Teach for America is a non-profit organization that enlists recent college graduates and professionals to teach for at least two years in low-income communities throughout America. Teach for America receives its funding primarily from private donations, but also some Title VIII government funds, i.e., it functions more as a private-sector institution. Vox recently published a lengthy article regarding its criticisms and how it finally is looking to change its practices. What is it about the non-profit that causes such a ruckus?
One form of criticism is that most leave after the two-year commitment. For some, teaching in low-income areas is not quite what they imagined. Many find teaching opportunities elsewhere, especially if they are higher-quality, better-paying jobs. As long as there are those who are interested in the Teach for America program (which seems to be the case, given its acceptance rate), at least the teacher shortage issue is solved. The second criticism is that these corps members do not have an extensive training program. While five weeks is better than nothing, it is arguably insufficient. Although an intensive summer program is no substitute for experience, Teach for America has implemented professional development metrics for the corps members throughout the program. Even so, maybe traditional public teacher education is preferable, although with the way tenure works, I'm not so sure. Even with the lack of experience, maybe the Teach for America corps members fare better because they're younger, more energized, and more likely to try out different methodologies that could very well be better than the status quo of teacher unions. What do the more rigorous studies have to say on the matter?
Even if you were to argue that Teach for America was merely a pathway for charter school recruitment, it is hard to argue with the results. Some studies found that Teach for America teachers perform just as well (Turner et al., 2012). The Left-leaning Urban Institute found that by using student performance exams as a metric, Teach for America teachers do a better job of teaching (Xu et al., 2009). The U.S. Department of Education commissioned a report in 2013 showing that Teach for America corp members were more effective than the teachers to whom they were compared. A standard deviation of 0.07 might not sound like a lot, but it is the equivalent of an additional 2.6 months of schooling for the average student to be exact, not to mention intuition could arguably tell us that more experienced teachers in the public school system would perform better. Those who go through Teach for America actually have more conviction and are more likely to stick with teaching (Fryer, 2011). As for spillover effects, they may or may not exist. Regardless, the Teach for America program has high overall satisfaction.
Like any other organization, it isn't perfect and Teach for America can use some reform. However, if we are to look at the big picture, Teach for America is a [largely] private-sector success to help improve upon the quality of public education in this country. While Teach for America cannot be expected to solve all of the woes facing the American public education sector, it certainly is a step in the right direction.