Students at USC and colleges across the U.S. are faced with the same question: What are we going to do after we graduate? Teach for America seems like an appealing option for many: a temporary teaching opportunity in an under-resourced public school. However, there is a hefty price students pay for TFA’s reputable and glittering name on their resume. Before applying to any company, students need to do thorough research of its history and background.
In 1989, Wendy Kopp, then a Princeton senior, wrote her undergraduate thesis about a program that would recruit recent graduates to teach in underserved schools across America. A year later, the nonprofit TFA launched and sent 489 corp members to underserved schools. It has since expanded, garnering nearly 60,000 alumni to date.
Its alumni profile is especially impressive, with 1,260 individuals serving as educational leaders and 171 former corps members serving in elected office. It also has special benefits for those applying to elite grad schools, ranging from application fee waivers to tuition discounts. But don’t let these qualities fool you.
Each component of TFA — from its initial goal to its sizable outcome — seems laudable, but its history belies its very mission.
The eligibility to apply to become a TFA corp member is simple: be a US citizen, legal resident or DACA-status college graduate with a minimum GPA of 2.5. Then, the recent graduates complete a five- to seven-week training program at an institute local to their assigned school.
This has garnered criticism, particularly because TFA corp members are pushing out experienced teachers to temporarily replace them.
One of the most infamous cases of this was in Louisiana in 2014, when the Louisiana Department of Education illegally fired 7,500 black teachers after Hurricane Katrina. This opened recruitment space for TFA corp members, whose number quadrupled in the region after Katrina. Although this may not be a direct cause and effect relation, this is a manifestation of powerful infrastructure displacing and robbing individuals of opportunities and livelihood. TFA should have been socially cognizant of the space it occupied; had it truly been an advocate for educational equity, it would have fought alongside the teachers who had been fired.
TFA teachers’ fledgling experience and noncommittal devotion to teaching raise questions on how students are impacted academically. Multiple studies vary in result: Some cite that TFA teachers raised the students’ math scores while lowering their reading and verbal skills.
These are only a handful among many backlashes against TFA. But these are the most pressing. How is the idealism of TFA, hailed as the “Hero Teacher Narrative,” impacting the real protagonists: the students themselves?
The Hero Teacher Narrative is similar to all the narratives of exceptionalism that preceded it. It’s one of optimism and reinforcement from others that affirm an opinionated stance. This is not to say that the individuals, particularly the corps members, are all culpable; there are those who acknowledge the privilege they come from and work to reconstruct to tell the real story. But if an organization’s own history stems from the epitome of the American educational system, the infrastructure that represents it can’t help but be founded within these same guiding principles.
TFA hasn’t turned a complete blind eye to these issues, although its aggressive marketing raises suspicions of coverups. It has acknowledged that its training program is insufficient teacher’s training and started a pilot initiative in 2014 to train its teachers during their senior year of college, extending its five-week program to a whole year.
But this doesn’t serve as a pretext to all their shortcomings, and many exist beyond what this article covers. In that same grain, though, every corporation that recent graduates are heading into is rife with its own problems, too. Unfortunately, students cannot fix each and every one of those problems immediately.
So students, the future workforce of the world, need to stay awake. Researching is tiresome, and it’s easy to be lured into reputable organizations like TFA for their connections and benefits. Soon-to-be graduates need to be made aware of TFA’s wrongdoings and remain vigilant if the organization that will bear their name is keeping its core promises to the American educational system.
At the juncture of one of the most exciting and frightening moments for any college student — one’s post-graduate plans — each student needs to ask what each is willing to sacrifice: one’s wealth or one’s moral compass.