For the seventh consecutive year, UT held its position in the top 20 largest colleges and universities whose students join the Teach For America program.

This year, 63 graduates from the University joined Teach For America, or TFA, placing fourth among large universities with alumni involved in the organization. TFA is a nonprofit organization, founded in 1990, in which recent college graduates and professionals teach in low-income communities for two years. Since TFA’s establishment, more than 28,000 members have completed their two-year mission to help eliminate educational inequality, according to the nonprofit’s website. 

TFA employees can become members of AmeriCorps, a federal service organization, and receive student loan forgiveness, educational awards and payment to pursue further education after spending two years with TFA. 

Lexie Heller, national recruitment team manager for TFA, said the University continues to make the list every year because of the energy of its graduating students.

“Longhorns are passionate, diverse, service-oriented and high-quality in terms of their academic abilities and leadership potential,” Heller said. 

According to Heller, TFA provides graduating students with opportunities to help underprivileged children achieve academic success.

“My experience with TFA was overwhelmingly positive,” Heller said. “I taught high school social studies in San Antonio, and my students achieved truly unprecedented academic success.”

Undeclared freshman Brandon Chan said he did not know much about TFA, but he was skeptical about teaching students who didn’t own a computer.

“It just seems like it might be hard to teach computers to kids that might not even own one,” Chan said. “That might make it all the more rewarding.” 

Chan said AmeriCorps seemed like an opportunity to pay off student loans while helping low-income students. 

“I’ve taken out some pretty harsh loans for college, but teaching computers to children in poorer communities and paying off my loans, while still earning a steady paycheck, sounds like something I’ll definitely look into,” Chan said.  

Heller said she hopes UT students will make an effort to look more into post-graduate opportunities available at TFA.

“UT graduates continue to impress me with their passion and conviction,” Heller said.

Photo Credit: Lucy Griswold | Daily Texan Staff

UT had more recruits in Teach For America’s 2013 cohort than any other university in the nation. Teach For America, an organization that places high-achieving college students into low-performing schools in an effort to directly address educational inequality, appears for many UT students to be an avenue toward participating in a broader movement for social justice. 

For me, a student who considered and ultimately decided not to apply to TFA, the program’s appeal had little to do with the organization’s promises that I would be a part of the “civil rights movement" of our generation. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in working on the problem of educational inequality. I was. But my first encounters with TFA challenged the organization’s claim that it was in fact working toward ending educational inequality and revealed the many problems with the organization. Among them: the minimal training its recruits receive before taking control of their own classrooms, its role in the casualization of the teaching profession and its unclear record of increasing student achievement.

Moreover, despite the radical rhetoric TFA often employs, it has no public record of denouncing austerity and de facto school segregation, and has received generous donations from conservative foundations — hardly the marks of an organization that claims to be part of a progressive revolution in educational justice.  

Still, I remained interested in TFA for pragmatic reasons: I knew I wanted to be a teacher in an under-resourced district, and TFA was a way to do that while getting a master’s degree for free.   

Unlike many of TFA’s recruits, I planned to be a career educator, and looked to TFA as more than just a stepping stone to adult life. For this reason, I played with the idea that I was exceptional among TFA recruits, that a handful of life experiences and political views made it OK for me, a white woman, to dive into America’s lowest-performing schools untrained. 

After all, I had attended a multi-racial school in an urban setting, worked as a camp counselor throughout my college summers and had several experiences developing curriculum and lesson planning. I had critical-theory coursework and anti-racist organizing experience. I considered that perhaps these were enough to allow me to stand in front of a class of students who more than likely would not look like me without reifying racial hierarchies.  

Ultimately, my decision not to apply to TFA came down to two unresolvable issues. First, given my knowledge of TFA’s role in education “reform,” there was no way I could comfortably be associated with the organization — even if I knew privately I wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid. TFA cannot be separated from the corporate-driven movement it is embedded in and of which its alumni have become key leaders. This movement, funded in large part by wealthy benefactors such as the Gateses and the Waltons, the families behind Microsoft and Wal-Mart, respectively, relies on applying business practices such as increasing competition, emphasizing data and evaluation and promoting efficiency in the educational sphere. Despite huge investments of both public and private funds, these strategies have done little to increase student achievement and reduce educational inequality. Disturbingly, TFA as an organization propagates the same misguided assumptions of their big-time donors, among them the idea that all students can learn despite their circumstances, an assertion that grossly underestimates the role that poverty and racism play in the lives of students.

Second, I have come to believe that despite the limits of our current model of higher education, all teachers should be extensively trained before they enter the classroom. One TFA alum quoted in a recent educational study explained why: “My students need experienced teachers who know what works and who can implement it effectively … instead, they have me, and though I am learning quickly, I am learning on them.” 

