Opinion: Students should be skeptical of Teach For America

T each For America is ubiquitous at UNC. In 2013, 57 Tar Heels joined the corps, making UNC the sixth-largest provider of teachers for the program in the country that year. In recent years, between seven and eight percent of graduating seniors at UNC applied to join the program.

Are these students making a mistake? Given the decision of the Durham Public Schools system not to renew its contract with TFA, and with the next program application deadline approaching on Dec. 5, the UNC community needs to have an open conversation about the value and shortcomings of the program.

TFA teachers are imbued with the best of intentions; however, we believe that TFA is a highly flawed program.

Many UNC students will do great work through TFA, but all students should tread carefully before submitting their next application to an on-campus recruiter.

TFA was founded in 1990. Its recruits come from elite colleges and commit to teach in a low-income community for two years. They are paid by local school districts and, for the most part, have not completed the rigorous pedagogical training that education majors benefit from. As of 2013, there were 500 TFA teachers in North Carolina. These employees are paid by local school districts, which in turn pay TFA $3,000 for each teacher per year.

The most important question concerning TFA is surprisingly hard to answer: Do its employees offer a better education to low-income students than their alternatives?

In a 2010 research note that summarized peerreviewed studies, Julian Vasquez Heilig and Su Jin Jez found somewhat mixed results. TFA teachers were marginally more successful than other noncredentialed novice teachers but significantly less successful than credentialed novice-teachers.

Excellent teaching comes, in part, from experience. The study concluded that most TFA employees do not teach long enough to become successful and that most school systems looking to improve should pass over TFA.

TFA contests these findings. Where Heilig and Jez find that 80 percent or more of TFA teachers are out of teaching after three years, program proponents directly dispute this figure, claiming alumni remain involved in education.

Importantly, not all educational involvement is created equally. Many TFA alumni have remained involved in education as advocates for charter schools and the privatization of education, promoting policies this board is skeptical of.

At its worst, TFA risks driving a deprofessionalization of teaching, encouraging school districts to invest in short-term hires rather than paying for the development of career teachers. Heilig and Jez report that in Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, D.C. and other cities, veteran teachers were fired to make way for TFA recruits.

More often, TFA’s shortcomings are symptomatic of broader failings in American education rather than of its own malfeasance. As of 2013, less than 1 percent of N.C. teachers were TFA employees. If the state wants better teachers, it should pay them more and restore the N.C. Teaching Fellows program, which required a four-year commitment to teach in the state’s public schools. And policymakers should recommit to tackling the crippling poverty that inhibits the educational advancement of all children nationally.

Meanwhile, students and current TFA employees should continue pushing the program to reform itself. At the very least, TFA ought to consider increasing the length of its required commitment.

This board holds a litany of other concerns with TFA, including the often insufficient emotional support it provides its young teachers and the particular effect it has on unions and teachers of color. Students, teachers, TFA alumni and current employees, we want to hear from you.

Write us at opinion@dailytarheel.com and let us know how you feel about the program.

Thanks for reading.

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