Debunking Teach for America

Behind the Advocacy: TFA Remains Mostly Spin, Distraction

What we know now about Teach for America (TFA): The growing research base on TFA reveals a mixed picture, but it also shows that TFA advocacy is misleading (see also“three biggest lies”). Further TFA contributes negatively to some central problems public education faces: teacher attrition/turnover and inequitable teacher assignments (high-poverty and minority students being assigned disproportionately new and uncertified teachers).

REVIEW: Teach For America and the Struggle for Urban School Reform, Crawford-Garrett

Unpacking TFA Support: Twisted Logic and Assumptions

Teach for America (TFA), like Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) corporate-charter schools, finds opportunities where they least expect resistance—cities devastated by natural disasters (New Orleans) or communities ravaged by poverty. As I have detailed HERE, HERE, and HERE, TFA has now leveraged itself into Charleston, SC schools. Three articles in The Post and Courier present the twisted logic and assumptions underneath support for TFA:

Struggling schools to get strong teachers (December 13, 2011)

Teach for America has supporters, critics (December 28, 2011)

Teach for America hope (December 30, 2011)

First, let’s consider the twisted logic. The stated problem for high-poverty schools often includes that hiring and retaining highly qualified and experienced teachers is historically a challenge (Peske & Haycock, 2006); Charleston school officials acknowledge this problem—so the solution? Hire uncertified, briefly trained (five weeks) college graduates who tend to come from affluence and privilege and have a well established track record of fulfilling only the two-year commitment to TFA to teach where the problem is un-/under-certified and inexperienced teacher pools.

The second logic failure involves claiming to use research as a mask for ignoring evidence.

The editorial supporting TFA offers three quick nods to research, suggesting that there is ample evidence that TFA offers evidence-based options for high-poverty schools seeking a stronger staff. However, this strategy is, in fact, cherry picking—identifying a few isolated pieces of evidence to confirm an agenda.

Instead, the evidence on TFA is mixed at best, incomplete, and muddled significantly by advocacy initiated by TFA itself.

View a review of research on TFA from 2010 HERE.

Also, see a detailed consideration of research HERE.

Evidence-based commitments to TFA require officials to consider the weight and patterns of the body of research in TFA—not selected studies. That weight of evidence?:

There is simply no “large and growing body of evidence” suggesting TFA corps “members make as much of an impact on student achievement as veteran teachers.” In fact, there is a growing body of research suggesting otherwise, that TFA members have a negative impact on student achievement. (Kovacs, 2011)

This failure of logic is profound, but beneath this the twisted assumptions are more disturbing.

The assumptions driving TFA support are many, but the one often ignored is that much of the argument about teacher quality in general and TFA recruits’ impact on students (and their impact when compared to other pools of teachers) remains trapped in two powerful errors: (1) reducing student learning and teacher quality to test scores (standardized test scores remain a reflection primarily of the status of children’s lives, not their learning, not the quality of their teachers), and (2) assuming that a direct and clear connection exists between teachers and student outcomes. Consider this comment in the second article about TFA in Charleston:

“She said she wouldn’t use Teach for America teachers with the district’s high-achieving students because those children’s teachers already are succeeding, she said.”

Below the surface, and often directly stated, many people who have power over our schools associate all causes for educational outcomes within either the students themselves or the willingness of teachers simply to work harder and demand more.

Every year, however, the SAT has been administered—and the pool of students taking the SAT are disproportionately better students than all students, disproportionately sitting in the most challenging classes (college prep and advanced), and disproportionately being taught by the most experienced and highly qualified teachers—the scores are most closely correlated with parental income and levels of education.

So-called “top students” and so-labeled “struggling students” in Charleston and across the U.S. are in these categories primarily because of the circumstances of their birth—not the children’s willingness to work hard, not the teachers’ commitment to expect success.

Beyond simplistic and misguided views of tests, student learning, and teacher quality, however, the most disturbing aspect of supporting TFA rests in one phase, “missionary zeal”:

“Corps members are selected because they are smart and energetic college graduates. They have majors in all fields of study and receive an intensive five weeks of training by TFA to teach in at-risk or failing schools. They tend to have what Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley calls ‘missionary zeal.'”

“Missionary zeal” is being used to suggest a positive quality, but, in fact, it exposes everything that is wrong with supporting TFA:

  • What is beneath “missionary zeal”? A paternalistic arrogance and a condescending attitude toward the population being “saved” or “fixed.” At the heart of TFA (and KIPP) is a corrosive and misguided classism and racism that has no place in our public schools.
  • TFA is also essentially a perpetual experiment because the recruits have only a two-year commitment and historically few work beyond that commitment. While experimentation itself is not a problem, our willingness to experiment with other people’s children is the problem. I have made this request often, (and the response is telling): If we believe students living in poverty, special needs students, and English language learners deserve the best possible teachers, and if we believe that teachers working with our “top student” are those elite teachers (again, see the comment HERE), let’s hire TFA recruits to staff the classes now taught by our “best” teachers and move those “best teachers” to the students who need them most. Yet,no one is rushing to shift TFA recruits to the “top students” (students, in fact, who are most like the TFA recruits themselves) because “missionary zeal” includes deficit views of children in poverty (and their parents), children of color, special needs children, and children acquiring English as a second language.

The irony of moves to support TFA is that it can teach us some powerful lessons about our cultural assumptions, our genuine commitments, and the purposes within universal public education. That lesson is that TFA represents the worst of what is being offered during the last thirty years of corporate-driven education reform.


Peske, H. G., & Haycock, K. (2006, June). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington DC: The Education Trust, Inc. Retrieved 7 September 2009 from 

TFA Resources
Teach for America – A Hidden Curriculum?

Teach for America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal Do-Gooders

Teach for America: Liberal mission helps conservative agenda

Philip Kovacs: Teach For America Research Fails the Test

Philip Kovacs: Huntsville Takes a Closer Look at Teach For America’s “Research”

Philip Kovacs Takes on TFA in Huntsville

The Dialogue Heats Up over Teach For America

Petition to Change/Reform TfA

Teach For America: A False Promise

Teach For America: A Review of the Evidence

Ravitch: The Problem with Teach For America

Richard Cohen’s Teach for America Column Deserves a Failing Grade

Follow research and commentary on TFA HERE.

One thought on “Debunking Teach for America

  1. Pingback: The Crumbling Facade of “No Excuses” and Educational Racism – radical eyes for equity

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