Sunday, December 20, 2009

Should You Join Teach for America? An Investigation

I recently wrote an essay on Teach for America for one of my classes. My presentation of this paper felt a bit like kicking a nun, given the support for TFA in one of my classes. Since then, a few CMCers have come up to me and asked me what my thoughts are on Teach for America. Rather than repeat myself, here they are.

My apologies for the graphs being missing.

Teach For America and Education in America

"Hell is full of good intentions or desires." – St. Bernard of Claivaux

No one would deny the economic importance of education: as our country transitions from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based economy, its importance becomes only more salient. President Barack H. Obama put it best: “In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity – it is a prerequisite.” President Obama pledged U.S. support to make sure America has the world’s highest college graduation rate by 2020, instead of one of the highest high school dropout rates of the industrialized world. Nearly 6.2 million students in the United States dropped out of high school in 2007, according to a report issued by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

To solve this perceived crisis, foundations, governments, and private businesses have spent billions of dollars. The government alone spent some $553 billion on public elementary and secondary education in 2006-2007, nearly five percent of gross domestic product.[1] While total average per-pupil expenditures have more than doubled since 1970 (from $4,060 to $9, 266 in 2006-2007 dollars), federal spending has trebled, rising from $343 per pupil to $971. You would think that if we were spending double the money, we’d be getting twice the student outcomes. To wit, Boston spends $16,879 per pupil in 2006 dollars, but has a graduation rate of 57 percent. In Detroit, per-student spending is approximately $11,100 per year, yet only 25 percent of Detroit's students are graduating from high school accord­ing to a recent estimate.[2] It follows that something other than money must be to blame.

Hoping to provide the solution to that problem is Teach for America, a nonprofit with the mission of educating all of the nation’s children. TFA was founded by Wendy Kopp in 1989, after she graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. The organization grew out of Kopp’s senior thesis and out of an obsession to reduce the “inequities” As she later described the mission for Teach for America to The New York Times, “We should recruit people to teach in low-income communities as aggressively as people were being recruited at the time to work on Wall Street.” Likeminded reformers would form a national teaching corps and become the “Peace Corps of the 1990s.” Indeed, as inspiration, Ms. Kopp quoted John F. Kennedy and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, one of the founders of the Peace Corps, ad nauseum in her book, One Day, All Children… The Unlikely Triumph of Teach for America and What I Learned Along the Way. Apparently she hadn’t heard that the Peace Corps is entirely ineffective at its mission or purpose, despite its good intentions.[3] As we will see, Ms. Kopp had learned the wrong lessons from the Peace Corps: One doubts if Ms. Kopp has ever asked herself if Teach for America has simply become a self-perpetuating organization that fails to meet its mission.

Nevertheless, support for Teach for America remains high. Both the Left and the Right support Teach for America, for admittedly different reasons. Generally, the Right supports its efforts to do an end run around traditional doctorates of education and the ever-growing teachers’ union, like the NEA, while the Left enjoys its social justice mission and its focus on elevating poorer, typically black and Latino, students up to higher levels. For whatever reason, some 24,000 Corps members have followed Wendy Kopp’s vision, as she outlined it in her book. She writes,

“… a national teacher corps that could produce a change in the very consciousness of our country. The corps members’ teaching experiences were bound to strengthen their commitment to children in low-income communities and spur outrage at the circumstances preventing these children from fulfilling their potential.” (Page 6 of One Day, All Children…)

To support her plan, Kopp contacted Richard Riordan, the moderate Republican mayor of Los Angeles, Democrat funder Henry Kravis of KKR, fellow Texan Ross Perot, and the self-described “education president,” George H.W. Bush. During the 2000 campaign, Governor Bush had flown Kopp cross-country on his plane to discuss Teach for America. When he took office in 2001, he named (TFA supporter) Ron Paige, superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, secretary of education. Unsurprisingly, Paige, among others, believes that lack of funding was the reason for the lack of outcomes and utterly ignoring this chart that shows that federal dollars have had no effect whatsoever.


That bipartisan support continues to this day. During the 2009 presidential campaign, both candidates gave hortatory statements lauding its mission. Barack Obama best captured the support for Teach for America when, in speech supporting the Ted Kennedy national service bill, he said,

I’ve seen a rising generation of young people work and volunteer and turn out in record numbers…they have become a generation of activists possessed with that most American of ideas – that people who love their country can change it…they are why 35,000 young people applied for only 4,000 slots in Teach For America.”

