THE BLOG

Is Teach for America Beginning to Lose Its Luster?

02/15/2015 08:04 pm ET | Updated Apr 17, 2015

A recent New York Times article -- "Fewer Top Graduates Want to Join Corps of Temporary Teachers" (2/6/2015) -- notes that the TFA program is "suddenly having recruitment problems." The article reveals that applications are down 10 percent but the consequence is that two of the eight summer training sites in New York and Los Angeles were closed as the size of the teacher corps might be down 25 percent. Yet the demand for recruits from the program "is extremely high," according to Matt Kramer, co-chief executive of Teach for America. The Times article indicates that TFA has 10,500 teachers in 35 states and has 2400 employees with revenue of $196 million. It also provides a significant number of charter schools with the kind of teachers they like to recruit: inexperienced, low-wage workers with a significant turnover rate, which "really destabilizes a learning environment," according to Hannah Nguyen, a University of Southern California student who wants to be a teacher but is now organizing a protest against Teach for America.

What I have found in the many years I have taught and written about education is that there is no easy way to develop a good teacher from someone whose vocational motivation is that "I like children." But I would judge that to have any chance of becoming a good teacher requires from a candidate at least five to seven years of experience. The training that Teach for America provides for recent graduates consists of a five-week summer program which is followed by assignment to what are often the most difficult schools in their district. Such assignments should not be given to inexperienced teachers, especially if there are a diminishing number of veteran teachers in such schools. The link between Teach for America and charter schools is pretty clear. According to the Times article: "Charter schools, which receive public money but are run independently are particularly reliant on Teach for America. At YES prep, a charter school network founded by Teach for America alumni, about 10 percent of all teachers in 13 schools are [TFA] corps members."

Significantly, the following observation was posted on a charter school website: "Where Are the Veteran Charter School Teachers?" by Blair Mishleau (Pass the Chalk, 4/10/13).

Looking at the unique demands of many charters and their salary and benefits compared with a unionized charter or district school, I'm not surprised there are so few "lifers" at charters in my area. The much higher year-to-year costs of salary and benefits for veteran teachers... compared to beginners give charters less incentive to hire a veteran. Or perhaps they're just not applying.

After all, as a veteran teacher in many charter schools, you work longer hours, get paid less, and have less job security than in other school settings. I'm no stranger to the pros and cons of a unionized school; my mom has seen inept teachers bring down student scores for years without penalty. But, in the interest of stability and structure for students, there has to be a compromise that puts students first and provides a sustainable career for educators.

Right now, I see what seems to be a revolving door for educators promising to transform students' lives. Well-intended as they may be, true transformation happens when those best-suited to teach have a sustainable pathway to stay in the classroom. There are some great ideas and schools tackling this issue, giving teachers the cultural support, flexibility, and opportunities they need and deserve. I hope we can learn from them and make charter schools a place to forge a career.

So far as retention is concerned, according to a study published by Education Week (10/4/2011) the report on retention of TFA recruits is initially encouraging but ultimately disappointing:

"We found that 60.5 percent of [TFA] teachers taught in K-12 schools longer than two years and more than one third (35.5 percent) taught for more than four years. After five years, 27.8 percent were still in teaching. This retention rate is markedly lower than the 50 percent estimated for new teachers across all types of schools (Smith & Ingersoll, 2003)... Most people would be surprised to learn that a substantial percentage of TFA teachers -- 43.6 percent -- remained in their initial, low-income placement school beyond their two-year obligation. However, many individuals who stayed in teaching did leave their original placement schools at some point. About half of those who remained in teaching after their third year had changed schools. And, after the fourth year, only 14.8 percent continued to teach in their original school.

Although it is laudable that many TFA recruits stay on for more than the minimum two years, only one out of four remained in teaching after four years and one in seven remained barely long enough in their originally assigned schools to begin to master the skills necessary to become, what I believe, are competent teachers. Yet this program is extensively used by those schools and school districts that need experienced, committed teachers the most.

As I am about to conclude my fiftieth year of college teaching -- 37 years of which were at a school where I instructed thousands of elementary and secondary education students over those years -- I'm still learning teaching techniques and find that sharing ideas and experiences with my veteran colleagues are among the most valuable learning opportunities I have had. The chance to mentor younger colleagues, in what is generally an informal atmosphere also sharpens my thinking on the most effective ways to teach. I'm certainly aware of the negative attitudes toward teaching of those of my colleagues who are far more comfortable in front of a computer doing research than they are in front of a classroom but all teachers should not be tarred by the same brush. The process of developing teaching skills takes in many cases decades and certainly can't be crammed into a five-week equivalent of boot camp. But there is no sure way to produce excellence in teachers no matter what the method used. Competence can be taught: but great teaching is a gift and an art: not just a job.

As long as charter schools and such organizations as TFA are unwilling to realize that their pedagogical methods do not work well, particularly in terms of instructional objectives emphasizing standardized tests above all else, they will continue to contribute to the deskilling of the profession and do incalculable damage to a calling constantly under attack for not producing "results." The real challenge to our educational system is to recognize that we must adopt a comprehensive approach to teaching students if they are to learn well and not just those students who are well-off. Especially in low-income neighborhoods young learners' ability to be motivated to retain and develop what they are taught is profoundly affected by their home environment, nutrition and cultural and social attitudes that must be understood and, where possible, seriously addressed, if we want to make the impact that transforms alienated youngsters into committed learners.