If you ask a senior his or her least favorite question — What are you doing after graduation? — you’ll find that most will not have an answer, still. Many will say they hope to find a job with a decent salary which will allow them to become self-sufficient. Others want to travel, and still others want to do service. But for those who can’t decide between these post-graduation paths, there is an organization that will give you the chance to do all three.
Teach For America takes recent college graduates from top universities and, after a brief training program, sends them to disadvantaged school districts across the United States. Unlike some other service organizations, TFA “corps members” are paid a decent salary, ranging from $30,000 to $50,000 per year depending on a school district’s cost of living. TFA offers its participants a unique opportunity to travel and serve, while at the same time it provides them with a sound financial footing.
The program has attracted larger and larger numbers of college graduates since its inception in 1990. Last year, TFA accepted 4,500 graduates out of an applicant pool of tens of thousands. Despite TFA’s popularity among college students, it seems — at least in my experience — to be an option that is not always on the student radar at the College of William and Mary. I only began seriously looking into the program after a friend of mine was accepted last year. But I learned more about TFA, I became convinced that it offered a way for idealistic college students to truly make a difference in American society.
TFA’s main goal is the reduction of the “achievement gap”, or the disparity in educational achievement between well-off suburbanites and the urban and rural poor. Although this phenomenon can be fully addressed by comprehensive national policies, TFA takes a more targeted approach. Those at TFA believe that a smart and dedicated teacher has the ability to transcend societal problems which hinder academic achievement and directly affect student performance. This attitude is a welcome change from the hopelessness that pervades most discussions of America’s broken education system. It is not naive optimism, either. A substantial body of research is dedicated to measuring the effectiveness of TFA corps members. The consensus seems to be that, based on student subject proficiency, corps members routinely outperform other junior teachers and are at least as good, and at times better, than veterans.
TFA does have its faults. Teachers unions protest that TFA members are taking jobs held by professional career teachers. Others point out that corps members are inexperienced — most have no background in education — and that their quality cannot compare with that of professionals, many of whom attend teaching universities for years. Perhaps the most widespread criticism is that corps members sign up to teach for two years and then move on with their lives, leaving under-performing schools in no better shape than that which they were in when TFA members arrived there. Although many of these criticisms are valid points, at the end of the day, TFA places smart and effective teachers where they are needed the most. In a nation which continuously laments its dearth of teachers, that can’t be a bad thing.