In Praise of Teach for America
When I worked as a private independent school administrator, many of our new hires at the secondary level were graduates of good liberal arts colleges. They had no teacher training. We also hired at the secondary level graduates of various teacher preparation programs.
I know that most public school teachers won’t want to hear this, but the difference between new “trained” teachers and new “untrained” teachers was that the untrained teachers were better prepared in their academic discipline. Both trained and untrained had initial difficulties with planning and classroom management. Had the liberal arts graduates received five or six weeks of intensive training in classroom management and teaching strategies, they would probably have been substantially better than the trained teachers from the start.
Because of my experience as a private school administrator, it is hard to convince me that the twentieth anniversary of Teach for America is anything other than a cause to celebrate. And as a former Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m not so sure that a youthful, optimistic two-year commitment to make the world (or a single school) better is not a very good thing.
Of course, criticism of TFA comes from the usual defenders of the status quo. They act as if we’re doing such a great job in low-income schools that we don’t want tinker with the program. Randi Weingarten argues that when teachers in TFA leave after two years, they put a school’s “stable environment” at risk. This argument is self-serving, of course, but she does have a point that millions of dollars are lost each year through teacher attrition. The only problem is that it’s not because of TFA. Studies show that as many as 40% of new teachers – certified in teacher prep programs – leave within the first five years citing undisciplined kids, unsupportive administration, and difficult parents.
At the Teach for America Summit, Arne Duncan recounted how easy it was to work with IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman to simplify the federal financial aid application for college. It turns out Shulman is a TFA alumnus. The Peace Corps experience can change a person’s world view forever; TFA can change a person’s concept of public education forever. There are lots of ways to influence school reform besides being inside the classroom.