Teach for America responds to criticism

TFA institutes longer teaching commitments and a full year of training, among other reforms.

Camille Galles

Take a recent college graduate, put them through a five-week crash course in teaching and then drop them in one of America’s highest-need classrooms to teach for two years. It sounds crazy, but that’s the model Teach for America has used to place its 11,000 corps members in classrooms all over the nation. TFA has faced harsh criticism, especially for its short certification program and lack of teacher retention. New TFA reforms address these concerns, but they can’t rescue an organization based on quick fixes.

The new Education for Justice Pre-Corps Pilot Program attempts to reform TFA’s five-week teacher training program. Created to fast-track the certification process, the five-week training is a hallmark of TFA’s mission and a large source of criticism. How can fresh-faced college grads be expected to learn how to manage a classroom, use teaching strategies effectively and plan lessons in just over a month?

A lack of experience is detrimental to any teacher. When you consider the overcrowded and underfunded schools most TFA corps members are sent to, a lack of training seems almost like a crime. Those students need the most help, and should get the most experienced teachers. The new pilot program will provide a full year of training to 50 to 100 college seniors who applied to TFA during their junior year. A year of training is significantly longer than five weeks — but is it really enough?

The second new TFA program addresses teacher retention. Members in 12 of TFA’s regions will sign on for a five-year teaching commitment, instead of the usual two. Studies show that a high teacher turnover rate harms students, leaving them with a significant loss in reading and math learning compared to students who experienced low teacher turnover. In a program that practically encourages turnover, more than half of TFA corps members leave their initial low-income placement. Increasing teaching requirements to five years helps provide stability for students, but TFA is still temporary work. 

Despite these promising reforms, one of TFA’s biggest stumbling blocks is how it trivializes the teaching profession. There shouldn’t be shortcuts to teacher certification, whether it’s five weeks or one year. Teaching is a hard, emotionally draining and vitally important job that too often goes unappreciated. To treat it as a two- or even five-year stint on the way to bigger and better things cheapens the profession.

Low-income school districts deserve experienced and dedicated teachers who will be able to address the challenges of children living in poverty. TFA can’t meet those needs if it continues to cut corners. Its willingness to respond to criticism is a good step forward, but there’s still a long way to go.