Continuity and Change of Teach for America Impact

Posted on

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.

Works Cited

Appleman, Deborah. “Teach for America: Is Idealism Enough?” The Christian Science Monitor, 8 Aug. 1990,, p. 19.

Appleman, Deborah. “‘Teach for America’ a Year Later” The Christian Science Monitor, 22 Aug. 1991,

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,

Lawton, Millicent. “Teach For America: Success or ‘Disservice’?” Education Week, 3 May 2016,

Schorr, Jonathan. “Class Action: What Clinton’s National Service Program Could Learn from ‘Teach for America,'” Phi Delta Kappan, December 1993, pp. 315-18.

“Teach For America.” Teach For America,

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.


Disadvantaged Students Recognize the Value of a Good Education | “Waiting for Superman” Analysis

Posted on

An influential scene in the film was when in an interview, Anthony, one of the young boys the documentary followed, talked about why he wanted a good education (Guggenheim 1:21:46). Anthony simply told the interviewer, “I want to go to college to get a education. Well ’cause if I have kids I [don’t] want kids to be in this environment.” When asked what he meant Anthony explained that he wanted his kids to grow up in better circumstances than what he had grown up in. This scene is important because it supports the notion that disadvantaged kids can in fact learn, and want to use education as an opportunity to escape their situation. It contradicts the belief that students such as Anthony can not be taught the same way middle and upper class students do, and that they are stuck in the cycle of not working hard enough and remaining impoverished for generations. Anthony’s interview demonstrates that he understands the value of the chance to get into an alternative and more effective charter school. He understands how great his odds of improving his own outcomes are by staying out of the failing public school system. The filmmakers shot this scene in a way that showed the authenticity and candidness of Anthony’s responses. The decision to not omit the interviewer in the background prompting Anthony to expand on his answer shows how impressive Anthony’s answer was to those present, and in turn the audience, in showing how well he understands the difference an effective school can have on his life, enabling him to improve not only his own life, but the lives of his future children.

Anthony emphasizes the value that being able to get a good quality education will have on his life and future (Guggenheim 1:22:00).

According to the filmmaker’s theory of change, the problem is that schools and ineffective teachers are failing students by not producing results for kids. The desired goal is to have a public education system that enables students to achieve proficiency academically, attend college, and be equipped to begin a career which allows them to escape disadvantaged circumstances. The policy chain would involve negotiating with teachers’ unions to abandon tenure, and fire ineffective teachers and reward excellent ones. Changes would then include utilizing strategies of highly successful charter schools such as KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone. By improving the quality of teacher’s and employing intensive instruction and support proven to be effective for closing the achievement gap for disadvantaged students, the filmmakers theorize that the goal of improving education and outcomes may be accomplished.


Guggenheim, Davis. Waiting for “Superman.” 2010. Film.

Florida School Shooting Gives Legislators New Perspective in Children’s Committee

Posted on

Recent events in the U.S. weighed heavy on legislators minds as they began the Committee on Children session on Thursday, February 15.

Following a school shooting on Wednesday in Parkland, FL, the well-being of children- the ultimate goal of this committee- took an extra place of importance for the legislators present.

Chairwoman and Representative Debra Urban began the meeting by publicly sending her regards to the victims of the Florida attacks, and opening the floor for her fellow committee members to also say a word regarding the shooting.

All of the legislators spoke similarly of thoughts and prayers for Florida, with Senator Len Suzio empathizing with the victims, referencing the emotions they had felt in Connecticut’s own school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in 2012. Senator Suzio also suggested they take a moment of silence for the students and educators who had lost their lives the day before.

“We do need to think about school safety. We really can’t take anything off the table in order to protect our children,” said Liz Linehan, in the promotion of her point that when it comes to spending on school security, events like the tragedy in Florida really show that they should not hold back.

With the needs of children in a new perspective, the committee proceeded.

Chairwoman Urban quickly asked for a motion to raise on several bills on the agenda to be discussed. All legislators present unanimously voted to do so and swiftly moved on. The bills were as follows:

  • An Act Establishing the State Oversight Council on Children and Families
  • An Act Concerning Special Immigrant Juvenile Status
  • An Act Concerning the Transfer of a Child Charged with Certain Offenses to the Criminal Docket and the Grounds for Detention of an Arrested Child
  • An Act Extending the Reporting Deadline of the Task Force to Study Voluntary Admission to the Department of Children and Families
  • An Act Prohibiting Female Genital Mutilation
  • An Act Concerning Children in the Temporary Custody of the Department of Children and Families
  • An Act Concerning Parental Choice in the Event of Stillbirth

The Committee moved on to discuss An Act Establishing a Moratorium on the Use of Recycled Tire Rubber at Municipal and Public School Playgrounds.

Studies have previously cited that recycled tire rubber typically used as the surface for playgrounds could contain cancerous carcinogens dangerous for children. While there was previously a ban on it, there is now a moratorium.

Legislators currently await the results of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study on the potential hazards of the material. Several of those present expressed frustration with the EPA’s delay, saying they should have heard from them in August of 2017.

Representative Urban clarified “Once the EPA study ends it becomes up to the legislators…If crumb rubber is proven to cause cancer it is up to legislators to decide if they still want to use it, it is not a trigger to rip up playgrounds.”

In frustration with the lagging results of the EPA study, Representative Pat Boyd questioned why they didn’t just make the decision now and prevent potentially harmful materials from continuing to be in municipal and public school playgrounds.

This idea was struck down by Representative Liz Linehan, saying “If they spend money on the playgrounds before the study comes out then we’re asking municipalities to spend money on something that they could have to send back.”

Representatives Noreen Kokoruda and Anne Dauphinais supported this view, citing it could be careless to move on the matter without the results of the EPA study. 

The second big concept discussed was An Act Concerning Concussion Education for Coaches of Certain Youth Athletic Activities.

As far as concussion education goes, at present, the state of Connecticut only mandates that an educational handout on concussions go out to coaches. This bill would mandate a 30-minute video training session for certain coaches.

“Many of the coaches are volunteers so I wouldn’t want to put a mandate on it, though I would strongly encourage them to educate themselves,” said Representative Dauphinais, in favor of not requiring concussion education training for coaches.

However in the spirit of doing all that is possible in the interest of children Representative Lezlye Zupkus countered saying, “No one wants anyone to have a concussion and I’m just looking to protect our kids so I will be flagging this.”

Representative William Buckbee also spoke out in support of the mandated concussion education saying “I don’t know one coach worth their salt who wouldn’t give thirty minutes to learn about concussions.”

The committee went on to go straight to a vote on the 4 remaining pieces of legislation on the agenda. They were as follows:

  • An Act Concerning the Department of Children and Families
  • An Act Concerning Children’s Programs
  • An Act Concerning Children’s Health
  • An Act Concerning Children’s Safety

The first of these, An Act Concerning the Department of Children and Families, received a unanimous “yes” from all present. On the other three, all legislators voted “yes” besides Representative Dauphinais, who voted no to all three.

With the impact of the Florida school shooting heavy on the minds of the legislators, they recessed the hearing after having considered and voted on acts to better the interests of the children of Connecticut.

To learn more about the CT Committee on Children, see their webpage here.