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.


  • Anonymous

    hear hear

  • Anonymous

    Well said, Chris Lewine.

    I hope to teach after graduation as well, but I didn't look too hard at TFA. Every indication that I got told me I'd be too "soft"--too much like a caring teacher and too little like an investment banker.

  • Yale 08

    I considered TFA.

    I withdrew my application.

    I can no longer support public school education of any kind in this country.

  • Anonymous

    I disagree - I think TFA does a lot of good in areas that aren't well served. After all, isn't our primary goal the good of the students? Shouldn't that goal be achieved through multiple means?

    And, @2 - from what I've read and heard from my TFA friends, being a caring teacher isn't mutually exclusive with being a focused, results-driven teacher. In fact, one might argue that being really caring is giving them the skills they need for the future.

  • Y09

    First of all, it's softies like you that account for nearly all of the weaknesses in our public education system.

    Second of all, TFA applicants are demonstrating more effort to change this deeply, deeply flawed system than anyone who takes Yale's (or anyone else's) fellowship money to dawdle on beaches in the developing world.

    How about fixing our country first?

    P.S. I'm i-banking next year.

  • Anonymous

    But isn't putting people who care about the achievement gap in elected offices a good thing? Unless we completely revamp our system, TFA will always be needed. TFA does a lot to prepare their teachers the summer before they teach and they provide a lot of support during the two years. This is not to say that TFA does more to prepare teachers than teacher prep programs, but sometimes teacher prep programs are useless unless you can apply what you learn. TFA is focused on the application of good teaching.

    TFA fills a hole in our system. It's an unfortunate hole, but, without TFA, we would have many more long-term subs who aren't at all certified in classrooms. TFA teachers will all be certified.

  • Mike


    As a former corps member currently in my 8th year in the classroom, I found your commentary on TFA's priorities both insightful and accurate.

    TFA offers a limited, short-term solution to our Nation's education challenges, ensuring high-need schools have a 2-year temporary workforce of novice educators. If we look at our nation's most effective and highly regarded schools, we see high teacher-retention rates, highly-trained teachers and administrators, and ongoing dialogue about curriculum & instruction that is supported in education research. Until Teach for America’s approach reflects these values, its ability to enact profound change in our nation’s schools will be most limited.

    The organization’s website states that it resolves “to build a truly effective movement to eliminate educational inequity by becoming bigger and better,” explaining that TFA’s next steps include expansion within regions along with the addition of as many as four new sites. Nearly 20 years after training its first corps of teachers, Teach for America has yet to close a region having brought the education reform and equality envisioned in its mission. One must wonder, without achieving its vision after nearly two decades of corps members in its charter regions or having any plans to exit regions having accomplished its mission, whether the organization has a sense of urgency in improving student learning.

    Thank you for your commentary and illuminating importance of and diverse paths for new teachers to enter the profession.

    National Board Certified Science Teacher

  • JesseAlred

    Having captured district leadership positions in several cities, and having created two charter school networks, Wendy Kopp's Teach For America friends are pursuing an approach to school reform based on the false premise that teachers are the cause of sub-par academic performance in urban schools, They not only discount major factors like the degree of parent commitment, family stability, student habits and economic inequality, they underestimate the power these obstacles exert in the daily experience of urban schools.

    D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee's school reform recipe includes three ingredients: close schools rather than improve them; fire teachers rather than inspire them; and sprinkle on a lot of media-thrilling hype. Appearing on the cover of Time, she sternly hovered over the camera holding a broom, which she was using to sweep trash, the trash being a metaphor for my urban teacher colleagues. MS RHEE, MY COLLEAGUES WHO WORK IN SOME OF THE TOUGHEST SCHOOLS IN THE UNITED STATES ARE NOT TRASH.

    TFA teachers are a welcome addition to our nation's public schools, and TFA and its offspring, the KIPP and YES charter schools, provide valuable services, but no data exists proving they are closing the achievement gap, or that they have a formula to close the gap, for the majority of low-income students. KIPP/YES teachers do great work, but they have students whose families apply to schools with longer school days, Saturday classes, an extra month of school in the Summer, and nightly loads of homework. Only a small minority of working-class families will allow schools to take over their kids' lives that much.

