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August 07, 2013 4:12 PM The Teach for America Rebels

By Daniel Luzer

Teach for America, the nonprofit organization that puts high achieving college students in underperforming public schools in a two year commitment, is controversial. Founded by Wendy Kopp in 1989 (the idea grew out of her senior thesis at Princeton), the organization now counts some 28,000 people as alumni.

But many object to TFA, arguing that its teachers are poorly prepared, don’t stay around schools long enough to understand structural problems or make a different, and displace experienced (unionized) teachers to the detriment of children.

Many TFA alumni are now joining this chorus of criticism. We shouldn’t really be that surprised. The alumni are supposed to be trouble for the establishment. That’s the point.

According to a piece at Truthout, many Teach for America alumni are now working to actively resist Teach for America:

A group of New Orleans-based parent-activists, former students, non-TFA teachers and TFA alumni collaborated for months to arrange it. Complementing their critique is a small but growing group of TFA dissidents and apostates who’ve taken their concerns to the press. Even as TFA marches into more and more classrooms throughout the country and world, a burgeoning group of heretics is nailing its theses to the door.

The number of TFA apostates is a mystery, but, according to the article, the critics contend that TFA teachers don’t receive enough preparation, that they constitute a “union-busting scab brigade” and they serve as “buckshot in the cannon of free-market education reform.”

The most serious criticism of the organization, that its teachers aren’t prepared to succeed in the classroom, is a little hard to verify. There have been many studies of the impact of TFA-trained teachers (one can find the negative ones linked in the Truthout article and many of the positive ones over at Teach for America) but, as far as student achievement goes, TFA really doesn’t seem to matter much one way or the other. No one’s been able to find any dramatically positive or negative impact due to Teach for America teachers.

The most rigorous study, performed by Mathematica Policy Research in 2004, found that students taught by TFA teachers perform better in math than those taught by other teachers, but the effect was very small. There was no difference in reading performance.

These other criticisms are valid, if troublesome for an organization that produced these critics. The thing is, however, this is actually supposed to happen. The purpose of TFA is not specifically to close the achievement gap by putting high-achieving college students in America’s low-performing classrooms for two years. No, the major purpose of the organization is to produce education advocates. Intelligent, informed people dedicated to fixing American public education.

The organization doesn’t recommend repairing public education through any particular strategy. TFA just puts people in poor classrooms for a few years. It’s reasonable to think that different people come out of the experience with different solution ideas.

There are few specific policy recommendations Teach for America itself makes, it’s just that many of its members who do go into policy tend to recommend the more standardized tests/ more teacher sanctions/ more public school alternatives brand of education reform.

But is that a function of Teach for America, or the sort of business-minded, future MBAs the organization tends to attract? It’s hard to tell.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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