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The TFA Party

By Elizabeth C. Bloom, Crimson Staff Writer

Love it or hate it, we must deal with it: Teach For America is often at the forefront of our minds, media, conversations, and debates. For instance, Harvard students each year apply in droves to TFA, the organization that sends recent college graduates (known as corps members) to teach in some of the nation’s poorest communities. Outside of the Institute of Politics on Feb. 24, Harvard students protested the proposed budget cuts that would slash funding to AmeriCorps—the TFA parent organization—at a speech given by House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor. The organization’s 20-year anniversary on Feb. 12 generated a wave of articles proclaiming its success. But there is no shortage of those who condemn its shortcomings. We just can’t get TFA out of our heads.

TFA may generate more criticism than any other post-graduation plan—whether that be a fellowship, graduate school, or a finance or consulting job. But TFA does not deserve nearly as much flack at it gets from these conscientious objectors. Despite its flaws, TFA is an overall positive force in American elementary and secondary education.

As columnist Andrew J. Rotherham points out, the best quality research shows that TFA produces, on the whole, corps members that are as good or better than other teachers, and it is becoming steadily more effective at doing so. Others have argued that the education entrepreneurs that TFA counts among its alumni justify the corps’ existence at all. These alumni include former District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the founders of the KIPP charter schools, Mike Feinberg and David Levin.

So why is TFA always in purgatory? People argue that TFA is merely a launching pad for graduate school; they lament that it’s too short of a commitment to teaching; they say the corps members are ill-prepared for the incredibly difficult task of teaching in some of America’s poorest communities.

I asked Wendy S. Kopp about these criticisms. Kopp—the founder of Teach for America, whose senior thesis at Princeton was a proposal for the corps—spoke at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on Feb. 4. I asked her: How do I defend TFA? She responded that America needs people working in all sectors to close the achievement gap. Teachers are important, but so are, for example, policymakers and education lawyers. Through TFA, individuals who plan for careers outside of teaching become more invested in education.

These are all valid points. To me, however, one of the most valuable aspects of TFA is something simpler: It shakes things up. It’s not perfect, and many criticisms of the program are well founded. But TFA has been an important part of an attitude adjustment toward America’s failing education system. It has incubated education leaders, and it has fostered entrenched interest in fixing American public schools.

It does so by offering a supply of young, enthusiastic teachers who are not unionized. It makes teaching an attractive job option immediately post-graduation. It gets people involved, and most stay involved; according to Rotherham, 52 percent of TFA alumni continue to teach after their two-year commitment, and 67 percent work in the education sector. Does TFA have its flaws? Sure. Nonetheless, it helps creates the urgency needed to close the achievement gap.

So, TFA does deserve the funding it gets from the government through AmeriCorps. It deserves the support it gets from various media outlets. And it deserves your support. By generating dialogue, by bringing the urgency of the achievement gap to college campuses, by increasing the number of non-unionized teachers working in the school system, it’s making people angry: policymakers, teachers, reformers, and whoever else decides to join the conversation. And the time is always right. When more people are debating these issues, things will change. Without TFA, education would play a diminished role in many college-aged students’ psyches. But changing and fixing the American education system must be ever-present our minds.

While TFA celebrated its 20th anniversary in Washington last month, students in the District of Columbia were still struggling to read, write, and perform arithmetic. In 2007, eight percent of public school students in our nation’s capital could do math at grade level. What matters most, certainly beyond the minutiae of the TFA debate, is that the status quo isn’t working. TFA will not fix the problem by itself, but neither will the current educational paradigm. For me, one of TFA’s most important roles is to draw attention to America’s schools. In that way, it just may move the needle.

Elizabeth C. Bloom ’12, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House.

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