Teach for America has been described by some as the Peace Corps for this generation. The darling of the education reform movement, TFA, which attracts some of the most talented college seniors in the country, deploys that talent to the poorest school districts in the country. One of those students was Erin Nolan, who joined in 2007 after graduating from college.
“TFA was great at setting up this vision of how you could really make an impact in the students’ lives,” Nolan told “America Tonight.” “They did a great job framing these big inequalities in education, and showing examples of how teachers could make an impact on that.”
But today, there’s a growing backlash led by some of its alumni who claim that TFA isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For Nolan, she was in a bit of denial about TFA but grew skeptical about the program and its expectations for its teachers. She was placed in a magnet school in St. Louis, teaching science after completing TFA’s five-week training course.
She said she felt behind from the beginning because TFA hadn’t given her enough to transition from the summer program to classroom teaching. With 173 students, Nolan was overwhelmed. She resigned from TFA after teaching for just six months.
“I was miserable,” she said. “I was in a position where not only was I feeling incompetent every day — my incompetence was hurting the lives of children. So it was a heavy burden. It’s something where no amount of hard work I could do would fix it because I was so paralyzed by anxiety and discomfort and stress and sleep deprivation … I didn’t make forward progress.”
The backlash against TFA came to a head this fall. The Durham School District in North Carolina severed its relationship with the organization after more than a decade of working together. Last year Pittsburgh became the first school district in the country to reject an active Teach for America contract.
“Why should we put the least-experienced people in the schools that need the most help?” said Sylvia Wilson, a member of the Pittsburgh Public School Board, who helped decide to reject the TFA contract. “They didn’t have the kind of training that teachers are required for certification needs, what you need to have to become a teacher. I’m not saying that their hearts wouldn’t be there … But you have to have more than that. It takes more than just walking in a classroom and caring.”
Despite the criticism, TFA continues to attract the best and the brightest. This year brought in 700 new teachers. But some critics claim that the organization is damaging public education. One of the main complaints is that veteran teachers are sacrificed so schools can bring in TFA teachers to work for less. In Chicago, for example, 850 veteran staff members, including more than 500 teachers, were laid off last year because of budget cuts. Soon thereafter, 350 TFA teachers were hired.
“That might be cheaper labor, but we don’t believe that in the long run, teachers who are undertrained and in schools in this rotating kind of system is what the U.S. needs,” said Leewana Thomas, a national organizer for United States Against Sweatshops, a student organization active on 150 campuses. “It’s actually bad for public education.”