Why I did TFA, and why you shouldn’t

There was a time, not very long ago, when I was an active volunteer alumni recruiter for TFA. And, as you might expect, I was great at it. One year, I think it was 1998, I did a recruitment session at Colorado College, a very small school, which brought the house down. A year later when TFA published the list of the most popular schools for TFA, Colorado College was listed alongside The University Of Michigan and all the other common TFA schools as one of the top twenty schools for that year.

The last time I recruited for TFA, I went to my alma mater, Tufts, in 2002. I even wrote this editorial which ran in The Tufts Daily.

There are many similarities between now and 1991, when I graduated from college.  Bush was in the White House, war was in the Middle East, and the job market was unfriendly.  The prospect of being unemployed and living at home caused my altruistic tendencies to heighten as I applied to the newly formed Teach For America (TFA) program.  TFA recruits college seniors from any major to sign up to teach for two years in some of the most under-resourced schools in the country.  Four months after my acceptance, just as the current college seniors entered kindergarten, I began the first of my two years teaching sixth grade in Houston.

Signing up for TFA required doing something I rarely did as a college student – taking a giant risk.  Sure I risked being turned down when I asked girls out at fraternity parties.  I risked getting a C in Psych One when I neglected to study for the final.  Those were easy risks to take, and, besides, both of those risks were softened by the fact that I was drunk.  Joining TFA required I risk complete failure.  Though I tried to envision myself inspiring sixth graders to develop the same affection for numbers that led me to major in math, I knew that a classroom of kids, even ‘needy’ kids, could eat a young idealistic teacher alive.  Aside from personal failure, I had to risk financial failure.  Even though the pay wasn’t bad (In addition to a full teaching salary, we received additional money from an education grant), I would not be able to afford some of the things my friends could.  TFA was a two-year program, so I could still continue with my life ambition to be a lawyer after the program was finished.  Still, I was concerned by the prospect of starting law school just as many of the friends I graduated with were beginning their final year of law school.  I worried that I would be giving everyone I graduated with a two-year head start in the race of life.

Several forces combined to lead me to my eventual decision.  Most importantly, it sounded exciting.  For once, I’d be doing something ‘real’.  I’d be doing something valuable for society.  I’d be making a difference.  Also, I really wasn’t as thrilled about applying to law school as my mother was.  As current seniors read this, and think about their own decisions about their futures, I wish I could portray a dramatic ‘moment of truth’ that I went through.  I could describe myself sitting in my dorm room with my TFA acceptance in one hand and my Harvard Law School acceptance in the other.  I look back and forth at each letter and freeze on the law school letter.  Then I sigh, shake my head, and begin to chuckle.  I take a look at the TFA letter, then back one last time to the Harvard letter before ripping the law school acceptance into confetti.  Unfortunately, that’s not how it happened.  As soon as I heard about it, I knew I wanted to do TFA.  I didn’t even apply to law school.  I was accepted to the program in March, and began teaching in August.

As a student, I wasn’t known for making the best decisions.  “Double majoring in Math and Philosophy will be cool”, “Let’s stay on campus senior year.  We’ll get single dorm rooms”, “It’s never too late for a cheesesteak”.  Joining TFA was, by far, the best decision I ever made at Tufts or anywhere else.  Though I risked complete failure, and struggled bravely through my first year, I eventually made it through my commitment.  In doing so, I helped a lot of kids to learn and to enjoy math.

No other path I could have chosen would have exposed me to the range of emotions I experienced in TFA.  One of my best moments was during my second year of teaching.  The school at which I taught had 800 freshmen but only 200 seniors.  And of those seniors, twenty-five of them had not yet passed the standardized test that determined if they would graduate.  I volunteered to teach them in an extra class.  When the test results returned, twenty-three of the twenty-five passed.  As they received their diplomas, aside from being proud of them, I was proud of myself for putting forth the extra effort for those kids.

The low point of my experience also occurred during my second year.  Returning from Thanksgiving break, I learned that one of my top students, a sixteen-year-old girl named Nohemi, had been killed by her jealous ex-boyfriend.  I found myself trying to counsel her classmates at a time that I needed my own counseling.

By joining TFA you will emerge as a better person, prepared to face whatever challenges lie in your future.  Any time I have applied for a job, I have been able to look the interviewer in the eye and say that I am not intimidated by any challenge.  Deadlines don’t scare me.  I lived with a deadline that was marked by the end of the period bell.  Problem solving and ability to improvise are skills that I developed by necessity.

After the two years, I taught for two more years, winning teacher of the year at my school, and publishing a book about my experiences.  I never went to law school, though many of my TFA friends did.  I don’t feel like those friends have somehow ‘lapped’ me on the circular track of life.  The race thing, in fact, turned out to be an inaccurate analogy.

I invite current seniors to come to the evening informational sessions this week to learn more about TFA and the application deadline.

I’ve been getting some emails from prospective corps members recently asking me if I think they should apply or not. They say that my writings and the writings of others have made them realize that TFA might have its flaws. But, they wonder, do those flaws outweigh the benefits of the program?

When I joined TFA twenty years ago, I did it because I believed that poor kids deserved to have someone like me helping battle education inequity in this country. At the time, there were massive teacher shortages in high need areas. The 1990 corps had 500 members and the 1991 corps had 750 members, with a third of us going to Houston. I was one of those Houston corps members, the first group to ever go to Houston. At the time, we knew that we weren’t going to be great teachers. It was unrealistic to believe otherwise. But we also knew that the jobs we were taking were jobs that nobody else wanted. Principals who were hiring these ‘Teachers For America’ or other paraphrasings of this unknown organization, were completely desperate. If not for us, our students, most likely, would be taught by a different substitute each day. Even if we were bad permanent teachers, we WERE permanent teachers and for kids who had little in life they can call permanent, it was something. The motto for TFA back then could have been ‘Hey, we’re better than nothing.’

And we got out butts kicked. As tough as this was, we partly expected it. That was what we signed up for. We were like those front line Civil War soldiers — the ones with the bayonets whose job it was to weaken the enemy front line ever so slightly at the expense of our own health and well-being.

Many of us quit. I think that a third of the 1990 charter corps did. I’m not sure how many of the 1991s did. I lost count. Those of us who made it through the first year had pretty good second years. It was true, I guess, that what didn’t kill us only made us stronger.

Most of the people I knew left after their second year. They went to law school or other graduate programs. Even if they had a bad first year and a much better second year, they could feel they did their part in the fight to help kids. If many of those kids really were going to have rotating subs, we could be sure that we were doing less damage than good.

I’m glad I ‘did’ TFA. Twenty years ago they filled a need. Putting a few hundred barely trained teachers into the toughest to serve schools was one of those concepts that was ‘so crazy, it might just work.’ We weren’t always doing ‘good,’ but we also weren’t doing much harm. Our five or six hundred teachers were pretty insignificant in the scheme of things.

Over the next twenty years, TFA did a lot of growing, but not a lot of evolving. They replicated their institutes and increased their regions. The 2011 corps is nearly 6,000, twelve times as big as the cohorts from the early 90s. Unfortunately, the landscape in education has changed a lot in the past twenty years. Instead of facing teacher shortages, we have teacher surpluses. There are regions where experienced teachers are being laid off to make room for incoming TFA corps members because the district has signed a contract with TFA, promising to hire their new people. In situations like this, it is hard to say with confidence that these under trained new teachers are really doing less harm than good.

As TFA tried to grow and gain private and federal money, they had to develop a public relations machine. They found ways to spotlight their few successes. There were some dynamo teachers — there were bound to be. And then some of those teachers advanced to leadership roles. Some started schools, like the KIPP program which started in Houston in 1995. Some got appointed to big education jobs, like Michelle Rhee as D.C. chancellor, and some got elected to public office, like Michael Johnston as a state senator in Colorado.

More and more alumni started charter schools rather than take the long route of becoming an assistant principal at a ‘district’ school and then advancing to principal. Some of these charter schools were successful, some weren’t. Some of the successful ones, it is documented, mysteriously lose their toughest to educate kids. TFA ignored this as they needed success stories to grow.

Even through most of this, up until about three years ago, I still supported TFA and encouraged people to apply to it. But right now, I don’t.

Twenty years ago TFA was, to steal an expression from the late great Douglas Adams — ‘mostly harmless.’  Then about ten years ago they became ‘potentially harmful.’  Now, in my opinion, they have become ‘mostly harmful.’

Though the change happened so gradually, I hardly noticed it, TFA is now completely different than it was when I joined. I still believe in the original mission of TFA as much as anyone possibly can. The problem is, in my opinion, that TFA has become one of the biggest obstacles in achieving that mission.

TFA has highlighted their few successes so much that many politicians actually believe that first year TFA teachers are effective. They believe that there are lazy veteran teachers who are not ‘accountable’ to their students and who are making a lot of money so we’re better off firing those older teachers and replacing them with these young go-getters.

Some TFA alums have become leaders of school systems in various cities and states. In New York City, several of the deputy chancellors are from TFA. I already mentioned ex-chancellor Michelle Rhee who now runs StudentsFirst. John White runs the Recovery District in New Orleans. Kevin Huffman, former TFA public relations VP, is the state commissioner of Tennessee. TFA likes to point to these leaders as the true effect of TFA. Even if they haven’t really fixed the training model much and the first years are pretty awful teachers, and even if those first year teachers aren’t ‘needed’ anymore to fill any teacher shortages, it doesn’t matter since as long as a fraction of them become these ‘leaders’ TFA will have a positive impact in a big way on the education landscape.

Which sounds great except these leaders are some of the most destructive forces in public education. They seem to love nothing more than labeling schools as ‘failing,’ shutting them down, and blaming the supposed failure on the veteran teachers. The buildings of the closed schools are taken over by charter networks, often with leaders who were TFA alums and who get salaries of $200,000 or more to run a few schools.

Rather than be honest about both their successes and their failures, they deny any failures, and charge forward with an agenda that has not worked and will never work. Their ‘proof’ consists of a few high-performing charters. These charters are unwilling to release the data that proves that they succeed by booting the ‘worst’ kids — the ones that bring down their test scores. See this recent peer reviewed research paper from Berkely about KIPPs attrition.

TFA and the destructive TFA spawned leaders suffer a type of arrogance and overconfidence where they completely ignore any evidence that their beliefs are flawed.  The leaders TFA has spawned are, to say this in the kindest way possible, ‘lacking wisdom.’

They say things like ‘Poverty is not destiny,’ which is true if they’re saying that it is possible for some to overcome it, but not true if they are saying that teachers, alone — and untrained teachers, at that — have the power to do this.

And the very worst thing that the TFA alum turned into education ‘reformers’ advocate is strong ‘accountability’ by measuring a teacher’s ‘value added’ through standardized test scores. It might be hard for someone who is not a teacher yet to believe that this is not a cop out by lazy teachers. The fact is that even the companies that do the measurements say that these calculations are very inaccurate. Over a third of the time, they misidentify effective teachers as ineffective and vice versa, in certain models. ‘Value added’ is in it’s infancy, and certainly not ready to be rolled out yet. But ALL the TFA reformers I’ve followed are strong supporters of this kind of evaluation.

So TFA has participated in building a group of ‘leaders’ who, in my opinion, are assisting in the destruction of public education. If this continues, there will soon be, again, a large shortage of teachers as nobody in their right mind would enter this profession for the long haul knowing they can be fired because of an inaccurate evaluation process. And then, of course, TFA can grow more since they will be needed to fill those shortages that the leaders they supported caused.

So if you’re about to graduate college and you want to ‘make a positive difference’ the way I wanted to twenty years ago, you should not do what I did and join TFA. Had TFA evolved with the times, and it’s not too late, I’m hoping they eventually do, then maybe it could have been something that I’d advise new graduates to do. Maybe they can make it a four year program. I know that this was not the idea of TFA, but I do think that when people teach for two years and then leave, it contributes to the instability of the schools that need the most stability. Maybe by bringing fewer people but having a plan for them to be true leaders with ‘wisdom’ and the ability to analyze the facts, even when those facts are counter to what they’d like them to be, future TFA leaders can be competent enough to handle the responsibilities they’ve been trusted with.

But if you enter TFA now, I think you are contributing more to the problem, unfortunately, than to the solution. This is not to say that the current 2011 corps — God help them with their dozen hours of student teaching classes of 4 to 15 kids — aren’t great people who are giving it their all. I’m sure that most of them, deep down, agree with everything I’m saying.

But if you truly feel that TFA is really the ONLY way that you have a chance to ‘give back’ to the society that has provided you such opportunities, I suppose that you can apply, but there are some things you should demand before accepting their offer. First, you should refuse to be placed in a region that is currently suffering teacher layoffs. In those places, you will be replacing someone who, most likely, would have done a better job than you. Why would you want to live with that guilt?  I was horrible my first year, but I was better than the rotating group of subs I replaced. Second, you should refuse to go to a charter school. Though there are some charter schools that are not corrupt, I believe that most are. They NEED those test scores and they do anything they can to get them. This often means ‘counseling out’ the kids that TFA was created to serve. Third, you need to demand that you get an authentic training experience. TFA signs contracts with districts where they promise to train you properly. But team teaching with three other teachers for twelve days with classes with as few as 4 kids is not fair to you and it is really not fair to the kids that you will teach. They deserve someone who is trained properly.  Fourth, you should commit to teaching for four years instead of two.  America let you practice on their kids for your first year — you’ve got to give back three good years to make up it.

TFA does not like new recruits making any demands, so if you make them, be prepared to be asked to leave. If enough people, however, make these demands they can’t ask everyone to leave and they might consider fixing these flaws.

It does make me feel bad to write this post. I hate that TFA has lost its way so badly and that they have become a huge part of the reason that the country is going in the wrong direction with regard to ed reform. I never thought they would amass so much power. Because they have refused to learn from their failures, which they deny, and from critics, like me, they have found themselves in this difficult position. When the corporate ed reform bubble bursts, as I believe it will soon — you can’t lie about inflated success forever — I worry that TFA burst along with it. That’s too bad since the people in charge of TFA do believe they are doing what is good for the kids of this country. They just aren’t sophisticated enough to know that they are wrong.

I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able, again, to sing the praises of TFA and advise people who want to make a positive difference for kids to become a member.  For this to happen, though, TFA will have to make some changes.  Primarily, they will have to break the alliance they currently have with the so-called reform movement.  It’s not working and it never will work.  Pretending it is, like pretending that all the first year corps members are succeeding because a few outliers are, or that all alumni run charter schools are succeeding because a few outliers are.  All this proves is that in a large enough data set there will, inevitably,  be outliers.

And don’t misunderstand this essay as me denouncing the organization or of turning in my membership card.  I’m all for the mission of TFA — to get more soldiers to improve education for poor kids in this country.  But I want these people utilized in a way that helps, not that brings down the public education system promoting the myth that firing teachers and shutting down schools really works.

TFA, in its current vise, is serving a purpose for which it was never intended.  It serves a purpose that is no longer needed, nor wanted by the people it is serving.

TFA, if it is not careful, will face the same fate as Blockbuster video.  It filled a need in the 90s and the 2000s, but did not adapt wisely to the changing conditions.  Blockbuster is all but gone, and TFA if it refuses to adapt may face the same fate.

If I were ‘America’ I would have this to say to TFA:  While I appreciate your offer to ‘teach’ for me, I’ve already got enough untrained teachers for my poorest kids.  And if teaching is just a stepping stone, for you, on the path to becoming an influential education ‘leader,’ thanks, but no thanks to that too.  I don’t need the kind of leaders you spawn — leaders who think education ‘reform’ is done by threats of school closings and teacher firings.  These leaders celebrate school closings rather than see them as their own failures to help them.  These leaders deny any proof that their reforms are failing and instead continue to use P.R. to inflate their own claims of success.  We’re having enough trouble swatting the number of that type of leader you’ve already given us.  If you want to think of a new way to harness the brain power and energy of the ‘best and brightest,’ please do, but if you’re just going to give us a scaled up version of the program that tries to fill a need that no longer exists, please go and teach for someone else.

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218 Responses to Why I did TFA, and why you shouldn’t

  1. C says:

    It’s fairly simple: when trained, professional teachers are getting laid off, there is no need for TFA.

    • Henry says:

      TFA Seattle made the decision to hire an executive director who moved her then 3 year old son away from his father to pursue her own career aspirations. They were aware of the situation. That they would offer this position to the current executive director is an absolute tragedy to all children.

      • Gary Rubinstein says:

        I can’t fault TFA on that one. If the mom is qualified for the job, they should not discriminate against her just because many people might think it is unfair to a child to live in a different state from his father.

      • parus says:

        Isn’t it a violation of anti-discrimination laws to make hiring decisions based on marital status? I’d think that would apply here.

  2. Fran Chase says:

    It is refreshing to hear the truth about TFA from someone on the inside. I hope young people who are considering TFA will listen to you. I fear with the tough economy that will be difficult. In reality the economy will only get worse due to the number of veteran teacher who are being replaced by TFA ers. I think that is the biggest tragedy of all this. It is like being cannibalized by the youth of our country. One wonders if this wasn’t by design somehow. : (.

  3. Mavor says:

    Brilliant. Send this to OP ED pages all over the country.

  4. parus says:

    It’s worth adding that if someone is considering TFA because they want to pursue a career in teaching in a high-need area (as opposed to spending a few years as an education missionary and gaining the cachet of the TFA name on the resume) but don’t have a degree in education, there are tons of other regional teacher training and placement programs. Wide variation in quality, of course, but many of them are IMO more supportive and more ethical than TFA is.

    • E. Rat says:

      Yes. For instance, there are teacher residencies that give recruits a full year of student teaching in a classroom – even better, a high-poverty classroom like that recruit is likely to have. That way, the recruit has the time and space to learn how to teach while earning a credential.

    • hill says:

      This is what I wish I had looked into more before accepting my offer. I chose TFA because I wanted to teach, and I am realizing what a poor teacher I am.

      • parus says:

        Well, don’t beat yourself up. Learning to teach takes time even in the best program. Yeah, generally speaking it’s no fun for the students of first-year teachers (which is why I advocate for an apprenticeship model in teacher training, but that’s a whole different post). But at least if you stick with classroom teaching (unlike most TFAers) you will have many years in the classroom as a good teacher, and in those years you will have an opportunity to make a real positive difference in the community in which you teach. I encourage you to keep striving.

  5. inteach says:

    Spot on.

  6. N says:

    Gary, what does “asked to leave” mean? When one signs up with TFA and is placed in a school, is one an employee of the placement district/charter, of TFA, or both? Once TFA places you, what is your remaining obligation to TFA and what are the consequences for leaving it?

