The goal of the controversial program Teach for America (TFA) is to improve the education of the most needy students in impoverished areas in order to combat inequality. Current media criticizes the program harshly for sending underprepared college graduates into disadvantaged public schools and only worsening the issues already existing. Yet since its founding, TFA has attracted the best and brightest of college graduates who go into teaching believing that they will make a difference, despite criticisms of the organization. My own research investigates the question: How have Teach for America teachers from 1989 to today perceived their impact on improving the education of disadvantaged students?
Teach for America alumni reflect on their experience of feeling overwhelmed by the realities of teaching in urban and rural schools. While most go into the program optimistic and excited to be a sort of savior to their students, there is an overwhelming trend over time of TFA teachers leaving the experience feeling that their impact was not all positive. In more recent years, teachers have begun to recognize the flaws of the whole Teach for America program, rather than focusing just on their own mistakes as earlier alum had tended to do.
Teach for America’s website defines the program as “a diverse network of leaders who confront educational inequity through every sector, starting with two years of teaching in a low-income community” (“Teach for America”). Founded in 1989 by Wendy Kopp, who conceived of the idea as her senior thesis at Princeton, TFA reports having over 55,000 alumni and corps members (“Teach for America”). Their mission statement claims that their goal is “expanding opportunity for children by affecting profound systemic change. We find, develop, and support a diverse network of leaders from classrooms, schools, and every sector and field in order to shape the broader system in which schools operate” (“Teach for America”). It begins with a competitive application process, during which it recruits college graduates and has an acceptance rate of 11% in recent years (Kruvelis). The summer before recruits are to begin teaching, they take part in 6-9 weeks of intensive training to prepare them before their minimum two year commitment to their assignment to a struggling public school (“Teach for America”).
In its early years, TFA corps members seemed to see more promise in the program, and viewed the problems they encountered more as problems that they anticipated being improved through training. In an observation of Michael Lach, a recruit in training in 1990, a professor reflected that “if this program intends to prepare a new corps of teachers who will enter America’s schools and have the confidence, competence, and commitment to stay there long enough to make a difference, perhaps it should be more respectful of the depth and breadth of knowledge, the complexity, and, indeed, the artistry required of good teaching” (Appleman 19). A year later, when asked about the impact of his time teaching, Michael said “TFA and my experience has not made me a happier person. I see a sad, messed up place. I’m trying as best I can to change it. It’s frustrating … but it would be even worse if no one did it.” (Appleman). Seeing the true inequities in the underprivileged society in which he worked, Michael seems to have more doubt that Teach for America was prepared to solve the problem.
Jonathan Schorr, who reflected on his experience in the corps in 1993, still during the first five years of TFA, similarly felt his hopefulness dwindling during his years working at his assigned school, “I- perhaps like most TFA-ers, harbored dreams of liberating my students from public school mediocrity and offering them as good an education as I had received. But I was not ready…. As bad as it was for me, it was worse for the students…. Many of mine … took long steps on the path toward dropping out…. I was not a successful teacher and the loss to the students was real and large” (Schorr 318).
In the early 1990s, the media was already reflecting criticism that amplified the flaws in the system reflected by TFA experiences. While corps members like Lach and Schorr expressed a sense of failure to their students for their personal lack of preparation for the classroom, the entire organization was under fire for its setup of sending “pedagogically underprepared teachers in charge of classrooms full of the at-risk students who populate inner-city and rural schools” (Lawton). The media had grown highly critical of TFA, saying it only makes the issues of under resourced schools worse for minority and low-income students by perpetuating their unequal access to quality teachers (Darling-Hammond). While teachers themselves tended to focus on their own struggles in fighting inequality based upon feeling unprepared, sources outside of TFA deemed the program harmful to those it served. As this outlook grew more common in the public opinion, teachers reflecting on their experiences tended to recognize deeper flaws in the system that TFA continuously neglected to resolve.
