Teach for America Becomes a Popular Option
Issue   |   Tue, 09/25/2012 - 21:29

In a statement released by non-profit teaching corps Teach for America (TFA), Amherst College contributed the second-highest number of graduating seniors last year to the corps out of all small colleges and universities. The College, which tied with DePauw University, saw 19 members of the Class of 2012 join the corps and rose up from 15th place in 2008 to fourth place last year before reaching second place this year. Fifty thousand students nationwide, including 13 percent of the Class of 2012, applied for only 5,000 positions. Overall, 118 Amherst alumni have taught as corps members throughout TFA’s 22-year history.

The increase in graduates working for TFA over the past five years has paralleled the College’s increasing role in the field of education. For several years, education has been the number one profession chosen by Amherst graduates, topping medicine, finance, consulting and law. Associate Dean Ursula Olender, director of the Career Center, said that the list demonstrates the student body’s commitment to social justice and positive change in the field of education.

“Our students tend to feel that altruism is an important factor in their lives, and education is a great way to give back. Most students got here with the help of great teachers who changed their lives. Many students want a chance to do the same for the next generation and see TFA as a welcome opportunity to learn about themselves and make a difference,” said Olender. “TFA is known entity with a recognizable brand where they can do good while taking time to think about their direction in life.”

Both Olender and Christina Croak ’13, this year’s Campus Campaign Coordinator for TFA, see the corps as a potentially useful experience for students who want time to think about their future while gaining perspective on society, emphasizing TFA’s two-year commitment period, established brand and the opportunities it offers graduates to work with underprivileged youth.

“TFA’s goal is to fuel a generation of leaders to address the achievement gap from a multidimensional perspective by providing a formative experience for people of any profession to see first-hand the students who face the most disadvantages in this country and understand the structural injustices while leading a movement of change,” Croak said.

Some members of the College community, however, feel that TFA is not the right way for graduates to effectively reform the educational system. Olender expressed some reservations about the program, citing critics who argue that TFA fails to adequately prepare its teachers to succeed in some of the most challenging classrooms in the country. Olender praised TFA for its noble goals, but worried that there were “valid concerns” in the educational community about TFA’s role in educational reform.

James E. Ostendarp Professor of English Barry O’Connell, who is currently writing a book on educational reform, has harshly criticized TFA, calling it “one of the biggest scams in the history of educational reform” and denouncing it for “indoctrinating its teachers with the idea that the veteran teachers they will meet will be mediocre at best.”

O’Connell argued that the relatively short two-year commitment of the program contributed to high rates of teacher turnover and instability in schools that need teachers who are willing to make a long-term investment in their students’ future. He also criticized the corps for focusing on “classroom management” techniques that he claims encourage teachers to alienate and manipulate their students, creating a negative culture that sets students up for disillusionment. O’Connell emphasized the need to better prepare aspiring teachers to deal with the challenges of teaching in underprivileged classrooms and the importance of humility and empathy in the classroom, citing the Mississippi Teachers’ Corps and the New York City Teaching Fellows as alternatives to TFA that “provide a strong model of teacher preparation and retention.”

“It is ludicrous to think that you can give a recent college graduate five weeks of training and then expect him or her to teach effectively in chaotic and unstable school environments. No one can know before they get there whether they have the stamina and patience it takes to be a good teacher. Aspiring teachers should build their confidence in less demanding situations before they attempt to succeed in the most challenging classrooms imaginable,” O’Connell said.

No longitudinal studies exist to adequately assess the impact of TFA on disadvantaged students, but evidence gathered by the Great Lakes Center in 2008 suggested that while novice corps members may struggle during their first years teaching, TFA has had some success attracting talented individuals to the teaching profession who may not have otherwise ever become teachers. Sixty-three percent of TFA corps members remain in education after the end of their two-year commitment, with half of those staying in the classroom as teachers.

Michaela Duggan ’11, who teaches for the corps, found her TFA experience to be valuable for the perspective it gave her on challenges facing the educational system.

“I can’t think of a more worthwhile way to spend my time than working to improve myself and the educational opportunities available to my students. I don’t think that TFA teachers’ time is worthwhile because they come in and ‘save the day.’ Not at all. For me, the time has been worthwhile because I have learned more about this country, the education system, and myself in one year of teaching than I did in studying education for four years in college. TFA is worthwhile because it is teaching, and teaching is going to work every day with the goal of developing students’ minds and characters into the future leaders of the country,” Duggan said.

Dan Alter ’13 , co-president of EDU, evaluated TFA’s importance to the College’s mission of preparing students to lead ‘lives of consequence’ and its role in the broader struggle to reform education.

“I think that, for all its faults — and I’ve seen outstanding TFA corps members, middling ones and total failures — TFA has done a tremendous thing over the past 20 (or so) years by changing the conversation about education. They’ve done what I’m sure once seemed impossible — getting America’s best and brightest to come into some of our most challenging classrooms to do an often unglamorous job, and they’ve done it in large numbers on a wide scale. Now the next step is to do what seems impossible today — ensuring that these smart and passionate young teachers are expertly prepared and also committed to working in classrooms for more than just two short years,” Alter said.