Propelling education beyond the classroom

Zoya Waliany

In the midst of senior year, many UT students are applying for graduate and professional schools and accepting offers at companies around the world. Some students, however, have chosen a path less traveled but increasingly important: Teach For America. Established in 1990 to address the growing problems of the American education system, the nonprofit trains recent college graduates to teach for two years in urban and rural schools, serving as leaders in their classrooms. As this organization continues to expand, it increases understanding of the growing education crisis in America and works to close the achievement gap between students with low-income backgrounds and their wealthier peers.

TFA critics claim that its members are not as qualified to teach as other incoming teachers with teaching degrees.

But to become a TFA corps member, students undergo an intensive application process including interviews that require critical thinking skills. Students from different backgrounds are selected based on a number of factors, most importantly their commitment to serving students.

New TFA corps members receive rigorous training for six weeks, which teaches them innovative, efficacious teaching methods to transform classrooms where students are struggling. The training entails teaching a summer school course under the supervision of a veteran teacher. Students must also pass a test to move on to the next grade.

Moreoever, were TFA members not successful, school districts would not continue to invite them back.

Even upon teaching a class alone, TFA members are matched with highly experienced teachers. Furthermore, the members continue to receive support and professional development from the regional TFA organization. According to The New York Times, 63 percent of corps members remain in the teaching profession after their two-year requirement is complete, with 31 percent continuing to teach in low-income neighborhoods, a retention rate similar to the percent of non-TFA new teachers in the same type of low-income, poorly organized school systems.

However, the benefit of TFA is not necessarily to recruit teachers but rather to raise capability of education reform in the future leaders of America. The dire state of our education system calls for drastic alterations, and TFA alumni are responding. Notable TFA alumni include KIPP Academy co-founders Mike Feinberg and David Levin and Michelle Rhee, former D.C. public school chancellor. A Harvard University study in 2011 concluded that more founders of successful entrepreneurial education organizations participated in TFA than any other program.

Our education system requires reform from all different sectors, from business to law to education, and the diverse careers of TFA alumni help account for these various reforms. TFA members become “lifelong leaders for fundamental change, regardless of their professional sector,” as stated on its website, because TFA instills in its members the desire to advocate for the vital education reform movement in America.

Furthermore, during the two-year term, TFA members work closely with students in their classrooms who, facing added challenges of poverty and unequal education, require personalized attention. In 2010, students of TFA members in Tennessee scored higher than other students of non-TFA new teachers in reading, science and social studies, according to a Tennessee report.

Alejandro Delgado, recruitment manager at UT and a TFA alumnus, recalls entering his classroom in Brownsville, Texas, to find that only 53 percent of his 10th grade students had passed the TAKS test the previous year. After spending the year working with them, he helped 100 percent of his students pass the TAKS test. This past year, all of his students matriculated into college. Results like these illustrate the significant change TFA members are actualizing around the country.

TFA, a teaching corps, refer to its members as corps members or leaders. These titles are not to insinuate a sense of elitism but rather to teach TFA members respect for the teaching profession. Teachers are seldom thought of as leaders of our country the way that politicians and businesspeople are. This archaic type of thinking must end as we work to improve the education system, the most vital element to ensuring our country’s future success. With various outlets for guidance, from TFA’s assistance to support from veteran teachers in their schools, TFA members are leading their students to success. We need leaders in our classrooms, and TFA is an effective source helping to create these leaders.

Waliany is a Plan II and government senior.