Libresco: Train for America

Apocalypse Next

During the hustle and bustle of shopping period, it’s easy to forget that we have decisions to make aside from choosing classes. But, in a few weeks, all of the frantic chattering about seminar admissions will give way to discussion of summer internships and jobs. The seniors who kept us out of seminars will no longer be envied but pitied as they face the daunting prospect of finding jobs.

This may be a strange time of year to urge seniors to turn down prestigious jobs, but, if they start their search now, Yale seniors who have been accepted to Teach for America may still have time to find alternate employment for next year. For their own sakes, and for the sake of the teaching profession, they should.

Teach for America is the largest single employer of Yale students after graduation. While other teacher preparation programs are based on a year of coursework and student teaching, the organization gives recruits a five-week crash course in teaching methods and then throws them into some of the worst schools in the country without a support network. The program recruits students who are interested in teaching and community service, but instead of preparing them adequately, gives them such a guelling experience that over half of its teachers leave the profession after their two-year contracts expire. One in 10 do not even complete their contracted terms.

The revolving door nature of TFA placements makes it impossible for recruits to make lasting change in the failing districts where they work. Two years in a district is not enough time for a teacher to innovate, build up collaborative relationships with other teachers or challenge the school administration.

Advocates of TFA have sometimes defended the group’s poor retention rates by pointing out that many of its graduates go on to work in school policy or administration. This is not a reassuring statistic. These TFA graduates lead school districts without an understanding of the experience of the majority of teachers or substantial experience in the classroom.

Teach for America does more than just hurt the young adults who participate in the program, though. It also harms the teaching profession. TFA’s training structure reinforces the idea that teaching is not a skilled profession. Too many people enter the teaching profession because they “like kids” or because they feel that they must understand how to teach since they went to school themselves. These are not qualifications to teach. Perpetuating the idea that all teaching requires is enthusiasm and good intentions demeans the profession and encourages people who are neither prepared nor qualified to enter.

Students in Yale’s Teacher Preparation program take classes on teaching methods, shadow successful teachers and learn strategies for helping students with learning disabilities or for whom English is a second language. These students are better qualified to face the challenges of teaching and be leaders in education.

The programs created by TFA alumni are flawed in a way that reflects the skewed teaching experience they draw on. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), one of the best-known TFA creations, relies on constraining teachers to work within restrictive scripts, some of which specify schedules for the entire day and give the teachers lines to read when discussing stories with the class. This approach makes sense if teaching is thought of not as a skilled profession but as a task so simple anyone can walk in an do it. Although KIPP schools appear to outperform some public schools, these gains are more easily attributed to high dropout rates, which remove struggling students from the statistics and the self-selection bias of only including those students who were placed in the program by their unusually active parents. Instead of offering collaborative teaching and room for creative thought, KIPP creates an assembly line that underestimates the power of innovative teachers.

The enthusiasm of TFA recruits is laudable, but this is not the correct route to make change. TFA is right to try to raise the profile of teaching, but it would be much more productive for the federal or state governments to institute a GI Bill for exceptional teaching candidates. A prestigious loan-forgiveness program could recruit on campus, just as TFA does and place exceptional students in Master’s programs for teachers and then into schools. Trying to hide the tremendous work required to become a teacher by offering an exclusive fast track to the classroom, however, does teaching, teachers and students a disservice.

Leah Libresco is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.


  • Anonymous

    Leah, I agree with some points, but you really need open your mind to people without “qualifications” being able to teach. Some of my best teachers were never trained to be teachers. A lot of my worst teachers were. The most essential quality in a teacher is enthusiasm and a passion for teaching a subject.

    One of the reasons US public schools are so terrible is the elitist insistence (in some places at least) that only “trained” individuals can be teachers. It keeps out many talented, experienced people who might be looking to change careers but are discouraged by the prospect of returning to school.

  • eh

    leah, don’t be a tool of the teachers’ unions.

  • peacemama

    Excellent points in this article! The bandage approach of TFA, will not raise teaching as a profession.

    Countries w/ successful public schools, Finland, Singapore, etc., have this in common:

    1. recruit teachers from top 10% of students

    2. High Quality Training/Support:
    a. M Ed.
    b. mentors for first years
    c. paid time to increase skills

    3. They are paid a competitive salary.

    4. These countries don’t spend half their tax money on war.

    To make a difference for America’s future call (202) 224-3121 to be transferred to your member of Congress

    Tell them that we don’t want to approve the president’s request for $33 more billion (on top of $708 billion) to fight an losing land war in Afghanistan w/o a concrete exit strategy.

  • Ferny Reyes

    I’d like to respond to this:
    “One of the reasons US public schools are so terrible is the elitist insistence (in some places at least) that only “trained” individuals can be teachers. It keeps out many talented, experienced people who might be looking to change careers but are discouraged by the prospect of returning to school.”

