Teach for America will be co-hosting a discussion at Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center on Thursday. The Facebook event says: “Join us for an honest discussion around the pressure to move yourself forward vs. paying it forward. Does it have to be a choice?” The fact that TFA is hosting this event is puzzling given the program’s practices and impact on racial minorities.
Teach for America is a highly selective program that recruits college graduates to teach for two years without going through a traditional certification program. In recent years, TFA has greatly expanded in urban areas that do not exhibit teacher shortages. These areas tend to have large minority populations, including African Americans, yet the 2012 members of TFA are 62 percent white and only 13 percent African American. As the program expands in cities, laid-off veteran teachers are replaced by TFA members. In many cases, the laid-off teachers are black. For example, the number of black teachers in Chicago has declined by at least 43 percent since 1995. In 2000, TFA had 34 members in Chicago. This past year there were over 500. To summarize, TFA is helping replace experienced black teachers with young white teachers, many of whom will leave the profession after two years.
One Yale graduate, who asked to remain anonymous because of his current employment with a related organization, was recruited by TFA at Yale and accepted to the program. He went on to quit following the intense summer training out of frustration with the program and its ideology. He was assigned to Chicago, a city where over 1,000 teachers lost their jobs this summer, and many of his colleagues had zero interest in remaining in teaching after TFA. I had the opportunity to speak to some of them. They talked about how much they loved their Southside Chicago students. They also talked about how much they wanted to go to business school or become professors.
TFA takes jobs from minority teachers, but it also has detrimental effects on minority students. TFA members are trained in a mere five weeks, a practice that has been criticized by many. Studies conducted have generated conflicting conclusions about the performance of TFA members, but one thing that almost all studies conclude is that teachers with more experience produce higher performing students.
Members of TFA are far less likely to remain in the profession after their two-year commitment than their counterparts from traditional college teacher education programs. In New York City, 85 percent of TFA members had left the school district after four years while only 37 percent of the traditionally educated ones did. Many TFA members view the program as a stepping-stone to graduate school or careers outside of teaching. Fliers for the program at Fordham University even advertise, “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.” Another contributing factor may be the tendency of teachers to “burn out” after two years of intense working conditions with little preparation.
These young, mostly-white TFA teachers are placed in minority-filled classrooms in the place of better-trained, more experienced teachers. The losers here are not only the teachers who no longer are employed, but also the students who will be taught by these less qualified TFA members. A humorous, but sad article in The Onion this summer satirically discussed TFA from the perspective of a student: “Just once, it would be nice to walk into a classroom and see a teacher who has a real, honest-to-God degree in education and not a twentysomething English graduate trying to bolster a middling GPA and a sparse law school application.”
It is very well possible that TFA was a well-intentioned program in its beginnings. In places where there are true shortages of teachers, bringing in college graduates to fill the gaps makes sense, even if they are less effective than traditionally trained teachers. But the reality today is that TFA is operating in many urban school districts that are laying off teachers by the hundreds and thousands.
I don’t think that students entering the program intend to create damage in minority communities — but with the recent media attention given to critics of TFA, these realities are becoming more and more difficult to ignore. TFA has a very large presence at Yale. Eighteen percent of graduating seniors in 2010 applied to the program. By junior year, students begin receiving emails from TFA recruiters inviting them to various events.
Given the elimination of Yale’s teacher certification program two years ago, Yale should actively encourage students to go into teaching — but Teach for America is not the right venue. Why not have a traditional teacher from a New Haven public school host this week’s discussion at the Af-Am House instead of a TFA representative? The discussion topic implies that TFA members “pay it forward” by teaching in low-income communities. It ignores the fact that many of these members do far more harm than good.
Diana Rosen is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact her at diana. firstname.lastname@example.org.