Teach for America is a U.S.-based non-profit organization that seeks to transform K-12 education and close the gap in academic performance between students of different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. The organization’s theory of change asserts that improving the talent pipeline for teachers is the critical lever to drive students’ academic success. In the years since its inception, however, TFA has failed to meaningfully deliver on this mission due to gaps between its operating model and the realities of the teaching profession.
The business model of TFA relies on talent recruitment from top undergraduate universities, with the notion that the same skills and qualities that drive academic performance (e.g., intelligence, grit) will also drive teaching performance. TFA also seeks to remove major barriers preventing students interested in education from pursuing a teaching career. First, traditional teacher qualification requires completion of a multi-year graduate degree program, which is expensive and variable in quality. Additionally, many students are deterred from teaching due to the lack of compensation and prestige associated with the profession in the U.S.
TFA’s strategy to overcome these challenges is to provide a condensed training program for its recruits and match new corps members with full-time teaching positions in the school year immediately following graduation. Additionally, due to its rigorous application process, TFA offers to its corps members affiliation with a prestigious, reputable employer brand.
The operating model of TFA begins with an intensive on-campus recruitment process targeted at undergraduate seniors. TFA uses similar recruitment strategies as finance and consulting firms, with a heavy emphasis on the selectivity of the program and professional development.
Accepted candidates who join the corps then enter a five-week training program over the summer, which is intended to give corps members the practical skills needed to lead a classroom. In reality, however, members may receive only a few hours of teaching practice per week, and they usually co-teach (with other trainees) a small group of mostly well behaved students, which does not adequately prepare them to manage a full classroom of 20-30 students in underperforming schools.
One key shortcoming of this training model, in addition to being too short in overall duration, is that rather than arming new teachers with specific techniques and practices that can be used to manage a classroom, the program only provides broad guidance on classroom management principles and devotes too much time to culture-building and affiliation. Additionally, because classroom and grade assignments are not set prior to training, all new teachers receive the same training whether they will ultimately teach third grade general studies or high school math.
To support their first year of teaching, corps members are assigned mentors both at their school and from TFA. However, these support systems are usually not helpful in practice. The TFA mentor is him/herself often a relatively new teacher, and the quality of in-school mentorship is not adequately monitored or enforced. Many TFA alumni recall experiences of facing new, unexpected problems in the classroom that they were unprepared to manage, and not having a single person they could turn to for timely, effective guidance.
As a result of this inadequate training and support for new teachers, TFA has had questionable success in its stated mission of elevating teaching talent in the K-12 education system. The most promising research has shown only that TFA teachers are “as effective” as other teachers, and that only in lower grade levels (PreK-2) do TFA teachers have a statistically significant positive impact on student outcomes (Mathematica report). Furthermore, the same report shows (and many TFA alumni accounts reveal) that the quality of life and job satisfaction is significantly lower for TFA teachers, which results in very high turnover and low retention.
Although TFA is intended to be a two-year commitment, corps members’ have yearly contracts with their schools, and those who find the lifestyle unsustainable drop out after the first year. Additionally, many corps’ members leave teaching after the two-year program. In fact, the Mathematica study showed that over 87% of TFA teachers were not planning on a lifelong career in the classroom, compared to only 26% of non-TFA teachers. Thus, not only are TFA teachers not delivering reliable improvements in student performance, but many of them leave after two years, generating additional administrative costs to deal with the churn and leaving a negative impact on teacher culture.
Interestingly, TFA initially reacted to criticisms about its operating model effectiveness by repositioning themselves as a “leadership development organization, not a teaching organization.” Such an organization strategy would have been more consistent with TFA’s emphasis on selective talent sourcing and employer brand prestige. However, it did not support TFA’s stated mission of improving the quality of teachers in K-12 education. More recently, the TFA has made efforts to more effectively deliver on its mission through modifications to its operating model, including longer training programs as well as longer teaching commitments.