According to their website, the Teach for America program aims “to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our nation’s most promising future leaders in the effort.” The program began as an undergraduate thesis proposal at Princeton University. Wendy Kopp was convinced that “many in her generation were searching for a way to assume a significant responsibility that would make a real difference in the world and that top college students would choose teaching over more lucrative opportunities if a prominent teacher corps existed.”
The program grew from an initial force of 500 (selected from 2500 applicants) in 1990 to 17,000 working in our country’s poorest communities, and reaching over 3 million students. TFA now selects talented students from the most selective colleges in the nation. The program seeks “exceptional leaders who have a track record of achievement . . . and individuals who have the potential to achieve based on the skills and strengths that we’ve determined over time lead to success in our classrooms.” These instructors typically do not major in education, but rather excel in specific subject areas, so they are not trained in methodology or pedagogy as undergraduates. However, a higher percentage of TFA teachers are licensed in the subject area that they teach than non-TFA teachers. Furthermore, the summer before their school placement, they undergo an intensive five week institute and an additional two week orientation.
Critics of the program maintain that these young instructors lack the experience and training to be effective teachers. Furthermore, they point out that TFA members sign up for a minimum two year commitment , after which most participants leave.
The Urban Institute and the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research recently released a study of the effectiveness of TFA at the secondary level. The findings show that the critics are wrong. TFA teachers proved to be more effective than traditionally trained teachers, especially in math and science. The study measured performance on state exams and found that the students of the TFA instructors out-performed those in other classes in all subject areas. According to an abstract in The Atlantic, “ The authors found that even though the program’s teachers are assigned to the most demanding classrooms, they’re able to compensate for their lack of experience with better academic preparation and motivation. As a result, students are better off with TFA instructors than with fully licensed in-field teachers with three or more years of experience.”
The question then appears to be whether states should raise their teacher certification requirements and require that all secondary students be licensed in their fields. Doing so may also require raising salaries to attract the most qualified candidates.