‘Teach for America’ overstates its classroom success

‘Teach for America’ overstates its classroom success | The Post and Courier, Charleston SC – News, Sports, Entertainment

A recent article in The Post and Courier announced “Struggling schools to get strong teachers” (Diette Courrégé, Dec. 13, 2011). The article, as well as commentaries and a subsequent article, suggests that Charleston’s high-poverty schools struggle to attract and maintain high-quality teachers and that Teach for America (TFA) recruits are appropriate solutions to that problem.

South Carolina and Charleston, however, should heed the considerable evidence that challenges that claim.

First, we must acknowledge that teacher recruitment and retention are historical problems faced across S.C. and the U.S. in high-poverty schools, but we cannot gloss over that the high-quality teachers needed are certified teachers with many years of classroom experience — characteristics research shows contribute strongly to student learning.

One of the hidden cultures of schools is that veteran and high-quality teachers often are “rewarded” with top students and elite courses such as Advanced Placement.

Currently, top students receive the double benefit of privileged lives and the best possible teachers teaching the most challenging curriculum while children of color, children living in poverty, and English language learners sit in classrooms taught by inexperienced and uncertified or under-certified teachers.

Next, a flawed assumption running through much of the discussion of high-poverty schools and teacher quality is not being addressed — specifically the direct role of teacher quality in measurable student outcomes.

Many comments in the articles and commentaries in this paper have implied that teachers of “top” students are high-quality and teachers of high-poverty, English language learners, and special needs students are not high quality. This is a hasty and misleading claim.

Measurable student outcomes, specifically standardized test data, remain highly correlated (between about 60 percent and 86 percent) with out-of-school factors. Teacher quality tends to be masked or distorted by test scores, not reflected in test scores.

So let’s acknowledge that hiring TFA recruits does not address the essential teacher quality problem facing Charleston because TFA recruits have no experience as teachers, only five-weeks of training, and a mere two-year commitment to their positions.

All of the basic characteristics of TFA recruits match the problems high-poverty schools face in teacher recruitment and retention — not the solutions.

Next, TFA itself raises more questions than it offers solutions.

TFA is primarily, by their own materials, a program to train leaders; teaching and learning are secondary and serve fundamentally as avenues for TFA recruits, not commitments.

Further, most of the information surrounding TFA is promotional material.

As Philip Kovaks has detailed in a series at Anthony Cody’s Living in Dialogue blog (Education Week/Teacher), we have very little peer-reviewed research on the effectiveness of TFA recruits, but what evidence we do have suggests that TFA is well funded and marketed, but an unproven experiment with children trapped in poverty:

“How TFA can continue to make the claim that they produce corps members who make ‘as much of an impact on student achievement as veteran teachers’ despite evidence to the contrary is a fairly simple matter. Thanks to massive grants and payments from school districts around the country, TFA has quite a war chest, and they can afford a massive public relations campaign that includes directly lobbying the federal government using your tax dollars.”

To invest in TFA, then, is to perpetuate an organization primarily interested in building leaders but has yet to show evidence that their program is worth the investment for public education — except it benefits the organization and the recruits who leave their schools for other fields.

The greatest concern, however, that S.C. and Charleston should raise about hiring TFA recruits for children in high-poverty schools, special needs students, and English language learners is that such a choice is further marginalizing those children in a system that is currently failing them both in their lives and schools.

I have raised this question before and have yet to receive an adequate answer: If TFA does in fact provide high-quality recruits for our schools, why doesn’t someone hire them for the top students in order to release the most experienced certified teachers to work with the struggling populations of students (now being targeted by TFA)?

My suspicion is that no one would tolerate that decision; the parents of top students would balk at novice recruits without certification taking over their children’s classes.

And they would be right.

But it is also true that our children trapped under the weight of poverty should not be reduced to experiments for TFA recruits, but instead deserve experienced and certified teachers.

SEE ALSO re: TFA in Charleston SC:

Unpacking TFA Support: Twisted Logic and Assumptions
Follow up: TFA in Charleston SC
Holding Journalists, the Media Accountable
TFA Invades Charleston SC


Peske, H. G., & Haycock, K. (2006, June). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington DC: The Education Trust, Inc. Retrieved 7 September 2009 from http://www2.edtrust.org/NR/rdonlyres/010DBD9F-CED8-4D2B-9E0D-91B446746ED3/0/TQReportJune2006.pdf

TFA Resources

Teach for America – A Hidden Curriculum?
Teach for America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal Do-Gooders
Teach for America: Liberal mission helps conservative agenda
Philip Kovacs: Research Suggests Teach For America Does Not Belong in Huntsville
Philip Kovacs: Teach For America Research Fails the Test
Philip Kovacs: Huntsville Takes a Closer Look at Teach For America’s “Research”
Philip Kovacs Takes on TFA in Huntsville
The Dialogue Heats Up over Teach For America
Petition to Change/Reform TfA
Teach For America: A False Promise
Teach For America: A Review of the Evidence
Ravitch: The Problem with Teach For America
Richard Cohen’s Teach for America Column Deserves a Failing Grade


  1. […] policy they can find—charter schools, teacher evaluations linked to test scores, merit pay, Teach for America, and grade retention for third graders based on state test […]

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