Lewine: TFA doesn’t prioritize teaching

Few people at Yale are able to avoid contact with the efficient marketing apparatus of Teach For America.

TFA literature plasters campus bulletin boards around application deadlines as their talking points are covered in feature length News stories, sympathetic opinion columns and the inspirational lectures of David Stanley, recruiter extraordinaire. Combine these aggressive tactics with a lofty mission and a lousy job market and it should be little surprise that TFA is successful in attracting applications from so many graduating Yalies, including 16 percent of the Class of 2009.

Often lost in this din of salesmanship is that Teach For America is one specific, controversial approach to fixing our nation’s broken education system. And the organization’s overbearing campus presence dangerously narrows the perceived options for students interested in teaching after graduation.

Those of us considering going into education must explore our options critically and not feel trapped by the TFA’s campus dominance, which carries the risk of stifling discussion and obscuring other routes to the classroom.

TFA may be the right program for many individuals. Many corps members will be excellent classroom teachers and can be transformative influences in the lives of their young students. Two thirds of corps members will stay in the teaching profession or go on to work for needed reforms within the field of education as policymakers, administrators and social entrepreneurs.

Still, the program is not for everyone, and campus organizations like Undergraduate Career Services have a duty to inform students about the wide range of routes to teaching, including traditional tracks instead of overemphasizing alternative ones.

TFA’s mission is motivated by the educational inequity that it calls “our nation’s greatest injustice.” Its characterization of this problem is accurate and it does invaluable work bringing the problem to the nation’s conscience.

But the organization’s method to attack this educational inequity, contrary to the suggestion of its name, is not teaching. Instead, TFA’s focus is on political change. For example, it has as an explicit goal to have 100 alumni in elected office by 2010. By recruiting future leaders right out of college, TFA has two years to influence its corps members with challenging, powerful experiences so that they complete the program carrying TFA’s philosophy and priorities with them to their varied leadership roles.

This approach has been effective. In 1994, two TFA alumni founded the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a successful and influential network of charter schools across the nation. Michelle Rhee, TFA alumna and chancellor of the District of Columbia Public School system, has captured the attention of the education world with her bold, controversial strategies for reforming the country’s worst-performing school district.

Although TFA’s emphasis on creating political leaders is a potentially successful strategy, it is unfortunately given precedence over the selection of the best possible teachers, a prioritization that is rarely publicly acknowledged.

TFA corps members may succeed in individual classrooms, but the organization hurts the teaching profession as a whole. The teacher is the single most important school-based factor that contributes to student achievement, and having an excellent teacher several years in a row can erase differences attributed to familial and socioeconomic backgrounds. But many teachers suffer from low salaries, horrendous working conditions and lack of respect, with the result that talented college graduates are much less likely to go into the profession.

Although TFA succeeds at recruiting people from this demographic, it devalues the teaching profession in the process. It sends the message that any smart person can teach. It sends the message that teacher training has little value. And it sends the message that teaching is not important enough to occupy more than two years of an Ivy League graduate’s time. If we want to improve the status of teachers in this country, we need to start by acknowledging that teaching is more than a program, it is a profession.

TFA’s ultimate long-term goal should be to put itself out of business. In a society where influential figures from all careers are ready to support progress in education reform, we should not need to settle for untrained, inexperienced, short-term teachers. Until then, we should approach teaching and education reform from all angles and not limit ourselves to the particular and potentially harmful methods of TFA.

Christopher Lewine is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.

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