Reflexive opposition to Teach For America (TFA) is commonplace and the arguments against the organization are recycled regularly: Corps members are ill-prepared, they don’t stay in the profession, or they primarily teach at charter schools. It’s rare to come across fresh or fair takes on TFA, much less from someone who is a former corps member and has taught at public schools both traditional and charter.
School Data Nerd is the nom de plume of Benjamin Feinberg, an eighth-grade math and science teacher at Luther Burbank Middle School, in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, who uses public data to guide his thinking on educational issues rather than resorting to rhetoric or politicking. Feinberg, a TFA corps member in 2008, was curious to see how many people from his cohort were still teaching, so he took to Internet voyeurism courtesy of LinkedIn, Facebook, and Google to find out (Feinberg admitted his approach was more snoopy than scientific). Through his sleuthing, Feinberg discovered what 80 percent of his cohort were up to eight years later. Twenty-three percent are still teaching and 18 percent are education administrators or district officials. When counting those who became lawyers, academics, and policy experts, the number of people involved in education increased. Feinberg calculated that over half of corps members, 53 percent, had careers associated with education. At first glance, a 77 percent attrition rate in the Los Angeles branch of Teach For America is startling. But Feinberg gives the figure some context:
The thing is, you have to consider that TFA is a completely different kind of program. People sign up for a two year commitment, many of them intending to move on to another job afterwards. Part of TFA’s philosophy is that these teachers will be extremely effective because they are the best of the best—they are the future doctors and lawyers of America—and this data bears that out.
More often than not, TFA corps members
teach for longer than two years. There is also value in being taught by
idealistic young people who don’t believe household income is destiny. But if Teach For America’s main purpose lies in getting more people to care about, and even fight for, education as a national priority rather than being relegated to third-rail status every election cycle, that’s a powerful thing. These people could become the future influencers who are in a position to push education to the forefront. Staying on as a classroom teacher is one important way to demonstrate that commitment, but it’s not the only way to be an education advocate. And we all know that some new educators—both traditionally trained and TFA supported—are not cut out for this demanding, but often undervalued, profession, so there should be another way to stay true to the cause. As one young education policy leader says,
the drive for educational equity requires all hands to be on deck—teachers and non-teachers alike. TFA should not bear the burden of replenishing
the dearth of teachers nationwide; the problem is much bigger than the organization. But the goal of recruiting stellar young people to life-defining work—akin to the vision behind the establishment of the Peace Corps or City Year—and keeping them involved in some capacity throughout their lives is no small accomplishment.
Caroline Bermudez is chief storyteller at the Charter School Growth Fund and former senior writer at Education Post. Bermudez has been a journalist for almost 10 years. She was staff editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, covering the nonprofit world, with a particular focus on foundations and high net-worth giving. She has interviewed prominent business, political and philanthropic leaders ...