    The TFA coalition implies poor schools and bad teachers create the achievement gap. They want the community to give them power because only they can bring“reform” by eliminating job security and diminishing teacher influence over policy. This anti-teacher attitude derives from Ms. Kopp's original vision when she decided, without a day in the classroom, that inexperience was better for teachers than experience. They are launching a class war on veteran teachers from our nation's toughest schools.

  • Yale09

    WASHINGTON D.C., March 25, 2009—The Urban Institute’s CALDER research center has released an updated version of its 2008 study of the impact of Teach For America corps members teaching high school. The updated study included a larger sample size than the original as well as additional analyses comparing the impact of corps members with that of other groups of teachers. The updated report confirms the original findings that corps members have a positive effect on student achievement relative to other teachers, including experienced teachers, traditionally prepared teachers, and those fully certified in their field. The impact of having a Teach For America corps member was more than twice the impact of having a teacher with three or more years of experience. The researchers concluded that:

    The findings show that TFA teachers are more effective, as measured by student
    exam performance, than traditional teachers. Moreover, they suggest that the TFA effect,
    at least in the grades and subjects investigated, exceeds the impact of additional years of
    experience, implying that TFA teachers are more effective than experienced secondary
    school teachers. The positive TFA results are robust across subject areas, but are
    particularly strong for math and science classes.

  • Martha

    Thank you for your column. I began teaching through TFA in 2000. I am still teaching in spite of my experience in the organization. I think it is a civil rights issue that children in our poorest, most print-deprived communities are the ones who are being taught by TFA corps members. These are the children in the greatest need, being taught by the people with the least amount of expertise.
    Furthermore, until our elected officials are ready to address the more complex issue of the impact poverty plays in educational achievement, we will see no real long term reform. And, although I would like to earn more in my profession, throwing money into salary without addressing the difficult working conditions in these under resourced and ill managed schools, teachers both young and old, will continue to leave. Unfortunately TFA is providing districts with an endless supply of temporary teachers. And, since the focus is on student achievement, it is high time we build consensus around the premise that a teacher's working conditions are exactly the same as a student’s learning conditions. It's hard for a teacher to face a classroom devoid of books and try to teach a student to read. Imagine what it's like for a child in that classroom.
    Finally, in all other professions we respect those with credentials and treat them as experts in their field. We do not allow recent college graduates from Ivy League schools to fly planes without training, or perform surgery without training. When we need legal advice we hire an attorney, not a grocer. Sadly, teachers are not viewed by current elected officials, as experts in their field. Michele Rhee gets a lot of attention nationally and has no higher education degree. Arnie Duncan is not an educator. Why are they seen as reformers? They may both be terrific managers, but I often wonder why we need to look outside of our profession for leaders. When we do we risk having them misunderstand the basic principles of how we work and how students learn.

  • Jess Bialecki


    I think you've made a lot of faulty assumptions in this article. Until you've actually seen or experienced TFA's teaching training, I don't think should be dismissing it so readily. I'm in my first year teaching first grade in the Recovery School District in New Orleans, and the TFA-sponsored trainings I have attended thus far have been by far the best-run, most effective professional development opportunities I have seen. Teach For America breeds some INCREDIBLE teachers, and I can vouch for this from personal experience. Many of the TFA teachers I have met are the MOST committed people to education that I have ever met (and this comes from someone who grew up going to public schools and has a mother who is a teacher), and they reflect extremely well on the teaching profession.

    I think you make a fine point in your article -- that "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." But instead of focusing on that argument, which I agree has a lot of merit, you unnecessarily trash TFA by saying that it is full of "untrained, inexperienced, short-term teachers," and by saying that the organization "devalues the teaching profession" and "sends the message that any smart person can teach." I find these statements insulting, especially when I read them at 5:30am before heading off to another 12 hours in the classroom.

