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Overhyping Teach For America, Undercutting Millions of Students

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Teach For America (TFA) is an innovative program that draws thousands of talented individuals into public service.

In short, the program offers top-tier college graduates the opportunity to teach in high-needs schools for two years while earning a subsidized master's degree in education. Many corps members remain in the classroom, but continuing to teach beyond the two-year program is not an expectation. Thus, through a competitive application process, TFA recruits lots of really smart young people to teach in tough schools for a couple of years, and then many of them leave, ideally armed with a new on-the-ground understanding of poverty and education in America.

It's a compelling model, run and sustained by dynamic and altruistic people like founder Wendy Kopp, whose achievement at TFA will be recognized next month when she receives an honorary doctorate at Washington University in Saint Louis. Given its admirable mission, politically savvy leaders, and a power-class applicant pool culled from the most prestigious universities in the country, it makes sense that TFA has forged strong bonds of support at the highest levels. (President Obama praised the program during a bill-signing earlier this week.)

So let me be clear: I like Teach For America. Some of my closest friends and strongest colleagues are TFA members.

That said, I'm concerned that it's being propped up by many as a cure-all for America's education woes, when it is nothing of the kind. Teach For America currently contains 6,200 corps members, which constitutes about 0.16 percent of the 3.9 million K-12 teachers in America. And for many within that fraction of a percent, it's a two-year jump in the pool, not a long term endeavor.

In yesterday's New York Times, Thomas Friedman -- who I greatly admire -- leapt headfirst into the TFA-as-education-savior love-fest. He closed his column, which linked long term economic strength to a quality school system:

President Obama recognizes that we urgently need to invest the money and energy to take those schools and best practices that are working from islands of excellence to a new national norm. But we need to do it with the sense of urgency and follow-through that the economic and moral stakes demand.

With Wall Street's decline, though, many more educated and idealistic youth want to try teaching. Wendy Kopp... called the other day with these statistics about college graduates signing up to join her organization to teach in some of our neediest schools next year: "Our total applications are up 40 percent. Eleven percent of all Ivy League seniors applied, 16 percent of Yale's senior class, 15 percent of Princeton's...."

Part of it, said Kopp, is a lack of jobs elsewhere. But part of it is "students responding to the call that this is a problem our generation can solve." May it be so, because today, educationally, we are not a nation at risk. We are a nation in decline...

Friedman's urgent excitement over TFA applications misses the larger picture.

Sure, many Ivy Leaguers are interested to work in underserved schools. TFA may represent an "island of excellence," as Friedman puts it, but it's not a replicable model, since the premise of its success is predicated on exclusivity. Its model of skimming the cream of America's top colleges to serve in 29 regions around the country (the Pacific Northwest is ostensibly on its own) is unequipped to strike at the heart of our costly teacher turnover crisis and its searing impact on our achievement gap.

Over 99.8 percent, a near-total, of America's teachers are not part of Teach For America. If we are serious about repairing our education downslide-- and I believe President Obama is-- we cannot look to TFA as our crucial beacon. Teach For America is a triumph of private sector innovation that should continue to be heartily supported and responsibly expanded, but its embedded exceptionalism innately limits it from modeling nationwide reform.

In 2007, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF) conducted an extensive and illuminating study on teacher turnover, which calculated an annual nationwide cost of over $7 billion for the replacement of people leaving the profession.

That's staggering, and doesn't take into account the invaluable institutional knowledge or student-teacher relationships lost when experienced teachers depart the job early and overwhelmed rookies run for the exit. The study's findings on the importance of recruiting and retaining quality teachers speak directly to the long term health of our education system-- and our economy.

Our country requires broadly-conceived initiatives to ensure that our schools in all 50 states are staffed with talented, well-trained, and well-supported teachers-- with or without that Princeton degree. We also need our leaders and opinion-makers to amplify these initiatives and their implementation, rather than excessively hyping one dynamic but relatively tiny nonprofit organization.

The NCTAF report's concise recommendations offer a sound recipe for better-staffed schools and higher student achievement:

1. Invest in new teacher support and development

2. Target comprehensive retention strategies to at-risk schools

3. Track teacher turnover and its costs annually

4. Amend NCLB to hold school leaders accountable for turnover and its costs

5. Upgrade district data systems

I'd add to that list more competitive teacher salaries, more student loan forgiveness for educators, class size caps, less mania surrounding standardized testing, and more opportunities for teacher recognition and advancement. These are the tools that need more ink in the newspaper and more airtime in the president's speeches.

It's heartening and important that many Yalies want to teach in the Bronx, but even those best and brightest can't salvage this thing on their own.

Dan Brown is a teacher in Washington, DC, and the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle. In 2003, he applied to Teach For America.

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