Every year since 1990, in what is practically a fall tradition, idealistic college grads arrive in public school classrooms in New York City, Los Angeles and all of Teach for America’s 52 regions in between. Straight from seven to 10 weeks of summer training, these TFA corps members commit to work for two years in unfamiliar schools that desperately need strong educators. After that, they’re free to leave the classroom. While the majority of TFA’s 42,000 alumni do continue teaching, the program’s turnover rate has led some to question its success.
“My argument was: let’s take the resources you’re investing in a corps member — tens of thousands of dollars per year — and put that into professional development for training current staff on campuses,” says Robert Schwartz, a TFA alumnus and advisor at the nonprofit New Teacher Center. “You’ll see teachers that are going to stick around longer and are really invested in the community.” Schwartz’s alternative plan is voiced commonly in education circles, and it’s mild in comparison to some pointed criticism of TFA. Sarah Matsui, author of a book that gives TFA a negative assessment, argues to Jacobin that the program is mere resume fodder for Ivy League students on the way to jobs at well-heeled consulting firms like Deloitte and Boston Consulting Group. In response, TFA’s spokesperson Takirra Winfield points out to NationSwell that 84 percent of alumni continue to work in fields related to education or serving low-income communities.
But perhaps the debate over retention rates misses the point entirely. TFA’s mission statement, after all, doesn’t reference teaching at all. Instead, the organization aims to enlist, develop and mobilize “our nation’s most promising future leaders” in pursuit of a larger movement for educational equity. NationSwell explored how five TFA alums are accomplishing that outside the classroom.
Editors’ note: This story originally stated that Teach for America was founded in 1989. We apologize for the error.