    TFA's mission is indeed to put itself out of business by ending educational inequity in this nation, and that is widely recognized within the organization. We welcome anyone who seeks to help us do this.

    Jess Bialecki
    Yale '08
    TFA New Orleans

  • TD09

    To #9: Aside from the fact that studies can be found to both support and criticize the effectiveness of TFA, evaluating students' success is notoriously idiosyncratic and hardly standardized. Specifically, any evaluation of TFA corps members' effects on students undoubtedly ignores those who drop out. This is a substantial minority that does nothing to benefit students and, in the worst cases, leaves underfunded schools scrambling to fill vacancies.

  • Jess Bialecki

    I realized that I didn't emphasize in my previous post that TFA does not in any way see itself as the one and only, or even the central, solution to ending educational inequity in this nation. Rather, it is just one part of what needs to be a highly complex, multi-faceted approach to a vexing problem. However, by training and inspiring future leaders in public education, TFA helps to foster the types of programs that will go on to be critical components of this approach.

  • Anonymous

    TFA's goal should absolutely be to put itself out of business--the day that every single classroom in the United States is taught by a fully qualified, passionate, successful teacher, with 50 more waiting in line to be hired. But in the meantime, no one is striving to bring that day closer more passionately or effectively than TFA.

  • Chris Lewine

    Thanks to everyone for reading and thank you for your comments.

    I wanted to clarify a few things. First of all, nowhere in my column do I diminish the contributions of TFA corps members during or after their placement. On the contrary, I highly respect and admire teachers like Jess (#11), Martha (#10), and Mike (#7), for their commitment. As I say in the column, “many corps members will be excellent classroom teachers and can be transformative influences in the lives of their young students.” This does not change the fact that corps members are, on average, “untrained, inexperienced, short-term teachers.” Note that I did not choose to say “ineffective” or “undedicated” – I do not believe these things. I think more and more people are recognizing the daunting task of being a first-year teacher, a fact that Minh Tran’s political opponents used against him in the campaign for the Democratic endorsement in the Ward 1 aldermanic race by saying that he will be working 80 hour weeks next year with TFA. (Although this might have been a slight exaggeration, it was a welcome improvement to earlier in the campaign when the Yale Herald referred to him as being a future TFA “volunteer” – a characterization that really got my blood boiling. Teaching is a profession, not a volunteer activity!)

    Secondly, nowhere in my column do I “dismiss” TFA. I think TFA does valuable work in bringing talent and energy to the education world, in shining a spotlight on the shocking injustices of our current education system, and in creating a movement of political will to jumpstart reforms from outside the system. I do think that TFA devalues the teaching profession as a whole, in a way that I think Martha (#10) articulates well. “We do not allow recent college graduates from Ivy League schools to fly planes without training, or perform surgery without training. Sadly, teachers are not viewed by current elected officials, as experts in their field.” I grant that Jess (#13) might be right that “TFA does not in any way see itself as the one and only, or even the central, solution to ending educational inequity in this nation.” But I think that others risk viewing it as the only option for an Ivy League graduate. I am disturbed by the fact that when I tell someone I am teaching next year, they assume that I am doing TFA. There are so many ways to start teaching or to get involved in education! Kathleen (#14), I don’t disagree with you that TFA is working passionately towards our shared goal, but so do very many other individuals and organizations. Because of TFA’s highly effective marketing strategies, including its increasingly competitive nature and its partnership with many corporate firms, I fear that it dangerously obscures the other options.

    Finally, I do not want to enter into the quality debate as touched upon by comments #9 and #12. But people in this debate should ask themselves what their standards are. If we conclusively find TFA corps members to outperform other teachers (whatever we mean by the loaded conception of “performance”), that’s great. But teachers on average across this country are not being as effective as we want them to be (this is due to a confluence of factors; I am not blaming teachers here). We must be wary of measuring our successes in relation to the dismal status quo. Instead, we should be aiming high. As comment #6 says, too many teacher training programs fail to combine theory and practice. Where is the study that compares TFA teachers not to other average teachers, but to teachers from the best training programs in the country?