A major cause for the escalation of criticisms against TFA as an organization by not only the mass media but also its own members can be connected to the insufficient reforms. Within the last twenty years, the organization has expanded immensely. Wendy Chovnick, who was a corps member from 2001-2003, when contrasting the amount of support she felt she had during her commitment when compared to the experiences of corps members now, sums up that she believes “TFA was in many ways a better, and more genuine, organization in the late 1990s and early 2000s that it is today” (Chovnick 143). This is due to the fact that by expanding as an organization, TFA is sending even more unprepared teachers into classrooms with needy students, while also reportedly providing less support for corps members while on the job. Thus, students receive an even poorer education as their teachers are forced to deal with issues that come up in classrooms without the guidance of TFA leadership and mentors.
TFA alum Marco spoke on his time teaching in 2010 with a similar sense of unpreparedness as his earlier counterparts saying “‘Two years is far too short a time for stints with such things. I must admit that this leads me to question the Teach For America program in general. Can I really become an effective educator in such a short period of time? What is the actual quality of education I am providing to my students? Am I even affecting the inequity that infects our nation’s educational system?’” (Veltri 161). Another teacher who was assigned by TFA in the 2000s, Marguerite, stated “‘It troubles me that, regardless of my good intentions, I am contributing to the cycle of inconsistency present in my school. I do firmly believe that my presence at Jackson is a positive thing… But, as I try to accomplish these goals, however, I am learning to be a teacher” (Veltri 161-162). These teachers are recognizing the impact of their inexperience as a whole, recognizing that learning on the job is irresponsible and unfair to their students. It had become apparent that after years in action TFA had done the opposite of its goal of decreasing inequality in the education of students in having developed a trend of many teachers leaving the profession, only continuing the cycle of disadvantaged students learning from new rounds of inexperienced teachers.
Additionally, the memoirs of recent TFA corps members have taken on more serious criticisms regarding the dysfunction of the organization. In addition to the previously recognized problem of teacher inexperience, members highlight that TFA’s approach to educating these students actually enforces the inequity of their circumstances. Sarah Ishmael, who taught with TFA from 2010 to 2013 recognized serious flaws in training TFA provided regarding how they approached teaching and preparing for cultural differences. It is important to understand that most corps members come from upper middle class backgrounds and grew up with all the resources which the students they serve lack. Ishmael critiques the enforcement of deficit thinking saying that TFA “have not effectively taken responsibility for ensuring that corps members have a truly critical understanding of race, class, White privilege, and the historically racist roots of inequality” (Ishmael 87-88). Backing up Ishmael’s experience, a study on the content of TFA’s preservice training revealed that not only had TFA failed to distinguish between critical scholarly and lay definitions of privilege, but also the materials they used in diversity sessions created misunderstandings about the nature of privilege and what communities of color were like (Bybee 2013). In fact, this can be exemplified by a writing on change driven by Teach for America by the head of research at TFA, who states, “In our most transformational classrooms, both teachers and students display a sense of urgency and focus, a collective purpose, and a determination to defy what some call the ‘destiny of demographics.’ Students own their progress, are intrinsically motivated, and engage at high levels with rigorous and meaningful content” (Harding). This kind of thought enforces that students are at a deficit because of their race, and is a harmful mindset for teachers to have toward their students because it influences the way their students think about themselves. If students believe that they are not destined to succeed based on their race and are taught that it is something they must work to overcome, they are less likely to learn effectively. Ishmael asserts that her training left her strongly feeling that TFA “allowed corps members to treat the cultural differences between their students as deficits by emphasizing the importance of teaching students to rise above their communities’ ‘low expectations of them’” (Ishmael 90). TFA encourages corps members to instill a “no excuses” culture typical of White-upper-middle class culture, which is ignorant in that it drives them to think that they can encourage their students to criticize their own culture. This model fosters deficit thinking, which is harmful for students and teachers alike. Ishmael profoundly highlights the savior complex that this kind of thought cultivates, saying on the topic of teachers benefitting from TFA by leaving with a so-called newfound understanding for the disadvantages of those they serve with a lower socioeconomic status and of a minority race, that “people of color, people who have been legally and economically disenfranchised, should never have to educate their more privileged counterparts about what it’s like to be oppressed. Children should never have to show their teachers why and how their ‘no excuses’ culture is harmful and based on deficit thinking” (Ishmael 92). There are major flaws in TFA’s diversity training that have a severe impact on the inequity of education for the students TFA attempts to serve.
