You know you’ve grown too cynical for your own good when you’re 21 and already finding fault with an organization as distinguished as Teach for America. In its brief 15 years of existence, the organization has blossomed from a makeshift network of 500 wide-eyed instructors into one of the nation’s most inventive and highly acclaimed nonprofit operations. Already, advocates are billing the program as our generation’s civil rights movement, a Peace Corps of sorts for our ailing schools.

Sarah Royce

And yet, the organization’s message never sat well with me. The suggestion that a 22-year-old with a sports jacket and a two-month crash course in classroom management could ever be worthy of a room full of children seemed to me to cheapen the value of a meaningful education. At a time when we should be bringing esteem back to a career in education; when we should be raising professional and financial benchmarks for our teachers, TFA is shuttling legions of rookies into some of the bleakest school districts in the country.

But, like other critics, I bit my tongue. After all, TFA’s surge to prominence has called attention to – and in many areas helped to bridge – the outrageous achievement gaps that continue to plague our public schools. Plus, it’s not up to Teach for America to address our education crisis. TFA is a social-service project, its methods of limited concern to anyone outside the program and its participating school districts. And like the tree that falls softly in the woods, the organization’s unorthodox approach had until recently gone largely unnoticed, at least in the public policy sphere.

That all changed with last year’s epic recruitment drive that, along with a Los Angeles Times op/ed piece, two Washington Post editorials and a 1,600-word New York Times feature, generated more than 17,000 applications. The corps is now one of the country’s most coveted post-graduate employers, a badge of social conscience on a bottom-line-driven generation.
Among its biggest fans are deficit-weary lawmakers in Washington, many of whom see in TFA an inexpensive stopgap for the pricey, comprehensive education reform packages that Congress has sidestepped for more than a decade. To these penny-pinchers, programs like TFA are cheap, bottom-up solutions to multi-billion-dollar, top-down problems. A case in point: U.S. Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.). Castle envisions a bigger Teach for America, an active corps that’s twice the size and that operates – with the help of federal contributions – on a $100-million annual budget. There are supporters like Castle on both sides of the aisle, many of whom see room for TFA outposts in their own districts.

It’s no secret that there is a human resource crisis at the heart of our inequitable and by many standards failing public school system. A 2004 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality concludes that aspiring teachers are consistently outperformed by their classmates and are often pulled from the bottom of the academic food chain. Weak salaries and a lack of upward mobility are largely to blame for this shortage of talent, which falls inexcusably hard on already struggling low-income districts.

Proponents claim that little by little, Teach for America can change this. That by enlisting only the academic elite – corps members carry top-tier credentials, and studies show them to be more effective than permanent faculty at participating schools – Teach for America is cultivating a commitment to public service and education among some of the brightest minds of our generation.

But hold your applause: According to The New York Times, of the trifle more than half of participants that actually remain in education, most do so in an administrative capacity. Turns out Teach for America hatches superintendents and curriculum planners far more frequently than it does teachers. If these numbers are on target, this isn’t a teacher training corps – it’s an incubator for would-be deans and well-rounded law students. And who’s surprised? The same can-do qualities that made these applicants so attractive to recruiters are the ones driving them from the trenches, often toward high-pay, high-visibility fields. We could address the country’s nursing shortage by temporarily taking on Ivy League medical students, but my guess is that a similar revolving-door dynamic would play out. Public education has to offer more than $50,000 and a lifetime union membership before it can hope to hold a candle to the Yale Laws and the Morgan Stanleys.

Regrettably, instead of exploring ways to bring education up to par with other advance-skilled fields, the Teach for America approach undervalues it further. Any grandeur that primary education had left was lost the moment we forced trained professionals to share faculty lounges with unseasoned college grads, many of who finished their final semesters with blood-alcohol contents that rivaled their grade point averages.

Call me insincere, but none of this is to take away from the program’s laudable intentions, its talented and dedicated corps of instructors and its 15-year record of diligent, devoted service in our public schools. A piece three times this length could be written about the practical value of the corps, both for the instructors and the thousands of students they’ve helped. But like many public service projects, the organization’s value relies on its ability to operate on an appropriate scale and with limited scope. As TFA begins reaching a wider audience, its message must be considered with prudence. The last thing they need in Washington is another excuse.

Singer can be reached at edusingers@umich.edu.

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