Are YOU ready to Teach for America?

David Stanley ’05 has been given 10 minutes to talk to the students of Jay Winter’s “Europe in the Age of Total War” class. As Teach for America’s Yale recruitment director, Stanley works to ensure the best and brightest of the best and brightest apply to work for his employer. Before this lecture hall of undergrads, some half-asleep, others distractedly packing their bags, Stanley announces that Teach for America is in need of “exemplary leaders.” He quotes the Declaration of Independence and describes TFA alumni “infiltrating the halls of power” to effect lasting change in the American educational system. By the end of his speech, Stanley is on the verge of tears.

If Stanley is a salesman, he is a very good salesman.

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Last year, 11 percent of Yale’s graduating class applied for a position in “the Corps.” In the unlikely chance that TFA’s advertising has missed anyone on campus, here is the rundown: Every year since its creation in 1990, Teach for America has sent out a group of the highest-achieving college grads to teach in poor and under-performing schools across the country. The “mission,” according to its Web site, is “to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our nation’s most promising future leaders in the effort.”

Teach for America is elite. Last year, only 36 percent of Yalies who applied got in, or 52 out of 145. Through a rigorous series of applications and interviews, TFA weeds out prospects until there remain only those the organization believes will meet the extreme challenge of teaching second-graders.

“We are willing to take anyone who meets our selection criteria,” he says. “But that criteria is rigorous. Because if we select someone who isn’t going to be an effective teacher — if, as in rare cases, a teacher chooses to leave the program. That’s a classroom of students who haven’t been given the opportunity they deserve.”

Over the last decade, Teach for America has succeeded in making the classroom a prestigious destination for college grads, many of whom would have never otherwise considered the teaching profession. Drawn by the chance to affect real change, the men and women of Teach for America set out with minimal training, banking on their own drive and leadership skills. Success, however, is never a guarantee.

“We are a new kind of activist”

Coming off of his second Thursday as a teacher at Amistad Academy, a charter elementary school in New Haven, Greg Lipstein ’08 kicked back on his couch and described a recent lesson plan.

“My students were learning phonics,” explained Lipstein. “Now, this might sound really ridiculous and juvenile, but — puppets are amazing. You start using puppets and students’ behavior and engagement just skyrocket. They were getting it.”

While Lipstein was perfectly sincere in his joy at having succeeded in teaching phonics, it was still strange to hear him talk so excitedly about puppets. Clean-shaven, sharply dressed in a blue shirt and gold tie, Lipstein looked more like a business world up-and-comer than a schoolteacher.

In fact, he is both. Lipstein’s future employer, the consulting firm Bain & Company, has made a formal agreement with TFA that allows him to defer employment to devote two years to the Corps. This policy is common among high-profile firms and graduate schools.

“I feel safe in saying that, if it were not for Teach for America, I would not have gone into teaching,” Lipstein said. “I would almost definitely have been working for Bain already.”

Lipstein is not alone in this sentiment. Beau Babst ’08, a classmate of Lipstein’s who is now a New Orleans Corps member, said he had never imagined himself as a teacher before being contacted by a TFA recruiter. When asked if she had considered being a teacher before learning about TFA, Emma Dogget ’02, who taught in the Rio Grande Valley from 2002 to 2004, responded, “not at all.”

Since TFA’s inception almost two decades ago, newspaper stories, magazine articles and books have attempted to explain its broad appeal. TFA calls on youth who would rather serve its own country than a foreign one, some say. Also, it looks great on a resume — BusinessWeek recently named the Corps as the “11th Best Place To Launch a Career.” It has even been said that extreme selectivity draws a generation of overachievers — or, as Donna Foote, author of “Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America,” told the New York Times, “it’s speaking to a generation of kids who have been competing since kindergarten. The more elusive the goal, the more you want it.”

Lipstein, however, said he did it for the responsibility.

“Teach for America offers an immediate way into something you can feel passionate about and at the same time be responsible for,” he said, adding, “I am really excited to be doing something where if I screw up, it affects other people.”

Stanley calls this “impact.”

“With Teach for America, the emphasis is on the impact you have on your students,” Stanley said. “And I think our generation looks for that. We are a new kind of activist. Our focus is on results.”

“Literally changing the future”

Teach for America’s Web site tells readers that “Education inequity is our nation’s most pressing issue” — and the Corps is fixing the problem. Stanley’s “impact” is integral to this progressivism. TFA’s message to applicants is empowering: as a Corps member, you will have “impact,” or the power to change, shape and influence your students, your school system and your country.

At a Teach for America information session on Monday evening, Stanley screened a short film to prospective applicants on TFA’s work in New Orleans. The following quotations are taken from the film:

“Right now you can put your mark on history … By putting your mark on New Orleans’ children.”

— Avione Brown (Philadelphia Corps ’03)

“There’s something positive that’s happening right now. It’s changing the future. It’s literally changing the future.”

