Letter to a Friend: Teach For America Alabama


I have discussed Teach For America (TFA) previously in the New York Times and in widely-cited brief for the NEPC. See CI’s full TFA thread here. Larry Hill recently sent along an email that was an exchange with a friend who is a supporter of Teach For America in Alabama. His friend told him that “he was wrong not to support Teach For America.” I have included his un-edited letter below where he responds to his friend’s comments regarding TFA in Alabama.

When I learned a number of months ago that TFA was a line item in the Alabama education budget for $611,100, I tried to find out why they were in the budget, who put them in and what is this money used for.

No one had any answers. No one in the legislature. No one at state ed department. When the new budget was passed, TFA was cut to $572,000 for the current year. And for the life of me, I can’t understand why we are funding this program when we have so many pressing education needs across the state. I visit a lot of high-poverty schools and everywhere I go, principals tell me they can not afford textbooks. But instead of buying 8,800 textbooks (which is what $572,000 would buy at $65 each), we’re spending money no one can account for.

It is hard to argue with the original concept of TFA. It was intended to provide teachers for hard-to-staff schools in rural and inner-city locations. But since Alabama had 739,327 students and 49,363 teachers in 2008 and now we have 2,988 fewer students and 3,290 fewer teachers, it is hard to say we are short of teachers.

After a lot of homework, I’ve come to the conclusion that TFA is not a good investment of our limited education dollars.

Here’s why:

There has been extensive research about this program. One of the most comprehensive reviews of such research concludes that TFA should be used only as a last resort since these “teachers” are normally graduates who did not study education and have only undergone a five-week training program before being placed in a school.

I recently talked to someone who has taught for 30 years. One of her daughters is a teacher; the other will soon get her degree in Special Education from the University of Alabama. The daughter still in school has gone through extensive course work, hands-on labs and will soon student teach.

Yet she has a friend who just graduated with a major in art, no education courses and went with TFA for a $7,000 “signing bonus”. The mother was upset that her daughters worked hard to earn a degree in education, yet here is someone with no training to teach and she will go into a classroom. “Obviously people who support TFA are folks who don’t think education is a profession and anyone can be a teacher,” the mother told me.

Research also indicates that TFA nationally is awash in money. All non-profits must file an annual 990 report with the IRS.  These are available at the web site of the Foundation Center.  (www.foundationcenter.org) The five most recent reports for Teach For America are from FY 2006 to FY 2010. A careful review of this information shows that while many non-profits have struggled during the recent economic downturn, this is not the case with Teach For America. For example:

  • During this period, TFA showed a total difference of revenues minus expenses of $244,919,038.  That’s a “profit” of nearly one-quarter of a billion dollars in five years.
  • Total assets rose from $113,143,104 in FY 06 to $372,603,252 in DY 2010.  That’s an increase of 229 percent in five years.
  • Total gifts, contributions and grants for these five years were $907,474,961.  That is nearly one billion dollars.
  • The compensation of TFA founder and CEO Wendy Kopp was $393,636 in FY 10.
  • In FY 10, TFA reported they had 132 employees who made $100,000 or more annually.

(Let’s not forget that the state appropriation for TFA is NOT used to pay teacher salaries because these are paid by the system that employs them. Plus the system also pays up to an additional $5,000 per year per teacher to TFA for “training.”  Apparently TFA charges what they feel the traffic can bear as I’m aware of counties that have paid $2,000; $3,000 and $5,000 per teacher.)

In checking donor information from the national TFA web site you find there are 111 lifetime donors who gave from $1 million-$9,999,999, ten who gave from $10 million-$24,999,999, four who gave from $25 million-$49,999,999 and two who gave a minimum of $50 million. This is a total of at least $361 million. There are an additional 219 annual donors who gave from $100,000-$999,999 in FY 2010-11. This is a minimum of $21.9 million.

Again, I ask why are we giving scarce education dollars to this group?

It is also important to note that while TFA teachers are considered “highly qualified,” this is more the result of skillful lobbying rather than training.

On Sept. 27, 2010 the Federal Ninth Circuit Court ruled in Renee vs. Duncan that intern teachers could not be considered “highly qualified” prior to being fully certified as doing so violated No Child Left Behind legislation. In response, TFA was successful in having language inserted in a Congressional continuing resolution in late 2010 that temporally allows their teachers to be considered “highly qualified.” This language will expire in June 2013. At that point, school systems using TFA teachers will have to notify in writing parents of children in their classrooms that their child has a teacher without certification.

Consider that TFA will not work in schools where less than 70% of kids receive free-reduced lunches. In the Montgomery County system there are 14 schools with less than 70% and 38 that are greater than this. But the racial make up of these two groups are decidedly different. While one group is 47.9% black, the high-poverty group is 88.1% black.

Anyone in education knows high-poverty schools are the ones with the greatest need. To me it is morally wrong to make a conscious decision that our high-poverty, majority black schools get the least-trained teachers. Yet, this is exactly what we do when we use TFA.

Dr. Lisa Delpit is a professor of education at Southern University and the winner of a MacArthur “genius” award. Here’s how she sums up this situation in her new book, Multiplication Is For White People:

“We know that first-year teachers are least able to produce positive growth in their students and that teaching quality increases dramatically for the first three years before leveling off in the fourth year of teaching. Thus, the constant replacement of second and third-year teachers with new recruits will mean by definition that we will provide a substandard education for children in low-income urban schools, where such alternative teacher selection programs are situated.”

Dr. Delpit makes an excellent point as she talks about the growth of teachers in their profession. But with TFA teachers we’re not developing potential master teachers, instead, we’re just using band-aids that peel off every two years.

Reports from superintendents and newspaper articles from Alabama’s Black Belt region indicate that TFA teachers, by and large, do not stay after their two-year commitment. Where does this leave these systems? Right where they started off. Back to square one—minus the “training” monies they paid TFA each year.

Let me suggest a far better way to help rural schools than TFA. Rather than spending money on TFA, why not use it to begin a scholarship program for college students from rural areas who are attending a college of education and would like to return to their home community to teach?

A program like this was put together in Missouri by Dr. Gary Funk when he ran the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. i don’t see why we couldn’t do the same thing here.

Long term, this makes a whole lot more sense than what we’re now doing.

Larry Lee is an advocate for public education who lives in Montgomery, AL. You can email him at larrylee33@knology.net



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  • Unfortunately, moral and ethical criticisms of TFA will continue to fall on deaf ears as long as state legislators, districts, and campuses are forced to pay for an expanding student populations and required (and necessary) programs with diminishing resources. The basic truth is that TFA teachers are less expensive than traditional / alt cert teachers without significant drop-off in student achievement, in the short run, if at all. The fact that districts and campuses continue to hire TFA teachers despite these concerns and criticisms is proof enough. I am torn because although many good teachers are replaced by TFA corps members, there are plenty of teachers in classrooms who arguably deserved to be replaced. Is TFA the answer? No, of course not, but until our society places the education of our children as a main priority, states, districts, and schools will find a way to do more (or the same) with less. TFA is a means to an end.


  • *SIGH* If TFA is *SUCH* a fabulous idea, let’s spread the wealth to Cardiology. Seriously. I think the logic would hold, hmmmmm?


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