Teach For America Makes the Grade at Challenged Schools, Criticism Aside

Organization's energy sets a good example in education, writes Andrew Rotherham, so why the vitriol?

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Andrew J. Rotherham is cofounder and codirector of Education Sector, a national education policy think tank. He blogs at Eduwonk.com.

With the nation focused on service and the challenges America faces it was not surprising to see successful non-profit organizations like Teach For America thrust into the national spotlight during the presidential campaign and the transition in government. What is surprising and disappointing is how much vitriol is still directed at Teach For America 18 years after it was launched and despite its role in fueling a long overdue revolution in American education.

Teach For America recruits top college graduates to work in the nation's hardest-to-staff schools. Since 1990 the organization has placed more than 20,000 teachers in America's cities and rural communities. The idea, predicated on the belief that educational inequalities, which sentence millions of Americans to difficult and constrained lives are the nation's greatest injustice today, grew from founder Wendy Kopp's senior thesis in college.

It has not all been easy, of course. As journalist Donna Foote chronicled in her account of the organization and Wendy Kopp describes in her own book, Teach For America has overcome substantial financial and organizational challenges to become the high-impact venture it is today and has learned and incorporated a lot of lessons over the years.

Perhaps most notably, while in education quality is generally inversely related to scale, Teach For America has refined its recruiting and training programs so that while it has expanded in numbers it has maintained or improved the effectiveness of the teaching corps. Although the stereotype is that Teach For America thrives by simply recruiting top students from elite schools, in fact the organization has developed a recruitment methodology that accounts for non-observable traits such as belief in the possibility of student success and tenacity.

Research by independent research organizations shows that on average Teach For America teachers are as good or better than other teachers, and not just the hodgepodge of last-minute hires in districts without enough teachers, but also traditionally trained teachers and veterans. Those results say as much about Teach For America's effectiveness as about the sorry state of teacher training today. Yet overall it is clear that corps members are doing no harm in the classroom. This explains why superintendents in high-need communities—who are accountable for student learning and represent the market test for the program—aggressively seek out Teach For America teachers.

But the classroom is only the first part of Teach For America's impact. After their two-year commitment is over more than two thirds of Teach For America alumni are remaining in education. More than one-in-three are teaching, others are principals, superintendents, work in government and the non-profit and philanthropic sectors, and many have launched successful education organizations of their own. Mike Feinberg, himself a Teach For America alumnus and cofounder of the highly successful KIPP school network says flatly that, "no one has done more for creating quality human capital within public education than Teach For America."

He's right, which is why it's hard to see today's education reform movement, especially its vital social entrepreneurial component, being where it is today without the energy provided by Teach For America. Even those former Teach For America corps members now working outside education have a firsthand understanding of the challenges that low-income youngsters face in public education and are volunteering time and writing checks to support reform efforts.

Surprisingly, most of Teach For America's federal funding comes from outside the Department of Education's budget. This points to the organization's place as a crown jewel of national service efforts but also to the contempt for the organization within the education community. In January, for instance, based only on rumors that Wendy Kopp might be asked to join the Department of Education, the president of the national organization representing traditional teacher training institutions sent a letter to education lobbyists in Washington calling Kopp "unacceptable" for government service because she promotes a, "revolving door of under-qualified teachers as the best answer for poor children." The letter went on to imply that Teach For America did not serve the interest of students.