Teach for America Evolves to Address Criticisms

The polarizing organization is diversifying its corps members and lengthening educator-training programs

All photos courtesy of Teach for America

Over its 25-year history, Teach for America has experienced rapid growth and now looms large in the media and in public debate. But many argue the organization wields too much power over educational policymakers and takes teaching opportunities from better qualified, veteran teachers.

Critics claim the lack of experience of TFA teachers and the group’s ability to recruit high numbers of elite college graduates are detrimental to the students for whom they are trying to help close the achievement gap.

TFA, a nonprofit which places recent, high-achieving college graduates into high-need urban and rural public schools for a two-year teaching stint, is aware of the criticism. In the past year, new programs and initiatives have been formed to address some of the concerns.

Corps members, as they are known, undergo five weeks of intensive teacher training — known as “institute” — in the summer and are then hired by schools under contract with TFA, where they commit to teach for two years.

After the commitment, many choose to return to graduate school or work in politics, presumably eager to enact educational reforms along the lines of TFA alum and former D.C. public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s push for performance-based teacher compensation and data-driven policy reform. Other TFA alums include Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, the founders of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) network of charter schools. TFA says that 63 percent of its alumni stay in education, but only around 30 percent remain in the classroom. According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 50 percent of new teachers overall leave the profession within the first five years.

Last year, TFA launched two pilot programs to improve teacher preparation and length of commitment, two of the main areas of criticism of the organization.

Teach for America corps member Shayla Cooke assists a student at Navajo Middle School in New Mexico.
Teach for America corps member Shayla Cooke assists a student at Navajo Middle School in New Mexico.

“In our first pilot, we selected about 60 college juniors [who had already been accepted to TFA] to receive an extra year of training before attending institute next summer,” says Takirra Winfield, head of national communications for Teach for America. “The training is focusing on classroom readiness; building authentic relationships with students, families, and communities; and fostering a deeper understanding of the historical, political, and sociocultural origins of educational inequity. … Hard to really measure success right now until the first set gets to the classroom. But we’re hearing great things about the participants feeling more rooted in the communities based on the curricula.

“In our second pilot, a dozen regions are creating a series of programs to support alumni teachers who want to stay in the classroom for years three, four, and five and beyond.”

For the other 11,000 corps members who did not undergo the yearlong preparation program, the regular pre-service training is evolving to better prepare them by focusing on the grade levels and content areas they will be teaching. Corps members in the past have not always been able to work hands-on in their subject area before entering the classroom, which is another point of contention for critics.

“We’re also increasing our focus on culturally responsive teaching — helping our teachers engage with their own identities and backgrounds so they can better affirm those of their students,” Winfield says. “Many of our corps members and alumni teachers work across lines of difference. We want to help all of our teachers appreciate the assets their students and communities bring to the table.”

TFA hopes that connecting teachers with the communities they serve will increase the likelihood that they stay past their initial two-year agreement.

Some have called TFA teachers “cultural tourists” because of their short commitments. The designation is not unreasonable. According to an article published on the website of nonprofit organization Next City, one study found that about 44 percent of TFA corps members remain in their assigned region and teach in their placement school for a third year, but five years later, less than 15 percent are still there.

Diversifying the Corps
In an article on the online site Vox, Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, wrote that when Elisa Villanueva Beard (along with Matt Kramer) replaced Wendy Kopp as co-CEO, she started focusing more on community building and recruiting students to areas where they have ties; for example, in 2013, 40 percent of Rio Grande Valley corps members were Latino. Census data show that in 2010, Latinos made up 90 percent of the population and 95 percent of K-12 students in the Rio Grande Valley.

Because of their efforts to attract and recruit corps members from the low-income areas they serve, this year Teach for America will have the most diverse cohort in its history, one that closely reflects the demographics of the current student population.

Forty-nine percent of the 2014 TFA cohort are people of color. Forty-seven percent received Pell Grants, and 33 percent are first-generation college students. The racial breakdown closely aligns with that of U.S. K-12 students.

Native Alliance Initiative
Despite an increase in corps members’ diversity, only 1 percent of TFA teachers are American Indian, Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian. Nearly 9,000 Native students are taught by TFA corps members in South Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Hawaii collectively — regions with high Native populations.

Recruiting Native corps members comes with a unique set of obstacles, which contributes to their low representation, according to TFA.

Kristin Szczepaniec, Teach for America alum who taught math at Laguna Middle School in New Mexico, is the director of TFA’s Native Alliance Initiative.
Kristin Szczepaniec, Teach for America alum who taught math at Laguna Middle School in New Mexico, is the director of TFA’s Native Alliance Initiative.

“It was a challenge to find [native students interested in] and then entice them to apply for TFA,” says Kristin Szczepaniec, director of TFA’s Native Alliance Initiative. “One of the main challenges was beating the misconception that there aren’t many or any Native students in higher education, which is just not true. The pipeline is definitely smaller, but there are many amazing leaders in schools across the country.”

She says another challenge is convincing Native students that teaching is a viable and desirable career opportunity, particularly if these students did not have exceptional K-12 experiences.

more2For the 2014 corps:

In South Dakota, nearly 20 percent identify as Native
In New Mexico, 7 percent identify as Native
In Oklahoma, 5 percent identify as Native
In Hawaii, 15 percent identify as Native

Tribal K-12 schools are some of the poorest and most remote in the country, with higher teacher turnover rates than the national average and limited access to resources. Native Americans account for less than 1 percent of bachelor’s degree holders, compared with 71.8 percent of whites and 9.8 percent of African Americans, according to the scholarship provider American Indian College Fund.

