The Progressive Fix


Simmering tensions between the nation’s largest teachers’ union and a highly acclaimed national service program boiled over this week. The National Education Association vowed to “publicly oppose Teach for America (TFA) contracts when they are used in Districts where there is no teacher shortage or when Districts use TFA agreements to reduce teacher costs, silence union voices, or as a vehicle to bust unions.”

Teach for America is a nonprofit organization that recruits graduates from leading universities to teach for two years in some of the nation’s most impoverished school districts. Study after study shows that TFA’s dedicated teachers are effective in lifting achievement levels among the poor and minority students they serve. Why would the NEA want to deprive our neediest kids of good teachers?

NEA member Marianne Bratsanos of Washington, who proposed the anti-TFA resolution, complained that the volunteer group undermines schools of education and accepts money from foundations and other funders who are hostile to unions. The key complaint, however, seems to be that TFA volunteers are displacing more experienced teachers, even in districts with no teacher shortages.

Full disclosure: I’m a TFA alum. You may discount my views accordingly, but the NEA’s indictment is very far from the reality I encountered on the ground teaching Language Arts to inner city kids in Charlotte, N.C.

TFA corps members fill vacancies in schools that many teachers want to avoid, or that are saddled with the least-skilled and effective teachers. Believe me, we don’t take jobs from good teachers who are making gains in student achievement. And it’s hard to see how TFA undermines schools of education. In fact, Teach for America has formed many successful partnerships with colleges of education to help train their recruits and provide ongoing development. TFA’s success in molding volunteers who bypass traditional education schools into good teachers may raise troublesome questions about the relevance and effectiveness of those schools, but whose fault is that?

Though green when I entered Teach for America in 2007, I quickly honed the requisite skills through classroom preparation, student teaching, and one-on-one time with my support staff. The first few months of actual teaching were difficult to say the least, but with the support and continuous development I received from TFA, my students demonstrated significant progress by the end of the year.

TFA isn’t anti-union, it’s pro-student. Its mission is to ensure that all children have a chance for an excellent education. It exists because there is a dearth of highly qualified and effective teachers in America’s poorest communities.

TFA members serve the lowest performing schools in 39 urban and rural regions. Teachers, known as corps members, commit to teach for two years to help end educational inequality. Applicants go through a rigorous application period, where approximately twelve percent of applicants are selected and around 4,500 first year teachers accept. Corps members begin their journey with five weeks of intensive training and are supervised by experienced teachers and support staff. TFA members are then provided with ongoing professional development and one-on-one support throughout their two years as teachers.

The Teaching as Leadership Model that Teach for America employs is different than the traditional training model used by many schools of education. Though many union members argue that the summer leadership institute is not the best way to insure excellent teaching, the proof is in the pudding.

In a 2010 study, Gary Henry and Charles Thompson found that TFA members had a greater impact on student success than teachers who graduated from a traditional school of education. A 2008 Urban Institute study likewise found that TFA teachers were more effective than other teachers in similar settings, including more experienced teachers and those certified in their field. Similarly, a NYC study concluded that TFA members were more effective in improving math and reading scores than those traditionally certified.

The RAND Institute has found that a five-year increase in teaching experience improved student achievement very little – less than one percentage point. Likewise, the level of education and the licensure scores held by a teacher had no effect on student achievement. Additionally, research has shown that corps members’ impact exceeds that of experienced and certified teachers in the same schools.

Policy Studies Associates, Inc. recently published a report that may explain why the NEA is kicking up such a fuss about Teach for America. “Ninety-five percent of the principals rated corps members as effective as other beginning teachers in terms of overall performance and impact on student achievement; sixty-six percent rated corps members as more effective than other beginning teachers, ninety-one percent of the principals reported that corps members’ training is at least as good as the training of other beginning teachers, sixty-three percent rated corps members’ training as better than that of other beginning teachers, and eighty-seven percent of the principals said they would hire a corps member again.”

In light of such evidence, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that what really rankles the NEA is competition, and worse, being shown up by the competition. Instead of trying to crush the competition, teachers’ unions ought to learn from it.

Here’s a thought for the NEA: why not work with Teach for America to develop ways to attract more talented college grads to teaching, and for that matter, encourage some of TFA’s two-year volunteers to go pro?

Photo Credit: Tulane Publications

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