• Author Deb Mayer

The Truth about Teach for America


This is an updated article that first appeared on the Daily Kos website in 2008.

If you are truly interested in becoming a teacher, go to college and major in education. Earn your certification. Become a professionally licensed teacher. Don't join the corporation Teach for America. It's not good for students, and it's not good for you.

Relentless Pursuit is a book by Donna Foote, a journalist without education background or expertise. "Relentless pursuit" is the term that, according to someone who knows her, best describes Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America. Relentless pursuit of what, the quote failed to say. The quotes in this post are taken from book, Relentless Pursuit.

When twenty-two year old Wendy Kopp applied for a job upon graduation to Morgan Stanley, McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company, Proctor & Gamble, and a real estate venturer, she was turned down by every single one of them. When she sent her idea for a teaching corps to the White House for consideration, her proposal was mistaken for a job application, and she was rejected there as well.

If only one of those employers had given her a job, then maybe the national discussion about improving public education in this country could have some real merit. I can't imagine the cockiness of an arrogant 22-year-old Kopp having the audacity to say she thought lousy teachers were the reason for the achievement gap and because she said it, it must be so. Further, she bragged that she, with no education background to her credit, could produce quality teachers in only five weeks. So, her plan was to create a teacher corps from other students who, like her, couldn't find jobs in their own fields. So far, it's working. How can that be? (Well, aside from the fact that we have massive unemployment. I surmise that few if any of Kopp's recruits would have signed on to Teach for America if they had found employment in their own fields.)

From the very beginning, Kopp believed that in order to make teaching attractive to her peers . . . there had to be an "aura of status and selectivity" around Teach for America. High-achieving college students like Kopp viewed teaching as a downwardly mobile career. Those who didn't go directly to graduate school after graduation tended to head for investment banks or marketing firms. To most, becoming a schoolteacher was unthinkable.

Unthinkable! Intelligent, high achieving college students never choose education as a career. Oh, my, no!

. . . research revealed that ten years on, TFA was regarded as a grassrootsy, do-gooder organization. To meet its expansion goals, the organization needed to better articulate the power of the TFA experience and reposition itself as smart, serious, and purposeful--an important alternative to Goldman Sachs or grad school.

TFA was never a grassroots organization. From the beginning it has been financed and promoted by the rich and powerful who would would love nothing more than to privatize America's schools. So, Wendy set out on a fundraising tour and was able to convince people with power and money that her teacher corps was the saving grace of our education woes. Snake oil.

And it began to appreciate the importance of synergy between the public and private sectors. . . During his (2000) campaign, George W. Bush had flown Kopp cross-country on his plane to discuss Teach for America. When he took office in 2001, he named (TFA supporter) Rod Paige, superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, Secretary of Education.

George W. Bush thinks Teach for America is great. Need I say more? And . . .

In 2002, its first national corporate sponsorship fell into its lap when Wachovia Corporation approached TFA to partner up. National corporate partnerships with Lehman Brothers and Amgen followed. By the end of 2005, fiscal year, operating revenue had grown from $10 million in 2000 to $40 million.

Really, a major corporation like Wachovia approaches a tiny, barely known nonprofit to partner up? In what kind of alternate universe does that happen? What does Wendy Kopp do with this extraordinary amount of education dollars besides paying herself a big fat salary? It's hard to say. The financial data page at the TFA web site isn't operating now and hasn't been since I've been checking in. But, here's what it will cost if you, a fake teacher wannabe, if you, a way more qualified -- better, brighter, prettier, sexier, (provide your own outstanding quality here) -- candidate than a professionally licensed teacher, decide to join Teach for America.

It costs TFA $12,500 a year to select and train each recruit. The district picked up $3,000 of that. With improvements to the program, the costs kept rising. In 2007 the tab was $14,000 per recruit. By 2010, TFA expected it to cost $20,000 to select and train a corps member.

Teach for America hurts America.

Yes, as of this minute, it costs the school at least $3,000 - $5,000 a year more money to hire a fake teacher with five weeks of TFA training than it does to hire a properly trained regular teacher who has made education a career choice and will be teaching after two years. TFA teachers also receive a $5,000 bonus at the end of each of their two teaching years from Americorps (paid by taxpayers). That's right, fake TFA teachers receive an extra $10,000 after teaching two years; regular teachers get nothing. Hmmm, sounds fair -- can't see any reason for animosity there between professionals and interlopers here. By the way, $20,000 will pay quite a lot of tuition at many colleges and universities for educating professional teachers.

Why has Wendy Kopp made it her personal agenda to malign public school teachers? Why have so many influential people bought into her egomaniacal tripe? You don't hear of anyone offering to accept an injection from Nurse for America or to jump into a plane with Pilot for America, right? Yet, it seems that we are more than willing to hand over our children daily to those who function little better than babysitters because they have no knowledge in their core subject area and no training on how best to deliver instruction.

In Phi Delta Kappan, Linda Darling-Hammond, a regular teacher and esteemed professor at both Columbia and Stanford, published her startling analysis of TFA, Who Will Speak for the Children? How TFA Hurts Urban School and Students.

It is clear from the evidence, that TFA is bad policy and bad education. It is bad for the recruits because they are ill-prepared . . . It is bad for the schools in which they teach because the recruits often create staffing disruptions and drains on school resources . . . It is bad for children because they are often poorly taught . . . Finally, TFA is bad for teaching. By clinging to faulty assumptions about what teachers need to know and by producing so many teaching failures, it undermines the profession's efforts to raise standards and create accountability.

So, back to my original proposition. If you really want to teach, find an excellent school of education and do the work. It isn't easy or trendy or elitist, but if you love learning and children and life, it can be rewarding.

Does our education system need improvement? Yes, it does. But, Wendy Kopp's Teach for America is not the answer.


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