    No, that’s not true. In most circumstances, a trained teacher will do better than an untrained teacher. How do you deal with PED’s, IEP’s, LEP’s, etc? It’s no more elitist to ask for training of teachers as to ask it for scientists, doctors, lawyers, etc.

    Again – it is one thing to talk about ‘outliers’, and particularly for your average Yale student, who was the beneficiary of above average teachers.

    When talking about the average, training does make a difference.

  • Matt Gerken

    I won’t say that I love TFA, and I don’t doubt Yale’s teacher program is superior to whatever TFA teaches their teachers. I’m also in agreement with the idea that teaching can’t be scripted and formulaic.

    However, anyone who has experienced a real public school (ie not in rich suburbia) knows what an empty promise “qualifications” are. In practice, such an emphasis gives you highly paid yet poorly performing teachers with meaningless Masters degrees, who mostly follow platitudes and formulas fed to them by their “education” focused education. And neither talented Yale grads nor PhDs in academic subjects can go anywhere near those schools (except through temporary and low-pay programs like TFA) because they don’t have the word “education” or “teaching” in their degree.

  • Anonymous


    It would have been nice if you’d done proper research and cited acceptable sources for your incorrect claims.

    “No support network”? I encourage you to shadow a Teach For America Program Director in New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford and see just how great TFA’s support network is. This is a large part of what distinguishs TFA from other alternate route certification paths. You couldn’t be more wrong here.

    Refer to the bevy of research indicating that TFA teachers perform at least as well, and often better, than their equivalents emerging from ed colleges (and veteran teachers) across the country. The research is there. Spend less time spouting half-truths and vapid opinions, and more time digging into statistics and valid research.

    I’m a bit embarrassed for you. Shoddy reporting. You should try harder.

  • y ’11

    excellent writing, leah!

  • goldie ’08

    good article. Incentives should be structured to entice teachers to stay and make a career out of it. Not put in your 2 years for law school. TFA fail

  • actually teaching

    Couldn’t agree more with #6 – I’ve read valid criticisms of TFA, but this isn’t one of them. The writer makes accusations about which she appears to know nothing about. Have you ever watched a TFA teacher or program director? Or stepped foot in a KIPP school? I currently work in a low-income school in one of the lowest-performing school districts in the nation, and TFA provides better support to its teachers here than ANYONE I have seen. I can’t tell you how many first-year teachers from “traditional” ed schools or programs that I have seen give up and quit working in schools like mine because they don’t have the kind of high-quality ongoing support TFA provides. Disclaimer: I am a TFA teacher, and my kiddos have grown an average of 1.1 years in reading in just the first 6 months of this school year. As such, I find it offensive for you to say that I am somehow doing my students a disservice.

  • @6

    Is it really true that TfA teachers only have five weeks of training? You seem like an insider–what does the training entail, and how can it possibly be adequate to the task? Are they subsequently mentored daily by master teachers?

  • Anonymous

    Agree. Good (not great) writing. Atrocious reporting. Although I recognize this is more an op-ed piece, you still owe us readers more than empty opinion. Cite some sources, give us some real numbers.

    Out of the teachers who remain in the classroom beyond their two-year initial commitment, how many of them do you think would’ve ever considered teaching at all?

    And to bash KIPP? Shame on you. KIPP is demonstrating to under-served communities that more is possible, even with their socio-economically disadvantaged children and the complex challenges they often face. KIPP is showing these families that the status quo (i.e. crappy education) is not destiny. Now, these parents and families are demanding more b/c they’ve seen what is possible: that being poor does not have to determine which of your dreams you’re able to reach for.

  • yalie

    Hailing from a low-performing public school myself, I feel that teachers coming from TFA are probably better suited to teaching in low-performing schools than teachers with overinflated and empty teaching degrees. I’m not saying that all teachers with formal degrees in teaching are not suited for the job, but I tend to notice that the least prepared and mediocre teachers are placed into the worst schools–how can any improvement be wrought by having low-performing teachers teaching at-risk students? Yes, we need teachers that are trained in their field, but we also need teachers that are passionate and knowledgeable about their subjects, and all too often, the teachers with teaching degrees are to some degree well-trained, but lack the passion and knowledge base of teachers working for TFA. Having both qualities is not mutually exclusive, but those teachers are a rare find, and they are hardly ever placed in schools that need them the most. TFA hopes to bridge that gap.

  • ’11/potential teacher

    I’m strongly considering teaching after college, but TFA doesn’t appeal to me. It seems like it’s not a very good route for someone who is considering a career (ie, not a two year stint) in teaching. I imagine jumping into a severely underperforming school with no training would be a formula for burnout. Teaching might be something i want to spend my life doing, and i’d really rather not ruin that for myself by biting off more than i can chew and growing to resent the experience.

  • Not again

    I think we’ve talked this issue to death on the YDN comments sections.

