TFA Critics Claim Group Is Taking Sides on Education Reform

Although Teach for America, a program that seeks to put promising college students into teaching careers, continues to enjoy a largely positive reputation, the volume of criticism being leveled against it has grown in the past several months. The latest, outlined by Howard Blume of the Los Angeles Times, appears to be that contrary to its avowed apolitical stance, the organization is getting right in the middle of the education reform debate.

Among the major TFA donors are those who have previously expressed support for the school choice movement and opposition to both teacher tenure and teachers unions. Among them is the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the family that founded WalMart. The foundation is by far the largest TFA donor.

Although leaders of New York-based TFA claim that the views of its donors don’t have an impact on its policies, many disagree.

Critics, however, are unswayed.

“I don’t know that it’s causation or correlation, but there is so much alignment,” said Rigel Massaro, a Teach for America alumna who works as a public interest attorney in San Francisco.

Like other critics, she said she was troubled by the group’s five-week crash course in teaching and the fact that its presence in a community allows school districts “to hire teachers who are cheaper and who are pushed to make incredible gains for their students by working seven days a week and then leaving after two years.”

Teach for America hasn’t gone on the record with an opinion on any of the education reform debates raging around the country, but critics say that their views demonstrate themselves covertly. For example, in Los Angeles, more than 90% of TFA graduates land in charters and in a district where the number of charter schools is growing at the time when student enrollment is shrinking, which has led to job losses among Los Angeles teachers.

In South L.A., one charter group — ICEF Public Schools — hired two dozen Teach for America instructors last year. Parker Hudnut, who heads the 12 campuses, said the young teachers “bring a tremendous amount of energy, a lot of innate intelligence” to his schools.

Among his hires: Anthony Edholm, 24, who was president of the pre-med society at Creighton University. He’s teaching physics and coaching track. “My biggest thing is I wanted to take a kid at a critical point in his life and help him transition from high school into college, into becoming an adult,” Edholm said.

Apart from making a difference in the classroom, however, the organization has always had another goal for its alumni: to become leaders who care about education regardless of the field they enter.

Many members of the teaching community disagree that eagerness and native intelligence alone will help students succeed in the classroom. According to Philip Kovacs, an education professor at University of Alabama, schools that hire TFA grads experience higher teacher turnover, something that can cause quite a bit of harm to students.