    For example, can one accept a placement through TFA and continue teaching in that school while cutting ties to TFA? It would seem like that would be a better “bargaining chip” for change, since they would lose retention numbers and the potential for a successful teacher in their alumni ranks.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      What I mean by that is that when you get accepted you will get a ‘tentative’ placement which, they will tell you, may get changed. If you demand to be placed in a city that actually has teacher shortages and say that you will refuse to go to one that doesn’t or if you say you refuse to teach in a high performing charter, they will boot you from TFA and not allow you to participate in the institute. That’s what I mean by ‘asked to leave.’ They do not like people being difficult and making demands. They don’t want to set a precedent for other ‘whiners.’

  7. Jonathan says:

    I agree with a lot of what you’ve said in this article, but the bit about the surplus of teachers really rubs me wrong.

    I’d think a comparable analogy we could draw would be to say that there are too many baseball players. I mean, if we say there are 30 teams with 30 players per team, we need less than 1000 professionals going into baseball – so why are there so many minor league baseball teams?

    By having a surplus of baseball players, it helps to raise the minimum bar of performance to get into the major leagues to a very high level. It allows the free market to play it’s role and help to ensure that the best of the best are the ones that are actually allowed to make it to the major leagues. Now, I realize that education is very different from professional sports, but let me put forth my personal experience with Teach for America.

    I taught in a school with a staff of 14 adults. In my second year at that school, throughout the course of the school we had over 10 teachers quit. It was an incredibly poorly run school, and the district quite literally could not find anybody who wanted to teach there. We went through every single substitute in the district until we could no longer get substitutes to fill in for us, and our administration told us that we could no longer take days off because there quite frankly wasn’t anybody who could fill in for us.

    In this cesspool of a situation, the most stable source of an adult presence in the school were the few adults who had been raised in the community, and the teachers who had been hired through TFA. We were committed to making a difference, we had said we’d be there for a minimum of two years, and there was nothing that was going to stop us from making that happen. And nothing did, though it felt that the forces of nature united against us to make it happen.

    There are two points that I want to make here.

    1. Circumstances exist across the country like my school, where though teachers who have been staffed through TFA may not be the best solution for the classroom, even veteran teachers who are unemployed and looking for work aren’t so desperate as to pick up positions like what took place at my school.

    2. Maybe TFA is making deals with districts across the country where the district guarantees to hire a certain number of TFA corp members, which puts some veteran teachers out of a job. However, I would think if anything this should be extra incentive to let the free market start to play a role in education and help drive some of the poorest performing teachers out of education. If a veteran educator’s job is threatened by an incoming first year teacher with no prior experience in the classroom – then they probably have good reason to feel threatened. Like in baseball, they should either pick up their game and get to work, because there’s that enormous pool of minor league players desperate to pick up the slack and make the magic happen.

    I don’t think that TFA is the solution to the educational challenges that our country faces. However, I do believe that there is a ton of good that can and will come from it. Like you said, TFA needs to evolve to figure out how to best make that happen.

    • NatP says:

      Personally, as an experienced educator, if Obama forgives my student loans, I’m ready to go teach Science and French almost anywhere. Logistics of location being the only drawback. But, being respectful to my colleagues I could never cause the displacement of another qualified teacher. I’ll fill a need but I won’t shove my fellow teachers over the cliff.

    • K says:

      The problem, then is teacher turnover. By having TFA in a building, you guarantee teacher turnover nearly every year. And don’t forget the 1 in 8 CMs that quit before their 2 years are up. TFA contributes to the problem, rather than helps it.

      BTW, you are right, veteran teachers should not worry about TFA teachers being more effective. Most TFA teachers are pretty awful at first, and as Barbara Torre Veltri so aptly points out, they “learn how to teach on other people’s children”. The fear is when districts use TFA as a cost-cutting measure. TFA teachers are cheap beginning teachers and they will almost certainly leave after 2-3 years and save districts all those nasty pension costs or added experience pay scale costs. They usually aren’t around long enough to get tenure either. What a deal!

      TFA, good for the bottom line, but bad for kids.

      • Adie says:

        This has been a very interesting read! As a current TFA CM (2010), it is rather satisfying to see these ideas stemming from a TFA insider.

        I find myself, upon reading this, feeling rather conflicted and guilty (which I’m pretty sure I SHOULD feel, given the ideas expressed). I also am trying not to feel personally hurt by all the negative comments about TFA from other people.

        However, like someone who posted above that knew she wanted to teach, and needed to find a way to do it, I have joined TFA because jobs were scarce post-college, I knew I wanted to teach, and I couldn’t face another 3 years in college getting a teaching degree. TFA has been a way for me to get certified, and I plan on continuing my teaching career. Many of my friends in TFA plan on doing the same.

        I don’t know what the statistic is precisely, but I believe around 60% of TFA alums stay in teaching. I’m sure someone could refute that.

        I guess my point is that while I agree that the organization has its flaws, and the overall reform movement’s push for using standardized test scores as a sole means of measuring success is flawed, I also think I need to stand up for those of us in the Corps who are here to become great teachers, not great “leaders.” I’m sorry to those out there that lost their job because of me, but, as Gary said, when I applied the consequences of me coming to my district were not made clear; I did not know I was getting other teachers fired. I just knew I needed a job and wanted to teach. I also know I’m helping my students, and I don’t need any data or test scores to prove it.

        That being said, however, the TFA training should be far more comprehensive (we spent WAY, WAY too much time in the summer “institute” being forced to drink “kool-aid” and not enough time teaching in front of our kids at all).

        Anyway, there is a reason that I always say I would not recommend TFA to others in my surveys; unless they desperately want to teach and STAY in teaching, don’t come near it!

      • K says:

        I am glad you are beginning to realize what TFA actually is. But instead of worrying about feeling “hurt” and “guilty”, please start to push back on the organization. A vast majority of CMs may have joined the program naively believing the TFA propaganda, but you all quickly figure out the truth once you are in the classroom. I believe you have a moral obligation to those kids to start to stand up and change TFA so it cannot continue this trend of being used to push out veteran teachers with unprepared, compliant novices.

        I would also like to see more push-back on college campuses where TFA is recruiting. Right now, with all the popularity and federal and private funds coming into the program, they have no incentive to change. It needs to come from people like you!

      • Gary Rubinstein says:

        Good point. TFA shames people into staying quiet. They have to spread the word!

      • Steve Silvius says:

        I think this is accurate. Most CMs I have worked with quickly became disenchanted with the propaganda of the organization, but did not feel they could stand up and do something about it. The use of the word “flawed” in the post above indicates what I often see from reformers who are challenged by sound arguments against the current policy direction…they admit its a problem, but simultaneously downplay the admission and the personal and collective power of people in the system to resist and change policy and organizations. I understand that standing up to TFA or any powerful political institution is difficult. But ultimately, it is educators, including CMs, who have day to day access to students and schools. Political forces need our compliance, and therefore, it is up to us to resist “flaws” in these organizations/systems.

    • Susan Hurst says:

      My large inner-city district signed a TFA contract and my principal was told to hire 4 TFA’ers but without any allocation to pay for them. That meant he had to eliminate 4 current positions. He was able to do so by 2 teachers transferring and one resigning, but the 4th position was an excellent, experienced vocal music teacher whose contract was not renewed. The vocal program was reduced to 2 hrs. and given to the band director (me!). We now have classes of 40+ in all of our electives because there aren’t enough elective teachers. There was no one threatened here because of their incompetence, only incompetence at the district level.

    • E. Rat says:

      this should be extra incentive to let the free market start to play a role in education

      It bothers me that TFA adherents make this argument while ignoring the free market reality that drives TFA teacher recruitment: TFAers are cheap. They earn starting salaries, typically take single health care benefits, and are unlikely to vest in their pensions.

      The free market argument isn’t about effective teachers: it’s about cheap ones. TFA ultimately supports efforts to create a cheap, transient teacher workforce as opposed to a more expensive, heavily unionized one.

    • Tommy Walton says:

      The problem with #2 is that it assumes the veteran teachers losing their jobs are the worst veterans, and the veterans keeping their jobs are the best of the best (such as in baseball). If good teachers are misidentified as bad ones and vice versa due to the ineffectiveness of standardized tests as a measurement tool, as mentioned in the article, then the free market system is not going to be able to adequately drive up the minimum bar.

      • Steve Silvius says:

        Thats right, a market cannot work if there is no clear signal. Essentially everyone admits that test scores are not the right signal but many won’t take the logical step of abandoning (at least softening) the market approach. They also don’t care to discuss that market approaches necessarily create losers and so cannot lead to closing an achievement gap or leaving no one behind, etc.

    • chicgeek says:

      Unfortunately veteran teachers are not always released because they are performing poorly. They are released because principals are reducing the salary line item by hiring less experienced teachers at the expense of the quality of education the students will receive. It has been my experience that the TFA teachers collaborate to protect their positions and try to discredit veteran or non-TFA teachers or instructional coaches working in the schools by pushing their TFA methodology. This is like having defectors in the camp trying to execute a take over within a department or school in general by any means necessary because someone told them walking in the door that they were already superior teachers. Hopefully school districts will strive for a more harmonious and successful way of building the teaching staff in the future.

    • 04 CM says:

      I agree, in principle, with some of your assertions about the “free market,” but unfortunately the teacher tenure systems at work in many of the large school districts where Teach For America places corps members prevent the free market from ever entering into the picture. The “veteran” teachers displaced by corps members are second and third year teachers (some of them former corps members who wish to remain in teaching) who are as yet unprotected by tenure. Pink slips, as you likely know, are issued largely on a “last in, first out” basis, and not based on effectiveness.

    • Chris says:

      Jonathan, I have to completely disagree with your second point. I am in my second year of a different alternative certification program. Many of the parallels can be made for my program as with TFA. But inner city teachers should be terrified of me regardless of how qualified they are. I am new, I am cheap. Their salary is twice what mine is. With budgets constantly being cut, it is these veteran teachers that often get the ax, solely because the principal deems them as too expensive. I give everything I have every day in the classroom, but I can honestly say that every experienced teacher I have seen let go in my short 1.3 years of teaching experience, has been due to the budget and have been better quality teachers than myself. If current trends continue with the bashing of Unions (a totally separate issue) and these reforms likely affecting tenure, we will not have experienced teachers in our city schools with the students who need the highest quality education because these teachers will be to expensive.

    • Ruth says:

      You’re assuming that all layoffs that happen are deserved and based on performance. It’s not at all unheard of for companies or organizations to lay off more experienced people to save money (new people are cheaper) or in this case, to make room for the contracts they have with someone like TFA. This is not fair to the people who have devoted their lives, time and skills to that profession and it isn’t fair to the children who are losing a good teacher so that some affluent graduate of god-knows-where can come in and bumble his or her way through a year of teaching and put it on their business school application.

  8. Wayne Bishop says:

    Sounds like somebody has become “fat and happy” in our deeply flawed system of public education. The shortage of well-prepared mathematics and science teachers is every bit as bad as it was 20 or 30 years ago and probably worse. TFA is no panacea but a step in the right direction.

    • K says:

      What about the nearly 20% of TFA teachers placed in special education positions with NO training in working with kids with special needs. That is a step so far in the wrong direction that it is technically illegal.

      Besides, how many CMs are placed in placements other than their area of expertise? I have heard it happens far too often.

    • Cindy Smith says:

      This depends where you live. I have 15 years experience teaching all high school math courses, a master’s degree with honors with stellar recommendations but we had to move due to a transfer my husband took. No one will touch me because I cost more that a rookie. I’m willing to take less pay but can’t because of unions. I’m subbing for next to nothing and watch new young teachers like the ones I used to mentor getting all the offers.

  9. Chris says:

    Food for thought: 20 years ago you were young and looking to change the establishment.

    Today you are the establishment. You’ve become part of the problem. How will you change it?

  10. eminnm says:

    Be careful when you write for New York and assume you are writing for the country. Some of these things are probably true in NY (I don’t know, I’m not there) but the shortage of passionate college-educated people willing and eager to teach in the face of huge odds is still very prevalent here in rural New Mexico. I’d bet other rural regions face the same thing: if I weren’t here right now, my kids would likely get a rotating substitute or someone who does not speak, read, or write fluent English. This is nothing against the experienced teachers who are here or the ELL teachers who are here too, it’s just a fact: the teacher shortage may never end here. Say what you will about TFA, and we all have lots to say about it, but, at least here, we are very much still needed.

    • cryinsam says:


      In what part of New Mexico do you teach?

      Thank you.

    • thelearningcurve says:

      It’s also not necessarily true for New Orleans. Shortage of teachers is an issue here, but more pressing is that MANY TIMES, charter schools are worse than what you’d think of when you think of public schools vs charter schools. Mine was a charter and was violent and terribly run and now it’s not a charter… and it’s still violent and terribly run. Next year it’ll go back to being a charter, albeit under a different organization. Many of my friends work for charters here. Most are not these gleaming examples of perfection where flawed kids are kicked out and everything else is easier. Perhaps it’s that way at KIPP, but I don’t know many who work for KIPP. Given that NOLA is more charter than public, it’s hard to swing a stick without hitting another charter school just as bad or worse than any public school with “the hardest to educate” students. Perhaps charters are different in NY, but here in NOLA, a school is a school is a wild, wild west outlaw territory, charter or not.

      I did think this post made very valid points but it assumed a lot about TFA corps members that isn’t necessarily true, depending on region, background of the member, etc. Any time such assumptions are made, part of the audience will be isolated.

      • Gary Rubinstein says:

        I’d love to hear more about New Orleans not being the utopia that they describe it as in the media. What’s going on there, for real? If it’s a mess out there, as I suspect, then you can help out by spreading the word so that they don’t try to replicate what’s happening there all over the country.

    • TFA_NM says:

      I also taught on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico with TFA (at one of the most remote high schools). By December of my first year, I was the most veteran math teacher (the other two non-TFA teachers had left), and for 2 months, we didn’t have a geometry teacher at all, not for lack of trying. So, it might be the case that in some placements, TFA teachers are not serving their purpose, but in many of the schools on the rez, they are.

      Also, my philosophy was that as a TFA teacher, if someone more qualified came along that would do a better job for our kids, I would quit. I think this is shared by many TFA teachers (and non-TFA teachers). We all want what is best for kids.

      I wish this article had given more hard data. How many TFA teachers are taking jobs they shouldn’t vs taking jobs they should? How do parents really feel? Do we have good data on any of this? Do we have any data at all? It’s understandable if we don’t (this seems like a hard dataset to get a hold of). But it’s worth looking into (by everyone concerned about this). Because if it comes down to anecdotes about what TFA teachers have and have not done for students, there is a sizeable number of stories on both sides, and at that point, few will be swayed from their current beliefs.

    • Rural TFA in SLA says:

      I’ll echo this comment and take the risk of generalizing it to many rural areas. I’m a first-year in rural south louisiana. If I wasn’t in the classroom my students would most certainly have a rotating substitute as a science teacher (as they do for some classes now).

      We’ve lost about 4 certified teachers already this year. As is true in many places, I believe, the quality of substitutes is such that I am terrified to take a sick day.

      In the many near-quitting episodes I’ve had since starting in August, the notion that my students literally would not have a teacher if not for me was a huge motivating factor in getting me through the tough days.

      Perhaps in inner-city schools (the more publicized local of the achievement gap) there is a shortage of teachers, but in the forgotten heart of the achievement gap– in the severely impoverished rural southern communities, TFAs (and ANYONE willing to teach) are desperately needed.

    • DallasTeacher says:

      I’d like to underline the risks associated with over-generalizations. Teach For America is a huge nation-wide organization which is run regionally by teams of passionate leaders. The truths spoken here may be accurate in certain regions in our country, but are not close to the experiences I’ve had in my two years teaching through TFA.

  11. According to data released by the U.S. Census in September 2011, Arizona lost 10,000 education jobs in one year: March 2009 — March 2010 (prior to the SB 1070), and 6,470 were instructor positions.

    A male, Div. I athlete (UAZ), with a degree in Biology and a teaching certificate, was pink-
    slipped during that year, and is so jaded by the system that he will not return to education.

    And we are supposed to have a shortage of young, credentialed, male, science teachers?

    America needs trained teachers and those who are committed to the profession and children.
    What is happening now is hard to swallow.

    Young science and technology teachers turned away because of state budget cuts hurts. But it’s so callous when the governor of the state, who holds an associates degree along wth 70%of the legislature assigns two million dollars in descretionary funds to TFA over that same period.
    America needs quality teachers who have passion and remain teachers for more than 3-5 years, and do not enter teaching with TFA or any other program because of what corps termed “pragmatic considerations” (job, benefits, camaraderie, resume support, time to consider grad school/interests) as noted in book, Learning
    On Other People’s Kids: Becoming a Teach For
    America Teacher (2010), or ancillary benefits
    post TFA teaching.
    Corps are still not trained properly and have to figure out teaching on their students.

    I know and trained teachers who received (with pride) their degree in early childhood education and are back “home” on the Dine community in
    New Mexico. They know the culture of the community as well as the culture of schools.

    These too, are areas that TFA, in its’ expand and create leaders model, continues to overlook.

  12. August says:

    What eminnm writes about New Mexico is simply not accurate. There is no great shortage of teachers in New Mexico. It is not “just a fact.” I’m also a little puzzled by the reference to “someone who does not speak, read, or write fluent English.” Since NM is not importing teachers from other parts of the world, it can only be referring to native New Mexicans, perhaps those whose first language is Spanish or Navajo. The suggestion that teachers who come from those backgrounds are somehow inferior is troubling. One problem with TFA is the “we are going to save you from yourselves” attitude that their recruits sometimes bring to our state. It’s not appreciated.

    • eminnm says:

      Not what I meant at all. I don’t know where you are, but in our area there are quite a few schools that have lost teachers for various reasons and cannot fill those spots. At my roommate’s school, jobs have been posted for months with no takers.

      When I say teachers who don’t speak, read or write fluent English, I don’t mean Spanish or Navajo speakers at all, I mean the influx of teachers from the Philippines (fact check: a sizable chunk of the new teachers in my district are from overseas. Yes, we are importing teachers from other parts of the world). And even there, as I said before, nothing against them–many do great work. But there are definitely some that my children cannot understand and whose grasp of English grammar is not good, which makes it hard for my kids to learn as well as kids in affluent areas can (which should be the goal). I have nothing against recent immigrants or people who are looking for a job wherever they can find it (after all, I’m one of them). And I’m not saying there’s anything inherently bad about someone who has accented English or years of experience (that’s ridiculous). I have no savior complex, I don’t think I’m doing any better than someone who knows the area and has experience (I’d be the first to tell you I’m doing worse). I’m also not trying to vouch for the country, the Southwest, or even the whole state of New Mexico (because I just don’t know). What I do know is that in my area, in my district, in my experience, TFA fills a hole.