Implicit in that statement is the belief that Teach for America’s theory of change actually changes the results in the classroom. But Teach For America sessions often appear to be more like ideological indoctrination than teaching the next generation of students. As former TFA members, Joshua Kaplowitz put it in a write up of his experiences in City Journal,

But the training program skimped on actual teaching and classroom-management techniques, instead overwhelming us with sensitivity training. My group spent hours on an activity where everyone stood in a line and then took steps forward or backward based on whether we were the oppressor or the oppressed in the categories of race, income, and religion. The program had a college bull session, rather than professional, atmosphere. And it had a college-style party line: I heard of two or three trainees being threatened with expulsion for expressing in their discussion groups politically incorrect views about inner-city poverty—for example, that families and culture, not economics, may be the root cause of the achievement gap.[4]

A TFA corps member, Molly Ness, wrote a 2004 book interviewing hundreds of former TFA corps members. Ness found that corps members frequently expressed negativity about diversity sensitivity training, feeling it replaced more practical information that corps members could have been learning instead.

As if that political correctness didn’t distract from its mission, Teach for America’s own website shows its commitment to something known as the “role model” theory.

Alumni who share the racial and/or socioeconomic backgrounds of our students can also be particularly influential in the long-term push for societal change, because of their rich perspective and credibility, and because their leadership in and of itself demonstrates the value of that change.[5]

This impetus for diversity comes from on high. Wendy Kopp is very clear about the importance of bringing “students of color” into Teach for America and some observers speculate that that’s what accounts for its very high rate of rejection for white and Asian students. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence that racial role model theory actually winds up providing better students or outcomes.[6] Worse yet, Teach for America, a part of the federally funded AmeriCorps, may, be violating the law. In the context of racial preferences, the Supreme Court rejected the role model theory in Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education (1986), with Justice Lewis Powell pointing out, reasonably enough, that “Carried to its logical extreme, the idea that black students are better off with black teachers could lead to the very system the Court rejected in Brown v. Board of Education.”

Does political correctness get in the way of its mission? If the above examples weren’t enough, it might be worth repeating that Teach for America consistently teaches its students that “vouchers” won’t solve the problems of the inner-city. Unsurprisingly, a survey of Teach for America alums found that just six percent believed vouchers would help solve some of the problems of America’s public schools[7] – the exact same percentage that initially believed vouchers would be a good idea when they entered!

Despite the professed non-partisanship of Teach for America, one wonders why all of the Teach for America alums who have become politically active have run as Democrats. During the presidential race, there was some confusion between John McCain and Barack Obama about whether the Teach for America alumna, Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the D.C. public schools, supported school vouchers as a means of helping out the struggling D.C. public schools. At first, Rhee refused to discuss the voucher question, but eventually issued a statement saying that she was against their use. Observers speculated that this move was an attempt to placate the local, D.C. teachers’ union. Rhee’s silence gave Arne Duncan and others political cover to cancel the scholarship. (Through her spokesperson, Dena Iverson, Chancellor Rhee released a formal statement that said that while she “hasn’t taken a formal position on vouchers, she disagrees with the notion that vouchers are the remedy for repairing the city’s school system.”) Naturally, after the Democrat Congress had killed the scholarship, the Department of Education suppressed a study that showed its effects. The Wall Street Journal reported that children attending private schools with the aid of the scholarships are reading nearly a half-grade ahead of their peers who did not receive vouchers.[8] Overtime, the effects of that scholarship will have seriously beneficial outcomes on those who receive it. (Ironically, NEA president Dennis Van Roekel called on President Obama to oppose “any efforts to extend this ineffective program.”) Of course, if the D.C. Voucher program is ineffective, Teach for America should cease operations immediately. Studies that celebrate the effect of Teach for America show that its effect on children is minimal at best, equivalent to about a month of additional mathematics schooling. There was no effect on reading.[9]

If anything, Teach for America outcomes should be better than the D.C. private schools outcomes. Study after study has shown that teacher IQ, which has a staggeringly high .81 correlation with SAT scores, has a positive effect on student outcomes.[10] (Not surprisingly, Claremont McKenna currently ranks eighth among TFA’s 200 most heavily recruited colleges and universities, with a CMC senior acceptance rate of about 46 percent.[11]) Indeed, some economists, among them Steven Leavitt of Super Freakonomics fame, believes that part of what explains for the declining in teaching has been the Feminist movement, brought on by the birth control pill, which has led to more and more women able to pursue careers, without worrying about the high rates of obsolescence as they dart in and out of the labor force. It would stand to reason, then, that Teach for America, by purposefully limiting the numbers that apply deliberately restricts the effects of its mission. It’s as if they are deliberately capping their own reach.

