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Teach for America Strikes Back

At times, the education debate reminds me of an old song by Boston called “Used to Bad News.” America has become so accustomed to hearing bad news come out of public schools that we seem to seek it out, even where it does not exist. This was the case with Kristi Eaton’s recent Campus Progress article, "Teach for America Dropouts." In it, Eaton uses anecdotes from three TFA dropouts to condemn an entire organization that, by and large, has had an extraordinarily positive impact on public education.

But unlike Eaton’s interview subjects, I loved my TFA experience. I flourished as an elementary school teacher in Sunflower, Mississippi, and I wound up staying in Sunflower for almost a decade, running an educational non-profit organization I founded with my TFA roommates. I never would have considered going into education before TFA. Now, I cannot imagine any other career.

My experience is not unique. Many of my TFA friends remain actively involved in education—they are principals, teachers, professors, and non-profit heads. Throughout the country, TFA’s alumni network has had an outsized impact on education reform in the last two decades, particularly in the charter school movement. TFA alums have founded dozens of high-performing charter schools as well as perhaps the country’s most successful charter school network: the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). In Washington D.C., alone, TFA alums run roughly 10 percent of the public schools and are spearheading an ambitious (and thus far quite successful) effort to transform the entire school district.

And yet, TFA periodically must defend itself against critics who seem to be searching for bad news to hold against the organization. “Increasingly,” Eaton claims, “critics say the program’s good intentions are overpowered by its problems.” Defenders of the status quo have attacked TFA since its inception, but critics actually have grown more muted in their attacks over time. Even Linda Darling-Hammond, perhaps the most aggressive of TFA’s opponents, has become, if not a fan, at least a grudgingly respectful critic, acknowledging TFA’s success in recruiting talent to the profession.

Part of the “increasing” criticism that Eaton cites stems from a new study by Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam, which she claims shows that TFA alumni are less civically engaged than individuals who dropped out or were accepted to the program but declined. Let’s examine McAdam’s numbers. He found that 89 percent of TFA alumni voted in the 2000 election, compared to 92 percent of dropouts and people who declined. Hardly a huge discrepancy, particularly when one considers that the 89 percent figure is more than double the 35 percent voting rate of their peer group. McAdam also found that TFA alumni donate, on average, to 2.2 charitable organizations annually, while dropouts give to 2.6—a misleading if not completely meaningless statistic. (If I give $50 each to 10 different organizations, does that make me more civic-minded than if I give $500 to one organization?) The allegation that TFA alums are somehow less civically inclined ignores a larger point. TFA’s mission is to improve public education, and to that end, TFA alums are disproportionately involved in education reform. If they do not write as many checks to charity as others do, perhaps it is because they are busy working full-time to close the educational achievement gap.

Eaton also claims that “only” 43 percent of TFA teachers remained in their schools beyond their two-year commitment. But the Harvard study that she cites actually found that statistic to be 61 percent, and TFA’s three-year retention rate for high-poverty schools exceeds that of non-TFA teachers. Furthermore, because they ignore the alumni (including myself) who leave the classroom but stay in education, discussing classroom retention rates when discussing TFA is a bit myopic. Nearly two-thirds of all TFA alumni from the past 20 years work full-time in education—a staggering figure given that only about 10 percent of corps members say they would have considered education had they not done TFA.

Like many other critics, Eaton argues that TFA’s training program leaves teachers unprepared for the challenges of high-need classrooms. It’s worth noting that that critique has been leveled against all teacher preparation programs—Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been particularly hard on education schools recently. So how do TFA teachers compare with counterparts prepared in more traditional ways? According to a 2004 Mathematica Policy Research study—the most scientifically valid study on TFA, according to Education Next—TFA teachers “outperformed not only other novice teachers but also veteran and certified teachers in the same schools.” Perhaps that explains why 95 percent of principals who manage TFA corps members rated them as effective as other novice teachers in overall performance and student achievement, with 66 percent saying TFA teachers were more effective.

Teach for America certainly has its flaws, and its staff and alumni know them well. But overall it is a remarkably self-reflective and self-critical organization, and it has spent much of the last decade revamping its recruitment, training, and support programs to make its teachers better. For proof of this, look to the thoughtful piece in this month’s Atlantic, in which Amanda Ripley shows how TFA's relentless focus on improving teaching is transforming teaching as a profession.

The organization's commitment to good teaching, combined with the work of individual teachers and the catalytic effect of its alums on education reform, is yielding extraordinary results—and that is good news worth celebrating.

Chris Myers Asch (TFA Delta 1994) is the Coordinator for the National Center for Urban Education at the University of the District of Columbia.

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