Additionally, teachers who seek placement in urban districts should be trained to build inclusive classrooms and work with curricular materials that are relevant to the demographics they are teaching, especially those recruits who are white and did not come from urban communities. One study of TFA’s training practices revealed that the conversations about the role of race in the classroom during TFA’s five-week summer training course “developed superficial racial know-how for white students … and offered little insight to corps members of color.”

Too often, TFA preys on idealistic students who are excited by the chance of putting their ideas into action and who are largely ignorant of the broader implications and potential problems of participating in such a program. For many of those students who are aware of TFA’s many problems and still decide to participate, their reasons for doing so, a need for free advanced education, are often quite valid. But until TFA fundamentally changes its model for teacher training, it should not be “used” as an avenue to the classroom by Longhorns who are serious about achieving educational justice. The many problems of TFA are too large and myriad to be addressed by even the best of intentions.

Griswold is a government senior from Indianapolis. Follow Griswold on Twitter @GriswoldLucy.

Editor's Note: A link to a study titled "Teach for America: A Review of the Evidence" has been moved to more clearly reflect the information it verifies. 

Point-counterpoint: Teach for America

In the midst of senior year, many UT students are applying for graduate and professional schools and accepting offers at companies around the world. Some students, however, have chosen a path less traveled but increasingly important: Teach For America. Established in 1990 to address the growing problems of the American education system, the nonprofit trains recent college graduates to teach for two years in urban and rural schools, serving as leaders in their classrooms. As this organization continues to expand, it increases understanding of the growing education crisis in America and works to close the achievement gap between students with low-income backgrounds and their wealthier peers.

TFA critics claim that its members are not as qualified to teach as other incoming teachers with teaching degrees.

But to become a TFA corps member, students undergo an intensive application process including interviews that require critical thinking skills. Students from different backgrounds are selected based on a number of factors, most importantly their commitment to serving students.

New TFA corps members receive rigorous training for six weeks, which teaches them innovative, efficacious teaching methods to transform classrooms where students are struggling. The training entails teaching a summer school course under the supervision of a veteran teacher. Students must also pass a test to move on to the next grade.

Moreoever, were TFA members not successful, school districts would not continue to invite them back.

Even upon teaching a class alone, TFA members are matched with highly experienced teachers. Furthermore, the members continue to receive support and professional development from the regional TFA organization. According to The New York Times, 63 percent of corps members remain in the teaching profession after their two-year requirement is complete, with 31 percent continuing to teach in low-income neighborhoods, a retention rate similar to the percent of non-TFA new teachers in the same type of low-income, poorly organized school systems.

However, the benefit of TFA is not necessarily to recruit teachers but rather to raise capability of education reform in the future leaders of America. The dire state of our education system calls for drastic alterations, and TFA alumni are responding. Notable TFA alumni include KIPP Academy co-founders Mike Feinberg and David Levin and Michelle Rhee, former D.C. public school chancellor. A Harvard University study in 2011 concluded that more founders of successful entrepreneurial education organizations participated in TFA than any other program.

Our education system requires reform from all different sectors, from business to law to education, and the diverse careers of TFA alumni help account for these various reforms. TFA members become “lifelong leaders for fundamental change, regardless of their professional sector,” as stated on its website, because TFA instills in its members the desire to advocate for the vital education reform movement in America.

Furthermore, during the two-year term, TFA members work closely with students in their classrooms who, facing added challenges of poverty and unequal education, require personalized attention. In 2010, students of TFA members in Tennessee scored higher than other students of non-TFA new teachers in reading, science and social studies, according to a Tennessee report.

Alejandro Delgado, recruitment manager at UT and a TFA alumnus, recalls entering his classroom in Brownsville, Texas, to find that only 53 percent of his 10th grade students had passed the TAKS test the previous year. After spending the year working with them, he helped 100 percent of his students pass the TAKS test. This past year, all of his students matriculated into college. Results like these illustrate the significant change TFA members are actualizing around the country.

TFA, a teaching corps, refer to its members as corps members or leaders. These titles are not to insinuate a sense of elitism but rather to teach TFA members respect for the teaching profession. Teachers are seldom thought of as leaders of our country the way that politicians and businesspeople are. This archaic type of thinking must end as we work to improve the education system, the most vital element to ensuring our country’s future success. With various outlets for guidance, from TFA’s assistance to support from veteran teachers in their schools, TFA members are leading their students to success. We need leaders in our classrooms, and TFA is an effective source helping to create these leaders.

Waliany is a Plan II and government senior.