Time commitment insufficient for student success

Helen Hansen

Corps members of Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that recruits talented young college graduates and puts them in low-performing schools for two-year periods, “could make up one-quarter of all new teachers in 60 of the nation’s highest need school districts” by 2015, according to The Associated Press. While TFA advocates gleefully spread the good news, its critics are not shy to point out the organization’s low retention rate — only 31 percent stay in the classroom beyond their two-year contract, according to TFA’s website — and the resulting problems. TFA has become a stopover in the career of many bright college graduates whose ultimate aspiration is to land a cozy, well-paying job in, well, anything that is not an inner-city classroom.

UT is currently the third largest contributor of graduates to TFA and was the largest last year. About 5 percent of the 2011 graduating class went into the program, and why wouldn’t they? It’s like a golden ticket to any graduate school or education-related job a TFA alumnus wants upon completing his or her two-year stint in the classroom. But that is exactly what is wrong with the program.

Most of TFA’s corps members are not in it for the long haul.

They do not want to be teachers, but this is hardly surprising once you skim over the TFA website. You will be hard-pressed to find the participants called “teachers.”

Rather, they are “corps members” and “leaders.” No wonder most of them leave the classroom. The organization itself indoctrinates this elitist idea that its members are meant to go on to bigger and better things after their contracts are up.

True to their name, TFA “leaders” want to be influential policy-makers or businessmen or board members of education nonprofits. Of its 17,000 alumni, less than one-third remain in the classroom and 63 percent pursue careers in “the field of education,” according to The New York Times — too many chiefs and not enough Indians, as the old saying goes. Just look at TFA’s website, which lists dozens of graduate schools and Fortune 500 companies that “actively recruit” and offer “special benefits” to corps members and alumni. The long list includes companies such as GE, Goldman Sachs, Google and KPMG and graduate schools including Harvard Law School, Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing and Yale School of Management — all pretty big carrots to the TFA stick.

But so what if the Ivy league-educated corps members leave the classroom after two years? They still did more good for their students than a “regular” teacher would have, right?

Wrong. The assumption that a teacher with a degree from an Ivy League university and a TFA certificate from a six-week crash course is as equally qualified as an experienced “regular” teacher who has spent many years in the classroom is false. A paper sponsored by the Economics of Education Review in June 2010 found that “teacher classroom performance is correlated neither with the type of certification a teacher has earned, nor with the acquisition of an advanced degree, nor with the selectivity of the university a teacher attended. Only on-the-job training that comes with each year of experience in the classroom has been regularly identified as a correlate of teacher effectiveness.”

Not only are TFA corps members no better prepared for the classroom than teachers with degrees in education, but their total lack of experience endangers students’ learning.

A June 2010 study by the Carolina Institute for Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that elementary school math students “lose the equivalent of 21 days of schooling” with “inexperienced teachers,” that is, first- or second-year teachers. By consistently filling low-performing schools with new teachers every two years, TFA is actually perpetuating the achievement gap, perhaps even widening it.

TFA has a great mission and a strong program, but it is seriously compromised by its disregard for keeping more of its corps in classrooms. The greatest change will come from the classrooms, where students get one-on-one attention from their teachers, not conference rooms in state capitols where policymakers argue and compromise over education reform. Extend the contract to five years, and then we’ll see some real improvement in education.

Hansen is a Plan II and public relations freshman.