Plenty of Praise for Teach for America

The "New York Times," "Wall Street Journal," and others offer their salutes to the education organization.

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Teach for America has generated a lot of headlines this year. The nonprofit program, which recruits graduates of elite colleges to teach in some of the country's most disadvantaged schools, is on a winning streak: Applications jumped from 18,000 to nearly 25,000 this year, and a recent study by the Urban Institute finds that TFA teachers are more effective than those with traditional training, especially in math and science. Critics note that TFA recruits, who make a two-year commitment to the program, often leave when their second year is up, just as they are becoming most effective. But proponents say that those who leave often continue to be lifelong advocates. Here's a roundup of what's being said about TFA. What do you think?

The New York Times editorial board credits TFA teachers with helping children achieve at the highest levels in math and science and says that the United States must foster such programs if it is to continue to be a world power. The Times stresses the importance of recruiting teachers from selective colleges, as TFA does, and dubs most traditional teacher training programs "little more than diploma mills." Ouch!

And in yesterday's Times, Sam Dillon profiled TFA founder Wendy Kopp and her husband, Richard Barth, who runs the Knowledge Is Power Program, a charter-school network that won high praise for helping low-income students achieve at high levels. A quick snapshot of this "power couple" tells the story of how they met and looks at the success they've enjoyed in their respective organizations—a flattering angle, to be sure.

A recent WSJ editorial praises TFA, noting that while the program pays recent graduates between $25,000 (in South Dakota) and $44,000 (in New York City), it "offers smart young people something even better than money—the chance to avoid the vast education bureaucracy." The editors cite a recent Urban Institute study that finds TFA teachers' effect on student achievement is nearly triple the effect of teachers with three or more years of experience.

Time magazine names Wendy Kopp one of the 100 most influential people for 2008 (she's up there alongside Vladimir Putin and the Dalai Lama), citing a study from 2005 showing that 75 percent of principals consider Teach for America teachers more effective than other teachers, and a 2004 study that finds students taught by TFA teachers achieve higher levels in math than students taught by other teachers. It concludes, "Kopp's idea is working—and as a result, more kids are learning."

Slate ran a piece by Sara Mosle (herself a TFA alum), who took a favorable look at the program's development over time. She lauds TFA for "placing a premium on results rather than mere good intentions" and jokes that while leftists talk about changing the system, "it took a blond-headed, pro-business Princeton grad from Dallas." Mosle also discusses Donna Foote's recent book, Relentless Pursuit, which documents the first-year trials of four TFA teachers at Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles. (U.S. News & World Report features an excerpt of Foote's book and interviews the author.)

Sounds like pretty positive coverage, right? Indeed. No major publication has penned a serious take-down of TFA—so if you think that's an error, comment away, but in the meantime the organization is holding up well. There were some critical accounts in the fall of 2007. Most notable were a hard-hitting piece in the New York Times Magazine, which questioned whether two years in the classroom is enough, and an article in the Economist, which cast a dubious eye on the size of TFA's impact in the larger scheme of things.

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