Please Join Wall Street Rather Than Teach For America

I've been thinking about things college students do after they graduate, and I had recently read a somewhat critical article about the high number of students from top schools who are going into finance and banking (even after all that's happened in the last few years). As much as I, too, would be critical of such a trend, I have also noticed ever larger numbers of students applying for and joining Teach For America, a non-profit organization that will have 10,000 participants next fall. TFA believes it's out to save the country, but it is in fact pursuing a thoroughly arrogant mission with frighteningly harmful results. With the following points considered, I feel confident in claiming that it's better for college graduates to go join the banks on Wall Street, rather than join Teach For America.

I have no doubt Teach For America was founded with the noblest of intentions, and I have no doubt participants in the program have done wonderful work since 1990, helping out many young students. However, there's no getting past the essential nature of the program: It recruits people with little to no experience in education to be teachers in some of the nation's most underserved schools. If you weren't taken aback by that sentence, let me rephrase it for you: TFA takes people who may have zero academic or professional training in education, and it makes them teachers for some of the nation's neediest students. I really don't know how this makes sense to anyone.

Here is Teach For America by its very own numbers:
  • Only six percent of corps members majored in education as undergrads.
  • Only 23% of corps members attended grad school or worked full-time after getting their bachelor's (meaning the vast majority are fresh out of college).
  • 27% of members with prior work experience had worked in education. (27% of 23% means only six percent of the total had job experience in education.)
So, 6% of participants majored in education, and 6% had work experience in education (and who knows how broadly that's defined). Then it is expected 100% of the participants are becoming teachers for two years without going through the training and certification processes that all other teachers in every state have to go through. In addition, they get the full salary and benefits that a legitimately qualified teacher would receive in the same school district, so it's not as if districts are even getting teachers on the cheap. Even so, TFA is constantly growing, and experienced teachers have been pushed out of their jobs or denied new openings because of it. After all, this is going on when there isn't even a shortage of teachers in the country. If the organization was called Assist Teachers For America, and all the corps members were paraprofessionals and teachers' aides, then I would wholeheartedly support it. Unfortunately that isn't the case, and having naïve twenty-somethings teaching needy kids on their own isn't a joke, but actually it's a celebrated cause.

It seems to me TFA's whole philosophy is that energized, impressionable, and idealistic youngsters with high GPAs can simply be fast-tracked into teaching. What's more, TFA thinks that this is what's best for students in impoverished and needy schools. Instead, those students are for the most part getting teachers in their classrooms who are in way over their heads, and who will furthermore likely leave within two years. (85% of corps members are no longer teachers after four years. Look at the blog Schools Matter for a wealth of information.) For the 15% who stayed, I'm sure TFA was great teacher training. For the students of those teachers, however, I am sure they didn't benefit by seeing their instructor climb that steep learning curve from the very very bottom, all while they were supposed to be learning.

TFA's entire mission is one of utter arrogance: It takes students who've done well in college and tells them that with five weeks summer training they can become a real-deal teacher and help change kids' lives the way no teacher before ever could. I would be a perfect recruit for TFA - except for one thing: I know full well, growing up in a family of teachers, that teaching is a profession requiring professional training and professional commitment. I also know, from having had student teachers in different courses in high school, that students can be negatively affected by a new teacher's inexperience, even when under the watch of an experienced teacher. As Philip Kovacs puts it here, "Given the choice, would you see a doctor with 5 weeks of training, or a certified doctor?" To push the analogy further, why would some hospitals be persuaded to accept the "doctors" of five weeks over the ones with actual certification? And why would that be done for the patients who are worst off? The ramifications are astounding, far greater than a blogpost could ever address.

Here's the bottom line: I urge anyone considering applying for Teach For America to reconsider. You could do well for yourself, but you would be trained at your students' expense - the expense of their being denied a more experienced, better trained, and professional teacher. If you are like me, and you are seriously committed to a career in education and the cause of helping students, please join me in pursuing a graduate degree, student teaching and proper certification. I know that once I get my bachelor's next year I will be nowhere near ready to teach children; people who think otherwise have to be kidding themselves. If you aren't really that committed to education and just thought TFA would be a nice service project, resumé builder, or a steady income, please just go to Wall Street instead. You may not help anyone out, but at least you won't be harming children's education.