      One thing that makes me sad is when people assume the worst about my attitude or thoughts just because I’m part of TFA. I spend a whole lot of time thinking about how to present myself so that it doesn’t seem like I think I’m better than anyone, which, for the record, I AM NOT. The prevailing attitude here is the same that Gary describes as his incoming TFA attitude: no, I’m not very good; no, I don’t know what I’m doing. But I’m here, I’m better than nothing, I love my kids, and I’m trying like hell to be the teacher they deserve.

      • KatieO says:

        The point, I feel, is what if you are not “better than nothing”? What if your presence is actually doing more harm than good? I think many TFA CMs, especially 1st yr CMs, have NO idea the agenda the TFA organization is pushing. Many do not realize that an experienced teacher was possibly denied a job because TFA is there. This is the new reality of TFA.

        You suggest that there is a teacher shortage in your area, which was the original intention of TFA, a band-aid that does help temporarily. If you are right, then fine.

        However, the new motto that TFA teachers are somehow “more effective” (TFA tries to sell this idea constantly, even to its own members) than traditionally-trained teachers is what scares me. Because you are not, as you acknowledge. And by pushing this idea, TFA is aligning itself with with the narrative that our schools fail because of “lazy, bad, unionized teachers” a la TFA-alum Michelle Rhee. As someone in a school, I hope you can see this is simply not the case.

        It is not you but your organization I dislike.

  13. Jane says:

    This is fantastic. Teachers require real education like any other professionals. You don’t see untrained college grads out the practicing medicine or law “for America.” TFA is an insult to the professionalism of teaching.

  14. Ex-TFA says:


  15. Django says:

    Are student test scores used to determine whether or not TFA first, second or third years are invited back? Or are test scores solely used to cull credentialed teachers to make room for cheap TFA placements?

    • NadineVonCanstricus says:

      This idea is being tried by a new alternative certification project called the Urban Teacher Center – it’s much smaller than TFA, but some districts are really interested in the model.

  16. John says:

    I recently visited a charter school in Denver — one that gets a lot of good press. It touts itself as graduating 100% of its class and sending them off to 4-year college. But as this piece suggests, they hide the fact that 40% of their incoming class doesn’t finish at the school (for any number of reasons). Their 100% graduation rate is a figment of an overactive imagination. They graduate 60% of their class — no better than many of the other high schools in Denver. This is deceitful.

    On the same day, I visited another charter school in Denver. There, the kids were not allowed to utter a word in the hallways. And guess what, they didn’t speak in class either. What kind of classroom in this day and age has no interaction between students and students or students and teachers?

  17. Anne says:

    Back maybe 8-10 years ago, I used to hear TFA staff talking about how TFA’s goal was to put itself out of business. That is, we know it’s not ideal to train teachers for 5 weeks and then have them teach for a couple years only. But it is a needed band-aid, and maybe if after being mostly harmless these TFA alum went on to advocate for improvements in education, TFA might be able to contribute to a day when every child is taught be a well-prepared, professional teacher.

    Nowadays, I don’t hear any talk in TFA circles about putting TFA out of business. At TFA conferences, the talk is all about how much better we are than everybody else, and how education needs us and how we need to grow. In fact, TFA seems to think that if the rest of the education world looked like us, the achievement gap would disappear. It’s scary how much TFA has changed.

    • Ex-TFA says:

      Exactly! TFA now is all about fundraising and courting donors and expanding to new regions. Maybe it was once an organization that fulfilled a need, but now it’s just an organization trying to grow at the expense of our kids.

    • parus says:

      I get the impression that as TFA has grown, it’s become more bureaucratic, and as the quote goes, “the bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.” Combine that with the fact that TFA is being taken advantage of by the “reform movement,” and it’s hard to recognize the TFA of my day in the current organization.

    • E. Rat says:


      I knew I hadn’t dreamed hearing that repeatedly at Institute in 2001. But within a couple of years, that sentiment was so utterly erased TFA regional directors have told me that I must be wrong.

  18. Ben Guest says:

    Join the Mississippi Teacher Corps instead. We only place teachers in public schools and we don’t displace current teachers. No charters and no threatening of currently employed teachers.

  19. 02 TFA Alum says:

    I completely agree. I’m a 2002 TFA Alumni who does not publicize that fact because I’m ashamed of what TFA has become.

  20. Dave says:

    TFA in the Phoenix area has formed a partnership with ASU, and TFA teachers, from the beginning of their comittmentd, are engaged in a masters program in teacher education. The TFA proposition that a smart student with subject matter knowledge is automatically a great teacher was obviously flawed from the beginning. This partnership helps to address that flaw up front, and the program does seem to be retaining more of its teachers. This notion that teachers don’t need any training in teaching is a favorite of people hostile to public schools and colleges of education. It is to the credit of of many TFA volunteers that they did not believe it for a minute.

  21. Elaine says:

    I was a TFA mentor for five summers. Though these young corp members were smart and dedicated, it was clear they had no idea about teaching or the climate of a school district. One corp member actually believed she knew more about educating inner city students than I did, even though I had taught successfully for over 30 years. I was disgusted by the arrogance of the TFA coordinators, who had little teaching experience themselves, yet felt compelled to tell the corp members how to teach. They went so far as to tell the corp members to basically ignore the teacher mentors, who had years of teaching experience. Of the corp members I worked with over the past five years, very few stayed in the profession. What does that say? They all “drink the Kool-Aid” and then leave the profession to enter “educational policy.” What a joke! If you want to really change our educational system, student teach for a year, and then TEACH!!!!

  22. DC Teacher says:

    This article is very thoughtful and your points are right on target. We do have a surplus of teachers in most (not all) subject areas- but programs like TFA keep flooding the system. They should really reassess where teachers are most needed.

  23. Pingback: ThinkingEDU 5: What Lies Ahead | Thinking.FM

  24. Washington Parent says:

    Wow. Great article. Fix what (I think, at least is a typo in the first line after the shadowed text (I think perspective was meant to be prospective) and send this to the Seattle Times. Ask them to run it on the op ed page, as a “response” to the pro-TFA pieces that its staff have run! (and then send it to all the other city papers that have supported the ed reform agenda as well.) This is one of the most nuanced, persuasive articles on the evolution of TFA that I have ever read.

  25. Dan Dempsey says:

    The Teach for America Scam in Seattle

    There is a lot of verbiage about leveraging corporate philanthropic dollars. This has largely led to a chaotic Education Reform mess in Seattle. Following laws and telling the truth are major casualties in this attempted corporate take over.

    Superintendent Enfield by signing the application requesting “Conditional Certificates” for Teach for America corps members made a fraudulent claim.

    With her signing of the request, she made a claim that “conditions warranted” using Teach for America corps members to close the Achievement Gaps.

    This was a fraudulent claim because Dr. Enfield failed to analyze the conditions in the manner required by WAC 181-79A-231.

    Without the WAC required careful review of all other options, to using TFA, to close achievement gaps, there was no possible way that Dr. Enfield could claim that conditions warranted anything.

    The Board repeatedly failed to respond to “when the WAC required careful review took place”. The reason for this is that the required review “never took place”.

    Board members authorized the Superintendent to request the Conditional Certificates when they knew the required review never took place.

    Board members are now in a position of needing to provide an honest answer.

    When did a careful review of all options for closing the achievement gaps take place?

    If the Directors cannot answer that question, they are still likely to go on to toss away public funds in an attempt to legally defend the District’s indefensible actions.

    So the Directors should either answer the question honestly or resign and let the challengers running for director seats begin an era of badly needed honesty and accountability.

    Here is the pending legal appeal of the TFA action =>

    Click to access TfA_initial_filing10-21-11.pdf

  26. Dan Dempsey says:

    Try this article about Heilig and Jez … it confirms exactly what has been said.


    Comparisons of TFA teachers with credentialed non-TFA teachers, however, reveal that “the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers,” Heilig and Jez write.

    And in a large-scale Houston study, in which the researchers controlled for experience and teachers’ certification status, standard certified teachers consistently outperformed uncertified TFA teachers of comparable experience levels in similar settings.

    • Matt says:

      actually, there is a fair amount of evidence that TFA teachers match or exceed the performance of teachers from other certification and preparatory backgrounds.


      What do you (and other commenters) make of this?

      • Gary Rubinstein says:

        TFAers who quit mid-year don’t get to be part of those studies.

      • Matt says:

        fair enough. don’t think that invalidates the results of several rigorous studies, though.

        what’s missing in this conversation — and what I think the linked post/studies suggest we all do — is critically think about the following:

        Even if has many flaws, what is TFA doing RIGHT? And what can we ALL (informed citizens, policy makers, prospective teachers, school leaders, teacher prep and support programs, etc.) learn from this and leverage to improve our collective work to ensure equal education opportunities?

        Surely the org isn’t perfect and has COUNTLESS ways to improve, but I think there’s evidence that their prep and support model IS yielding at least SOME insights about how to better prepare and support more successful teachers, especially in low income areas.

        what disappoints me though is that in all of the heated rhetoric and back-n-forth, we often over shadow ways in which we all could be LEARNING from each other … even from organizations that we have legitimate (or unfounded) beefs with.

        I’m sure TFA could learn a lot from preparation programs mentioned here (e.g. the Urban Teacher imitative @NadineVonCanstricus mentioned in her comment), as other traditional or alt-cert pathways could learn from TFA.

        … by the way, Gary – how do you know who is included in all of the studies mentioned in the article I linked to? Did you review the findings and details of all of them? Just interested to see where you got your info …

  27. Dan Dempsey says:

    Here is more on the back story behind TFA in Seattle.


  28. another Washington parent says:

    yes please do send this article to Seattle times for an OP-Ed piece, we could use some response to the TFA propaganda message that has been circling the wagons here in Washington State.

  29. Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr. says:

    another Washington parent,

    THE SEATTLE TIMES is a prime producer of Ed propaganda.

    I sent my letter to each Seattle School Board member. The Seattle Times has no interest in anything other than pushing All things Ed Reform. Gates money brought TFA to Seattle. Gates money started the Common Core Standards. Write me at dempsey_dan@yahoo.com

    We will likely move for a summary judgement at some point in the Seattle TFA appeal.

    WA State Appeals court Div I has two hearings without oral argument on 11-3-11 in regard to the District’s failure to provide a certified correct transcript of evidence in school closures and in the $800,000 New Tech Network contract.

    See RCW 28A 645.020

    Too many decisions are FIXED by the Big Money interests and TFA was no different.

  30. Lisa Marshall says:


    Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us.

    I applied and will find out today whether I advance to the next round.

    I intend to be a teacher whether it’s through TFA or not. My mother is a teacher, as was my grandmother. People I trust and respect feel I have what it takes to become a great teacher some day, and teaching is in my heart. It is what I love and I cannot think of a more rewarding or honorable career.

    I am conflicted however, as I live in Dallas, TX. DISD is famous for mass lay-offs in May followed by job fairs in July (this happened over the summer for instance). In this case, is the availability of TFA Corps solely to blame? Does the fact that I intend to teach for years to come mediate my potentially-TFA provenance? Why aren’t benefits like money for Grad School and partnerships for work-degree programs offered to all teachers? Why doesn’t our country just put its money where its mouth is and properly fund education!!!! (arrrgghhh)

    Your post is the latest, but not the only, cautionary voice I hear. As someone who has professional experience, a husband (DFW is my only viable option for TFA placement), and isn’t 22, I am tempted by the thought of knowing in January that I will have a teaching position in August (I could begin planning that much sooner!). I am tempted by knowing I will have the chance to work at a school where kids need dedicated teachers. But as an advocate for Social Justice, I am compelled to do the right thing. Which sounds more and more everyday like “Not TFA”. Your thoughts for a one-off candidate like myself?

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      If you’re planning to be a career teacher, then I guess that for you, joining TFA won’t have as much of a negative effect on the entire education system. But I think you will have a much longer career if you were to spend a year student teaching and learning the fundamentals of teaching. When you are not trained properly, you run the risk of burning out and maybe even quitting in your first year. If you cannot afford to take a year off to train to teach, and you really are committed to teaching for the long run, then I give you permission to accept your offer, should you get one. Good luck!

      • Nalin says:

        Like Lisa, I too am a working professional in STEM seeking to change careers into teaching. TFA is one pathway among many to get there, and as such its just one pathway among many to which I have applied. Thanks to your blog and many others on TeachForUs, I have been made aware of the real challenges of teaching and the need for greater preparation than perhaps the TFA Institute provides. So I’m going out there and reading your book, among many others, talking to current teachers, etc. But I’m still going to apply.

        Aren’t you a shining example of what TFA can produce? You are clearly motivated to fight against educational inequity, you are a career teacher with a stellar record, and now you see a more balanced picture than when you went into teaching. Couldn’t that be the case for a large number of non-TFA teachers too?

        Like it or not, you are a fantastic (albeit more disgruntled than I think I could ever be, but who knows) example to me personally of what I could become through TFA. And isn’t that up to the individual? I think we need to separate TFA the organization from the people serving in TFA… the organization is merely one doorway among hundreds. It may not be wholly the shining white knight agent of change that they make themselves out to be, but they do enable a lot of individuals to to some serious good.

        While I’m sure that there is a certain proportion of new CM’s who will take whatever they are fed, I don’t think you give us enough credit on the whole… we are out there researching this organization like responsible applicants. And thanks to blogs like yours, we can integrate your experiences into a more balanced picture than the TFA PR department provides, and take steps to mitigate any deficiencies that TFA might have just like any other organization. We will think twice after reading blogs like yours, and we will really consider if our motives and personal strengths are going to serve students well.

        Great, I’m still going for it.

        And thanks. 🙂

      • Gary Rubinstein says:

        I agree that the people serving TFA — that is, the corps members are very good people who are doing the best they can. Many of the people on staff at TFA I like too. I’ve even had many positive interactions with Wendy Kopp over the past 20 years. But for some reason TFA, the organization, is what I’m complaining about.

      • NYC07 says:

        As a TFA alum who worked in a worked in a South Bronx school overflowing with Teach For America teachers and traditionally certified first year teachers (18 in total), I can say that most TFA teachers struggled less than the traditionally certified teachers. We could leverage our network for support in ways that our traditional counterparts could not. Were we prepared completely? No. But nothing can fully prepare you for the emotional and physical toll that comes with the first year of teaching in a low-performing school in a poor neighborhood. The master’s degree that I received in teaching did not improve my teaching as the vast majority of my classes were not centered upon actual strategies to implement in my classroom. Many of my assignments were a joke: I spent little time on them and still received high marks which further invalidated the value of a master’s in teaching. Not all programs are equal obviously but this is a sentiment that many teachers (in NY and elsewhere) have expressed during my years in education.

        I am glad to hear that you are applying for the program: I had an incredible teaching experience during my TFA commitment as well as afterwards. It was intensely challenging but I was prepared for that: I grew up in a low income neighborhood and understood what I was getting myself into. On so many more days I was inspired by my students than disheartened. I can honestly say that there is endless possibility in a student’s potential. What gets in the way of that is adult problems: politics, bureaucracy, and all the nay-sayers.

    • ex-tfa, future teacher says:

      As an ex-tfaer who plans to be a career teacher I STRONGLY urge you to consider your other options other than TfA to be certified. I was 28 when I entered TfA with plans to be a career teacher. The training is not enough. Teaching is really difficult and it takes more than 12 hours to learn to be a teacher. I worked 80+ hours a week and can tell you- dedication can not make up for lack of training.
      Lack of training and support from TfA in a truly hazardous situation, I left. A year later I am in graduate school for special education- with TEACH grants and a commitment to work in schools much like those served by TfA, but I know with 2 student teaching experiences under my belt and a year of full time coursework, I will be MUCH better prepared.

      Had I stayed in TfA, I don’t know if I could have stayed in education because I might have burned out.

      You can get TEACH grants of $4000 a year during your masters/cert program and take a look at teacher loan forgiveness for teachers who teach for 5 years in title 1 schools. http://studentaid.ed.gov/PORTALSWebApp/students/english/cancelstaff.jsp

      Some districts have fellowship programs that support you during your program while you get education and work as a para or other professional in schools. Please explore your options and see what is best for you. It might be tfa, but there might be better options.

      I went into TfA because I wanted to get certified quickly and inexpensively and I can tell you- its not worth it.

  31. Gloria says:

    Would you fly on a plane flown by a Pilots for America 5 week program graduate?
    Would you be operated on by a Surgeons for America 5 week program graduate?
    Why do we think Teach for America participants can do a better job teaching than people who have gone to college for years to be teachers? It’s insulting!

    • Nalin says:

      Please understand, what I’m trying to say here is not to sound snarky or combative. It is a genuine question that I have.

      I don’t think schooling and experience are the same thing. I am a research engineer for a cutting-edge research installation. I know from my time in this field at least, that once you start cutting metal, everything in the textbook goes out the window, and what really gets you to the final product is a combination of creativity, experience, and knowing your tools. Education is one tool among many, not the product. I’d hire a student with a less-than-stellar educational record but who actively sought out avenues to apply creative thinking and get experience over a 4.0 with no experience or applied knowledge any day.

      I would think that teaching would be more so this way, given that it deals so heavily with people, which are more complex and unpredictable than even our most advanced machines. The way it seems from my research, EVERYone’s first couple of years as a teacher are terrible, even those who come from education programs. The quality of the teacher, like the engineer, comes in almost entirely from the experience and the creativity + drive to know what to do with it.

      So what, fundamentally, is the problem with selecting creative and driven people, directly proceeding to the experience part, and gathering the education component concurrently through a credentialing or Masters program?

      (And I DO see the problem with a 2-year commitment in that context, but that’s not my question.)


      • ex-tfa, future teacher says:

        I feel like I can add perspective as an ex-tfa corps member and current masters in education student.

        When you are doing research do you work in a team with opportunities to ask questions and the time to look for answers when you need them? When you are teaching you are without someone to ask as you are likely alone in your classroom. You are holding approximately 3 jobs, planning, grading and then then 9-4 job of classroom teaching. You do not have the luxury to find the best answer immediately when you need it.

        Teaching is not just managing relationships and working with people. It takes knowledge to teach someone to read, to break down complicated material that might seem obvious and clear to a teacher, to differentiate instruction for students with special needs and the rest of the parts of your job as a teacher.

        The most creative,dedicated, driven people can work really hard. and a few will have the natural ability in addition to these traits that make them good teachers. But to assume that grit and creativity can make up for lack of knowledge devalues the education that it takes to be a teacher. and I include interning and learning from master teachers in that education.

        I have been to institute and now I am getting a masters/certification in education. Institute isn’t enough. Two sessions on phonics and how to build a class library are not enough for you to be comfortable running your own reading program. a single session on IEPs will not leave you ready to write IEP goals for your students. One hour on coteaching will not prepare you to manage that relationship in your class. And countless other examples of 1 hour sessions from the TFA program that represent an entire semester of classwork in teacher education.

        Education masters programs (and undergrad) are not perfect. I am sure many courses across the country could stand to be more rigorous and scientifically based. But the point is- to learn to do anything well, there is a learning period. In many jobs there is on the job training, mentor ships or college degrees that prepare applicants for the field. Don’t the students most at risk deserve someone who has prepared ahead of time to be their teacher- and isn’t surviving day to day just making it through and hoping for the best?

        You might ask- why did I apply and enter TfA then? My goal was always to be a teacher, and I thought that with my experience with kids in various mentorship and camp and course situations, I’d be ok. I knew it would be hard, but I would be ok.

        There are a lot of challenges to being a new teacher- not being prepared to teach should not be one of them.

  32. Been There says:

    I enjoyed the article and the responses. However, even among those who deplore the one sidedness of the TFA, I think I detect a certain one sidedness. I my school district, many of the best long serving teachers were recently given financial incentives to leave early to make room for new cheaper teachers because the district is strapped for cash. This is a disaster, but given the budget crunch I suppose it was necessary. But not all the tenured teachers were a loss. I can think of one who told me, ” I hated every minute of teaching but it was worth it to get my retirement.” Better she was run over by a bus. There are some lousy tenured teachers and the unions need to clean up their act also so we can get rid of them. I’ve worked with teachers who can’t spell, who missgrade math tests because THEY have the wrong answers- and woe to the student who points it out. No, we don’t need anyone going into the schools without some sort of commitment, except when it fills a bona fide vacancy. Some of those idealists may discover a passion for teaching and may become good at it. At least many are intelligent, top of the class students, not the bottom third that we typically recruit our teachers from.

  33. Alejandro says:

    You did all this in spite of TFA?
    You actually seem like a decent example of TFA’s impact. That you have a thoughtful and critical voice in education seems like a net positive to me.

    Do TFA and KIPP overgeneralize for good press? Of course. So does your article. We could all stand to take a step backwards and reevaluate.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I do appreciate the compliment, but I don’t think that my thoughtful critique at all balances all the school closings and teacher firings so I wouldn’t agree that it is a net positive.

      But there are a lot of alumni like me out there, you’re right, who are not doing damage. There are principals of regular schools who are working very hard and making a big difference in their schools.

      Unfortunately the alumni who have the most power to effect change are the ones that are so reckless with their beliefs. If TFA would come out publicly against some of these leaders, then they can reverse some of the damage. I don’t think they will, though.

  34. First Grade Teacher says:

    Thank you for literally putting all my rants, arguments, grad school papers, mid-year-reflection forms, and TFA survey responses, into one beautifully written piece of writing. As an 09 corps member, who went into TFA already having student taught and with personal experience going to low income schools, I joined knowing I was going to be a career teacher in urban public schools. I fervently hoped that my anxieties and misgivings about TFA would disappear upon joining, and that its claimed mission, which I agreed with, would be real. Needless to say, my two years with the organization did nothing but confirm, and indeed convince me even more, all my deep concerns about the organization. It is absolutely contributing to the demise of public education in our country, all at the expense of low income communities of color–our children. Thank you. I am sending and posting this EVERYWHERE. (I doubt they’ll want my leadership much longer!)

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Thanks. Definitely spread the word. If anyone at TFA is monitoring my blog, they should know that this post has gone ‘viral’ at least in comparison to my other posts. Over 6,000 hits in four days is pretty crazy since most posts only get two or three hundred total. Sorry you had to be so frustrated with TFA, but I’m sure with your real training, you helped a lot of kids. Keep up the good work! Gary

  35. AnEducatedPoorKid says:

    Maybe everyone’s problem in ed reform is that we label students as ‘poor’ kids. The people that make the biggest impact in our society are not always the most educated but they are empowered and believe in themselves. Let’s stop labeling kids and instead empower them to be more than some charity case and possibly we will see some results. This ‘giving back’/savior stuff really irks me.
    “Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      @AnEducatedPoorKid I agree that labels don’t summarize everything about an entire group of people, and that the word ‘poor’ has 2 meanings, I use that word for the simple reason that I feel that, especially in my writing, a one syllable word that conveys the idea I’m going for. I hope that people who know me and read this blog regularly know that in the context I’m using it, it’s not meant in a negative way, but just a convenient description.

      I do, though, agree that labeling people with one syllable can be dangerous.

  36. Pingback: Why I did TFA, and why you shouldn’t | Gary Rubinstein’s TFA Blog «

  37. Rick says:

    I have met many Teach for America teachers and some of them are awesome and others are just arrogant. They think that they are here to save the children and their approach is very elitist. I would even go as far as saying that they are condescending to other teachers and that they appear to think more seasoned teachers to be less qualified than them. They approach teaching as a mission but they leave it as quickly as come into it to go pursue something else. It is something to put on their resume to make it look good. Most of them are very young and so they bound together in groups or click, they still have a high school mentality and they are very juvenile. I am very disheartened by their lack of maturity and empathy towards the greater educational problems. They don’t realize that their organization is responsible for creating teacher layoff and deprofessionalizing the teaching profession. Districts would rather employ a TFA a very low rate than higher a fully credentialed teacher because it costs them less. Also, most of the TFA are anti-union and the districts love that! I don’t want to blame the TFAs for their life experiences and their view points, they know what they know! I think that it is simply arrogant for someone to think that they can fix in two years problems that are deeply rooted in society. You just can teach what you don’t know, the best approach to teaching is observing first and kids do teach teachers and many of these TFA candidates are too busy showing off.

  38. Dan Dempsey says:

    To clarify the Seattle School Board approved the Superintendent’s plan to place Teach for America corps members into high-poverty/ high minority schools to close achievement gaps. The students are not poor but a large percentage of their parents are low – income. The SPS made this decision without ever conducting a careful review of options to close achievement gaps.

    The three TFA corps members most recently approved by the Board on Sept 21 and October 5 have as of Nov. 1 not been issued “conditional certificates” because the SPS has not even applied for them. These three are teaching in classrooms using “Emergency Substitute Certificates” that were issued. It appears that under WAC 181-79A-231 these TFA corps members did not qualify for those Certificates either, as there is no shortage of qualified substitutes in Seattle.

    This is what has become of our theoretical republic in Washington State. RCWs and WACs are selectively ignored by those in charge of applying the rules.

  39. Pingback: Need a TFA primmer? The truth? Check this blog post out by Gary Rubenstein! #TFA #RTTT #edreform @RodelDE @GovernorMarkell | Transparent Christina

  40. S says:

    As a 2011 CM in Kansas City, MO, I can say that this post accurately summarizes much of what me and my friends/co-workers here have expressed since starting with TFA this past summer. My experience with TFA has been characterized by institutionalized hypocrisy, double-speak, and self-importance. And it exists much to the detriment of the education system at large and the CMs who signed up expecting something else (or, more realistically, not knowing what to expect at all).

    The Sparknotes version of the story of TFA Kansas City follows, and I think it is indicative of many of the delusions that plague TFA and the associated ed “reform” movement. TFA KC started as a small (50ish) charter corps in 2009. At the time, KCMSD was in the midst of a huge upheaval. The superintendant, John Covington, came in with a reform plan straight out of the Gates/Walton/random-corporate-donor-who-decides-to-meddle-in-ed-policy playbook. Close schools, fire teachers, increase class sizes, balance the budget. As part of this plan, Covington cut a huge % of the district’s non-tenured teachers, and decided to fill every single new hire position in 2011 with a TFA. The result was an expansion in the size our corps to roughly 160%, so that TFA teachers now constitute roughly 15% of all teachers in the district.

    At our induction/indoctrination, Covington and our regional staff spoke optimistically about this “game-changing move” to turn around the district. Yet anyone with half a brain can see the idiocy in this type of public policy. Filling all new hire positions in an entire district with untrained teachers, most of whom have no intention of staying for more than two years!?! A huge problem here is just the simple lack of consistency/stability in personel and policy, and the result is a district working environment that is totally schizophrenic (i.e., superintendents rarely last more than 2 years or see through policy changes to their conclusion, teachers and admins constantly moved from school to school). And somehow, bringing in a staff of essentially itinerant early-20somethings is supposed to turn that around? It’s also systematically depriving the district of any new teaching talent with (1) Background in the local KCMO community, as opposed to some random college in some other state (2) Intentions of becoming a career teacher in KCMO. Covington quit as superintendent 2 weeks into the year for a higher paying position in Michigan, and left career classroom teachers (for whom he had nothing but disdain) to pick up the pieces.

    The TFA staff, meanwhile, seems so convinced of it’s own moral/intellectual superiority that there was (apparently) no meaningful discussion whatsoever over whether or not a district with 15% TFAs is desirable. Certain schools have as many as 13 new TFAs on staff and, predictably, they’re a mess. The quit rate amongst 2011s is high (double-digits out of 160 in only two months), yet there’s been no official acknowledgement of this, or the general morale problems that exist here. Our TFA regional executive director recently spent 2+ weeks in China, so clearly she is committed to the success of her CMs and our operation in general.

    As for the mentoring and support that TFA bills as one of it’s organizational strengths… in my experience, it’s been entirely non-existant. Through the first quarter of the year, my TFA advisor has observed me for exactly zero minutes of instructional time, and has no-showed multiple times when she scheduled an observation. The only reason I’ve had a modicum of success in my elementary classroom of 30+ kids thus far has been the constant support of a handful of veteran educators at my school.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Sorry to hear about this. You sound like someone who joined TFA for the same reasons I did. You were victim of a huge bait-and-switch. I hope you can hang in there and continue getting help from those great veterans, despite TFA’s advice to stay away from them so you don’t get corrupted.

  41. Ryan says:

    Hi Gary,

    I I’m wondering a few things after reading this. . . first, maybe it’s not about TFA’s structure, but more about TFA’s selection/placement process.

    I joined TFA as a non-traditional corps member . . .someone who attended graduate school, law school, and was in the working world for awhile before coming to teach. I had worked in ed. policy for several years, and it was my earnest desire to teach that led me to the program. You see, I had a master’s degree in education, but no teaching certification. The only way I could be certified and placed was through a program like TFA.

    When I was admitted, I was placed in a special education setting. Contrary to what you’ve said above, this placement was certainly a high need area. There was a teacher shortage as well as a high need for good teachers in this area.

    Granted, I wouldn’t say I was good in my first year, but I would say that by my second year I was much better than many of the more seasoned folks in my school. In my time in the classroom, I was able to move our entire school from a self-contained model to an inclusion model, I reduced discipline problems by 50% through implementing a new positive behavior system, and ran both the special education department, as well as a middle school academy.

    My point is, there is still a need in our schools, especially in areas like special education. Maybe TFA needs to make a more concerted effort to find non-traditional candidates, or change their screening methods to find those who would be more likely to become career teachers, as opposed to being two and out.

    That being said, I have to be honest and admit that I was a two-and-outer. Even with my success (the faculty even selected me as teacher of the year) in the classroom and at my school, I felt that I needed to do more than work in a classroom to effect change. I don’t know if it was TFA that pushed me to think that way, but ultimately, I left the classroom to go back to working in education policy.

    Upon reflection, I think two things probably need to be done (outside of the selection considerations). TFA should probably figure out a better way to encourage corps members to stay in the classroom, and schools need to do a better job at trying to retain these teachers. I know that I would have stayed in my school under a number of circumstances, but the politics wouldn’t allow it. I also know that I would have stayed if TFA encouraged me a bit more to stay, like through giving me leadership opportunities during my third year or further professional development, rather than cutting me loose.

    Just some things to consider.

    • KatieO says:

      I have serious concerns about putting TFA corp members in Special Ed positions. As a special education teacher myself, I believe CMs, and any untrained teacher, risks doing serious damage to fragile children. More than any other field, I resist putting TFA CMs with these special children.

      Ryan, you said yourself “I wouldn’t say I was good in my first year”. Those kids cannot afford teacher after teacher who is “not good” at first. You also said you only stayed 2 years, and left just as you were becoming competent and effective. Who replaced you? Another unprepared 1st year corp member?

      Just this morning, I stumbled across a study which asserted clearly, “Pre-service preparation in special education has statistically significant and quantitatively substantial effects on the ability of teachers of special education courses to promote gains in achievement for students with disabilities, especially in reading.” (See: http://www.urban.org/publications/1001435.html)

      I do not believe there is truly a shortage of Sped teachers (At least not here in Chicago. It is no longer true that a certification in Sped guarantees a job.) What we see, instead, is massive church in these Sped positions. TFA, and other alternative certification programs, now contribute to this churn. Schools have less incentive to create positive teaching environments which teachers will stay at, and instead rely on a constant stream of newbies to burn through. Special Ed is far too often not a high priority. TFA does not help.

      Please, CMs out there, if you are offered a Special Ed position, PLEASE SAY NO! I have heard if you check a box saying you’d be open to working in Sped, chances are you’ll be placed there. Do not check it! If you do not already have significant experience working with students with special needs, background study in how to identify and treat different types of disabilities, knowledge of effective behavioral interventions, extensive training in reading instruction, knowledge of appropriate accommodations and modifications, practice writing IEPs, background with the legal issues surrounding IDEA and LRE, and the know-how to write a FBA and BIP, then DO NOT WORK THERE.

      Please TFA corp members, go and learn on some other children than our most vulnerable.

      • Ryan says:

        Hi Katie,

        I really don’t wish to argue with you, but I largely disagree with some of your sentiments. I hardly believe any teacher is transformational in their first year. . . I think that’s the nature of any new job. When I said I didn’t feel I was good, that doesn’t mean I didn’t make gains with my students, in fact, in my first year, my students grew an average of 2.5 grade levels in reading (I was the special education reading teacher). What I mean to say, is that I felt I could have done more as a teacher to make the environment better. For instance, I taught within a self-contained setting. By the end of the school year, I figured out that the setting was not appropriate for my students and I moved them into full inclusion. That’s what I mean by truly being a good/great teacher. . . and to be honest, I doubt any first year teacher would be able to navigate the politics of an urban poor school to help change their students’ settings. . . it’s something that comes with establishing yourself in your position.

        As for your statement about special education training. . . I think TFA has a long way to go and I think there are definitely some holes, but to be honest, when I taught special education, I was one of two TFA special educators out of 8 special educators in the building. Now, which two teachers do you think were the only ones to hold high expectations for their students and build strong relationships with them and their families? The other special educators in my school would take long smoking breaks and leave their students with paraeducators, or used all their vacation days and left them with a man who would take their community skills money and buy snacks for himself. I know that this is situational, and there are probably places where there are magnificent special educators who are not from TFA. . . but honestly, please don’t make blanket judgments about me or other special educators I know many folks who came through TFA and still do amazing things for students with special needs. It’s hurtful and misguided for you to assume otherwise.

        As for why I left the classroom. . . well, as I mentioned, it was politics. I was laid off. I was actually laid off after my first year because of LIFO, but I fought to get my job back. By the end of my second year, after being laid off a second time (even after being on the leadership team and teacher of the year) I couldn’t take the stress of fighting for my job again. Can you blame me?

        I now work in the policy field (something I did before, as I do have a MEd and a JD) and in my job I work for the rights of children with special needs.

        So please, next time you wish to make overarching negative statements about special educators who come through TFA, please take it somewhere else or at least think twice and try to qualify your statements.

      • KatieO says:

        I agree, teachers need to be in the classroom long enough to make true school-wide change. But isn’t that an argument against a short-term program like TFA?

        I posted a link to a research study that says how critically important PRE-service training is especially in special education. Your reply was so quick that perhaps you didn’t have a chance to read it. Please do.

        According to Barbara Torre Veltri’s book “Learning on Other People’s Children”, she interviewed many TFA teachers in the Southwest who were placed in special education positions. She writes, “Serious questions surfaced with respect to the nearly 20% of TFA novices who were assigned to teach special education with no prior training or clinical exposure to special education classrooms.” She quotes TFA CMs saying things like, “Oh my God, I’m teaching what? I didn’t know anything about Special Education.” Ms. Torre Veltri goes on to say that there were serious legal questions in letting completely unprepared teachers teach students with IEPs.

        In fact, legally, a parent of a student with an IEP would have a strong case to sue a district for putting their child in the care of someone uncertified in Special Education. (Although I understand TFA has lobbied Washington to change the “highly qualified” stipulations in NCLB. A highly questionable approach in my opinion.) Mark Vite (MEd) who is a special education consultant in Phoenix says, “I don’t believe it’s even legal to hire TFA novices in Special Education placements.” With your background, perhaps you know more about the legal side than I do. Please enlighten me about any knowledge you have in this area.

        I don’t know what kind of school you taught at, and I am sorry that those children have to be subjected to such poor teaching, but in MY experience, the special educators I know and have met from around the country through various conferences and trainings, are dedicated, caring, highly-trained professionals.

        I’m sorry, in my opinion, there is too much at stake to risk placing completely untrained teachers (and this extends beyond TFA, certainly) in special education classrooms. TFA can make its case for math and science, but not special education.

      • NYC07 says:

        100% Agreed.

  42. Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr. says:

    HERE is the LATEST from Heilig — July 2011

    Julian Vasquez Heilig* Heather A. Cole** Marilyn A. Springel***

  43. Lynn says:

    Thanks for speaking out against TFA. As a former member, you have a lot of credibility. One of my best friends did TFA in Baltimore in 97-99-09 and at the time it seemed crazy to me that the most needy areas would hire the least trained people. It still seems backwards. Put those hot shots with little to no training in the rooms of affluent kids in the suburbs who merely need a warm body to focus their energy. Oh wait, their parents would never allow this to happen! I am now myself a veteran ELL teacher in Washington State and I *still* think it is crazy to put “barely” trained teachers in any classroom. All a recipe for what we like to call “a hot mess.”

  44. Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr. says:


    Two points:
    (1) TFA invaded Seattle and it has no case to make in Math or Science. From Heilig: No one would argue that doctors and lawyers should not be required to pass qualifying exams to ensure they have mastered the requisite skills to practice within their professions. Why is it that such threshold skills are not considered at least as important in the teaching profession?

    (2) Agreed Special Education teachers are highly skilled .. but often not highly respected.

    Heilig: (p400) It found that highly-qualified teachers facing high accountability pressures in schools rated as low-performing are more likely to leave schools than those teachers in highly-rated schools with low accountability pressures.

    Consider what is happening to teachers of very high needs children in schools rated as low performing… They are more and more likely to be subjected to unrealistic requirements…… example why aren’t you moving your multiply handicapped autistic children through the material faster so that some of them can join the gen ed students next year.

    BIZARRO World of the School Administrator’s mind. Good teachers can turn straw into gold … what’s the matter with you?

  45. Interesting says:

    2011 Tennessee State Report Card on Teacher Effectiveness


    a few spotlights from the article:
    Teachers certified through Teach for America and Lipscomb University in Nashville outperform veteran teachers, according to the state card on teacher training released Tuesday.

    The report, produced by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, shows which of the state’s teacher programs tend to produce highly effective teachers and which do not.

    Teach for America in Memphis and Nashville outshone traditional college programs and alternative certification programs statewide.

    In Memphis, TFA teachers showed “statistically significant positive difference” over both veteran and new teachers and ranked high in the top quintile of teachers across Tennessee in reading, science and social studies.

    a few spotlights from the executive summary of the actual report

    — Alternatively licensed teachers tend to perform at the same level as veteran teachers in all grade levels and subjects with the exception of Science, where they tend to have higher student achievement gains.

    –Only three programs tend to produce teachers (traditionally and alternatively licensed teachers combined) with higher student achievement gains than veteran teachers – Teach for America Memphis, Teach for America Nashville, and Lipscomb University

      • Gary Rubinstein says:

        Also interesting that only 15% of 2006s stayed for a third year and 31% of 2007s. If the average rate for 3rd years is really 60% across the country for TFA, then they are well below average. Many people who stay for a 3rd year, in my opinion, are those that were doing a good job, at least in their estimation, so it is strange that these great teachers with T-values of over 4 (whatever that means) didn’t stay for a 3rd year.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Hi Interesting,

      Since this calculation is probably based on some ‘value-added’ thing, I won’t take it too seriously. Value added was actually invented in Tennessee about 20 years ago by Sanders. So after 20 years of measuring teachers, where has it gotten Tennessee? Nowhere. If there was anything to it, it wouldn’t just be a way to measure, but something to improve education. As Tennessee education hasn’t improved much despite 20 years of this signals to me that these formulas are not very accurate.

      I would never let my own children be taught by a first year TFA, though i would allow them to be taught by a second year. Second year TFAs are quite good and I guess they brought up the average a lot.

      The problem is that nearly half of TFAers are first years.


      • Cam says:

        While I would definitely agree with several of the points you have brought up, as a former teacher, don’t you yourself warn of exclusively using “always” or “never.” I’m quite offended and bothered that it is prescribed upon ALL first-year teachers that “I’d never want my kid to be a taught by a first year TFA.” If most first-year teachers struggle shouldn’t this same expectation be held to all? Nonetheless, there are some first year teachers doing excellent job in the classrooms. It’s too easy to shun off this or that but something I have found to aid my transition into teaching has been the countless hours I’ve spent observing EXEMPLARY instruction. I’ve shadowed numerous teachers independently although “I’m TFA.” Before you characterize everyone into one-fit mold (which wait, we shouldn’t do with our students), consider how we better all first-year teachers regardless of TFA to delineate the reputation/identity TFA has created for itself and truly help our students.

      • Cam says:

        While I would definitely agree with several of the points you have brought up, as a former teacher, don’t you yourself warn of exclusively using “always” or “never.” I’m quite offended and bothered that it is prescribed upon ALL first-year teachers that “I’d never want my kid to be a taught by a first year TFA.” If most first-year teachers struggle shouldn’t this same expectation be held to all? Nonetheless, there are some first year teachers doing excellent job in the classrooms. It’s too easy to shun off this or that but something I have found to aid my transition into teaching has been the countless hours I’ve spent observing EXEMPLARY instruction. I’ve shadowed numerous teachers independently although “I’m TFA.” Before you characterize everyone into one-fit mold (which wait, we shouldn’t do with our students), consider how we better all first-year teachers regardless of TFA to delineate the reputation/identity TFA has created for itself and truly help our students.

    • TNnative says:

      What is most interesting about this article/research/survey is that it only accounts for TN-educated teachers who stayed in Tennessee. Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the #1 education school in the country, prepares teachers better than TFA does (published about a month before this came out). Yet most Vanderbilt grads go out-of-state because they have seen how poorly teachers are treated in TN.
      Tennessee has continually sent the message to teachers that they are unimportant and unvalued. Of course teachers would leave the state to pursue jobs elsewhere.

  46. Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr. says:

    Dear Interesting,

    The general quality of education in Tennessee has been poor for a long time. CHECK THIS on NAEP scores headed south.

    I thank you for the links and am now reading the full report. A really large concern is that such a high percentage of Tennessee Teachers are products of Tennessee schools. There is a huge concern nationally with the quality of ED research and quality of teacher preparation at schools of Education. …. The 3.5 GPA’s of teachers certainly confirms grade inflation in Tennessee’s schools of education.

    It may well be that performing better than the average of Teachers (85+% of whom came from Tennessee schools) is not much of an accomplishment.

    From the linked article:
    Although there was no statistical change in Tennessee’s scores in fourth and eighth-grade reading and math —the four subjects tested this year— a greater number of states have made improvements, pushing Tennessee farther down in national rankings. The state dropped from 45 to 46 in the nation in fourth-grade math; 39 to 41 in fourth-grade reading; 43 to 45 in eighth-grade math; and 34 to 41 in eighth-grade reading. Twenty-six percent of fourth-grade students are proficient in reading, and 30 percent are proficient in math. Twenty-seven percent of eighth-grade students are proficient in reading, and 24 percent are proficient in math

    The results must serve as a call to action, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said.

  47. KatieO says:

    You know, whenever I hear the whole TFA debate, people claiming one thing or another, this research or that research, I am reminded of a seminar I went to this past summer.

    A roomful of teachers gathered to discuss how TFA could adapt to meet the needs of students. We were right in the middle of debating how TFA could improve its training methods when a large group of students from the Recovery District in New Orleans walked in. As I’m sure most people reading this blog are aware, New Orleans relies heavily on TFA recruits.

    The students listened politely for a few minutes, until one young man stood up and began to speak. He spoke of his disdain for the program saying, “why do you give US these teachers who know nothing of me, where I’m from, or what I love?” He went on to say, nearly shouting, “Why do you talk of reforming Teach For America? Teach for America has got to GO!”

    Teach for America is not an answer to anything. And worse, while the country and our leaders are busy talking about TFA and other “reforms” du jour, we stop even asking the right questions.

  48. Ms. Math says:

    Wow-this is the most commented on post I have ever seen!

    Maybe I would have found my way into education in some other way, but I believe that the primary reason that I decided to dedicate my life to education was because of my experiences in TFA where statistics about inequity turned into stories of inequity.

    However, just because I think that I’m an example of someone who is doing something positive in education(that has nothing to do with closing down schools or firing teachers) doesn’t mean I don’t think Gary’s points are well-taken.

    In fact-what I am doing is trying to design a way to observe the quality of instruction in mathematics classrooms so that teacher performance is not solely tied to student performance on standardized assessments.

  49. Lissa m. says:

    I joined TFA aa part of the 2011 Corps in Memphis, where there was an outrageous teacher surplus. They recruited 180 of us and al oat 20 ended up being placed elsewhere because there simply weren’t enough placements – and that was after Corpsmembers were placed in dozens of charter schools and public schools that did not meet TFA criteria. I myself was left unplaced until the fifth week of school then assigned to a spot teaching a subject I was wholly unqualified for. I left after a little over two weeks, knowing I was doing more harm than good for my students as an inexperienced, unqualified teacher. I am also a single mother with no support system in Memphis, and even though I asked repeatedly if teaching was a plausible fit for my situation, TFA staff assured me that “we” would get through it. Pulling lesson plans off the Internet to teach and largely neglecting my child while I spent hours planning and grading just didn’t work for me. I spoke to supervisors over the weeks, but decided that my students and my own child all deserved more. I couldn’t see how me being a mediocre teacher and a half-assed parent was helping anyone. I quit and TFa thus far has refus to grant my Emergency Release – apparently an organization whose driving mission is to help children doesn’t think that my decision to prioritize my child was valid. As TFA branches out into recruiting career-changers with families or single parents, perhaps they could get someone on staff who actually understands the realities of both first year teaching AND the real life responsibilities of parenthood and be up front and honest with people before they sign up.

    • Concerned says:

      I’m sorry Lissa, but it sounds like you were unrealistic about the hours teaching requires.
      “Pulling lesson plans off the Internet to teach and largely neglecting my child while I spent hours planning and grading just didn’t work for me.”
      When did you think you would grade and plan? Did you think it would only take 30 minutes a day?
      Teachers who do spend very little time planning and marking tend to be ineffective, no matter how they were trained or how long they have been teaching.

  50. Sarah says:

    My husband also did TFA, corps of 1991, in Oakland. He is now a teacher, and I am a district administrator. (I did not do TFA). We are both in touch with several TFA alums in the area; some are teachers, guidance counselors, principals, and one superintendent. They are not the “success stories” TFA touts, but each of them is making a meaningful contribution to education nonetheless. However, my question about each of them – and, likely, many of TFA’s poster teachers – is, is that contribution BECAUSE of TFA, or in spite of it? My husband planned to be a teacher from the very beginning of college; TFA was just the way he started his lifelong dream.

    • MS says:

      Great question, Sarah. A recent study came out that (I think) addresses part of that issue, among others. Check it out and let us know what you think.

      A few relevant passages from the TFA press release on the study

      A new Harvard University research study finds that participation in Teach For America markedly affects corps members’ education beliefs, racial tolerance, and career paths. The preliminary findings from this study by Harvard professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr. and doctoral student Will Dobbie indicate that the Teach For America experience strengthens participants’ conviction in the academic potential of all children regardless of income level or race, and increases racial tolerance among participants across all racial groups. In addition, the experience increases the likelihood that participants will pursue a career in the education sector.

      The study also found that Teach For America corps members are more likely to be employed at P–12 schools and in the education sector after their two-year commitment than applicants who did not join Teach For America. Participating in Teach For America increased the probability of being employed in a P–12 school by 35 percentage points, and in education more broadly by 48 percentage points, demonstrating Teach For America’s strength as a leadership pipeline for the education sector. Today, nearly two-thirds of Teach For America’s alumni are working in education, with half of those serving as P–12 teachers and more than 550 leading schools and school systems. The study shows that many of these individuals would not be working in education had they not participated in Teach For America.

      Press Release

      Actual Study

      Click to access TFA_September2011.pdf

  51. Marie says:

    This article hits the nail on the head. I actually was an elementary education major the first three years of my college experience. I joined TFA thinking I wanted to be a teacher. The “training” I received with TFA included two weeks in a classroom with less than three students. I stood in line with about 500 other teachers at a job fair. I filled a classroom that was only empty because a former TFA corps member left. The program went against everything I believed in when it came to education, particularly the thought that we shouldn’t be teaching to a test. I left jaded and disappointed, realizing that an organization that was supposed to be helping students was more likely harming them. But with good P.R. no one else seemed to notice.

  52. Tom says:


    As a math teacher, you should be more understanding of what the reasonable critiques of value-added modeling are and which ones are unreasonable. While for any given teacher the results may just be the product of a “good class” or “bad class”, over an entire state such as Tennessee this would have to be the result of an outrageous coincidence.

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  54. eeodonne says:

    I am one of those 2011 corps members that you’re talking about that knows this program is likely doing more harm than good. I joined TFA DFW because I wanted to teach, not because I wanted to change the world. And this mentality helped to keep me from “drinking the Kool-Aid,” as my corps likes to say.
    I think that your point is very valid. I, too, am bothered by the short term solution that TFA provides. I read someone’s post earlier about going to a job fair and seeing hundreds of out-of-work teachers applying for the same jobs that I was. But there were two comforts to this uncomforable experience. 1. Almost all of the new hires in my region come from alternative certification (which includes but is not exclusive to TFA) and 2. I was watching the “lemon dance” in action, and I’d rather have someone like me in a classroom than some of the people that i saw and heard at that job fair. Is there something wrong with TFA now? Yes. Can it be fixed? Yes. Will it? No. Not until TFA changes its model for recruitment.
    Someone tried to recruite me when I was in college, and the way she sold it was “it’s something to do between undergrad and grad school that can really make a difference in someone’s life.” I’m sorry, but teaching is not “something to do” to take up time, it’s a career. And not just that, it’s something that really effects other people’s lives. TFA should not be sold as a resume booster. I came to TFA, not because I needed something to take up two years, but rather, I wanted to be a teacher for the long term and I wanted a program that would support me and properly train me. And while my corps doesn’t do the best job training SpEd teachers, I think they’ve given me everything that I expected.
    I guess the point of this rambling is that, for my region, TFA could be a positive influence, IF they learned to properly recruit people that were in it for more than the resume building and personal gains.

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  56. tarheelintulsa says:

    I know exactly what you mean about TFA not liking to hear complaints from their recruits… I have spent the past few months trying to make it as clear as possible that I feel extremely unprepared to be in the classroom. Teaching 8 high schoolers for 4 weeks this summer in no way trained me to teach dual language kindergarten (surprise!). I have been met with a sort of irritated impatience…nothing more.

  57. As someone who recently had a horrific TFA experience before quitting, I am now fiercely outspoken about how destructive the organization is at a number of levels (for Corps members as well as for schools, school districts, students, etc.). My sincere hope is that more ex-Corps members or even current Corps members who are dis-satisfied begin speaking out more loudly and clearly about the numerous problems with the organization. I’d love to speak further with anyone regarding TFA and please feel free to check out my anti-TFA blog at ‘recoveringfromTFA.wordpress.com’ where I’ve posted my resignation letters and numerous critical posts about the organization that go into more depth. Just send me an email first at ‘j.asher.williamson@gmail.com’ so I can invite you to my blog.

  58. Molly says:

    This is a terrific post, and I’m so glad to see all the discussion it’s sparked. As a former TFAer in Las Vegas, I agree wholeheartedly. I was sold on the idea that making a 2-year commitment even if I didn’t want to be a teacher for life would help the movement, as I’d take my learnings and apply them to my future career.

    Now I realize what a disservice this was to my students and school. To be sure, I worked my ass off and improved tremendously in my second year, but, in my first year, I felt wholly unsupported (TFA staff had a way of spotlighting teachers who were “breezing” through their first year and minimizing those of us who were struggling terribly). I’d have never made it were it not for a career teacher in my school who served as a mentor. And, then, I was only just becoming independently successful near the end of my second year, by which time I couldn’t wait to get out of there … because I didn’t really want to be a teacher.

    I wonder, had the organization’s structure been different, had training been more comprehensive, had true support been easier to come by, would I have wanted to stay in teaching? If we could have talked about these things openly then without being told that we needed to make an attitude adjustment, would it have made a difference?

    I’d love to see TFA get an overhaul. I’d love to see more debate within the organization and the encouragement of dissenting views. I’d love for them to own up to their failings and talk openly. As it stands, you’ve got to drink the koolaid and fit their rubric to stay in the organization … if your philosophies don’t fall within the rubric, they push you out. (But they’ll still ask for your money.)

  59. everlearn says:

    There is an assumption that parents know that their child is being taught by a TfA recruit, and that parents, if they learn this, also know that this TfA recruit has had 5 weeks of “training” and a handful of days “student teaching” a pretend mini-class of 3-5 students. Families absolutely do not know this. Trying to get such information from the school/district even upon written request, let alone have this explained up front, meets formidable barriers. Even if discovered, usually far too late, there still is no remedy for that child, or the pursuit of remedy may take so long that the entire school year is lost to that child anyway. When a child does not make expected progress in his/her IEP program for example, due to enduring a succession of untrained “teachers,” this is routinely documented as a child “learning commensurate with ability.” Whose ability? One could rightly conclude, under these circumstances, that it is teacher ability. Children learn with qualified, well trained, well prepared and well mentored teachers who care about how their skills benefit and lift children, not how a stint in TfA looks on the resume or grad school app. Relaxing to the point of ridiculousness the “highly qualified” provision of NCLB prevents the excellence we say we are about, and not only predicts but cements a cycle of student failure and loss of opportunity. If education is the way forward, this does not bode well “for America.” Let’s support the teaching profession, not the stepping stone of TfA. Generations of children are being squashed under the weight of this scheme. The ongoing and easy hood-winking of smart benefactors and congresspersons is still quite amazing to me. Spin perfected.

  60. An addition says:

    I am a third year teacher in an incredibly impoverished, poorly run, urban school district. Our school district added TFA the year I was hired, and I am conflicted in my feelings about it. Here are my arguments
    1) I graduated with a degree from one of the best universities in the country in Secondary Ed and English. I was almost not hired because too many “spots” had been promised to TFA. That frustrates me because a number of my classmates, who had student taught in the district with me, were not offered jobs because too many jobs had been taken by TFA and other programs
    2) I have friends from college who have viewed TFA as a “stop on the way to their real career”. As a career teacher, I think programs such as this undermine teaching as a profession. I don’t want teaching to be viewed as a phase, but in a profession this difficult, how can we expect those without much training to stay?
    3) There are districts and schools that need teachers. This is true. I would rather have committed college grads with support in that room than many of the other people I see on the day to day in the rooms on my halls.
    4) There are teachers who have been teaching for 30 years who rock, and there are those who talk on their cell phones and don’t do much else. Anyone who has worked at a “bad school” knows those teachers. Do TFA teachers add to my work load at times, adding students to my room whose behavior they struggle with? Yes. Do the teachers who don’t do their job add to my work load when their students run around and interrupt my class? Yes. But I would rather have someone TRY than not.

    Bad teachers need to go. Good teachers need to have reasons to stay. And the line between the two needs to be drawn if teaching is going to be considered more than a sub-profession by those not directly involved in public education.

    Then again, we need more teachers and former teachers making decisions about what goes on in our schools, but that is another conversation.

  61. shaun f says:

    As a current core member who has also worked in the education field as a para professional for the previous two years I feel like I have a unique perspective on the issue of TFA. While there is no doubt the most core members are completely under prepared to teach, this is not far off from someone who graduated from a four year education program. If truth be told, the only way to become a great teacher is doing it for several years. So while your argument of TFA members not sticking around long enough to become great teachers is absolutely correct, so is the argument that the “life span” of all inner city school teachers is not very long. Most quit or leave their first school within the first 3 years, regardless of the years training you have. TFA is not the problem to our education system, nor is it the solution. Neither are charter schools or school choice. The problem is too big to pin on one single thing, and to try to do so is a bit ridiculous.

  62. Tiredof the lies says:

    If you expose New Orleans/Louisiana, you can expose the entire organization. Why would a Millionare from New York donate to a TFA’er running for the state board of education ? By the way, this person Ms. Oranger-Jones is still working for TFA and is on the Louisiana board of Education. Isn’t that a direct conflict ? If you really want to help start you research in New Orleans and you will have all you need.

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  64. Carolyn says:

    Teacher surpluses may exist in the more urban regions, but TFA places in rural regions as well. The Mississippi Delta recently quadrupled the number of CMs they bring in, and they all got jobs – not because they took them from veteran teachers, they are literally filling empty classrooms. I feel like the more rural regions and their unique problems often get overlooked in these conversations, when actually this is where TFA is doing the most good.

  65. Maggie Guntren says:

    AMEN! How refreshing to read this very mindful post from an fellow early year alumni.

    Your three points to consider for potential TFA candidates are right on and I would add that if you do choose to matriculate, please don’t drink the Institute Kool-Aid and think that you will leave prepared. Because you won’t. No one is. Any type of student teaching never really leaves you prepared to take on the immense responsibility of teaching your own classroom. Be humble and actually listen to veteran teachers. Not all our bad, crazy, or defeated, despite negative media blitzes and the rampant conservative headlines.

    My relationship with TFA is truly one of love/hate. They say they are evolving, but I just see expanding. I do believe in the power of teachers, but I also believe there are bigger root causes at play in this quest for educational justice.

    I wish the entitlement I experience from 90% of recent and current TFA’ers would cease to exist; I don’t care that you gave up Medical School to teach in some “crappy little school.” I care that you work your ass off everyday because someone did for you if you’re on your way to med school.

    In all honesty, my TFA experience was life transforming; I was terrible, but got better. I believed in my kids. I am not sure if this right, but I learned more from my students than I probably taught them. I wasn’t as prepared as I would l have liked and wish I knew then what I know now, but I worked hard and got better at teaching everyday. I made a hell of a lot of mistakes. I began to finally understand the institutional and historical racism, sexism, and classism that is the nasty underbelly of this country. I experienced racism for the first time in my 22 years of life and that too was powerful in a very painful sort of way. My TFA years have formed my professional life trajectory (17 years) and I am thankful for those early years and the vision, passion and commitment of everyone in the organization from Wendy Kopp to the CM’s. What I am dismayed about now in 2011 is how far that vision has shifted from current CM’s values and others involved in the bigger organizational structure.

  66. Maggie Guntren says:

    One more quick thing. TFA is in love with data. In the annual survey, which I do complete, I asked for them to share the data from the survey (the good, the bad, and the ugly) with all of us; you know, be transparent just like they ask CM’s to be with their classroom performance data. I want to know what a diverse group of people are saying; how does the majority of alumni answer the question, “Would you recommend TFA to someone else?” (or however it’s worded). What are we saying and why? I believe in collective responsibility and I think that we should know the outcome of the survey results.

  67. Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr. says:



    Julian Vasquez Heilig*
    Heather A. Cole**
    Marilyn A. Springel***

    Section B page 395

    The debate over the specific impact of TFA and whether its recruits should be considered high quality teachers has been covered extensively in education-related academic literature. Julian Vasquez Heilig and Su Jin Jez recently conducted a comprehensive analysis of peer-reviewed research on TFA. Examining more than a decade’s worth of research examining TFA outcomes, the study concluded TFA teachers had a positive impact on student achievement in mathematics only when they had obtained training and certification beyond the typically two-year TFA classroom commitment. TFA teachers rarely had a positive impact on reading achievement. In fact, four peer-reviewed studies found novice TFA recruits to have significant negative effects on elementary students’ reading achievement when compared to fully-prepared teachers. TFA recruits’ negative effects on achievement also extended to mathematics in three of the studies. Despite the decidedly mixed effects of its teachers noted in the peer-reviewed research, TFA continues to claim, “Teach For America corps members are more effective.

  68. Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr. says:

    Here is my Dec 7, 2011 testimony that shows the Seattle Superintendent submitted a false claim in the application for conditional certificates for TFA corps members from the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of public instruction.

    written testimony=>

    YouTube testimony first 3 minutes =>

    The legal appeal initial filing=>

    More info about what went on in Seattle=>


  69. Mike Stack says:

    I “did” TFA. Fortunately I concurrently worked for an MAT at Dominican University. Dominican prepared teachers. TFA prepared soldiers for TFA. TFA is interested in one thing only: the perpetuation of TFA. It distorts numbers, supports charter schools that lie about results, like UNO of Chicago, and is largely a perpetrator of slogans like education being a “Civil Rights Movement of Our TIme”. This politicization of education is what at periodic times in American history has injured American education. TFA claims its all about kids, but in reality its all about TFA and proving a failed concept.

  70. Maggie Peterson says:

    Thank you for the post. I too was a corps member in the early 90’s and have been in education ever since. I now work for a large research university, training teachers. I was approached by a campus recruiter this semester who sought permission to use my class time to spread the word about TFA. I was appalled! Ironically, in the current economic climate our new teachers might have a better chance of being hired if they do join TFA. Even still, I refused the recruiter. He thanked me “for my service”, by which I guess he meant the crappy teaching I did back in the 90’s.

  71. MIstudentteacher says:

    Thank you for writing this – I have had so many suspicions about TFA and this has confirmed them. I am currently a senior in college, studying education, and have always been hesitant to accept that TFA creates such highly effective teachers.

    There is a big difference between a first year teacher coming from a degree program who knows they have room for improvement (and intends to improve throughout their career,) and a first year TFA who was not prepared and does not intend to stay.

    Any TFA success stories are because of the individual, not the organization.

    For those of you who believe that TFA is the only way you can get into a teaching career – think again! Most of my fellow students are career changers, many are married with children, and all of us maintain jobs while we put ourselves through a bachelors degree program. (Not an alternative route.) Our program requires a minimum of 4 placements plus 2 student teaching placements, but many of us have more placements than that. We may not enter our first years as experts, but we have already shown that we are dedicated to students by pursuing a rigorous training program.

    Now if they would only make it competitive to get into the program in the first place, I would be more satisfied. It would also address the teacher surplus.

    TFA is simply not needed. Even in the best case – where you have individuals that become career teachers and educational leaders, those are the people that would have found a way without TFA.

    Thanks again for this article – I’ll be sending it to everyone I know.

  72. Susy says:

    It has been amazing to read all of these comments. My daughter was a TFA Corps Member fall 2011. She left after teaching for one quarter. She found Institute both exhausting and barely helpful. She was assigned to teach in institute at a grade level that she would definitely NOT be hired to teach at and even after she was hired by a school was not allowed to elect to take classes at Institute that might have actually helped to prepare her for the teaching she knew she was going to do. Her school had difficulty hiring and maintaining teachers, but this is in great part because of an extremely dysfunctional administration (which has not changed). She had a poorly trained and very ineffective TFA mentor who had overdosed on the TFA kool-aid and when my daughter struggled would advice her to “focus on her inner locus of control”!!! I’m not sure what that is even supposed to mean, but I do know that it is not helpful when told to someone in crisis. My meeting with higher ups in the TFA organization confirmed the arrogance that TFA has cultivated in recent years. My daughter was counseled that she should stay, even when the problems in the school were defeating even highly skilled teachers and even when her health had been greatly compromised. The mantra at TFA is that bright, idealistic and determined young people can overcome all of the troubles of the world and they can have “transformational” education experiences every day. Most corps members realize sooner or later that this is just TFA kool-aid. Some corps members are lucky and land in schools where they get support. Many are not. A dirty little secret is what happens to corps members who don’t make it. My internist, when I told her about my daughter’s situation told me that she is currently treating 4 patients with PTSD–all of them from TFA. Three out of the 4 did not make it through the 2 years. None of them are functioning at all now, just complete wrecks, sitting on their parents couches, trying to get well again. For these kids and the students that they tried to teach, TFA was clearly a lose-lose. Fortunately my daughter is strong, has lots of support, and is getting on with her life. It is my personal opinion that TFA is growing only because it is capitalizing on the current economic downturn–more and more college grads face a bleak job market and more and more school systems are looking for any way possible to cut costs. TFA can increase its number of recruits and STILL seem very selective and make deals with school districts to place their untrained recruits and continue to perpetuate the myth that they are serving an unmet need. I agree that articles such as Gary’s need to be given more exposure so that TFA can either adjust to new realities so that they can still serve a real purpose or be exposed for the fraud that they are rapidly becoming.

  73. kate says:

    While I do agree that TFA’s commitment should be longer, and that sending untrained college graduates almost always leads to a difficult first year (for teachers and students), I still feel this article goes a too far with the TFA-bashing. I am a 2nd year teacher with Teach for America in an urban public school in Baltimore, and I plan on staying in education for a long time. I went to a school very similar to that of Fordham. Despite the sometimes overwhelming stress and hardships that unfortunately go hand in hand with the job of working in an inner city school–from difficulties with administration, to the lack of resources, lack of structure, and general classroom management struggles– many of my friends in TFA will be teaching beyond their two year commitment. Mainly because we all realize that despite the harships in the job description, we know our students have it inifinitely harder. We care for our students, and want to help them better their futures by being effective teachers and good role models.

    Like I said, a good number of people in my TFA cohort will be teaching beyond their commitment. It is also true that a decent amount of people will be going to law school next year, and, in addition, those who will be continuing to teach may not teach more than 3 or 4 years. However, TFA certainly does not encourage this when you are actually IN the program. If anything, they encourage you to stay in education for life. As a marketing initiative, unfortunatley, yes–but certainly not when you are in the program. In addition, the TFA “alum” that I am in contact with who are not actually in the classroom are working in educational administration or policy or non-profit– in other words, they are still in the field of education.

    One important aspect of the TFA movement always seems to be incredibly understated: TFA gets high performing, driven, Type A college graduates interested in a career in education–whether that be teaching, administration, counseling, or policy. I did not go to an Ivy league school, I went to a school very similar to that of Fordham, however, I was salutatorian of my high school, graduated summa cum laude, and was involved in many organization on campus. Whenever I expressed interest in teaching in high school and college, many of my teachers, professors, and peers would respond the same way: “You want to teach? You can do so much more. I really see you doing something else — what about law school? med school? getting your PhD?” TFA, even if indirectly, helps restore some level of prestige to an extremely difficult and thankless job. I’m always seeing articles comparing US education to places like Finland and Korea, and one major aspect of education in these countries is that teaching is an incredibly SELECTIVE and PRESTIGIOUS. This is obviously not the case in America. Generally anybody with a college degree can get into a graduate school of education, and once you are in the classroom, like I said, it is unfortunately a very thankless job. And, whether people like to admit it or not, a lot of teachers will jump at the chance to teach in a suburban district rather than an ubran district (it’s no secret that, generally speaking, resources are more plentiful, administrations are more structured and supportive, and students are generally easier to manage on a day to day basis). While TFA is certainly not the answer to this cultural view that teaching is a somewhat “sub par” profession, it is certainly a start.

    • KatieO says:

      You know what else Finland or Korea never do? They would never, no not ever, let someone who is not fully trained and certified as teacher teach in their classrooms. Alternative Certification programs by their very nature, and TFA more than any, demean the teaching profession. And the idea that TFA somehow builds prestige for the teaching profession as a whole is completely and utterly untrue. The only prestige it builds is for the TFA brand itself. It glamorizes being a Teach for America short-term teacher, NOT just being a teacher. In fact, all the glitz and attention given to TFA makes being a “traditional” teacher look even less appealing.

      It also cheapens the profession by asserting that little training is needed to do the job well. Research and experience has shown this is completely and unequivocally false. But still this idea is pushed and marketed. And thanks to this type of rhetoric, districts now have an excuse to get rid of more expensive, experienced teachers and plug in some novice TFAer. It’s thinly veiled union-busting. And it is so ridiculously unjust that we only put those untrained, inexperienced teachers in our poorest schools. The lack of experienced and highly-trained teachers in low-income schools is one of the greatest inequalities in our education system. If young college graduates truly want to make a difference in children’s lives, they need to put the time in first to learn the trade. No shortcuts.

      I’m not comfortable with TFA’s constant mantra about getting the “best people” into education (those high performing, Type A, driven people). To me, those aren’t even the qualities that define what great teaching looks like. What about compassion? Empathy? Long-term dedication to a community? Humility? Creativity? Tenacity? Humor? And if I’m honest, I don’t want the kind of “go-getter” who ends up becoming a lawyer, teaching third graders.

      Frankly, it doesn’t matter what they say IN the program because they already recruited people who were, in part, sold on the short-term agreement. And even within the field of education, we really don’t need more policy-makers, consultants, education lobbyists, and administrators who never became master teachers. And yet, it seems like that is where the majority of TFA alums end up. Not in teaching.

      At the end of the day, TFAers get to pat themselves on the back for “doing something good” then they fast-track their career into grad school, law school, or straight into administrative positions in education. Other teachers have to plod along, put the time in first, with far fewer rewards (See http://jte.sagepub.com/content/61/1-2/48.short)

      I’m sorry, you don’t get a pass with this. Regardless of your personal intentions, the organization you are a part of is doing serious damage to the American education system. My request to you is instead of defending the organization, become a part in changing it.

      • J says:

        Teaching overall has an incredibly high burn-out rate.The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future has calculated that nearly a third of all new teachers leave the profession after just three years, and that after five years almost half are gone. So in terms of the short term commitment, to me,in this respect, TFA is just more honest about the reality of what teaching is. Many in this stream speaking of “professional educators” as an incredibly effective, committed, and plentiful population but that’s just not true.

        Besides the fact that more than half “traditional” teachers leave, I know it’s unpopular to say and I know it makes me seem like a union-busting asshole, but it is a field with low standards and qualifications. No one respects teachers enough. They praise them as martyrs and demonize them as incompetent socialists but they don’t see the profession as a difficult one and they don’t see the good ones as masters of a craft, the way the see lawyers or financial analysts. On top of that (or as a reflection of that )teachers aren’t paid well and we need a LOT of them to educate all of the children so naturally we’re taking teachers that aren’t up to par. Of course there are many selfless, committed, and amazing master teachers BUT that’s not the majority. We need more effective teachers and we need a society that respects teaching to improve education through a more thoughtful system of education and competitive compensation. How does that happen? It’s not going to happen because traditional teachers say that they need better compensation and it’s not going to happen through the unions that the majority of the population looks at with skepticism.

        TFA is the corporate sponsor of education. It brings people to the field who could’ve been something else that people are generally impressed by- a doctor, a lawyer, what have you, and in doing that invests people who make it their business to command respect and be successful if only in the most corporate, numbers-based sense of the word. One can debate whether that makes an effective teacher. I tend to believe that being that committed and analytical can’t hurt. But to me it’s doubtless that TFA brings people to the field that get results and, if nothing else, demand the attention and respect that is needed to make education in general and teaching in particular respected enough to command the salaries and esteem that will bring forth real educational reform.

        What’s more, I really do take issue with the idea that it’s doing “serious damage.” If you’re going to hold your breath until you staff all American schools with teachers who have had the training and the commitment you require, you’re going to die. And what’s more, you’re going see the teachers you do get in only select zip codes. TFA is by no means perfect, but to me it’s misplacing blame to find fault with an imperfect solution to a far more severely crippling problem.

      • KatieO says:

        Unfortunately, Teach for America is doing damage. When a school agrees to take in Teach for America recruits, it guarantees that that position will always be filled by a first or second year teacher. A traditionally-trained teacher may have stayed longer. Plus, now the administrator has no incentive to actually change the learning environment to create positions where people would be willing to stay long-term. It’s not OK that these schools with high teacher turnover also have the largest class sizes, the least resources, the fewest supplemental staff like nurses, social workers, and aides, and often pay less than the surrounding suburban districts. TFA is one more way that districts are off the hook for addressing these real inequalities. If they invested in the schools, more teachers would be willing to stay long-term.

        And the fact that there is already such a high turnover rate among new teachers means that TFA is all the more unnecessary as it exacerbates one of the greatest problems in education. This report http://www.greatlakescenter.org/docs/Policy_Briefs/Heilig_TeachForAmerica.pdf says that TFA should ONLY be used where there is still a genuine teacher shortage (rare in these days of budget cuts). It also urges districts to consider the extra costs of these untrained novices.

        And it is definitely NOT ok that we let these untrained novices teach our black and brown children when we would never allow them to work in our white schools.

        One more thing, I am always so upset when I hear the argument that TFA recruits are somehow a better kind of person. So let me tell you a story.

        This past week, I attended a rally which called for the ending of school closures and turnarounds in Chicago. The rally was held in a Baptist church on the south side near one of the targeted schools in one of Chicago’s many highly segregated African American communities. One by one many of the affected schools’ teachers came to the podium to tell their story. Almost every teacher that spoke had tears in her eyes as she talked about the years and years she had spent helping, supporting, and most importantly educating her “babies”. And every single teacher was African-American. Many of these women had grown up somewhere relatively close to where they now taught and knew the culture of their kids intimately.

        I felt such a rush of pride knowing that I got to stand in solidarity with people from all walks of life and every neighborhood thanks to my choice of profession. Unlike my sister who is a doctor–one of those professions which “commands respect”–my profession puts me on equal footing with colleagues that our intensely unequal society says I shouldn’t even know. And I love it. Teaching spans class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in a way few other professions do.

        Make no mistake, teaching to this day does not “command respect” because it is a traditionally female dominated profession and employs people of all races and classes. The lack of respect for teaching speaks to a deeply classist, racist, and sexist worldview that still cripples our nation. Which is why the types of qualities which make a great teacher: compassion, empathy, creativity, caring, humility are not valued.

        I value those things. Those brilliant, talented, compassionate African-American women who have taught and inspired children for years are the ones being targeted for removal in my city. And districts today use TFA and other alternative certs, as a large pool of cheap, complaint labor. They are staffing the turnarounds and charters that go in the place of these closures.

        And when I think about the greater impact of TFA, I worry that the damage may be irreversible.

    • Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr. says:

      Kate you wrote:

      While TFA is certainly not the answer to this cultural view that teaching is a somewhat “sub par” profession, it is certainly a start.
      I need an explanation of the above.

      In Seattle, it appears TFA has done the exact opposite to what you wrote.

      In a city with a large supply of fully certificated teachers …. how does replacing several fully certificated teachers with “conditionally certificated” TFA corps members with 5-weeks of education training in any way “elevate the profession”?

    • Former "corps member" says:

      More Kool-aid, anyone?

  74. kate says:

    this was my response to a similar article by a fordham professor:

    keeping the discussion going

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  76. csnyder10 says:

    I am sorry if I ask a question that was already addressed. I am a 2nd year CM teaching 2nd grade in Las Vegas, NV and I am feeling quite burnt out in this position. Personally, I have gained so much from the past year and a half — I now love children, have passion and investment in seeking out educational equity, and have definitely developed an inner toughness and problem-solving orientation in the face of extreme challenge. However, I am also overwhelmed by the demands of this profession combined with constant feelings of inadequacy and guilt. I know that I have not been “set up for success” as a teacher because I haven’t been given any content-specific training and absolutely NO instruction on how to teach early literacy. I agree heartily with Gary’s post and with the subsequent posts I read. Anyways, with these passions in mind, I am looking for other career pathways where I can feel a similar sense of fulfillment, work with children and families, and impact lives, but I’m not sure that the role of educator is for me. I was just going to post and see if anyone has any suggestions for other organizations/jobs that might be attacking similar issues from a different angle. Any responses would be greatly appreciated!

    • Parus says:

      If teaching isn’t for you, it isn’t for you, but something to think about: I felt similar toward the end of my TFA commitment, so I went to a good ed school and beefed up on the things I missed out on by entering teaching through TFA, then returned to the classroom. I can now say without qualifications that I love my job.

  77. Dora says:


    I have reposted your post on my blog, http://seattleducation2010.wordpress.com/

    I usually just do an excerpt but I felt that this essay needed to be read in full without interruption.

    There is a link provided to the post. If you.

    Please contact me if you do not want this posted in full.

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  80. educationallyminded says:

    I have mixed feelings about the post and subsequent posts. TFA is by no means the end all be all. In fact, there are several issues with the set up of the organization, the selection of corps members, and the summer training. All TFA teachers and I would argue many, are not as bad as they’re portrayed in the posts, even in their first year. There seems to be an assumption that certified teachers or veteran teachers are automatically better teachers…I also think that is a flawed argument. I hate to be one of those “arrogant TFAers”, but I taught my first two years in a school where TFA teachers were making the biggest difference in our school. Yes we were cheap labor, but we were making an impact. That impact was verified by parents, administrators, and even other teachers. Veteran teachers were using our ideas in their classrooms. I am now an instructional coach and I have encountered 5 principals in the last two years that have applauded the work of TFA teachers in their schools and have only complained about behavior management, but have said that these teachers bring tons of energy, great teaching practices, and demonstrate a commitment to cause change. On the other hand, we have had several issues with certified teachers not using best practices, not taking ownership of student performance, and refusing to go the extra mile for their students. Whether the teacher is a TFA teacher, certified, or veteran, there are no guarantees with what you get.

    The reality is that American education is failing students. Pointing the finger isn’t causing change. And I was definitely a “whiner” in TFA and I was never dismissed. In fact, TFA has continued to reach out to me for ideas, trouble spots etc because I have continued to voice my honest thoughts and opinions. I’ll be sure to share the points that I see as valid when I speak with representatives in the near future. There are a lot of complaints taking time away from causing real change. Don’t talk about it be about it. Make positive, lasting change happen, or keep complaining without results. The choice is yours.

  81. la/verdad says:

    Dear Educationallyminded:

    TFA reaches out to MANY of us and many of us share our feelings about how we see the organization and where we actually would like to see it go and evolve, so please don’t assume that you’re the ONLY person (do I catch a hint of TFA arrogance? What ever happened to the core value of humility?) that will share these thoughts with organizational higher-ups. I’m glad you are still connected to TFA and connected to the field of education; we need more people who stay in the world of real schools and classrooms as teacher leaders.

    For the record, I also “am about it” and have been for 18 years and believe that I have the skill set necessary to “be about it” and discuss the real TFA at the same time. I don’t need your patronizing permission to air concerns when I have made a life-time career out of working and serving in communities where kids deserve the best.

  82. edjucationally minded says:

    I believe you misunderstood. I was speaking to a comment at the very beginning about how speaking your mind, refusing, demanding, etc. will get you dismissed which is not always the case. I am also not patronizing, it’s interesting that you would assume such or even assume that my comment was directed solely to you or at just your statements. I utilized my freedom to respond, but at the end of the day there are bigger fish to fry.

  83. William L says:

    1) TFA and KIPP work in the hardest areas. Isn’t the attrition sometimes due to the transitory nature of families that have low incomes? I don’t think this is necessarily a function of them kicking out the students that can’t hack it, as I’ve been to a lot of their schools where kids are still behavior problems.

    2) In my experience, not a lot of CMs quit. I was at the second biggest TFA school in Los Angeles. We had about 15 CMs. One of them was asked to leave because of classroom management problems. The other 14 stayed. Even 7 years after we started as a cohort, there are still 4 of us teaching at the same school. Do you know the current CM attrition numbers?

    You write, ” TFA alum turned into education ‘reformers’ advocate is strong ‘accountability’ by measuring a teacher’s ‘value added’ through standardized test scores.” Did you read Wendy Kopp’s piece in the Wall Street Journal after New York released their teachers’ value-added scores. She condemned it and called it “counterproductive.”

    http://www.lulu.com/alastingwill – Classroom Resources For All

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      She said she didn’t think they should be released to the public, but did not say they are too inaccurate to be used to fire teachers. To me, getting unfairly fired is worse than being unfairly humiliated in public.

  84. Maggie says:

    I’m a future 2012 CM who has already matriculated. I never really ‘drank the TFA Kool-Aid’ as it were and I was always extremely hesitant of the messianic attitude the organization tries to convey, its PR machine and data-driven style of recruitment and analysis, and its contributions toward education policy. I am aware I will hate institute and will be most likely be unequipped to teach afterward. Regardless of this, at the time TFA was my best offer related to education and I accepted; I’ll admit I underestimated the damaging effects of the organization. Afterwards, I began to read more about teacher layoffs in my future region, and also learned chances are high I will be placed in a charter school. I have no qualms being the ‘troublemaker’ who’s critical of the organization, but what else can I do as a new CM? I’m determined to do well by myself and my kids, but how can I actively press for change?

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Thanks for the comment and question. Now that there are so many charter schools, it has gotten more difficult for them to ‘skim’ the most motivated kids so it is likely that you will be at a school that is more ‘honest’ than some that I’ve described. Teaching is tough anywhere and all kids deserve good teachers so I don’t want to burden you with extra responsibilities, but if you see anything ‘shady’ going on, definitely let me know! I think I’ll write a longer post about this later on, so be on the lookout for it.


      • Maggie says:

        Thanks, I actually ended up rescinding my commitment from TFA – I felt I couldn’t participate in good conscience and there are a lot of other organizations out there for my to devote my time to.

  85. Matt says:

    As a current accepted TFA member I have yet to experience the summer institute, however, I do feel that my two cents are necessary. No I do not have a teaching degree, but YES I am very knowledgeable in Science, Mathematics and most of all research. I have not been classically trained as a teacher but I have been highly trained as a scientist, and I’m sorry but a teaching degree in “biology” is not the same as a biology degree. The depth of knowledge that I both know and practice far exceeds any instructor that I have ever had during my pre-college years. Taking a TFA position causes me 1) to turn down a top Ph.D program and 2) take a 35,000 pay cut from a government research position. I am doing TFA not for the prestige or the resume building, because I already have the resume and the know how to succeed—because I’m doing it! I believe in the cause, the original motivation, and the opportunity to make a difference, and yes you can make a difference in only two years.
    I agree with the fact that laying off trained teachers for new TFAers is not necessarily a good idea, however if the education was so “wonderful” than TFA would not be needed in a specific area—Period! Sometimes experience doesn’t mean you are the best. Yes, I cannot disagree that an instructor of 10 years can perhaps “out teach me” but I highly doubt they know more science than me, if they have just a teaching degree (not being arrogant, just honest). After all if you’re teaching science than I believe it best to actually know science, not necessarily how to teach right away. I have many friends who have teaching degrees and they are by no means any more prepared to teach in a very high needs school any more than I, especially in the fields of math and science.
    I hate this notion that if you enter TFA it’s a crime to leave after two years. I assure you when JFK generated the Peace Corps and urged young Americans to give back to their country; he didn’t frown when you returned from PC and became an M.D or J.D. The important part here is that extremely intelligent young Americans are willing to give up 2+ years of their early life to possibly make an impact on the lives of underserved Americans. As long as the boat stays afloat than after two years, the TFA teachers who are moving are replaced by young new eager teachers. Experience can sometimes stagnate individuals and make them lose focus and abilities. Freshness is key, and TFA helps provide the new ways of thought into the classroom, because what is happening in America DOES NOT CURRENTLY WORK.
    Either way the cookie crumbles TFA provides students with teachers who otherwise can do anything in life they want; sorry but they usually are extremely bright and motivated. This motivation should never be overlooked, but joining TFA and attempting to give back to society is never a bad thing. Gaining an American college education and just continuing on to bigger and better things is exactly why the education in America is so bad—because we never give back what we’ve been given. I feel that it should almost be mandatory to teach upon graduation from college; if the talented never give back than the best only become better and the gap grows even larger. I understand that the program has great flaws but in general it cause and goal is for the better and we need to support that!

    • Ben Guest says:

      Ugh. It’s comments like this that make me dislike TFA and question their entire organization. I hope Matt is not representative of the majority of the incoming teachers that TFA has this year. And I say this as both a former Peace Corps Volunteer and as a product of an alternate-route certification program that places teachers in high-poverty areas. The arrogance, and lack of respect for the teaching profession, in Matt’s comments is blinding.

      Ben Guest
      Program Manager
      Mississippi Teacher Corps

    • Elle says:

      “Knowing more science” does not make a better teacher. Yes, you can be tremendously intelligent but teaching is an art that takes years to master. Knowing HOW to teach, in my humble opinion, is sometimes more important than knowing the subject matter. Just because you know your stuff doesn’t mean that your students are going to get it. I’d like to read about Matt’s experiences after he’s been in the classroom for awhile (and Institute doesn’t count).

    • Mr. K says:

      Matt, while I respect your overall enthusiasm, Ben Guest is right–the outlet for your enthusiasm is pretty condescending. (I cringed when I saw phrases like “I highly doubt they know more science than me” and “experience can sometimes stagnate individuals.”)

      As a first-year CM and an astrophysics major from a very well-respected school, I will unreservedly say that strong content knowledge can only take you so far. In the end, much of being a good teacher comes from experience, out-of-classroom connections with students, an oft-tested repertoire of teaching strategies, an understanding of the realities of the education system, and, perhaps most importantly, humility in the face of trying circumstances. There are veteran teachers at my school who, while probably not as well-versed as me in differential geometry or quantum mechanics, are incredible teachers from whom I have so much to learn.

      I’m sure that once you enter your classroom, you’ll start learning the ins and outs of teaching and rise to become a great teacher. Until you’ve built up that credibility though, I encourage you to hold off on the scathing commentaries. I’d love to talk about this more, if you’d like–just leave a comment on my blog and leave an email address behind.

    • LaurenH says:

      Hey Matt, I hope you update us in a year or two on your success based on your extensive science background.
      I’m sure your deep study of cell biology will help you teach second grade. (/sarcasm)

      In all honesty, responses like this are why people dislike TFA. You’re even aware of your own inflated ego. It’s not only disrespectful to current teachers, but ultimately, this naive perspective that teaching is mostly a reliance on content knowledge is a major disadvantage for your and your teaching “career.” Please, if you feel this way, go ahead and get your high-paying government job. I would rather be teaching with qualified, humble individuals than egotistical, megalomaniacal people like you.

    • Parus says:

      You have a bachelor’s in Biology. It is an accomplishment, but it doesn’t exactly place you at the pinnacle of a scientific field. Maybe take it down a notch.

      I’ve got a couple degrees and I teach a bunch of subjects. I think my two strongest subject areas as a teacher are actually ones I don’t have degrees in. Not that the not-having-a-degree part is what that makes me good at them, but just that there isn’t much of a correlation between what it says on my magic pieces of paper and what’s happening in my classroom. Of course depth and breadth of knowledge is crucial, but it silly to assume that just because someone doesn’t have the paper, they’re not knowledgeable. Additionally, all the knowledge in the world doesn’t do you much good as a teacher if you’re not as successful at communicating it and sparking others’ interest in it.

      Plus with TFA you might not even end up in a bio (or even a life science!) classroom.

    • Former "corps member" says:

      Wait. Just wait.

  86. Elaine says:

    Matt, I have been teaching for over 30 years and have mentored TFA corp members for five years. It is amazing how humble corp members become after the summer institute and their arrogance dissipates shortly after their first month of teaching. Remember this: teaching is an art, not a science!

  87. Matt says:

    -Fellow Posters-
    Sorry for coming off as ignorant and yes I will agree my post didn’t exactly relay what I was trying to initially say. So for correction purposes let me add that yes I agree that teaching is very much an art and not a science. But, if you are teaching science I do believe one should know the subject matter very well, with is the first step in teaching I would say.
    To Ben: I do not have any lack of respect for teachers and I admire them greatly! I am more than aware of what teachers have to go through in a good school let alone one that is considered high needs. This is not from reading, this is from 1) having grown up in a poor environment and 2) both of my parents are educators in that same high needs environment.
    Ellie: I never said that knowing science makes you a better teacher! In fact I agree that an instructor with 10+ years of experience my yes be a better teacher, but not always! I in no way can disagree with the fact that I have yet to experience teaching in a high needs secondary school, however I am entitled to my opinions. I have had both wonderful and terrible teachers throughout my schooling and the ones that knew the material the best tended to be the ones that I remember. I’m sorry id rather someone know the material and not be the perfect teacher than teaching things that were not necessary in the correct line or context due to lack of proper understanding.
    Parus: I have two masters’ degrees as well, not changing anything just again stating facts.
    My original post was not intended to offend or enrage anyone; I just wanted to make the point that some of the issues that TFA is being criticized for are very mixed in my opinion. I in no way am saying that I will be a better “Teacher” than my fellow colleagues, nor will I know more scientific material than fellow colleagues. I was saying that degree for degree one knows more content and the other has the “potential” to be a better teacher that was all. I never intended to sound arrogant (of course I knew I would) but I just feel that donating two years to the cause is better than nothing at all. The criticism that most CM’s leave after a few years is looked at so poorly, I feel is the wrong way to look at the situation. They are gaining experience in a serious problem that America is extremely deficient on– and that is equal and quality education. These individuals may never teach again after two years but they have now had firsthand experience of the problems that face America, and ultimately will use this knowledge for the bettering of society (Hopefully). That was all I was trying to get at, and yes I can guarantee that after I do TFA I may see things differently.

    • Maggie says:

      Hey Matt, I was a CM who ended up turning down TFA’s offer. You spend a lot of time harping on your science background. I know STEM is one of TFA’s huge focus areas, and I can support that. But it’s not as cut and dry as you make it. I was assigned to teach secondary science… and I haven’t taken a science class since high school. So TFA isn’t really weighing these qualifications in the same way that you are.
      When I initially was going to join TFA, I thought the same way you do. But aside from numerous other issues I found with TFA, I realized how selfish it sounds to go into a school with no teaching experience for two years so I can learn how to teach on other people’s children in the place of a qualified teacher who had been laid off so I can come in, and then leave and get a master’s degree with the benefit of “personally experiencing” the social problems I want to study. I have no doubt that exposing our peers to racism and poverty is enlightening and positive, but TFA shouldn’t be the only way to do that. Students in a classroom shouldn’t be our means to an end.

    • Parus says:

      You are not “donating” two years. You will be employed and earning a salary and benefits above that of the majority of US workers. Also, you will almost certainly get more out of the experience than your immediate students will.

      Out of curiosity, what are your masters in?

  88. hannibal says:

    Actually, having a degree (or at least several classes) in your field of teaching should be a prerequisite. “Knowing more science” DOES make you a better teacher. The more depth you have, the better you will teach – on day 1 and after 20 years. Ya’ll are hammering Matt pretty hard over some comments that are, for the most part, very true. “Number of years” teaching shouldn’t be the method used to determine a teacher’s salary or worth (neither should student’s test scores). A person’s cumulative collection of lesson plans/strategies, as well as degrees/certifications related to their subject, should determine salary. It might take several years to accumulate those things, and it might not. And teaching is not an ‘art’. That’s ‘feel good’ talk by someone who went into teaching so they could brag about what a great person they are for helping the kids. You’re not in the classroom to shape kids into your ideals – you’re there to help them develop their skills. And Matt’s absolutely correct – what is happening in American education is indeed not working – neither the current attempt to evaluate teachers using test scores nor the old method of training teachers. People shouldn’t have to jump through some bs education classes for certification, whether for a district or TFA (none of your summer institute training will be of use, nor will the weekly meetings you attend, Matt). And freshness and enthusiasm ARE needed in this field and any other field, whatever the source. Most of the people who criticize TFA are ‘educrats’ and as much a part of the problem as Arne Duncan and the NCLB law he enforces. They believe titles such as “curriculum director” and “literacy coach” actually mean something. They’re just fillers on a resume.
    As far as replacing a teacher that has been laid off or dismissed, it is what it is – feeling guilt is just an attempt to make yourself feel better. It’s a waste of time. Whatever the reason a teacher is dismissed, someone is still needed in the classroom. TFA may not be what it was intended to be or what it claims to be, but it has filled a need in many areas. It is not the problem – the lack of flexibility and choice in education is the problem. Unfortunately, it will never be fixed because too many educrats want to keep their professional bureaycracy growing, and government will never allow real flexibility in public education. The two groups act as though they’re on different sides of ‘school reform’, but they’re really acting in concert together.
    For the record, I’ve taught for 18 years at 3 extremely different schools – the smallest school in the state, one of the most diverse urban schools in the nation, and at a typical upper middle class suburban school. I’ve worked with 50 or so TFA members, and while most have gone on to grad school and greener pastures, some have stayed in education and become “experts” and “leaders” – those are the ones that do the most damage. I’m no longer in the profession, and I advise you TFAers to rethink teaching as a profession, even for 2 years.

    • Mr. K says:

      Hannibal, you make a lot of good points, and I think we’re mostly in agreement. I won’t deny that my background in math and science has been a tremendous boon in my classroom. My concern is with the presumption that someone starting out with strong content knowledge but no teaching experience is inherently better off in the long run than someone with low content knowledge but significant teaching experience (i.e. that toolkit of “lesson plans/strategies”). It implies that the content knowledge cannot be gained on the job the way hands-on teaching skills can, which is pretty insulting to anyone who doesn’t happen to have a degree in the content area (not to mention contrary to everything we’re trying to instill in the kids).

      Also, I wouldn’t say that none of the institute training or TFA PDs will be of use–that’s a little extreme. I’d say that institute lays an okay foundation upon which to build throughout the year, and that some (maybe half to three-quarters) of the PDs are worth attending, and the rest can be done without. (Matt, find out if you can skip the occasional TFA PD without forfeiting your AmeriCorps stipend.)

  89. Matt says:

    Thanks for your insight and support, I could not agree more with what you said (obviously)!!

  90. Christine says:

    I have read these posts with interest and concern as a public school teacher and also a parent of an upcoming 2012 TFA CM. I have mixed feelings about a lot of what has been written here, as so much of it has been painted with such a broad brush.

    Displacing effective veteran teachers for financial reasons stinks no matter what the circumstances, and that information is something that I had not known, as I was under the impression that there was a shortage of qualified teachers in the TFA districts. That certainly disturbs me.

    However, the whole argument surrounding the “traditionally trained” vs TFA trained teacher is way over rated in my opinion, and I agree with many of Matt’s points.

    (For those who don’t find value in anecdotes, skip this part, even though all of your opinions and mine stem, at least in part, from our personal experiences…)

    Like thousands of career changers, I became a teacher by passing the required state certification test with only a BA in economics and no formal teacher program. So, until I got my master’s degree in Teaching Mathematics, (which is required within 5 years of initial license in my state), I was technically less qualified than TFA candidates who at least attend summer institute PD. My son, on the other hand, and a handful of classmates in his undergrad education program (which requires a double major in education and content area) have already completed a full semester of student teaching and are definitely more prepared, as they begin their TFA assignments, than I certainly was as a first year teacher. By the way, we all start out learning to teach “on other people’s children”, regardless of the size of our toolkit of “lesson plans/strategies”, or number of hours of education courses.

    I wonder if anyone has looked up stats on whether TFA is now beginning to choose more students with undergraduate education majors and education career goals? Certainly my son and his friends fall into that category; can we hope that perhaps TFA is moving in that direction?

    I agree with many of Matt”s points. In secondary grades, I believe that content knowledge is at least as important as formal education training. I also feel that Special Ed. teachers should have formal SPED training and classroom experience before taking full responsibility in any school district. I would also argue that truly liking and caring about children and having patience and empathy trumps formal education training. Most of what I learned in my Education Masters program came from reading books about pedagogue and having discussions with other teachers about experiences. What I learned in my own classroom the first few years (and continue to learn) far surpasses anything that came from an EDU syllabus.

    Agree or disagree, I appreciate this honest discourse by people who are passionate about doing what they think is best for kids!

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  92. Ben Guest says:

    Content knowledge is the least important component of being an effective teacher. Yes, you need it. But learning the skills to actually manage and teach a classroom full of kids is much more important. It’s the difference between understanding how buoyancy works and knowing how to swim.

    To put it another way, I’m guessing that it took Matt four or six years to gain the content knowledge he so arrogantly waves around. Shouldn’t it take at least that long to learn how to teach kids?

  93. KateF says:

    Mr. Rubenstein,

    I stumbled upon your post and I was comforted to learn of your perspective. I was an NYC ’06 CM and I experienced naive enthusiasm quickly followed by disillusionment and guilt. As I observed it, my colleagues forked into a few different directions during our two year commitment: 1) The (few) people who were born to teach, were reaching their kids, and have been in the profession ever since, 2) The people who drank the kool-aid and refused to admit they were struggling, 3) The people who struggled, admitted it, and stuck it out for at least the duration of the commitment, and 4) the people who struggled and quit before their 2 years was up.

    I was a member of category #3. I was miserable for most of my two years because I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing more harm than good, not because I was displacing someone more qualified (the teaching force was leaner in NYC then), but because I couldn’t control my class. Consequently, my students weren’t learning anything, regardless of how much painstaking time and creativity I put into my lessons.

    I expected a challenge, but I didn’t expect to be teaching an inclusion class, by myself, with no special ed certification, 6 weeks into my first year, nor did I expect TFA to ignore the fact that this was illegal, (not to mention detrimental to my students) and tell me to focus on my “locus of control.”

    I have counseled people who have been accepted to the 2012 corps to think VERY critically about matriculation, but I am a hypocrite, because I am currently attending law school on a half-ride scholarship negotiated by the law school as part of a partnership with TFA.

    I don’t hate TFA, I think they have historically served an important purpose, and could potentially leverage their power to positively impact education, but that they are headed in the wrong direction (ironically, I feel similarly about many teacher’s unions . . .)

    I still want to be part of closing the achievement gap, and I am still looking for a way to do it, but I feel like every opportunity turns out to have someone with a TFA-like private agenda at the helm. Your post gave me confidence that I might find some like-minded reformers. Thank you!

  94. achilles3 says:

    thank you so much for this!!!
    I have been teaching for 13 years.

    what does that mean? who knows.

    but thank you for this!

  95. achilles3 says:

    I want also to add that i suppose it’s a shame that it is impossible to go through Ed-school student teach, teach for 2 years, THEN travel back and time and try the TFA method.

    Saying that, I majored in Ed. went through student teaching with a GREAT teacher who had at that time 20 years under his belt and I can not imagine being trained better.

    I have to say that majoring it X joining TFA and thinking that you will be a solid 1st year teacher vs. having a great student teaching experience is mostly way way off.

    What I learned from him was 20 years worth through 10 months. Not a 4 week “get ready to work hard” seminar.

  96. FutureCM?? says:

    This article and the comments that follow have been extremely helpful to me.

    I was accepted to TFA this spring and I immediately confirmed–jobs are scarce, TFA perks seem great, and I have the chance to do something positive for my community while exploring teaching as my possible long term career. Since confirming, I’ve felt more and more anxious about TFA and the “impact” that I can really have.

    You see, I was placed in special education–something I have never studied or considered until now. I’ve been asked to pass a series of certification exams in order to be hired by a school district. I don’t believe that independently cramming this information and taking a test in June will prepare me for working with children who deserve expertise and commitment. Also, I don’t want to say where I am placed but there are literally hundreds of new corp members matriculating this year. That scares me; I don’t want to take a veteran teacher’s position when I’m not even sure that I want to teach special education.

    My friends and family had never heard of TFA until I began the application process and told them how great it is. I was positive that TFA was where I should be… until I got accepted and it became a reality. Now, everyone either thinks I am ungrateful for not being thrilled by this opportunity of a lifetime, or that I am just scared and that these feelings will pass. I need advice from people who know TFA: should I quit before I begin institute and receive transitional funding? I worry that these feelings won’t go away, and that is not fair to the children that we are supposed to be serving.

  97. D D says:

    Mr. Rubinstein, your essay is a MUST READ for everyone interested in education. I couldn’t have said it better myself. My thanks for your thoughts put to words.

  98. 2011 CM says:

    Your thoughts are exactly what resonated with me when I first considered joining TFA (while I was Senior in college). I was a Liberal Studies major (Pre-Teaching Pathway in CA), and I wanted to become a teacher because I wanted to teach in high-need areas.

    Upon reflection, I thought that it was ironic to join TFA without first having the proper training that highly desired teachers have. With this, I completed my 5th year program and earned my CA credential before applying to TFA and accepting a position. I know that I am in the vast minority, given my position/background, but I wouldn’t change it. e I know that I am better prepared and qualified to teach and lead these students, and through TFA, I am given the means/support to be placed in an area in which I know I am making a difference (also, I have a job in this state, despite its terrible economy–a great feat that many other traditionally-trained teachers have yet to experience).

  99. Cassidre says:

    This article certainly opens up more peoples’ eyes to the other side of TFA- an opinion which a lot of TFA corps member also share. However, I don’t appreciate that this article seems to assume that ALL TFA corps member beyond the 1990s fall into this category. There are many of us in the middle, recognizing the flaws of the program, but are also humbly progressing our own development as new teachers by learning from other channels like veteran teachers, district PD, etc… Since TFA is being touted as the best of the best, give us new millennium members some credit- we’re not all arrogant assholes.

    • Tee says:

      “Since TFA is being touted as the best of the best.”

      That, right there, is why people immediately judge you.

  100. laverneandshirley says:

    As the daughter of a veteran teacher, I have a foot in both camps: that of the established educator and that of the inexperienced twentysomething teacher pursuing TFA. It may be selfish, but there are very few options for those who want to become teachers but did not go to universities that offered economical options for those interested in pursuing teaching as a career. I went to a low-ranked public university, which was all I could afford. The norm of being in gargantuan amounts of debt is not something I was raised to take on. I want to teach but would be in tens of thousands of dollars of debt if I did not go the TFA route. I can’t control TFA as an organization, but I know I will do my damnedest to make sure I don’t do more harm than good in my classroom with my students. We only have control over ourselves. While it makes me feel ill thinking about the negative impact TFA as a whole is having on educational reform efforts (hello, privatization of primary and secondary schools!), I refuse to put myself in financial ruin in order to pursue one of the most difficult jobs imaginable. I am very blessed but do not have the financial means to enter into teaching without TFA. I’m sure there are others like me. TFA’s problems are not entirely self-contained and are much larger than the organization. Many of these problems are certainly systemic in the way America prioritizes capitalism over providing what I consider to be basic human rights. Demanding things from TFA is unlikely to solve the problems with educational reform. I take the very millennial generation approach of creating change from within the system rather than overthrowing the system and starting over like so many baby boomers did. It feels impossible to take the baby boomer approach in today’s world. Thanks for reading this ramble!

    • Anon says:

      I’m sorry, but you cannot justify going into TFA simply because you needed the job. What if I really wanted to be a surgeon, but did not want to go into debt from med school? Should I be allowed an alternative route?

      If you truly want to be a teacher, work part-time/full-time in another job, take night classes, apply for scholarships/grants, spend the time it will take to get through a proper teaching program (and there are faster programs). You owe that to the students you will teach. And if you don’t want to do that hard work, then you don’t want to be a teacher.

      • Mr. K says:

        I can completely understand the reasoning that TFA cannot justify sending corps members into classrooms without the same amount of coursework and experience as traditionally trained teachers, IF said coursework and experience lead to better teaching AND the corps member has no chance of catching up. I don’t have the data to come down on either side of the argument, to be honest. However, what I can’t understand is the argument that since traditionally trained teachers go through such-and-such amount of toil and suffering, everybody who wants to enter the teaching profession should have to go through the same. That is such a non-student-centered perspective that it boggles my mind.

        For what it’s worth, I am a first-year corps member who has been effective by most metrics—qualitative or quantitative; TFA, district, or state. I never envisioned myself going into education during college, but now I can’t see myself ever leaving. Surely I’m not somehow doing a disservice to my students by not going through four years of ed school first?

      • Francesca says:

        Unless you are teaching primary school, you don’t have to go through four years of ed school. A regular bachelors degree in your subject plus additional course work in teaching should suffice.

  101. Christine says:

    Anon, Why would you think you have the right to tell someone that she cannot “justify” her motivation to apply for a program for which she eligible? That sounds rather pompous and condescending. She might end up being the best teacher in her school. In my opinion, the combination of heart, passion, experience gained on the job and dedication to lifelong learning beats a fancy diploma any day, TFA or otherwise.

  102. An M.A.T. Grad says:

    Maybe I missed it somewhere in the almost 200 comments, but why has no one proposed year+summer (or year+2 summers) M.A.T. programs as an alternative to TFA or other alternate certification programs for recent college grads?

    It does NOT take three years of going back to school to get a Masters in Teaching, as I saw someone post here. And while I’m heard from colleagues that some ed schools were horrible, I know from personal experience that many programs (including the one I attended) are excellent, challenging experiences that make those that enter the program come out as better (and reflective) teachers.

    If you’re a young person who wants to teach but didn’t major in education, look into a solid, affordable Masters program like STEP (@ Stanford) or Emory’s M.A.T. program. You won’t regret it.

    Of course, some ed schools are in serious need of reform and both the programs I mentioned above are hard to scale due to their small size and the generous aid they offer. But if you truly want to “make a difference” (in a way that will increase the chance of you staying in the classroom for years…), that’s the path I’d recommend.

  103. Amanda says:

    Perhaps, we’re missing the elephant in the room, that is, the fact that America has an education system that does not believe that all American have a right to higher education. Other thriving first world countries have governments that make it possible for all their citizens to afford tertiary education through deferred payment schemes and government subsidies, why are these notions so intolerable to the American Government? Make tertiary education affordable and acessible and you will allow your cream to rise to the top.

  104. “TFA, if it is not careful, will face the same fate as Blockbuster video. It filled a need in the 90s and the 2000s, but did not adapt wisely to the changing conditions. Blockbuster is all but gone, and TFA if it refuses to adapt may face the same fate.”

    I’d argue that TFA has adapted, and continues to evolve [http://tonybonthemic.teachforus.org/2012/06/10/the-two-stages-of-teach-for-america-leadership-matters]. Whether it is for better or for worse is debatable.

  105. 98PhxCorps says:

    I am a 98 Phx alumna with not very pleasant memories of TFA. I ended teaching for 14 years, and am so ashamed of my 2 years. I was a Spanish teacher who didn’t speak Spanish! I think TFaa is way too big now, and most urban schools are not experiencing the teacher shortages of the last decade anymore. The rural sites , yes. My advice to anyone serious about being a teacher is to enter a good post~bach program and graduate with your masters and a certificate. The ASU Masters program is a joke. The corps members I worked with used up all their sick days as their 2 years came to an end to get that action research paper done. Yup, crammed it in like it was a term paper. There were a lot of 4 day work weeks in May! Now there are lots of unemployed teachers in Phx right now, and yes it is definitely cheaper to higher a TFAer. Yes, after 14 years I had to worry about my job. And I was good (teacher of the year a thank you very much). And let’s talk about the class and diversity issues. TFA sure recruited me to apply for Institute positions, but when it comes down to it the regional staff has little diversity. Didn’t get any of the jobs I was recruited for BTW, didn’t drink enough Kool Aid.

  106. Alejandra says:

    No evidence or support from data, clearly disconnected from the CURRENT corps experience (your outside point of view is very evident) and the comments that support this article clearly represent those who have previously had unfounded issues with TFA (not getting in, intimidated by new teachers taking over, etc). This does nothing but hurt a movement that we should all be a part of!

  107. CM 2011 says:

    So realistically, what is the solution?
    I find this post and the responses to be so interesting. I think it shows that the need and circumstances in each region and even in each school are very different. I am a 2011 CM, going into my second year and planning to stay in teaching. I have seen some of the flaws of TFA and some of the good of TFA that are mentioned here. I’m not going to say much about my individual experience because what I really want to think about now is how to find a realistic solution. It doesn’t seem to me that TFA is going away anytime soon (so whether you or I want it to or not doesn’t matter much). So what are some ways to address the flaws of the organization so that it can do more good than harm?

  108. CM 2011 says:

    For example, one flaw mentioned that many people agreed with is that a 2 year commitment is too short, that this is not enough time for a new teacher to have a real positive impact, and this contributes to teacher turn over and instability. I don’t think it is likely that TFA will require teachers to make a 4 or 5 year commitment, but maybe 3 years is possible. Or maybe they can have an option of different commitment periods and give preference to applicants who are willing to make a longer commitment. What are everyone’s thoughts on this? And what ideas do you have to address som of the other flaws, like institute training or special education placements?

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  111. Elizabeth says:

    I am a career teacher in Chicago, IL. I was not trained with urban teaching classes and/or behavior/classroom management by my 5-year undergraduate education degree at a state school. I have taught pre-12 thought 12th graders math, visual arts and computers for 11 years in some of the worse crime areas of Chicago. I have beat the 5 year urban teacher burnout rate (CPS) two times now and am currently working on my third. Even though I have always had excellent teacher evaluations every year, I have been laid off from two school closings and currently work for a charter school as a para-pro. I currently make 40K less than my fellow CPS teachers that were at schools that didn’t close. I have trouble finding jobs because “I cost too much”, but I have “11 years of urban teaching experience to help out new first year teachers with the struggle of teaching” which means nothing to the CPS school district. I was laid off for budget cuts, no money, no resources for students that have seen more violence and drama in their lives that will make you scream, cry, hug and fight for them. It’s sad and sickening. These students need a hour of therapy (all of them) than extra math/reading classes each day. They also need positive reinforcement and encouragement. I love my city and love being around our students. I want to be able to find a classroom and school to grow into an even better urban teacher. I want to help the 1-3 year teachers to understand the classroom and not quit from burnout. I like driving to my neighborhood school in 9 mins and not an hour to a suburban school. Our students are our students to love and understand.

    I enjoyed reading about the TFA and the comments. I love Gary’s article. My civil engineering husband, who also makes 2.25 times my current salary with the same years of job experience and a four year degree, thinks that everything is fine and that TFA is just helping out the education system. I have an argument for him.

    Me: Honey, remember we just watched the 60 minutes investigation on how the U.S. bridges, highways, and infrastructure was graded at a D. You guys (civil engineers) are doing a poor job and should be fired. Well maybe we should take undergraduates and train them for 5 weeks in the summer and then they can help to create a better America with safe bridges and highways. I know, we can ask that they at least took some math, science and hopefully physics classes too. Then they will be even better civil engineers then the college trained ones.

    Him: What, they can’t do that?

    Me: Why not that is how TFA was started? We could call it Design for America DFA. I am sure philanthropists would love to give money to help ensure we have safe bridges and roads for them to drive on.

    Him: Because its not the lack of civil engineers that the problem; its lack of money.

    Me: Oh, well then why does TFA educators think they can teach better than career teachers, when its a lack of money problem in education not lack of teachers?

    Him: Well, yes, you have proved your point. I change my viewpoint then.

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