Despite the criticisms of others to get Teach for America to scale up, its founder, Wendy Kopp, has been slow to move on it. Right now, Teach for America has its pick of the nation’s elite.[12] But with that, raises an interesting question. Why doesn’t the program scale up? As of 2004, there were some 6.2 million teachers in the U.S. Total there have been only 15,000 Teach for America alums. These TFA types come from highly selective schools – which as SAT correlates well with IQ – mean that some of the decline in teacher quality isn’t as widespread. Or less charitably, some of the brain drain of the feminist movement is halted. Unsurprisingly, a 2005 survey by Kane, Parsons, and Associates found that 74% of principals regard TFA teachers as more effective than other beginning teachers, and 63% regard these recent graduates as more effective than their teaching faculty as a whole, but this anecdotal evidence, doesn’t bear fully scrutiny as the studies about the effect of Teach for America teachers on students indicate.

The reasons for why someone would apply for Teach for America are clear, though, when one abandons the usual view that people just want to do something good. Teach for America does well for its members. Teach for America has become a hot place for young, twenty-somethings in search of personal fulfillment on the road to career development. Teach for America students “enlist” to change America’s public schools – language that implies a kind of war. In 2009, some 4,100 became Teach for America soldiers – a 42% surge in applications since last year, brought on no doubt by a lagging job market. For a starting job, the pay scale of Teach for America is very competitive relative to other starting industries.[13] Add in the loan forgiveness programs, the pipeline to other jobs, MBA programs, and law schools, the educational voucher from AmeriCorps, and a number of other perks, and the benefits of Teach for America for their employees are plain to see.[14] Still further benefits include access to corporate donors, such as McKinsey, Bain, free financial consulting, and a no-interest loan from VISA of up to $6000. Teach for America itself releases the chart, below, that shows how much an average Teach for America employee can make relative to the starting salary of other professions. For students with liberal arts degree of dubious value – say, psychology or sociology – Teach for America is very attractive, especially when one considers that more than 40% of Teach for America members don’t finish their second year.

According to data released from Teach for America, very few of the Teach for America students were science or math majors. In 2008, only 481 Teach for America students had majored in math or science, less than 13% of the total “corps.” The social benefits can be equally larger: Tamar Lewin of The New York Times describes Teach for America as “the post-college do-good program with buzz.” Perhaps those with harder heads, such as science and math majors, seek better uses for their talents.

In any event, the point isn’t to decry Teach for America, per se, but to ask ourselves how an organization such as Ms. Kopp’s could have so hoodwinked the national public into believing it is truly effective for the children it purports to serve. Wendy Kopp appears to be exceptionally arrogant, a pitfall we were warned against throughout our management class. This arrogance comes from her days at Princeton, where, by some accounts, she was a lackluster student. When she applied for a job upon graduation to Morgan Stanley, McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company, Proctor & Gamble, and a real estate venturer, she was turned down by every single one of them. When she sent her idea for a teaching corps to the White House for consideration, her proposal was mistaken for a job application, and she was rejected there as well. Having failed to secure a job, she was left nothing, but to become a “social entrepreneur.” The problem is that she had never once spent a day in a classroom and yet she believes she can produce a good teacher in as little as five weeks and it looks as if many schools are starting to suffer.

