Teach for America hits a turning point

Flagship programme that places graduates in local schools to teach faces uncertain future as participation dwindles

May 18, 2023
Participants jump into the water during the Minnesota Polar Plunge to illustrate Teach for America at turning point as numbers participating drop off
Source: Getty
Teach for America had fewer than 2,000 new participants last year, down from nearly 6,000 in 2013

A time-honoured tradition of US college students taking a turn as primary school teachers after graduating appears to be losing its shine, a victim of low pay, shifting values and debatable benefits.

The centrepiece programme for such students, Teach for America (TFA), was created in 1989 by a Princeton University graduate, Wendy Kopp, as part of her senior thesis. It has since placed more than 60,000 college graduates in short-term elementary school teaching positions, typically in the US school districts most in need.

But the programme has suffered in recent years, battered by the Covid pandemic but also hampered by longer-term factors including shifting priorities among university students and rising concerns that their relatively minimal job-specific training is not meeting the needs of primary schools.

“Many critics have long wished for TFA’s downfall, in favour of increasing professionalism among the teacher workforce,” a study of the programme by the Brookings Institution thinktank noted earlier this year.

Susan Moore Johnson, a professor of education at Harvard University, said the troubles facing US grade schools appeared to be more complicated than they were a generation ago. “Short-term fixes, such as TFA, are not the answer many once thought they might be,” she said.

For decades, Teach for America was a highly desirable option among elite US college graduates across a variety of academic majors. One tally showed that nearly a fifth of the entire 2011 graduating class at Harvard had applied to join.

But participation rates have fallen considerably since then. Teach for America had fewer than 2,000 new participants last year, down from nearly 6,000 in 2013. The organisation is in the process of cutting about 400 staff positions, or about a quarter of its operational structure.

Teach for America described its problems as temporary, saying applications are up this year and that it expects a 25 per cent gain in placements.

“The demand for TFA educators remains high,” said the organisation’s spokesperson, Erin Bradley. “Principals, district leaders and school board members are telling us they want more of our corps and alumni in their schools.”

Teach for America participants are generally paid the standard teacher salary to work in their assigned school districts, with an expectation that they remain at least two years, and hopefully more. But US teacher salaries are uncompetitive with those in many other industries, and most Teach for America participants leave after fulfilling their two-year commitment, with only about 15 per cent remaining after five years, the Brookings assessment said.

Such numbers, the review said, underlie a concern that Teach for America reinforces an atmosphere of disadvantaged students getting less well-trained and more transient teachers. But given that Teach for America’s participants tend to have elite educational backgrounds, not having them at all would be a greater loss, the study continued.

“TFA is an alternative certification model with an impressive record that we should be learning from, not shunning,” the Brookings experts said.

Professor Johnson was less convinced. Her past studies of the programme found US school districts becoming greatly frustrated by the need to keep hiring replacements. “The costs of teacher turnover are high, both in dollars and in organisational disruption for students and other faculty,” she said. Some school districts have responded by creating their own local versions, emphasising participants with local connections, she added.

Either way, Professor Johnson said, it was difficult to clearly weigh the effects of programmes such as Teach for America when struggling US school districts have been so disrupted by the pandemic, their budgets limited and they face rising instances of political attacks on their operations.

Teach for America said it was taking steps to improve its situation, largely by putting more emphasis on training college students to help low-income minority school districts through one-on-one tutoring roles, and by supporting its ongoing participants to take on leadership positions in their schools.

“We must adapt and think differently about how we carry out our mission,” Teach for America’s chief executive officer, Elisa Villanueva Beard, said in outlining the strategy.

The idea of a tutoring emphasis, in particular, might get a wider look. The Biden administration this month announced a new effort to encourage the use of the federal Work Study programme – a longstanding system of financial aid that works by creating jobs for college students – to provide grade schools with tutors and other types of student support.

“It is in the best interests of our colleges and universities,” Miguel Cardona, the US secretary of education, said in announcing the plan, “to help accelerate academic recovery in our public elementary and secondary schools.”


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Reader's comments (2)

While any decline in TF activity is to be regretted, at least an alternative model is emerging where local people can be trained on the job as TFAs - avoiding the cost and disruption of having to move away to get a BEd via the traditional university route. This apprenticeship model is used by the larger academy chains in the UK and by such as Reach University in the USA, the latter linking with States & School Boards. Such innovation not only helps with teacher recruitment & training but also retention in areas especially hit by the teacher shortage.
Sorry - for TFAs read TAs!


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