When asked how the community responded to having TFA teachers in their schools, Szczepaniec said many were wary, and for good reason.

“To put it into historical context, Native Americans have long suffered injustice from the outside,” she says. “At first, our teachers were sort of put on trial, but when the community saw the respect and humility our teachers have for the kids and the community, they recognized they’re not here for their own agenda.”

The growth of Native corps members has been threefold since 2010, when the NAI was officially formed, due in part to TFA’s increased recruitment efforts.

Hannah Younger was a senior at Dartmouth University, majoring in psychology and minoring in Native American studies, when a TFA recruiter reached out to her about applying to the program. Younger is American Indian.

“I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do it or not — I was looking into grad schools,” says Younger, “but then I attended an informal dinner discussion … with Kiva Sam, who is from Pine Ridge Reservation and returned to her hometown to teach as part of TFA.” Sam’s story convinced Younger to apply, and in the fall of 2013, she began as a third-grade teacher at Little Wound School in Kyle, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Younger says that during her five-week institute they were only able to spend one day learning about Native culture and teaching in a Native community. She says she wishes she could have had more time with a veteran teacher before entering her own classroom.

“Since then, TFA has begun doing training at a reservation school for corps members who will be teaching in a Native region so there can be more of a focus on issues that are more relevant to Native populations,” she says. Currently, Younger is taking a course for TFA corps members focused on community engagement and building relationships with students and families.

Culturally responsive teaching, or CRT, has been championed by the NAI since 2010, and a year later it began to be integrated into the wider TFA mission, says Szczepaniec.

“Culturally responsive teaching is not an additional thing, it’s everything,” she says.

Within Native schools, this means allowing students to use their native language and bringing in elders to teach students local history. In Younger’s class, students complete writing activities on the school’s designated Lakota value of the month, and she says she has taught reading skills using traditional Lakota tales.

Younger says she plans to stay for a third year of teaching before going back for a master’s degree, and she hopes to become a school counselor at a reservation school, potentially at Little Wound School.

University of Minnesota
When Teach for America approached administrators at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development about a partnership to help train TFA corps members and help them gain licensure, the school had already been working to increase diversity among their education students.

“I believe Teach for America knew that our curriculum is strong on equity in schools and diversity in the teaching workforce,” says Deborah Dillon, associate dean for graduate and professional programs at UMN’s CEHD. “I do think that’s why they approached us.”

The TFA partnership with UMN, called Alternative Pathways to Licensure, is in its first year, and Dillon says it is continually being improved upon.

“We run evaluations and tweak things that aren’t working,” she says. “No matter how well-intentioned you may be at the beginning of a program, there are always going to be things that need to be changed.”

If successful, the partnership program will help diversify the licensed teacher workforce of Minnesota by keeping more teachers in the state, often in the same schools and districts where they have built relationships.

Alternative Pathways to Licensure reimagines UMN’s curriculum for training teachers. In the current comprehensive program, students spend 12 to 15 months taking education classes and co-teaching for one year, after which they can earn a teaching license.

In the Alternative Pathways program, TFA corps members must apply and be accepted to UMN’s education program. Over their two years of teaching, corps members — 39 percent of whom are people of color, according to Dillon — attend education classes at UMN’s CEHD and are evaluated by teachers at the university who decide whether to recommend them for licensure.

The UMN-TFA partnership initially received strong backlash from students, faculty, graduates, and local teachers when it was proposed in 2013. Erin Dyke, a PhD student at UMN at the time, penned a petition entitled “No TFA at the U of M,” which garnered over 150 signatures.

Dyke did not respond to requests for comment, but Dillon says now that the program is under way, opinions have become much more favorable.

“There is always discussion around new ideas that look different for preparing teachers,” Dillon says. “But one model is not enough to prepare teachers from different pathways of life. And as a research institute, we are committed to developing, studying, researching, and disseminating innovative ways to prepare teachers.”

Dillon spoke excitedly of another program being developed at UMN’s College of Education and Human Development that would allow teacher aides at local schools to go through UMN’s comprehensive education program and gain Minnesota licensure while continuing to work. Most candidates for the program are people of color or bilingual, two distinctions Dillon believes will further diversify Minnesota teachers.

A Better Plan of Action
It is too early to tell whether Teach for America will be able to appease critics with its new pilot programs, but changing its image could be crucial for the organization to move forward.

In December, the Washington Post reported that TFA may fall short of its recruiting goals by 25 percent this year, and some school districts, such as Durham Public Schools in North Carolina, are choosing to end relationships in favor of hiring career educators.

A study by Julian Vasquez Heilig of the University of Texas and Su Jin Jez of California State University, Sacramento, titled “Teach for America: A Return to the Evidence,” published in January 2014, questions the effectiveness of TFA teachers on low-income students.

“They conclude [TFA] is hugely oversold, and it risks being a distraction from alternative strategies for which research evidence provides much stronger support for improving teaching and educational outcomes, especially for children living in poverty,” the National Education Policy Center said in a press release following the study’s publication.

The report also points out that TFA corps members make up only a small percentage of all teachers in the U.S. Therefore, they recommend focusing efforts on improving teaching quality.

Teach for America stands by its mission to combat educational inequity due to racial and socioeconomic disparity. Over time, by improving teacher training, committing to community building, and offering extended support to corps members, its model could have a more effective impact on the disadvantaged students it serves.●

To learn more about Teach for America, visit teachforamerica.org; University of Minnesota, Twin Cities is a three-time INSIGHT Into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award recipient.

Rebecca Prinster is a staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.