— Ronicka Harrison (Greater New Orleans Corps ’06)

On a campus that last year witnessed a recurrence of two American afflictions — racism (“nigger school”) and sexism (“Yale sluts”) — such willful optimism has fallen on grateful ears. Yalies interviewed said that TFA drew them because it presented something solvable.

Babst said he was drawn to TFA because it “would help alleviate all the other problems we fight today.”

“This is essentially the civil rights movement of our time,” Babst said. “There needs to be drastic change, and we can do it.”

Rebecca Knicely ’05, who, like Stanley, went from teaching in the Corps to recruiting for it (at UNC-Chapel Hill), said that the chance to make “quantifiable” change drew her to TFA.

“Non-profit work seemed interesting, but I didn’t want to finish after two years and say, ‘Like, I think I made a difference,’ ” explained Knicely. “I wanted to do something much more quantifiable. TFA provided that.”

After Monday’s meeting, applicants were especially fired up about TFA’s cause.

“Poverty and other unfair circumstances are driven by lack of education,” said Natasha Spackey ’09, who will apply for TFA this fall. “Disparity is where all the other problems stem from, and it’s something that can and should be fixed.”

Teach for America has gained popularity for promising tangible results. Studies on impact, however, are less than conclusive.

“Relentless Pursuit of Results”

Teach for America’s first Core Value, The Relentless Pursuit of Results, declares, “We assume personal responsibility for achieving ambitious, measurable results in pursuit of our vision. We persevere in the face of challenges, seek resources to ensure the best outcomes, and work toward our goals with a sense of purpose and urgency.”

Emphasis on the word “measurable.” Studies do not consider TFA performance in a void, but rather compare it to non-Corps statistics. The question these studies raise, the question that has become the litmus test for TFA’s success, is this: After the mere five weeks of training TFA provides, can a Corps member be just as good a teacher as his or her non-Corps colleague?

TFA says yes — and claims that the numbers are on its side. According to its Web site, “A growing body of rigorous studies demonstrate that our Corps members are as effective as, and in some cases more effective than, other teachers, including certified and veteran teachers.” The Web site links to a Mathematica Policy Research report that concludes that “TFA teachers did not have an impact on average reading achievement” compared to a control group comprised of non-Corps members, while “TFA teachers had a positive impact on the math achievement of their students” compared to the same group.

But not all studies done on TFA have been so positive. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University and an advisor on education to Barack Obama’s campaign, has conducted two studies, in 1994 and in 2005, which come down negatively on the Corps. She concluded that “uncertified TFA recruits are less effective than certified teachers, and perform about as well as other uncertified teachers.” And while she conceded that Corps members can become good teachers over time, such progress is wasted when teachers leave after their two-year term ends.

Darling-Hammond’s are not the only studies to criticize TFA. In 2002, researchers from the College of Education at Arizona State University released a study called, “The Effectiveness of ‘Teach for America’ and Other Under-certified Teachers on Student Academic Achievement: A Case of Harmful Public Policy,” which concluded that Corps members performed worse than certified teachers.

All of these studies have come under attack, sometimes even from TFA founder Wendy Kopp herself (“I had assumed that [Darling-Hammond’s] article was so over the top that no one would ever take it seriously,” Kopp wrote of the ’94 study in her book “One Day, All Children”). Teach for America’s Web site links to a report card released by “Education Next,” a magazine on school reform, in which the 2005 Darling-Hammond study is given a “C” for methodology and the ASU study a “D.” Furthermore, such studies are incapable of measuring the long-term affects of Teach for America, namely, whether or not the growing hoard of TFA alumni will really “infiltrate the halls of power” and use their past experiences to reform education.

No matter how one reads the numbers, though, the question of whether TFA provides adequate training will likely always follow the organization. Certainly it is one that Yalies applying for a spot in the Corps will have to answer for themselves.

Lipstein, who never considered going through a traditional certification track, said he felt “as prepared as he could have been” when he first entered his classroom earlier this month. For Lipstein, one can only be so prepared before the inevitable shock of back-to-school day. Many prospective Corps members agreed. Nilesh Vashee ’09, who has taught schoolchildren in India and is considering applying for the Corps, said he thinks “no one is ever ‘ready’ to go into a classroom.” Corps prospect Nina Ebner ’09 said that she “feels confident TFA’s [five-week program] gives you the skills needed” to make an impact.

Not all are so confident. Paul Schneider ’08 turned down a spot in the Corps to enroll in Yale’s one-year Urban Teaching Program. When finished, Schneider will have earned a Master of Arts in Urban Education Studies and a State of Connecticut Initial Educator License for Grades 7 to 12.

“The scariest thing about TFA, to me, is that you are immediately in the classroom,” Schneider said. “I just had so many questions about teaching itself. I wanted as much preparation as possible.”