    For a good rebuttal of Ms. Libresco, see:

  • Here is an article on the subject

    It appears to accurately capture the benefits and problems of TFA. Throwing fresh-out-of-college young people into classrooms without proper training is stupid any way you cut it. I dislike unions, but let’s face facts, is there a Nurses for America where students get a five week course in nursing and then are thrown into a hospital? Nope. Teaching is a trained profession like nursing or law. Remember those great teachers who never received a teaching degree? How many of them were your elementary school teachers or middle school teachers? Probably none. That model works well in good public high schools, but not in middle schools in Brooklyn or the Bronx. Sorry #6, Connecticut is not everything. Try shadowing the NYC schools.

    I’ve heard that Americorps City Year is a much more valid program:

  • Shame…

    So you decided what your opinion on this was and cherry picked some facts to support your argument without even listening to an opposing argument or identifying the context (what’s the non-TFA turnover rate for teachers in those kinds of schools, for example? what’s the percentage of people who stay in education beyond their two year commitment like compared to the percentage who plan on staying before their two years have started?)

    The President of the Yale Political Union can do better to at least consider the other side of an issue…

  • Ferny

    I’ve heard this meme of ‘putting facts from the other side’ in the public sphere to ‘consider’ them.

    I don’t expect opinion articles or editorials to let publicly engage with every thread of an argument. That’s silly. To not publicly print an opposing fact is not the same as to believe it isn’t there, but to believe it isn’t compelling. I know Leah – pretty sure she grappled with the other side well.

    As for TFA, again, it has noble goals but it could be a MUCH better program. Perhaps a 3-year commitment, with the first year in teacher training, shadowing, etc. programs in the area of commitment? Perhaps a focus on retaining TFA students as teachers, not administrators? The goal for TFA should be to eventually not exist, rather than continuously grow.

  • *sigh*

    Let’s compare teaching and talk therapy. Talk therapy, ostensibly, is just sitting in a chair helping someone with their problems. But would you want a recent college graduate with only 5 weeks’ training as your therapist, no matter how smart? I know I wouldn’t.

    Or what about a lawyer. There are some really smart kids here, who could probably hold their own in a courtroom with only 5 weeks’ training. And yet we still value lawyers with actual law degrees.

    As a society, we need to learn to think of teaching in the same way. Yes, there are smart people out there who can do some good things for kids, even without real training as a teacher. Yes, there are some teachers out there whose degrees are worthless–mostly because training teachers isn’t taken seriously in our country. We need to change this. And we need to start by giving teachers the same kind of rigorous training as we give to lawyers or clinical psychologists, and providing incentives for bright kids from Yale to look at teaching the same way they look at law, rather than tossing them into a classroom for a tiny fraction of their lives before they go off and do something else.

    Ms. Libresco, this was a very well written and well-argued article.

  • Yale 08

    So she wants TFA teachers to spend MORE time with current full-time teachers?

    The same teachers that are terrible and fail to produce results?

    Public schools draw mostly the lazy and the under-intelligent to their tenured teaching ranks.

    TFA is a great step away from the public school monopoly.

  • @ 18

    Do you realize how much money it would cost to employ teachers with the same level of training as Doctors or Lawyers? There are limits to the average school budget, and paying eggheads exorbitant salaries doesn’t seem like a great use of that money.

    In my opinion, there are a great many people who could teach either part-time or full-time without training. If you could potentially have access to the manpower and energy they would provide, why would you set up yet another burdensome bureaucracy/hierarchy, the most obvious short-term effect of which would be to inflate teacher’s salaries?

  • Ferny


    Then…gasp…shouldn’t we increase our education budgets so that teacher salaries go up? Then we’d have a career that validates its practitioners without forcing them to take a vow of poverty.

    Why are individuals against teachers getting paid well? Why does everybody that comments on this page seem to dislike teachers?

    Also, no, I actually disagree that anybody in education should enter without training. This is exactly the problem – the fact that you consider it such a ‘soft’ field that you can simply enter it at whim MAKES fit a soft field, continuing to elicit only pay and prestige responses that makes the harder working and more economically inclined in our society NOT want to go into teaching, forcing us to reach into the bottom quartiles as a society for teachers.

    Look at countries like Japan, that pay their teachers well and where they command SOCIAL respect. I have problems with their system on other levels, but the problems certainly aren’t with the teachers.

  • *sigh*

    I am all for increasing teachers’ salaries in exchange for being allowed to fire even tenured teachers who are ineffective. Offering quality teaching is one of the most important ways in which we can ensure that all American children have access to a quality education. In the end, is there something more important that you want to spend that money on?

  • Atlanta

    Interesting article. I’m not sure I agree with all of your points, but, you’re an exceptional writer.

    Also, if you didn’t see this article from the NY Times posted earlier this month, it compliments your article quite nicely: