The Evolution of Teach for America

Teach for America alumni could bring a new approach to education reform.

Michelle Rhee, chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., heads for a meeting with Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Michelle Rhee, chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., heads for a meeting with Mayor Adrian Fenty.

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Turnover debate. Like Rhee, they all were once talented college seniors groping for a future, attracted by the allure of a new community service program. "I think what Teach for America has done quite brilliantly is to create something that's compelling and inspiring to people but also is going to be attractive to high-achieving people because it's very selective," says Rhee. Indeed. Last year, TFA had 25,000 top graduates apply for 3,700 spots. For the 2008 corps, the average college GPA was 3.6.

But for all its popularity with college grads, the program has collected a string of criticisms over the years, most notably that few of its corps members have had experience or training in classroom teaching. Arlen Carey, a social work coordinator at Winona State University-Rochester who dropped out of the TFA corps disenchanted after his first year, says many of the program's applicants just want to pad a résumé. Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, points out the Band-Aid problem: "If schools rely on this steady supply of teachers, then they're less likely to make the kinds of changes they need in order to improve." But Teach for America cites recent studies from the Urban Institute showing its teachers are more effective than those with traditional training, along with independent reports demonstrating principals are highly satisfied with their corps members.

And, according to another study, TFA teachers are staying longer than many people believe: 43.6 percent chose to remain in their low-income placement schools for more than two years, and 35.5 percent remained in teaching for more than four years. Thomas Kane, also a professor at Harvard's GSE, found that while TFA teachers have a slightly higher turnover rate than do traditionally certified teachers, the slightly higher test scores of their students are enough to offset the costs of destabilization.

Setting the turnover debate aside, TFA says there's a "second prong" to its program: It's not training future teachers so much as future leaders. "I do believe that Teach for America alumni have had a gigantic impact on the education policy today," says Kane. "If I'm in a meeting where there's a really smart, perceptive young person who is making an important point that I haven't thought of before, almost inevitably these days, I find out that that person is a Teach for America alumna or alumnus."

The evidence is more than anecdotal. TFA is a data-oriented organization and is very effective at tracking the career trajectories of its alumni. The organization surveys graduates regularly. Some of the results are posted on TFA's website, but most are kept within the organization and used for analytical purposes. A breakdown of survey respondents' career fields suggests that TFA alumni ascend the education hierarchy. For instance, although only 1 percent of alumni from the most recent group (2002-2005) are principals, that number rises to 13 percent for the group that preceded it (1996-2001), and to 20 percent for the group before that (1990-1995). The numbers for assistant principals are similar: from 3 percent, to 7 percent, to 12 percent. And as for superintendents and district-level administrators: from 0 percent, to 1 percent, to 4 percent.

The most recent data show that roughly two thirds of TFA alumni are working in the field of education, almost a third stay in teaching, and the odds that any given Teach for America veteran will be serving as a principal, vice principal, or other administrator are a little better than 1 in 20. TFA has produced 335 principals, 48 percent of whom lead public charter schools, while 47 percent lead traditional public schools.

Although the numbers support the notion that TFA alumni take on leadership roles, Larry Cuban, an emeritus professor of education at Stanford University, says that, in the national scheme of things, those numbers are tiny. There are more than 90,000 schools in the country; those 300 or so principals are less than 1 percent. "It's a very, very tiny fraction of American public schools, and certainly even in urban education," says Cuban.