Monday, January 04, 2010

Does Teach for America Build Civic Engagement?


One reason may be that the TFA experience often doesn't feel that empowering. And the research on civic participation (to simplify a lot) indicates that if you have a disempowering civic experience that will, not surprisingly, turn you off to civic engagement as a tool for social change.

There’s been a very clear and somewhat na├»ve consensus among educators, policy folks and scholars that youth activism invariably has these kinds of effects,” Professor McAdam said. “But we’ve got to be much more attentive to differences across these experiences, and not simply assume that if you give a kid some youth service experience it will change them.”
. . .
Last year, 35,000 people applied to Teach for America, 42 percent more than in 2008. Further, at more than 20 colleges and universities, Teach for America was the top recruiter. At Harvard, 13 percent of graduating seniors applied. At Spelman College, in Atlanta, 25 percent did.


Ben said...

Hey Aaron,

I saw this posted over at Gotham Schools, and felt obliged to throw in my bit as a Teach For America alumnus ('07 - '09). I haven't read the study yet, so forgive me if I make any assumptions about it that aren't true.

It seems that the study's metric for civic engagement is centered on voting rates, charitable giving, and volunteerism. It's predicated on a model for social activism that follows logically from Freedom Summer, where volunteers hoped to bolster voting rates.

Teach For America is a completely different beast. The paradigm for social change to which Teach For America alumni subscribe is colored by several factors. Each of those factors make the type of civic engagement described in the study less appealing. Here's one alum's purely anecdotal take:

1. TFAers are recruited to be and indoctrinated (for lack of a better word) to view themselves as leaders.

2. Corps members tend to view TFA as a unique non-profit that draws its effectiveness from a corporate top-down style. So alumni tend to view effective reform as coming from a similar structure.

3. We don't see ourselves as model citizens who are doing our part for society. We see ourselves as singular agents fighting for a singularly important cause.

Each of these not only accounts for the stereotype of the self-righteous corps member, but also might explain the counter-intuitive findings of the study. Volunteering, donating to other organizations, and voting (perhaps to a lesser degree) are not seen as the biggest levers for change.

In discussions with fellow alumni, I've found the big dilemma to be over how best to utilize our professional talents for the cause. Do I stay on the ground? (In the classroom or school leadership) Do I try to effect broader change? (In government, academia, etc.)

Perhaps you're right and the jaded, disempowered corps member simply shrinks away from civic life. But I think there's a different perspective on how best to engage with that life.

wahookate said...

I encourage you to consider Andy Rotherham's well-balanced take on the study over at Eduwonk --

Nancy Flanagan said...

I'm not a fan of parachuting enthusiastic Ivy League graduates into our most troubled schools for two-year stints as educational missionaries-- but I fully agree with Ben (and even Andy Rotherham) on this one. The design and underlying questions of the research reveal an expectation that data-gathering will tell us whether one relatively small program can serve as a way to foster civic engagement in our most advantaged and competitive youth... did I get that right? And here I thought the stated mission of TFA was putting smart, enthusiastic young people who would never, ever consider teaching as a career into difficult classrooms where they might do some good.

The study seems to inadvertently reinforce the most dubious aspect of the TFA idea: noblesse oblige. The questions that need to be studied around TFA aren't whether the TFA experience is good or productive for TFA alums--ooops, corps members--leading them to an enhanced resume' or renewed determination to "give back." What we really need to know is this: what effect do temporary teaching fellow programs have, long-term, on building the professional teaching capacity we desperately need in hard-to-staff public schools?

Ben targets this question perfectly: should TFA members stay "on the ground"--or go to grad school then work in the same kind of jobs as their fellow graduates? And if the large majority of TFAers keep leaving their classrooms to the next set of untrained but well-meaning temps, how does that affect instructional excellence or continuity in struggling schools?

This should not be about TFA's impact on the best and brightest--it should be about TFA's impact on American education. The marginally defensible conclusions of the study don't help the education policy community decide what to do next.

Natalie Jo said...

I agree with Ben as well, my good friend just got into the program and so far has had an amazing time. She has not be soured by the experience although it is difficult at time, but that's life...right? She is doing what she loves and making an impact.

Ben said...

Hi Nancy,

You bring up an interesting point. You say that, "this should not be about TFA's impact on the best and brightest--it should be about TFA's impact on American education." I contend that those two notions are inextricably entangled.

Teach For America is a two-tiered approach to education. First, as you said, talented and idealistic college students who would not have considered teaching are put into the classroom, to hopefully do some good. As far as this tier goes, you're absolutely correct - the effect that the experience has on corps members is not nearly as important as the effect that corps members have on the overall quality of education in their placement school.

But I'm inclined to think that the second tier is how Teach For America distinguishes itself from other alternative certification programs, and ultimately how it may make a significant, lasting impact on education. The number of teachers who make up the corps are a drop in the bucket compared to the number of teachers nationwide. And if TFA expands to a point where it may make a significant impact in the sense you're talking about, I believe that it will betray the very thing that makes TFA a powerful recruiter: exclusivity.