Still, Stanley is confident in Teach for America’s ability to choose people who can succeed without traditional training.

“It takes a special kind of person to make an impact,” he said. “Eighteen years of data have shown us who can make the most impact, who can make the most significant gains with our students.”

An Individual Effort

Statistics and impact can only mean so much. The teacher either communicates or does not.

Though Teach for America prides itself on the Michelle Rhee’s of the program (the former Corps member allegedly raised her students’ test scores from the 13th to the 90th percentile), not all Corps members succeed.

In “How I Joined Teach for America — and Got Sued for $20 Million,” an article published in urban policy magazine City Journal, Joshua Kaplowitz ’00 describes the misunderstandings and failures that led to his being unable to complete his second year in the Corps. Read through the lenses of class and race, his article questions Teach for America’s assertion that privileged, white college grads can be effective teachers of inner-city youth.

Kaplowitz writes,

Being a white teacher in a mostly black school unquestionably hindered my ability to teach. Certain students hurled racial slurs with impunity; several of their parents intimated to my colleagues that they didn’t think a white teacher had any business teaching their children — and a number of my colleagues agreed. One parent who was also a teacher’s aide threatened to “kick my white ass.”

These are not the kind of testimonials you will find on Teach for America’s Web site, which is instead decorated with photos of teachers of all colors interacting with students of all colors. But, when asked to comment on the issues of race and class, Corps members are eager to talk. And they all say the same thing: it comes down to the efforts of the individual teacher.

Babst, a self-described “red-headed white male from a private school education,” explained how he is succeeding with his all-black classroom.

“Of course there are cultural barriers to cross,” he said. “But you just have to walk in and state point-blank that these things don’t matter to you. If you tell them that you’re going to work together toward a common goal, the kids really buy into that.”

Students applying to the Corps also said that they do not see race or class as problems.

“Those are just not things I think about when I’m going through my daily life,” said Turner Smith ’09, who plans to apply by today’s deadline. “What affects me most is the demonstration of need.”

Countering the idea that a Yale education might put a Corps member at a disadvantage, many said that the critical thinking taught at Yale is crucial to success in the classroom.

“A Yale education develops the kind of critical thinking necessary to teach well,” said Daniel Arellano ’04, a Corps member from 2004 to 2006 and until recently a TFA program director in Las Vegas. “To be successful in the classroom, you have to be able to think around issues from various perspectives. Yale students are good at that.”

But even if Elis’ analytical skills are excellent, Teach for America acknowledges that bringing white kids with privileged backgrounds into inner-city schools is not always ideal.

Explaining why TFA focuses recruitment efforts on African-Americans, Latinos and people from low-income backgrounds, the Web site states, “The impact individuals from under-represented groups have on our recruitment focus is a function of two factors — that they are more likely to bring a deep understanding of the communities in which we are working, and that they are better able to focus others on what matters most because of the credibility that comes from their life experience.”

Back in New Haven, Lipstein articulated this reality on a more personal level.

“In the long run,” he said, “the hope is, the goal is, that the kids I’m teaching now would come back and teach another generation.”

Then, Lipstein looked away, nodding pensively.

“That would be sick.”

Indeed.

Back to School

Stanley’s Monday night speech inspired many — if not to commit, then at least to apply. Most of them, of course, will never set foot inside a classroom. The majority of applicants will be denied, and will then have to find something else to do after college.

Some, however, will get in. They will write their applications, obtain their letters of recommendation, pass through the interviews and, finally, become part of an elite, motivated group of peers bent on doing something meaningful. After a summer’s training, youthful and bluntly confident, they will descend from the ivory tower to teach America. Whether or not they succeed is completely up to them.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    Beitler's not a bad writer, but the reporting here is awfully suspect. He raises just enough doubt about the methodology and results of TFA's training program and selection process to pique our interest about this apparent controversy, but falls back onto TFA talking points and press materials -- even taking a page from Kopp's book! -- rather than try and pursue the argument further.

    Of course, given that almost every major house for long-form journalism has published a TFA story in the last couple years, I think the choice of angle is a poor one, anyway. Particularly since the only people Beitler made an effort to talk to were recent Yale alumni, I would have been much more interested to see him stick with the angle he seemed to start with: What drives 10 percent of the graduating Yale class to apply for TFA? Lipstein presents the best example of someone who seems to just want to take a couple years off between college and making his fortune, and maybe hone his public speaking skills a little. But it would've been nice to get more of a feel for his teaching style than "Puppets … whoa," and of course he's just one kind of person who takes these jobs.

    For the future, it's worth thinking about a story that takes a harder look at TFA's Yalies (the successful ones and the ones who quit after a year, or a month -- and there are a LOT of them!), what kind of people they are, and what kind of teachers they make. I'm amazed that Beitler never sat in on one of these classroom sessions.