    Chris Lewine

  • Nico Lewine

    Yea boi!

  • Andrew Cox

    Mr. Lewine's followup comment emphasizes how he believes TFA devalues the teaching profession and how stifled he feels by TFA's marketing. To the latter, I encourage Mr. Lewine to promote other programs he believes deserve attention. Asking an effective program to recruit less so that college graduates feel better will not help student achievement.

    Nor I do I agree with the notion that TFA devalues the teaching profession. Mr. Lewine claims that TFA, "sends the message that any smart person can teach." While they certainly cast a wide net for applications, their selection process is rigorously focused on specific traits that correlate with teachers who produce exceptional student achievement. There are many, many smart people who are not accepted into the program. Without evidence, the claim that "TFA’s emphasis on creating political leaders is…given precedence over the selection of the best possible teachers," is merely inflammatory.

    He also says that TFA, "sends the message that teacher training has little value." As Ms. Bialecki noted above, hands down the best professional development I have received as a teacher has come from TFA sponsored sessions. The initial five-week training at TFA Institute is grounded in research-based teaching methods, and their ongoing support is more than most teachers receive from their schools and districts.

    And while Mr. Lewine may believe that TFA encourages potential teachers to leave after two years, there is in fact an expectation within the organization that alumni stay committed to educational equity. As he notes, about two-thirds of TFA alums stay in education.

    In his conclusion, Mr. Lewine says, "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." I believe this focuses in the wrong direction. We should be concerned with the status of teaching only insofar as it promotes student achievement. Would we improve student learning if teaching was seen (and compensated) with higher status? Certainly. But even granting Mr. Lewine's premise that TFA devalues education, this nebulous effect would be outweighed by the documented evidence that TFA teachers improve student achievement. Dismissing this evidence by saying we should be comparing TFA to the best certification programs ignores the reality on the ground. TFA does better than what exists now. It benefits students.

    Mr. Lewine seems to be comparing TFA against a hypothetical ideal education landscape. In reality, the greatest insult to the leaching profession are the teachers who fail their students. When Teach For America teachers in their first year come to a school and have their students scoring higher on benchmarks tests than the veteran faculty, they are not devaluing teaching. When TFA teachers willingly work at the toughest schools in positions that no one else will take, they are not devaluing the profession. When TFA alumni like Jason Kamras (2005 National Teacher of the Year) or Robert Kelty (2008 New Mexico State Teacher of the Year ) are recognized for their outstanding work, they are not setting a low standard. Instead, they are an inspiring example to all educators.

    Teach For America produces good teachers who take tough jobs. Good teaching can be defined in many ways. It can be defined by the years of experience you have in the classroom, the numbers of graduate degrees you hold, the reputation of the schools from which you received those degrees, or even the route through which you got your certification. However, I would define good teaching as the the ability to make measurable and signficant academic progress with your students. I would define good teaching not in terms of inputs, but rather in terms of one critical output—student achievement. There are students across the country who need that, right now. We can work toward Mr. Lewine's ideal, but we can't wait for it.

    Andrew Cox
    2007 Greater New Orleans TFA Corps Member
    TD '07

  • Carolynn Molleur-Hinteregger

    TFA is a fantastic organization that is not without faults -- especially in terms of its affects on the public’s respect for teachers, particularly on campuses like Yale’s. I greatly appreciate that Lewine has addressed the prospect of teaching after Yale without falling into the “pro-TFA/anti-TFA” trap. I want to add to his nuanced perspective, both affirming and critiquing TFA.

    To begin with the positive: TFA’s greatest strength is its ability to get people into the classroom who would not have otherwise taught thereby giving them a profound respect for and commitment to education that is sorely lacking in our society.

