NPR Story
4:13 pm
Fri March 7, 2014

A Love/Hate Relationship With Teach For America

Originally published on Fri March 7, 2014 1:29 pm

In the education world, friction has developed between teachers who come to the profession the old fashioned way and the increasing number who enter through a side door, particularly Teach For America.

The national program recruits students from elite colleges and prepares them to spend two years as teachers.

The rub is particularly glaring at Vanderbilt University. It’s home to one of the nation’s top education schools, Peabody College, and under its nose, Teach For America has flourished.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Blake Farmer of WPLN in Nashville reports.

Reporter

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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Well, anyway, a debate is heating up over whether Teach for America is doing more harm than good. The organization recruits students from elite colleges across the country and prepares them to spend two years in the classroom. But critics say some Teach for America teachers are using the position as a stepping stone and aren't interested in the long-term health of the schools.

The debate is particularly sharp at Vanderbilt University, which is home to one of the nation's top education schools and to a flourishing Teach for America program. Blake Farmer, from WPLN in Nashville, reports.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Vanderbilt is one of Teach for America's top spots for recruiting, so a reporter doesn't have to stop too many people before finding someone like Sarah Chu, who just landed a TFA job in Dallas.

SARAH CHU: Me personally, I don't necessarily know what I want to do with my life, with, you know, my math major.

FARMER: Is teaching something you'd considered before?

CHU: No, not long term.

FARMER: Chu is one of 11,000 recruits Teach for America now has working across the country. Only about a third of them will stay in the classroom much past their two-year commitment. It's a stepping stone to another career for many. But according to how their students perform on standardized tests, they are some of the best new teachers around.

MACKENZIE BELL: If you can hear my voice, clap one time.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

BELL: If you can hear my voice clap two times.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

BELL: Perfect. OK...

FARMER: Dressed in flats and a polka dot blouse, Mackenzie Bell paces around tables of eighth-graders learning the Pythagorean theorem. Bell studied political science at Vanderbilt. After TFA's seven-week crash-course last summer, she was placed in this Nashville middle school. The district pays these teachers a normal salary. TFA also gets paid, $14,000 per teacher, per year. Administrators say they're model teachers.

BELL: Yeah, isn't that interesting? I'm not saying teaching's easy, because it's not. Teaching is a craft. And I'm only going to get better every day at it.

MARCY SINGER-GABELLA: They set people up for a sprint. I can do anything if I am 23 years old and super-smart and have leadership and organizational skills. I can go in, and I can drill down and focus on the things that are going to get test scores up.

FARMER: Vanderbilt Professor Marcy Singer-Gabella specializes in teacher training, and she doesn't think much of TFA. At times, she tries to talk students on campus out of taking a position, especially if they only see it as padding their resume before law school or a Wall Street job.

SINGER-GABELLA: A reliance on Teach for America is an assault to the idea of teaching as a profession.

FARMER: Teaching is already hemorrhaging experience, though TFA is hardly the only factor. Pop into a classroom in the late '80s, and odds were there'd be a 15-year veteran. Do the same today, and the teacher's more likely in her first or second year.

HENRY MUNK: So, let me turn my volume way up here.

FARMER: Vanderbilt seniors taking the traditional route to the education field are breaking down a video of themselves student teaching. Unlike the TFA signees, Henry Munk doesn't have a job lined up yet. And while he respects anyone willing to spend a few years teaching - especially in tough, inner-city schools - he's irked that in many school districts TFA gets first dibs.

MUNK: I generally have a problem if those guys are getting priority job placement.

FARMER: More than the competition, Munk feels like Teach for America gets all the glory. It's treated like noble mission work, while teaching as a career isn't, at least not in the same way.

MUNK: One is saying I was willing to volunteer in an urban school district for two years, and then I'm going to go figure my life out, which is what a lot of people do. Say I'm going to college to be a teacher, sort of says you're in it for the long run, and people look at you differently.

FARMER: TFA has made teaching sexy, says Vanderbilt education Professor Gary Henry.

GARY HENRY: It's made it especially cool for a group of kids that probably wouldn't have considered teaching a few years ago.

FARMER: Unlike some of his colleagues, who are critical of TFA, Henry chooses to focus primarily on what can be learned. He says it's shown that with the right recruit, it doesn't take four years to become an effective teacher.

HENRY: The most profound thing is it's made us check our assumptions. TFA has challenged us.

FARMER: Vanderbilt also has to be careful not to bite the hand that feeds it. Many TFA teachers go on to work in education policy, or start charter schools. Right now, nearly 50 Teach for America alums have returned to Vanderbilt for their graduate studies in education. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Blake Farmer, in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.