Educating the Educators

Harvard’s Teacher Fellows Program represents a good alternative to TFA

Graduating Harvard College seniors have no shortage of career choices. This year’s graduating class will have one more option to choose from: the new Harvard Teacher Fellows program offered by the Graduate School of Education.

Funded by a $20 million fundraising campaign, the program has been described as Harvard’s alternative to Teach for America. Yale, Brown, Stanford, and other peer institutions have launched similar programs. TFA has done a great service by laying out an attractive pathway for graduating college seniors to choose teaching over higher-paying private sector work. We should be glad that so many Harvard students apply. But it is always better to have more options, and Harvard Teacher Fellows seems tailored to correct for some of the common criticisms of TFA: that it is a boot-camp approach to teacher training, without sufficient counseling and support or an accompanying course component.

Students accepted to HTF begin with a foundational course the spring semester of their senior year, and spend the following two summers at Harvard for training and professional development. Fellows begin classroom teaching in a partner school the September after Commencement, but carry only 60 percent of a normal teaching workload, allowing them to focus on skill-building and self-assessment. The program is accepting applications from the Class of 2016 until October 28.

Founded in 1989, Teach for America grew out of the Princeton senior thesis of founder Wendy Kopp. Kopp’s idea was to “recruit high-performing college grads to teach in high-need urban and rural schools.” As far as attracting interest and attention goes, TFA has been a resounding success. In 2013, 275 Harvard College seniors applied to TFA, nearly one fifth of the graduating class. The program’s recruitment mechanism—closer in competitiveness to finance or consulting than standard public service internships—sheds some light on why. Last year, it accepted 4,100 applicants out of a pool of 44,181, a rate of slightly less than 10 percent.

Harvard has committed to maintain its collaborative partnerships with TFA, despite the efforts of the Student Labor Action Movement, which protested last fall for the university to sever its ties. Yet many education experts, including several at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, agree with some of the protesters’ criticisms of TFA’s model. In the words of Stephen R. Mahoney, HTF’s associate director, the program can be understood as a move against “sink-or-swim teacher education.” Apart from the high rate of burnout and attrition, TFA has also been criticized for pressuring districts to replace career teachers with its own corps members. (TFA denies the practice.)


The evident fact that not all people get what they want out of TFA speaks to a bigger question about the trade-offs inherent in the sink-or-swim model. On the one hand, teaching is a highly skilled occupation. Teaching in high-need classrooms is particularly challenging, and can require personal and emotional skills that can’t be taught in six weeks. On the other hand, TFA’s success has been predicated in large part on its understanding of what motivates high-achieving students—ambitious and idealistic young people who want to jump right in to the classroom. HTF, with its greater emphasis on structure and support in the first months on the job, therefore offers a clear alternative for Harvard seniors unsure they could handle a classroom from day one.

The launch of the HTF program is a hopeful step, evidence that Harvard is thinking hard about how to provide infrastructure for career paths other than those Harvard has traditionally thrown support behind. We hope that the university will continue to invest in programs that make public service work a viable, attractive career choice for graduating seniors.


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