Teach for America comes with real costs associated with it. Today, its operating budget is over $160 million, despite having nearly gone bankrupt twice thanks to Kopp’s management – a point she mentions more than a few times in her book. Kopp has not exactly been a good steward of the money that has now been lavished on her by foundations and governments. It currently costs TFA $12,500 a year to select and train each recruit in 2005. Those figures will more than double to $32,000 in 2010-2011. With improvements to the program, the costs kept rising. In 2007 the tab was $14,000 per recruit. By 2010, TFA expected it to cost $20,000 to select and train a corps member for just five weeks. That same money, $20,000, is tuition at a decently priced teaching college for a year. What is Teach for America spending its money on? As of this moment, it cost the school district at least $3000 more money to hire a TFA corps member with only five weeks of TFA training than it does to hire a trained teacher who has made education a career choice and will be teaching for more than two years -- and presumably getting better overtime. Teach for America members also receive a $5000 bonus for every year they complete.

Aside from the considerable amount of money spent by foundations, federal dollars are now going to Teach for America, which might explain their lack of consideration about containing costs. Under the Bush administration, ten percent of TFA’s budget came from the federal government, which meant that it could be subjected it to an audit by the Department of Education. (Up to a third of that budget comes from the state and local government, as of 2008.) As CBS News reported in 2008,

The Department of Education Inspector General examined a small slice of the group's federal funding. What they found was shocking.

In all, Teach for America failed to account for half the money audited. Time and time again, the audit said there were no basic records or receipts: None for a $123,878 training expense; none for a $342,428 bill.

They should have kept records on a tab for more than a quarter million dollars for food and lodging ($277,262) and $26,812 for teacher certification—but didn't. Auditors say there was no documentation that any teachers actually attended and completed the class, or that there even was a class.

[According to the reporter,]"There was no agenda; no description of meals; no list of attendees. That sounds like a little more than sloppy bookkeeping."[15]

In and of themselves, these instances would be disturbing. What’s more disturbing is that they look to be part of a pattern of mismanagement on the part of Teach for America. In her book, Kopp mentions several times when Teach for America nearly went bankrupt because it spent too much money too quickly and had to drastically scale back its focus. Since the influx of federal dollars, though, there’s some indication that it’s already bloated administrative staff has gotten even more bloated. (It currently has 840 administrators for the 4100 Teach for America corps members, working out to nearly five members for every one administrator!) Given that a common criticism of teachers unions is their bloated hierarchies, it would be ironic, indeed, if TFA replicated that very institutional crutch. With all the money lavished upon it, you’d think that Teach for America’s very highly paid staff would know a thing or two about accounting. Kopp herself received a salary of $250,736 in 2005, the last year for which such data are available, making her one of the most well paid people in government. According to tax returns, six other TFA executives received salaries ranging from $125,000 to $202,000 in 2006.

Unfortunately, Teach for America may just be the latest of AmeriCorps programs that are behaving fraudulently with the public trough. Michelle Rhee’s fiancĂ©, Sacramento mayor and big-time Obama supporter, Kevin Johnson, was under investigation by AmeriCorps Inspector General Gerald Walpin for embezzling funds from his AmeriCorps school and for having inappropriate sexual relations several students and using hush money to cover it up. (Rather than congratulate him on a job well done, Gerald Walpin was sacked by the Obama Administration and is suing to be reinstated, while GOP lawmakers call for a congressional investigation.) Given that that same independent inspector general was the first to uncover some financial irregularities at Teach for America, it’s worth wondering whether he was silenced for doing his job – being a watchdog of taxpayer funded organizations.

More problematic for Teach for America are the numerous former employees and corps members that do not share the optimism about the program. Jim Lerman joined Teach for American in its inaugural year, 1990, as the Director of Professional Development, but was asked to leave less than six months later because he disapproved of the five week summer institute. Others rightly question whether or not its mission of people dabbling in teaching is good for the teaching profession as a whole. A former corps member, David Wakelyn writes that a view from management encourages corps members to think of teaching as a “semi-profession.” He writes further: “the … leadership does not believe that there’s an expert body of knowledge that takes time to develop.” Meanwhile, evidence from education researchers such as Linda Darling-Hammond, continue to find that there’s little to no evidence TFA has any positive effect on the children it purports to help. Perhaps the most damning criticism comes from education scholar Ira David Socol:

Teach for America is a “colonial project.” It is a “missionary project.” It begins with the basic premise that the solution for the underclass in America is to make them ‘as much like’ rich white folks as possible. When you listen to the TFA leadership, they don’t really talk about “education,” probably because they don’t really believe in education. They talk about “leadership” instead. If they believed in education they would see education as important on the path to effective teaching, an idea they specifically reject, replacing it with the thought that since TFA corps members represent the elites (or, religiously, the “elect”), all they have to do is “lead” the downtrodden out of poverty.