    Whether they admit it or not, a great many Yale students -- not to mention their parents -- look down on teaching. It is an easy job to get (and few realize that it is also an overwhelmingly difficult job to do excellently.) Yale students see themselves as destined for more elite careers with broad impact such as shaping politics and creating laws. They don’t picture themselves as the people who live daily within the details of those laws and cover for them where they inevitably fall short, creating deeper -- if narrower -- impact (say as teachers.) TFA provides an "elite" and therefore acceptable path into the classroom, into doing this deeper if narrower work.

    As Chris points out, in creating this path, TFA might also increase the inaccurate perception that “any smart person can teach.” On the other hand, TFA also engenders great respect for the difficultly of teaching in those who actually do it. I joined TFA two years ago to ensure that when I went on to do policy (the swanky, acceptable path for ambitious Yalies interested in “fixing the world”) I would have "real" ideas and the credential of having actually taught. If not for TFA, I probably would have gone straight into a think tank and spent my career in policy without the necessary insight and humility that comes from actually teaching.

    Now, I cannot possibly put into words the amount of respect I have for this profession, which is by far the most challenging and meaningful work that I can imagine doing -- far more so than the policy work that I once put at the top of the food chain. More importantly, I have gained a passion for teaching itself. Without the opportunity to experience teaching given to me by TFA, I would not have ever asked myself: am I actually meant to go into policy? Maybe I am -- heaven forbid! -- meant to be a teacher?

    Now, I am going into my third year teaching at my placement school and there is a good possibility that I will continue to teach for many years. I have much to thank TFA for.

    But Lewine is also right that TFA has weaknesses: The need to market to and create a program structured around people who did not intend to go into to teaching and do not intend to stay in teaching actually does contribute to negative opinions of career teaching.

    In the recruitment that I experienced at Yale, TFA depicts itself as a stepping stone to law school, med school, or policy – and did I mention they have a partnership with McKenzie? If TFA did not depict itself this way, I imagine most Yale students would continue to turn up their noses at teaching and none of them would have the experience I have had.

    Yet, by depicting teaching as a stepping stone, TFA inadvertently sends the same old message that teaching is not as respectable or important as other professions. In their recruitment video, for example, they profile 5 former TFA teachers, none of whom have remained in the classroom – contrary to the reality that many of us do! Though TFA changes the perspective of those who actually experience teaching (like myself), they might reinforce a lack of respect among everyone who does not actually teach. And since TFA is the loudest voice shaping the dialog about teaching at Yale, it has unintentionally created a mentality that teaching as a two year, almost “volunteer” or “peace corps” experience rather than an incredibly valuable, challenging career. I challenge TFA to find alternative methods of marketing that take into account the inadvertent effects they have on perceptions of teaching. They can start by adding a career teacher to their recruitment video.

    I also challenge Yale. Lewine is right: we need other, equally loud, equally as respected programs aimed at creating people who want to go into teaching and stay in teaching. Undergraduate Career Services, the Teacher Preparation and Education Program, and the Yale Masters in Teaching need to offer a loud, prestigious alternative.

    Furthermore, Yale needs a greater number of education-related courses that might peak students’ interest in teaching and overcome some of the subtle lack of respect for career teaching. One of my best Yale seminars was a course on education policy and politics taught by Professor Starr, an adjunct professor. Before I even joined TFA, this course went a long way in shaping my realization that teaching – not merely politics or policy – stand at the heart of education reform. It gave me an important framework for understanding my experience teaching, one that I did not get through TFA. I believe that Professor Starr had to turn away at least as many students as he admitted to this large seminar. We need more courses like this contributing to the discussion of education.

    TFA’s marketing has created a solution and also a problem. Yale and TFA must share the responsibility for creating a richer understanding of and deeper respect for the teaching profession.

    Carolynn Molleur-Hinteregger
    High School Teacher
    2007 Eastern North Carolina TFA Corps Member
    BK '07

  • Andrew Cox

    Well said, Ms. Molleur-Hinteregger.

    I'd like to also add that people's experiences with TFA's recruitment and marketing vary widely. I know that my own experience focused little on what would happen after TFA, and heavily on the impact it would be possible to make in the classroom.

    While they certainly have good message discipline, Teach For America is hardly a monolith.