I remember reading a comment on how the "After the Corps" section on TFA's website reveals that TFA is simply a resume-padding scheme. In fact, that's not far from the truth. But the focus is not our resumes. Rather, the hope is that many alumni will indeed leave the classroom and become policymakers, businesspeople, etc., imbued with a passion for reform. That in their respective field, they will be able to press for reform in their own way, and be empowered by a formidable network of like-minded individuals. This is the second tier, and perhaps the thing that makes TFA most intriguing from a policy standpoint.

Granted, at the risk of generalizing too much, alumni bring a very specific idea of education reform to the discourse. And the network is perhaps rightly seen as a threat to those who disagree with that idea.

But certainly, taking America's future leaders (I never claimed not to be arrogant and self-righteous myself), giving them a reason to make education a top priority, and endowing them with some sense of what education looks like on the ground (albeit limited), brings something of value to the table. Especially in a policy realm populated by entrenched forces that make reform look more like Groundhog Day than meaningful improvement, and reform leaders who brandish purely private sector pedigrees.

Aaron Schutz said...

It the solution to inner city schooling was about top-down leadership, then Ben might have a point. I am not convinced that this is the case, however. As I noted in a recent article (

"The intransigence of urban school systems-the failure of so many reform efforts-has led many scholars, in different ways, to the conclusion that we can have little hope for substantive reform without more robust community participation as a key component. In response, discussions of community-school relationships have begun to bubble up in many areas of the field. These scattered dialogues hint at the possibility of an emerging consensus among an increasingly large and diverse group of education scholars who, with Villenas and Deyhle (1999), understand that caring on the part of educators, parents, and researchers "is not enough to bring about Home Is a Prison in the Global City change" within and beyond schools, and that persistent change generally can come only "when the community as a collective gains economic and political power" (p. 422)."

If this is accurate, then the study is, in fact, quite relevant. If TFA folks are less likely to be interested in civic engagement--engagement with the community--then they are much less likely to be effective. And if TFA is teaching TFAers to be overconfident--arrogant--about their capacity to make change within these systems, then their usefulness is limited, to say the least.

It also raises questions about the sociocultural sensitivity of TFA alums. Do we really want all these top-down self-confident change agents speaking for the community and confident about their knowledge about what is really wrong with the school system? Is there any evidence that this is an effective way to generate school change?

Furthermore, is there any evidence that we know how to improve inner-city schools (we clearly know how to make them worse) in the absence of significant change in the economic status of their communities?

It seems like there is at least the potential for the generation of a new kind of "white man's burden" in this program in the absence of any commitment to or humility about their relationship to the wider communities in which low-income schools are placed.

Ben said...

Those are all excellent questions that are worthy of discussion. But I think they're a departure from the topic at hand. Furthermore, I'm not quite sure if the comment section of a blog is a forum that will give these much broader issues their due treatment. You are basically asking what form effective education reform ought to take. That's a topic I'm willing to discuss, but one in which I can't say I have an answer to, or one on which I possess any special insight.

Your original post is a suggestion of causality. My limited claim is that to attribute the study's findings to TFAers feeling disempowered is a hasty conclusion, at best.

Jim Horn said...

James Horn
to educationpolic.

show details 9:29 AM (31 minutes ago)

I can't resist:

So please, let's bring in a bigger stage to discuss an issue for which I know nothing. Once a Corps member, always a Corps member. Semper egomanicus!

Jim Horn

Ben said...

Hmmm, I'm guessing that's directed at me.

I didn't mean to diminish the work and insight that can be gleaned from discussions on blogs. Reading what I wrote, I can see how I imply that. But I assure you, it wasn't meant.

There is a reason why I read education blogs in the first place, and why I've clearly been checking the comments here on a regular basis. I definitely value the discourse. I just meant that the topics Aaron brings up are as broad as they are important. Given their scope, a good discourse would require the input of people of a variety of perspectives. Since only a handful of people probably read the comments section, and since I don't feel that I have any particularly insightful things to say on the matter, I just didn't want to get into it.

Jim Horn said...

If you like blog "discourse," you will definitely like this 2-parter on Teach for Awhile, er, America at

Here is the concluding paragraph just to whet your appetite:

The fact remains, of course, that until poverty and the segregation that accompany poverty are dealt with, urban schools will continue to fall prey to “bold reformers” who unfailingly hide behind the fig leaf of “educational equity” to pursue their own political agendas that leave children behind once more and that leave our society more vulnerable to a virulent brand of anti-democratic corporate socialism.

Meanwhile, we will continue to rush in paramedics with aspirin to treat a deadly cancer that requires the best oncologists that we refuse to provide. It is, once again in our history, the repeated parading of blind hubris born of invisible privilege and unchecked greed that allows such repulsive abuse to be treated as virtuous charity, and such thinly masked self-aggrandizement as the just reward for the continued malignant neglect of the poor.

