goals are commendable, there are several concerns that people in the field of education (myself included) have regarding these participants. Among these concerns are:

  1.  TFA was never intended for areas such as Huntsville City Schools (HCS) which have a surplus of state certified teachers. In the past two years, HCS has laid off more than 300 certified teachers under its Reduction in Force (RIF) program to balance its operating budget. For every vacant teaching position available, principals receive 50-70 applications from certified teachers vying for these jobs.

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  3. The training that TFA participants undergo takes place over the course of five weeks. Traditional graduates must spend 200 hours in schools observing and teaching lessons and then successfully complete a 16 week, full time student teaching internship under the guidance of both a mentor teacher and a university supervisor. TFA training is conducted by TFA members who have on average, two to four years of teaching experience. For a detailed look at the perceptions of TFA members and how unprepared they report feeling when entering the classroom, see Barbara Veltri’s book Learning On Other People’s Kids (2010). As the title implies, she found that TFA participants report having to “learn on the job” in their first year. This learning time costs valuable instructional time for some of the most vulnerable students (i.e., low Social Economic Status) in our schools. Another finding from Veltri’s book is that almost 80% of TFA participants cited the fact that TFA offers $5,000 per year towards future graduate courses regardless of financial need as a main motivation for entering the program. This money is tax dollars collected to be spent on students, and instead is being spent to pay for graduate schools. In my opinion, schools need teachers who have made a long-term commitment to education. If teachers leave after two years (most TFA participants do) then continuity is lost and high teacher turnover rates are exacerbated.
  4. HCS will pay 1.9 MILLION dollars to TFA for this “experiment.” This is money that could be used by HCS to pay for high quality professional development in these same Title I schools. I say “experiment” because an examination of the “research” used by TFA to show the effectiveness of their teachers is highly suspect. For a detailed analysis of their research, see this article.

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  6. Although TFA members, I’m sure, have the students’ needs in mind and truly want to make a difference, TFA builds in requirements that make it difficult for their participants to be effective. For instance, TFA members are required to attend TFA events during their first year of teaching at night—if they don’t attend they can lose their $5,000 graduate school stipend. Furthermore, TFA members are discouraged from going “outside the TFA network” to ask for help, as this may paint the program in a negative light (see Veltri’s book for first hand description of this).
  7.  If I suggested that we replace traditional engineers in Huntsville with people who went to a five week institute to learn how to build bridges, would you drive on that bridge? In a situation such as Huntsville, where certified, qualified, and motivated teachers are given pink slips every year to be replaced by under-qualified TFA participants, what does that do to the morale of the existing teachers?

The idea that anyone can teach is a fallacious notion and it can have negative consequences on students in Title One schools. While I’m sure that the aims of TFA participants are noble, if they really want to help students, I recommend that they put in the time, sacrifice, and effort that traditionally-trained teachers have so that when they enter the classroom, they’re ready to teach rather than spend the first semester or year learning to do their jobs. For students who are ordinarily one to two years behind already, the consequences have the potential to be devastating.


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View Comments (12)
  • This is very well written and very true. Thank you for this perspective, Jason. I am from Memphis, Tennessee and there are a number of TFA teachers in the schools there. But unlike Huntsville, the system is much larger, most of the schools are Title I schools, and there is a huge teacher shortage, so the TFAs are not actually replacing certified teachers. I think that it is a mistake for HCS to use TFAs instead of fully trained fully certified teachers who are desperately seeking employment. As a former educator, I know all too well that 5 weeks is not sufficient training to be effective in the classroom, and as someone who has worked with several TFA teachers, I know first hand how they struggle with things even as simple as setting up their classroom. Children growing up in poverty need teachers who are trained, disciplined, and prepared for the challenges that they will face in teaching this population of children. While I commend TFA teachers for wanting to make a difference, the last thing that these children need is an unqualified teacher suffering from a savior complex. They don’t need a savior, they need an education. I am constantly surprised by how HCS struggles to manage such a small school system. It’s not rocket science. You have qualified teachers who want to teach. Hire them and let them do the job that they were trained to do.

  • J Fearn,

    Thanks for the support. Your “savior” comment was right on point. Kids don’t need charity, they need professional, committed, and properly qualified teachers who want to teach, rather than those who want a line on their resume.

  • It’s interesting that Teach for America is part of AmeriCorps, which includes Vista. If I am not mistaken, Vista was begun as a domestic Peace Corps, and people gave of their time, receiving subsistence compensation. My, how times change.

    I lack a teaching certificate, as do TFA recruits.

    On the one hand, since I have an earned PhD, I am qualified to teach your child at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

    On the other hand, I am not qualified to teach in the HCS (could I serve as superintendent?), notwithstanding my years of classroom experience, publications in my field, and relevant industry experience. Furthermore, HCS could hire me — or one of the many with similar backgrounds and qualifications — directly and pay no recruitment fees.

    If I were to apply, my application, unaccompanied by proof of certification, would be rejected, but the HCS will pay TFA simply for the privilege of hiring a 22-year-old with a Bachelor’s and no professional experience whatsoever who has completed a 5-week workshop.

    Go figure.

  • Huntsville is in the middle of A&M, UNA, UAH, & Athens State University. It is ridiculous for them to want people to assume that they can’t find skilled teachers in the area. I have a teacher license and I LEFT Huntsville, AL due to the lack of jobs and the layoffs. What they first need to do is work on the proffesional development to help the qualified established teachers who are there already. 2nd, They should seriously consider allowing elementary teachers with a middle school endorsement to teach in our middle schools, at least in the 6th & 7th grades.
    As JFEARN has ALREADY SAID “Children growing up in poverty need teachers who are trained, disciplined, and prepared for the challenges that they will face in teaching this population of children. While I commend TFA teachers for wanting to make a difference, the last thing that these children need is an unqualified teacher suffering from a savior complex. They don’t need a savior, they need an education. I am constantly surprised by how HCS struggles to manage such a small school system. It’s not rocket science. You have qualified teachers who want to teach. Hire them and let them do the job that they were trained to do.” WELL SAID.

  • As Dr. O’Brien noted, TFA is an idea that has good intentions but will arguably make guinea pigs of Huntsville’s children as this experiment continues.

    When I was honorably discharged from the Marines Corps I had one college degree and led grown men in various operations in multiple countries. None of these life experiences prepared me for running a classroom of 33 12 year olds.

    Talk to local educators about their observations and concerns regarding TFA. Try educating a peer on a subject they know (and care little) about. Now do it at your child’s slumber party…with 32 guests.

    I take pride in this profession, but it is not what I expected nor could I have learned the role efficiently in a five week course.

  • As someone who recently graduated with a teaching credential and who sought (but could not find) a position as a first-year teacher, this is frustrating. During my experience applying for positions, I encountered many other young teachers who would love the opportunity to teach in HCS. For the district to disregard that there are many qualified and willing candidates is disheartening.

    If HCS goes through with this plan, I will feel as if continuing my schooling and becoming trained in education will have been a waste. Perhaps I should have just signed up for TFA and gotten a job with 5 weeks of training instead of a year of in-classroom training and coursework. Except, I had looked into TFA, and I decided that I didn’t feel it would be fair to students to send an underprepared teacher into their classroom.

    I don’t think that the purpose of a program like TFA should be to move into an area where their teachers are competing with a surplus of credentialed and qualified educators, so HSC is not a place for them to set up shop.

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