Long-standing tensions between traditional public schools and Teach for America (TFA) ramped up last week, when confusion over the nonprofit's guidance on a potential teacher strike had critics claiming the group opposes teachers’ unions, The Associated Press reported.
In light of a possible strike in Oakland, California, next week, hundreds of TFA alumni called out the educator placement program for suggesting that if the 58 corps members in the Oakland district participate, they could lose thousands of dollars in AmeriCorps award money promised to them at the end of their two-year obligations, according to the AP. However, TFA spokesman Jack Hardy said there was a misunderstanding and that TFA was considering supplementing the AmeriCorps award if it were to be at stake.
AmeriCorps, a federal service organization that bans strikes, said the decision on how to handle picket lines is up to TFA, which Hardy said doesn't take a position on union activity. But for one TFA participant in Oakland, the organization's neutral political stance makes him "frustrated ... when not participating in the strike is a political decision," he told the AP.
Over the last few decades, Teach for America has come under some harsh criticism. The program is designed, it says, to address educational inequity by finding “outstanding leaders who commit to expanding educational opportunity, beginning with at least two years teaching in an under-resourced public school.” But some critics say the two-year commitment increases teacher turnover rates in schools that can least afford it. In a 2015 study, roughly 90% of TFA teachers reported they did not plan to stay in education long-term, and today, 34% of alumni serve as P-12 teachers. Additionally, as the AP writes, "critics say its existence contradicts the teaching establishment, which values experience and longevity."
While the organization has seen its challenges and has recently been losing ground in attracting members —mirroring, perhaps, lag in interest in the teaching profession — it has also seen some positive results. A 2013 federally-funded controlled study of the program, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research found that students in TFA classrooms gained, on average, the equivalent of an additional 2.6 months of school, compared to traditional math teachers in the same schools. A later study, conducted in 2015 and updated in 2017, concluded that "TFA can provide high poverty schools with teachers who are, on average, as effective as other teachers in these same schools, and potentially more effective at lower grade levels."
While the intense training, development and mentoring of effective teachers who plan to devote themselves to education is arguably ideal, TFA teachers can help fill gaps in high-needs schools and those facing teacher shortages. And, in many cases, research has proven they can do it effectively. While many TFA teachers have left the profession, others have risen to the ranks of leadership — even among teachers’ unions. And while TFA may not be a one-stop solution for failing schools, a 2017 National Principal Survey indicated that 88% of principals would recommend the hiring of TFA corps members to their colleagues.