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.
Sekou Biddle, United Negro College Fund
A member of the United Negro College Fund’s leadership team, Biddle has always prized service, but as an aspiring management consultant at Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, he figured giving back was something he’d do as a brief detour on the road to business school. Thinking that TFA sounded like an impactful way to give younger students the same educational opportunities he’d been afforded, Biddle joined the corps in 1993 and stayed in the classroom for a decade.
After, Biddle “wanted to share the things [he] had learned” and transitioned to policymaking as a school board representative and city council appointee in his hometown, Washington, D.C. He says his TFA experience informed his votes and taught him empathy for teachers, who throw themselves into a “180-day marathon grind,” and parents, whom schools too often failed. He keeps in mind one phone call on which a dad told him, “This is the first time someone has ever called to say something good about my child,” Biddle recalls. “I was struck by the power of a relatively simple thing. Just a call certainly had an impact on this parent’s perception on what the relationship with a school and teacher could be.”
In his current role as UNCF’s vice president of advocacy, Biddle engages local leaders and school administrators with the same personal touch. Explaining the achievement gap, he lobbies for more academic and financial support for minority students, ultimately to increase the number of black college graduates. “I thought I was going to do [TFA] for a few years and feel I had done some good in the world, put enough in the bank and be ready to move on,” Biddle says. “I committed to doing two years, and 22 years later, I’m still at it.”
Mike Feinberg, KIPP Schools
While working in the classroom, Mike Feinberg, who co-founded KIPP, America’s largest network of charter schools (with 183 and counting), with fellow TFA alum Dave Levin, became “acutely aware that our students were not receiving an education that would set them up for success in college and life,” so late one night he and Levin laid out plans for a new educational model that refused to let children’s “demographics define their destiny.”
As a teacher, Feinberg saw firsthand student accomplishments that were a result of the belief that kids could and would learn. “If we believe there are solutions to problems, we can create a learning environment where we set high expectations for our students and they not only meet them, but surpass them.” Feinberg readily admits that growing up in poverty creates enormous challenges, but he reaffirms the principle that, if given a chance, education can level the playing field for those students. TFA “shaped my understanding of what education and social justice could accomplish,” he says.
Andrew Greenhill, City of Tucson
Now chief of staff for the mayor of Tucson, Ariz., Greenhill entered a career in government after TFA, inspired to take a broader look at how the delivery of public services can be improved. During his time as a teacher, in addition to the regular curriculum, he seemed to be teaching an impromptu course on how to make it in America. “Students looked to me for all kinds of assistance and information. Most were new arrivals in the country,” he recalls of his middle school class. Greenhill took families to free healthcare clinics, to the library to check out books, to Western Union to send money home and even to the supermarket to show them how to ring up groceries. That non-traditional teaching translated well to local government, where Greenhill has “played a role in helping to understand and support and in some cases even streamline the different programs provided by the city and local nonprofits.”
“I think the more people know about how the education system works, the better informed they will be in helping community-wide efforts, whether they’re inside the classroom, an administrator or a citizen participating in the debates that we have at the local and national level about education,” he says. As a city official, Greenhill doesn’t believe he’s given up on his old students; in fact, he’s still trying to take care of their day-to-day needs, so that classroom teachers can stick to teaching.
Tim Morehouse, Olympic fencer
A silver medal-winning fencer at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, Tim Morehouse has a stellar pedigree to match the perceived elitism of his sport. He attended a rigorous prep school in the Bronx (where tuition today costs $40,660) and Brandeis University, a top-ranked liberal arts college in Massachusetts. It wasn’t until Morehouse signed up for TFA in 2000 that he saw how different his path could have been. Assigned to teach seventh grade at a public school six blocks from where he grew up in upper Manhattan, Morehouse realized how privileged his education had been, compared to the schooling that most children receive.
Because of his TFA experience, Morehouse returned to public schools in Washington Heights and Harlem before the 2012 London Olympic Games to coach fencing, with the hope of giving students an extracurricular to bolster their college applications and a chance at athletic scholarships. His foundation, Fencing in the Schools, last year served 15,000 students in 11 states. Like TFA, Morehouse recruited other Olympic fencers to teach kids the sport and mentor the youngsters in life skills. He says he hopes the foundation will help kids not only get to college, but also succeed there. And who knows? “Maybe they can even go to the Olympics,” he says.
Jessica Stewart, Great Oakland Public Schools
A onetime political junkie and head of the College Democrats at Auburn University in Alabama, Stewart moved to Oakland, Calif., to teach sixth-grade math in 2005 and fell head over heels for the Bay Area City. Politics took a backseat to her work in the classroom, but Stewart’s activist streak resurfaced in 2008 when the city’s superintendent threatened to close 17 schools and a budget crisis post-financial crash generated a multi-million dollar budget shortfall.
Great Oakland Public Schools, where Stewart is senior managing director, was founded in the wake of those disasters and went on to become a major voice in city politics. In 2012, the coalition endorsed three people running for seats on the school board. “To support our candidates, we had 300 volunteers do 60,000 phone calls and 12,000 door knocks,” Stewart recalls. “On any given night in October 2012, walking into the office, you’d see people sitting on the floor (because we only had five staff members at the time) talking to voters. It would be a student next to a principal next to a parent next to a teacher. It was so inspiring to see people coming together to fight for equality.” All three candidates won soundly, but Stewart isn’t resting on her laurels, explaining, “There is still so much work to be done in our education system.”
Editors’ note: This story originally stated that Teach for America was founded in 1989. We apologize for the error.