Teach First & Teach For America

Our recent Teach First article was warmly received and on the back of this we thought we’d investigate this charity a little further just to see what makes this organisation tick.


We will be publishing a number of posts in the coming weeks, but stumbled upon something so juicy that we thought it couldn’t wait. For it seems that Teach First is but part of a larger web of organisations modelled on Teach For American (TFA), an organisation subject to a great deal of criticism in the US.

Teach For America (TFA), begun in 1990 by an American undergrad with $2.5 million of financing and 500 teachers now has 28,000 staff, we are told. Quite an achievement.

Yet in a 2009 article, Teach for America: Elite corps or costing older teachers jobs?, USA Today reports in many US cities Teach For America’s expansion is costing the jobs of experienced teachers.

This, the report says, is because TFA teachers cost much less and the organisation pays for their training. One union rep is quoted as saying that, “I don’t think you’ll find a city that isn’t laying off people to accommodate Teach For America.”

John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association, the USA’s largest teachers union in May 2008 sent a memo saying union leaders were “beginning to see school systems lay off teachers and then hire TFA college grads due to a contract they signed.”

To Wilson, TFA hurts children by bringing “the least-prepared and the least-experienced teachers” into low-income schools and making them “the teacher of record.”

TFA, he says, has “done a marvelous job of marketing their program and branding their program — you cannot take away from their business model. But what they’re doing to poor children is malpractice.”

Not only malpractice, however, as retention rates of TFA teachers is low with only 29% still teaching according the report.

To Detroit teachers union President Keith Johnson TFA teachers are “educational mercenaries” who “ride in on their white horses and for two years share the virtue of their knowledge as a pit stop on their way to becoming corporate executives.”

Ironically, only 4% eventually ever make it that far. About two-thirds remain in education but mostly in administrative or political jobs or working with policy or charitable groups with only 29% still teaching. That’s lower than the USA’s overall average.

Perhaps the key reason for TFA and Teach First is political. The report claims TFA’s “growth plan, posted online, foresees 800 alumni as principals and 100 as elected officials by 2010; but nowhere does the word “teaching” appear.” As one alumnin put it: “Once we get people who have experienced and gone through TFA as union heads and secretaries of education and presidents of school boards, then we will see the large systemic change that is needed in this system.”

And its not as if TFA gets results. One study shows “only slight gains in math for (students of) corps members and none for reading,” notes researcher Megan Hopkins, a TFA alumna and doctoral student at the University of California-Los Angeles. She says her TFA experience and corps members’ “uneven” achievement overall suggest that they “do not receive enough training to be effective. Of course, TFA would argue that they provide excellent training and mentorship after teachers enter the classroom. My own experience says otherwise”

There is also the accusation that turnover in low-income areas remains, with one TFA teacher claiming that TFA simply perpetuated it in poor schools – not lowered it.

So, in a nutshell, TFA keeps teaching salaries down when they are STILL too low, forces more experienced but expensive staff out of the profession, doesn’t make any significant difference to levels of achievement and does nothing to improve the recruitment problem in poor areas.

TFA teachers usually leave the profession so pupils then have to suffer while new ‘high-flying’ TFA teachers find their feet and stay only long enough to buff up their CVs.

This isn’t all, however. There are also said to be problems with Teach For America’s training programme that left trainees ‘struggling’. A newer study by conducted by researchers at the University of Texas and California State University states “studies indicate that the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers.” They then conclude that “the lack of a consistent impact, however, should indicate to policymakers that TFA is likely not the panacea that will reduce disparities in educational outcomes.”

The same study goes on to say that the high turnover of TFA teachers is ‘costly’ at $70,000 per recruit and that TFA teachers aren’t an ideal solution to teacher shortages. They then recommend that only when the alternative to TFA recruits is temporary or supply teachers that they be employed and not when more experienced, full-time or permanent staff are available.

And it doesn’t stop there. The Web is full of stories about TFA. And even current TFA teachers aren’t happy. In another post, one TFA recruit, for eg, and backing up what other say, claims that the organisation comprises inexperienced, ineffective, stop-gap educators who leave after two years.



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