The main reason why criticism for TFA has been mounting over time is due to its continued lack of response to the negative judgement and suggestions for reform which it receives. Chovnick again castigates the organization based upon her experience of observing them being ignorant to grievances and concerns and churning out positive TFA stories to mask the bad and improve the public image of them. Chovnick says she is “a firm believer that all organizations, especially nonprofit organizations, must be open to critique and willing to engage in honest dialogue about limitations and how to improve. In my experience, TFA was more interested in sharing a good story than engaging public dialogue about really difficult questions facing the organization and facing education” (Chovnick 147-148). Based on her experiences, TFA should be more open to criticism and willing to make changes in order to function in a useful way for accomplishing its original purpose of creating better educational opportunities for disadvantaged students, and deviate from the trend of increasing criticism over time for its approach to teaching.
While it is easy to find negative critiques in the media on TFA from any point in its existence, delving into corps members memoirs and reflections from their own experience being in the organization uncovers a more personal lens of the inequity that TFA has come to be known for perpetrating. Early members tended to express concerns for the success of the organization based on their own sense of incompetence as teachers based on the insufficient preparation TFA provided. This was just the beginning of the unfair education that the organization was providing to disadvantaged students. As TFA continued to expand and fail to address these issues, corps members, in accord with the media, shifted to more severe criticism, to the point of suggesting that the inherent design of TFA would never be effective. Alumni accounts regarding their impact on inequality through TFA is particularly valuable to research because it “reveals the subtle interactions among TFA teachers’ personal identities, their evolving professional ambitions, and the organization’s communication about the purposes of their participation in the program. It also brings to light the less examined, though potentially powerful, qualitative effects of TFA’s model and the organizational values and ideologies that it implies” (Trujillo, Scott & Rivera). Through investigating these accounts, the reality of the TFA experience and the truth behind the media’s criticisms of it can be understood at a unique level in order to recognize the trend of mounting criticism in the organization.
Appleman, Deborah. “Teach for America: Is Idealism Enough?” The Christian Science Monitor, 8 Aug. 1990, www.csmonitor.com/1990/0808/eappl.html., p. 19.
Appleman, Deborah. “‘Teach for America’ a Year Later” The Christian Science Monitor, 22 Aug. 1991, https://www.csmonitor.com/1991/0822/22191.html.
Bybee, Eric Ruiz. “An Issue of Equity: Assessing the Cultural Knowledge of Pre-service Teachers in Teach for America.” (2013).
Chovnick, Wendy. “Good intentions gone bad: Teach For America’s transformation from a small, humble non-profit into an elitist corporate behemoth.” Teach For America counter narratives: Alumni speak up and speak out. New York, NY: Peter Lang(2015).
Darling-Hammond, Linda. “Who Will Speak for the Children? How ‘Teach for America’ Hurts Urban Schools and Students.” The Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 76, no. 1, 1994, pp. 21–34.
Harding, Heather. “Teach for America: Leading for Change.” Educational Leadership, vol. 69, no. 8, 2012, pp. 58–61.
Ishmael, Sarah. “Dysconscious Racism, Class Privilege, and TFA” Teach For America counter narratives: Alumni speak up and speak out. New York, NY: Peter Lang(2015).
Kruvelis, Melanie. “Seniors Vie for Spot in Selective Teach for America Program.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 14 Aug. 2014, college.usatoday.com/2013/03/18/seniors-vie-for-spot-in-selective-teach-for-america-program/.
Lawton, Millicent. “Teach For America: Success or ‘Disservice’?” Education Week, 3 May 2016, www.edweek.org/ew/articles/1991/07/31/10350081.h10.html.
Schorr, Jonathan. “Class Action: What Clinton’s National Service Program Could Learn from ‘Teach for America,'” Phi Delta Kappan, December 1993, pp. 315-18.
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Trujillo, Tina, Janelle Scott, and Marialena Rivera. “Follow the yellow brick road: Teach for America and the making of educational leaders.” American Journal of Education 123.3 (2017): 353-391.
Veltri, Barbara Torre. Learning on Other People’s Kids: Becoming a Teach for America Teacher. Information Age Pub., 2010.