This is essentially the British Colonial conversion concept. “We’ll fix Nigeria/Ireland/South Africa/India. We’ll just teach them to speak the Queen’s English, give them a Parliament, and make them wear powdered wigs in court. Then they’ll be civilized. And like the British Empire, this strategy is adopted because TFA’s board and supporters have no desire to ever relinquish power to a rising colonial population.

Socol rightly notes that Teach for America will only prove effective when its “techniques” work for the upper class, as well as the poor, when the experiment of Teach for America runs in the wealthy suburbs as well as the needy ghettos. Only then will Wendy Kopp’s vision of reducing inequities be realized. Otherwise, it is just another attempt by the rich to ignore what works – vouchers, choice and competition – over what does not – Teach for America. Those who are willing to experiment on the poor must first swallow the bitter pill of Teach for America themselves. Maybe then education reform will be about, well, reforming education.

[1] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics: 2007. Table 26, at (August 5, 2008).

[2] Christopher B. Swanson, "Cities in Crisis: A Special Analytic Report on High School Graduation," Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, April 1, 2008, at (August 19, 2008), and U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, District Information, at (August 19, 2008).

[3] Robert L. Strauss, “Think Again: The Peace Corps,” Foreign Policy, April 2008.

[4] Joshua Kaplowitz, “How I Joined Teach for America—and Got Sued for $20 Million,” City Journal, Winter 2003.

[8] “Democrats and Poor Kids,” The Wall Street Journal, April 6, 2009.

[10] Ian J. Deary, Steve Strand, Pauline Smith and Cres Fernandes, Intelligence and educational achievement, Volume 35, Issue 1, January-February 2007, Pages 13-21.


[12] Admissions rate for TFA in ’09 hovered around 11%.

[13] In Boston school districts, TFA teachers get a lot more – some $46,000 (not including benefits).


Anonymous said...

I stopped reading at "Democrat funder Henry Kravis of KKR."

The first sign of ignorance loses my attention. Kravis probably raised over a million dollars for John McCain and describes McCain as a close friend.

The rest of this essay loses any credibility after that.

Charles Johnson said...

Apparently you aren't bright enough to know that he also gave lots of money to Democrats during the 1990s and was a supporter of the Clintons.

Brendan said...

FYI, "Democrat" is a noun, not an adjective. It's the "Democratic Party" not the "Democrat Party."

Charles Johnson said...

Eh, I'll continue to call it Democrat Party. After all, American history is rife with examples of people calling the other party names that wind up sticking. See Federalist/Anti-Federalist debates, or the Whig/Democratic Party debates.

John Jensen said...

Charles--Though I'm a liberal, we desperately need accurate thinking from any quarter--left,right,top, or bottom--and kick the stuffing out of shoddy thinking. If we agree on that, and you could consider a novel perspective, would you check out my education blog on titled "Why is education reform so difficult?" It attempts to explain how attention is being grossly misdirected. Best, John Jensen

Anonymous said...

40% drop out before the end of their second year? not true at all - check your facts. I don't see a citation.....

Charles Johnson said...

It's actually forty percent do not continue teaching, not forty percent don't go on to the next year. According to Newsweek, the attrition rate between year 1 and year 2 is between ten and twenty percent.

Anonymous said...

If you only consider statistics, and quote numbers that are taken out of don't give a clear and accurate picture of this program. Being a current CM myself, teaching with Teach For America is incredible. I see my student's scores soaring, their belief in themselves as learners growing, and their eyes opening to a world that they can succeed in. Here is a number for you: 3,000. That is approximately the number of students being taught by extremely capable CMs in my region this year. Come look at them. Look in their face and I dare you to tell me that Teach For America is not achieving its mission. One day at a time, and one day we will.

Also: We do not get a $5,000 'bonus.' It is closer to $4,000 and it is an educational award through Americorps that is used only to further education or pay of your education.

Charles Johnson said...

The numbers I quoted about Teach for America's effect on the children are taken from the Teach for America website itself! Hard to take something out of context like that...

Did you ever consider that maybe the reason their test scores are rising is that you aren't asking challenging enough things of them?

The data does not lie.