Jim Horn

Ben said...


I read your two links. It seems like your impression of TFA is pretty hardened. I would imagine that any argument I posit will do little to change it. So part of me says that I should just leave this discussion for the archives.

But I teach my students that there's a corollary to the "just walk away" rule. That when you really feel like you need to say something to someone, you probably should - as long as it's in a respectful tone.

In my honest opinion, you have some legitimate points about TFA. But, they're heavily outweighed by your accusational rhetoric. Specifically, I resent the fact that you seem to believe you can make generalizations about tens of thousands of corps members, especially regarding their motives. I think I understand why you put "discourse" in quotation marks. You already know the truth about TFA. It's simply your duty to uncover us for what we are.

Nancy Flanagan said...

To Ben and Natalie Jo,

Unlike my esteemed colleague Jim Horne, whose passion for lasering through puffy policy rhetoric sometimes positions him at sharp odds with the prevailing discourse, I think there's a place for TFA and other "fellows" programs. It's hard to argue with a sincere desire to do good. I've also worked with dozens of TFA corps members and managers, in various capacities, and have found most of them well-meaning. I am a retired K-12 teacher, with 30 years' experience and a fistful of teaching awards. (I mention this by way of building my credibility, something that career teachers have had to do lately, unlike TFA teachers who were recently labeled the "Marine Corps of teaching" in the Detroit News, my local paper.)

I have been involved in three research-based projects where mentoring help was offered to first- and second-year TFA members, given by local National Board Certified Teachers. TFA doesn't like their teachers participating in professional development that is not vetted by the organization-- that was the first hurdle. Their teachers build community with other TFA members, not other first-year teachers (who went to local universities, and live in the community). Right from the beginning, TFA teachers are made to understand that they are to tirelessly pursue raising scores--that's the goal. Their data will be scrutinized, and the spotlight is shining-- and TFA has millions in private funding to generate PR.

In our work with TFA teachers, the one thing they wanted most desperately (enough to brave asking for help outside the TFA community) were useful pedagogical strategies--to use immediately. They didn't know HOW to get kids engaged or motivated, how to run a classroom, how to differentiate instruction, how to teach point of view, the Civil War or linear equations. They had been told that their traditional, summa cum laude liberal arts educations automatically made them smarter and more capable than the locals who were the bottom of the intellectual barrel, being ed school grads.

Because our TFA teachers were, indeed, smart--and because they did care--they soaked up NBC Teachers' best ideas and lesson plans like sponges. They realized that *some* veteran teachers actually did have superior teaching skills and perspectives--and that the work was intellectually complex and challenging.

Here's the moral of that story, Ben and Natalie. The NBCTs gave their time, compassion, good humor and best ideas to teachers who would never have considered a low-level pedestrian career like teaching. For people like me, whose life's work has been a passionate, on the ground exploration of education, to expect to "make an impact" then get on with your regular life (having had a great experience) feels a little lightweight.

I realize that some TFA members continue in the classroom. However--my doctoral cohort in Ed Policy actively recruits TFA alums, and one of them (Notre Dame) mentioned to me last week that he doesn't understand how any sentient person could teach K-12 for 30 years. Thereby negating my entire career.

Thinking it over, I believe Aaron's comment is right after all--if TFA is being held up as a model of community building and getting even our most privileged citizens engaged in the work of revitalizing America, then we should be looking at how the TFA experience impacts those who actually teach, in terms of civic responsibility and caring. I'm not sure if voting or donating to causes are the right metrics, but I will say that TFA teachers are more present in the, umm, discourse--the blogosphere anyway-- and are unafraid to take on the hard questions. Whether that's unwarranted and youthful self-confidence (laughing) or passionate desire to be perceived as a change-maker, I'm not sure. But I welcome your voices.

Ben said...


Your sincerity, reasoned tone, and open-mindedness really made my day.

David B. Cohen said...

I think this comment is implied in Nancy's more eloquent exposition, but I would just add that I have enough years now to be considered a veteran (15), and I am still learning about teaching and schools. I'm a National Board Certified Teacher. I have taught in private schools and public, in two countries, in two states. I've been a tutor, a substitute, a coach, music teacher, drama teacher, and mostly an English teacher. In addition to the six schools where I've taught, I have spent time sittin in classes in at least a dozen other schools, and have observed via videotape the teaching of National Board candidates from around the San Francisco Bay Area.

And I still have a lot to learn. (And for anyone who wants to compare credentials for coming into teaching - maybe thinking TFA recruits are the smart, elite ones who wouldn't need 15 years to figure things out? - I was a Phi Beta Kappa English major at Berkeley and completed my master's at Stanford). But it's not my style to drop names usually (I'm sure that's the first time, actually). Still, there are plenty of teachers from good ol' State U. who are more effective than I am.

So, TFA wants to send people into policy and leadership who have experience in schools. I suppose that's better than having no experience in schools. The glass is half-full... or one quarter full, maybe.