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Teach for America Dropouts

Like many recent graduates, Lauren Baideme felt a little lost and unsure of her future upon graduating from New York University in 2008 and venturing into the troubled job market. Teach for America, which trains recent college graduates to teach in struggling public schools nationwide, seemed like the perfect option for the journalism and psychology major. Not only would the program allow her to immediately enter into a well-paying teaching job, something she had always considered a possible career choice, but Baideme could also attain her master’s degree at night courses TFA helped finance.

See one TFA alum's response to this article.

In a speech last year, President Barack Obama used Teach for America as a shining example of young peoples’ desire to serve their country. "I've seen a rising generation of young people work and volunteer and turn out in record numbers," he says. "They have become a generation of activists possessed with that most American of ideas—that people who love their country can change it.”

Increasingly, however, critics say, the program’s good intentions are overpowered by its problems. According to some TFA alums, the organization often seems less like a “shining example” and more like a way for school districts to replace experienced, more expensive teachers with people who will work for far less, most of whom end up leaving after their two-year commitment is up. Some, like Baideme, don't even make it through their first year.

According to a 2008 study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education looking at TFA retention rates, only 43 percent of corps members remained at their schools beyond the commitment. Critics also argue that TFA’s breakneck training course leaves TFA teachers—or “corps members,” as they’re called—with insufficient classroom experience, before throwing them headfirst into some of the most disadvantaged school districts in the country. And a brand-new study cast doubt on the effectiveness of TFA in promoting civic engagement among its participants – it found that TFA grads score lower in areas such as voting, civic activism, and donations to charities than individuals who dropped out or were accepted to the program but declined.

TFA has grown exponentially since Wendy Kopp started the organization in 1990. In 2008, TFA saw its largest applicant pool ever—approximately 35,000 students applied for a little more than 4,000 spots in 35 regions across the country, and many, as TFA noted, were from Ivy League colleges. Compare this to 2000, when only 900 corps members were chosen from 4,000 applicants. Moreover, Congress’ recent passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2010 earmarks $21 million to help TFA reach its goal of growing to more than 8,000 corps members within the year.

With this impending augmentation, Josh Kaplowitz says he hopes Teach for America is doing more to support current and future corps members than it did when he was teaching fifth grade at Emery Elementary, an inner-city school a mile north of the U.S. Capitol Building. Kaplowitz, who graduated from Yale in 2000 with a degree in political science, turned down a job working on Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign to join Teach for America. “I applied for TFA primarily because I wanted to give back some of the privilege that I had benefited from growing up in the upper middle class suburbs,” Kaplowitz says. “And I thought that I could use my energy and creativity to get my future students excited about learning.”

After attending an initial five-week TFA training, where corps members undergo a crash course of lesson planning, seminars, student teaching, education theory and TFA philosophy, Kaplowitz was on his way to giving back to those less fortunate. What he didn’t know at the time was how ill-equipped he was for what lay ahead.

On a typical day at his school, Kaplowitz would spend the time he was supposed to be teaching trying to control rowdy students, who composed about half the class. The other kids sat and watched, unable to get the education they desired. Students threw slaps and punches as well as hurling racial slurs freely. On top of that, Kaplowitz says he faced an unhelpful and unsympathetic principal who he says often undermined his classroom authority.

"Some of [the principal's] actions defied explanation," he says. "She more than once called me to her office in the middle of my lessons to lecture me on how bad a teacher I was—well before her single visit to observe me in my classroom. She filled my personnel file with lengthy memos articulating her criticisms."

Despite the difficulties, Kaplowitz made plans to return to the same school the following year and complete his two-year commitment with Teach for America. All that changed, however, four days before his first year ended. According to Kaplowitz, as he guided a recalcitrant student to the hall that day, he placed his hand sternly on the child’s back. Kaplowitz apparently wasn't trained to know that teachers aren't supposed to touch students. Before the week was through, he was charged with assault by the child’s family. Kaplowitz’s criminal trial lasted just six days, after which he was acquitted of the charge. But then he—along with his school district and principal—was sued for $20 million by the child’s mother. The school district settled the suit for $75,000.

Looking back, Kaplowitz says he generally agrees with TFA’s mission and philosophy, but believes there are many problems with its execution. “I think my case is a good example of some of the flaws in the program,” he says, “the frequent lack of support or empathy for teachers who really struggle, a lack of candor in their recruiting process and a philosophy that can sometimes be dogmatic and inflexible.”

Though some TFA corps members ultimately succeed and find the experience valuable, some corps members are unprepared and ill-trained for the challenges they face as a teacher.

Like Kaplowitz, Sarit Platkin joined Teach for America hoping to make a difference, but says she soon found herself at a New York City school without any real guidance. Platkin experienced problems similar to the ones Kaplowitz faced, and like her fellow corps members, she got little support from administrators. Requests for mentoring were denied, she says, and administrators often admonished her in front of her classroom. By the end of her first semester, her school administration put pressure on her to resign, she says. Platkin could have contested, but she chose not to because she assumed TFA would not support her. Teach for America, for its part, was unsupportive, she says. “They cared more about keeping a relationship with the school,” says Platkin, who left in the winter of 2007.

Because Teach for America strives to recruit the best and brightest from universities across the country, it pays particular attention to students who hold leadership roles at their schools. Many of the corps members are overachievers who have rarely failed throughout their lives. According to Baideme, her Type A personality was her downfall.

“I am an overachiever, as are many candidates that are accepted into the program, so I read every word [TFA] sent me,” she says. Waking up at 5 a.m. during the training session, she would spend the day student teaching and participating in workshops and classes, before staying up late into the evening working on lesson plans. She would usually go to bed around 1 or 2 a.m.

Yet despite all her work, Baideme claims TFA’s training program left her struggling. “[I was] absolutely not as prepared as I should have felt, in my opinion,” she says. “I had some resources, some management skills, [and] some contacts. But really, in my heart, I felt that I had no idea what I was doing. It was almost too much information, not put well together.”

In spite of it all, Baideme started the year optimistically, and, by all outward appearances, thrived. “My class soared in their reading benchmarks,” she says. “So, from the outside looking in, when all of my kids were sitting with books open and their hands on their desks, it looked like I was doing a great job. But [the administration] didn't see me working non-stop at home, staying up late and waking up in panics. They rarely got there in time to see the temper tantrums or the fights, or to see half my kids fail a math test.” On top of that, Baideme says the requirements from TFA were intense, including biweekly curriculum meetings, meetings with the program director, and tracking the students’ academic performance.

Not one to do things halfway, Baideme met all the requirements, while also creating lesson plans for school. Until one day in October, when she snapped.

“One of my kids had a meltdown, and I melted down with him,” she remembers. “It was after school, and I called my mom, and I just told her I couldn't to it anymore. I literally thought I would die.” She abruptly resigned, to the shock of her principal and students, and she never went back. Baideme, who is now working as a housing counselor at the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, says that, though she’s sorry she left with almost no warning, she is indeed happy she left. “I don't regret it for a second,” she says.

Kristi Eaton is a staff writer for Campus Progress. She graduated from Arizone State University in 2008.

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