The Teat: Teach For America— Expensive & Convincing Inequity

As I wrote in the New York Times, Teach for America is a temp agency. There is no way around it— despite inspiring conversations you have with their employees, their glossy brochures, and feel good stories you see in print and on television. It doesnt matter if you look at TFA in California, Texas, etc. TFA is a temp agency.

Edit 2/6/13 (Someone) leading TFA in a large, urban city to be unnamed. They stated to me, “In ____ about 50% of TFAers started a third year.” Is a 50% attrition rate after two years really something to be proud of? Then 80% after 4 years? TFA is a revolving door of rookie teachers. Why not ask for five year commitments to see who is really serious about teaching?

Their common response is that 50% of their alumni are in the “education” field, but notice they don’t say the classroom… they have a very generous definition of what “education” means— including if their corps members are in graduate school. In addition, they only have data on 50% of their alumni. So that is 50% of 50%. That does not add up to 100%. Perfect moment for The Teat cow haiku tradition:

The colors of cows
range from brown to black and white.
Purple ones are rare.

Now if we were to use the logic that grow=good. Well, then TFA would be efficacious. They are VERY well funded. They have increased their revenues from $40 million in 2005 to $270 million in 2011. A third of a billion dollars every year buys lots of lobbyist (we have five TFA lobbyist in Texas- see Sandy Kress), and “data” in slick brochures.

What is really interesting about TFA is that both Democrats and Republicans appear to adore TFA. A TFAer lobbying for funding stated in an email to a legislator:

20 states that either funds Teach For America or is positioned to grant some level of state funding in 2013. The other states that currently fund Teach For America in varied capacities are:·
  •         Race to the Top State Funds: TN, GA, MA
  •         Discretionary Grants: HI, DE, KY, MN, NM
  •         State Appropriations: SD, SC, NC, LA, TX, MS
  •         Pending: OK, NJ, WI, MI, CO

In fact, in the last five years government funding for TFA has skyrocketed. From ~$13 milllion in 2005 to ~$80 million in 2011. That is in addition to the half of a billion that they raised from foundation and individuals discussed earlier on The Teat.

From whose teat do they partake the most? Biggest funders in 2011:

  • US. Dept of Ed $18 million
  • Americorps $11 million
  • Walton Family Foundation $10 million

Despite lean times, the feds spent about $30 million on TFA in 2011. No wonder they heavily lobby in D.C.

How do you pimp poverty? Here is an email communication from a TFA corp member lobbying a legislator.

School visit? Finally, if you do have any availability to visit a school together in the next couple of weeks, would love to make that happen. I think it could be informative to speak with a principal or two who has experience working with TFA corps members, observe our teachers in the classroom, speak with students, etc. (highlight of my week is always spending time in classrooms!).
My own experience with discussing TFA with principals is that their opinions come in two varieties. The conversations usually go like this. “We loved them, but they didn’t stay” or “They were terrible, couldn’t manage the classroom etc.” To me, both are problematic. The latter for obvious reasons, the former, because that is the whole point. TFA is a temporary gig on their way to bigger and better things outside of the classroom.

What is most disconcerting about TFA, is that Black, Brown and low-SES Whites are good enough for TFA, but the wealthy and successful schools don’t take TFA. That tells me right away what the deal is.

What is also disconcerting is that they lobby heavily behind in the scenes in D.C. AGAINST teacher quality provisions in legislation because they believe it will adversely harm their placements.

TFA appears to be an avalanche of goodness. TFAers throughout the organization are educated, thoughtful, and very likeable. I count many many current and former TFAers as neighbors, basketball buddies, travel buddies, colleagues, friends, and acquaintances. Due to their rock solid network, I have noted that they are a vehicle for social and financial mobility for young professionals of color into law, medicine, politics, etc.

Yet, despite the explosion of government funding and positive feel-good press, our independent review of peer-reviewed research published by NEPC found that TFA has a high-turnover rate, is costly (We calculated that the actual total cost to a district can approach ~$80k per TFA teacher), and is marginally ineffective for academic achievement.

Thus, creating inequity for students in the teach labor force has never been so expensive or convincing.

See the full thread on TFA here.


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