Teach For America Explained

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.

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.

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  5. 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.
  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).

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  8.  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.