Cuts to TFA not significant
It has recently been reported that Teach for America (TFA) may lose a substantial amount of funding from the federal government. At a time of financial downturn, the organization may not receive its full requested amount of $50 million in aid and be forced to eliminate almost 1,350 teaching positions. Many would say this is a detrimental blow to education, as TFA is such a great recruiting tool for the urban environment. However, I believe the significance of the organization is largely exaggerated, and I think these cuts will have little impact on the broader context of education.
TFA is an organization that sends college graduates to underperforming schools with the intention of attracting the best and the brightest to teaching. It is known to be a highly selective program that rejects some of the smartest students in the nation, including applicants from the Ivy League. It essentially seeks to place highly qualified individuals into areas that lack sufficient opportunity for academic success. So, why would I be discouraging a program that seemingly has nothing but benefits?
First, let's look at the nature of the program's applicants. Those who apply to TFA are generally hardworking students who maintain a decent GPA and are considered student leaders around their respective campuses. These students have the capacity to become well-respected lawyers, doctors or businessmen. Teaching was probably never an option, as they would have spent their four years pursuing an education degree. Thus, these individuals apply with the intention of either temporarily putting their life on hold or using the organization to further pad their resume. Of course, I am not discounting the fact that they have a genuine urge to help underprivileged children. I am, on the other hand, suggesting that most applicants usually do not see urban education as a career. This can be evidenced by the fact that only 29 percent continue to teach after their commitment to TFA ends, whereas the percentage of corps members who actually stay in the urban environment is probably even lower.
An organization that is modeled off merely attracting the best and the brightest — but not retaining them — deems to be a rather weak short-term fix to a long-term problem. Those who are accepted into the program receive five weeks of intensive training over the summer before they begin teaching. Afterward, corps members are only required to teach for a minimum of two years within their school. In effect, not only are they given little preparation to teach in an urban school, but their commitment is not even long enough for them to adapt into the educational system.
Most corps members, judging by their academic backgrounds, probably grew up with greater opportunities than their students. Because most corps members were not plagued by the same obstacles as the students they teach, they are usually unfamiliar with their new setting. Consequently, they spend the next two years finding their pedagogy incongruent, management skills ineffective and idealism stifled. Combining this with the fact that they were not fully dedicated in the first place, most opt to leave after their two-year commitment. Ultimately, urban schools do not improve because there is no base of highly qualified and skilled educators to create a sustainable academic environment. It comes to the point where inexperienced teachers are just being recycled year after year.
While well intentioned, the current TFA model is not set up for true urban renewal. The organization has the potential to be a really great program, but it needs to be more focused on retention. Sure, you can argue that the low number of corps members who decide to stay would have never considered teaching in the first place. However, $50 million a year should not be invested into a program that does not produce long-term benefits. Attracting the best and the brightest proves to be futile if they are not committed. Until the model behind TFA is changed or altered, I cannot say that the organization is an advantageous federal program.
Brian Canares is a Rutgers College senior majoring in history and political science. His column, "Pure Rubbish," runs on alternate Tuesdays.