25 Years Later, 5 Teach For America Myths Linger

Thousands of Teach For America alumni will pour into DC this weekend for the organization’s 25th anniversary summit. With the spotlight on Teach For America, it’s worth looking at some misperceptions about what has become one of the biggest players in the ed reform movement. Last year at Bellwether we carried out an independent case study of Teach For America’s efforts to scale, including its accomplishments, missteps, and lessons learned along the way. Based on our work, we want to share five myths about Teach For America that continue to linger.

Myth #1: Teach For America primarily recruits white affluent graduates of elite universities.

It’s true that in Teach For America’s early years, a high proportion of the corps hailed from Ivy League universities. As the leadership began seeing the impact of corps members who shared the backgrounds of the students they served—both in the classroom and the broader community—it began changing the organization’s approach to recruitment. Today, nearly half of all corps members identify as people of color, 47 percent come from low-income backgrounds, and 34 percent are first-generation college students.

Myth #2: Corps members are unequipped to teach given that they only receive five weeks of training.

A common criticism of Teach For America is that the summer institute doesn’t adequately prepare individuals for the classroom—and is an affront to traditional teacher prep programs that involve months of pedagogical training and student teaching. While Teach For America’s boot camp model may seem counter-intuitive, it’s hard to deny the evidence out there on the instructional impact of corps members. Multiple independent evaluations have found that, on average, corps members are comparable to other teachers and produce better results in math, early childhood, and early elementary grades.

Myth #3: Corps members exit the classroom after fulfilling their two-year teaching commitment.

Another common criticism of Teach For America is that it creates a revolving door of teachers in high-needs communities. Yet a significant number of corps members remain in the classroom beyond their two-year commitment: As of 2014 more than 11,000 alumni—nearly 30 percent of alumni at the time—were continuing their work as teachers.

It’s also important to note here that Teach For America’s mission has always been to develop leaders who support the educational equity movement—which isn’t limited to classroom service. Some alumni, such as Colorado Senator Mike Johnston, now hold leadership positions in public policy. And others, like Sarah Usdin who founded New Schools for New Orleans, have become social entrepreneurs.

Myth #4: Teach For America seeks to place most corps members in charter schools.

Some conflate Teach For America with charter schools—whose presence also began growing in the 1990s—and even suspect that the organization uses its influence to bolster the charter school movement. There are certainly connections between the two: Teach For America alumni have gone on to found or lead charter schools, and some well-known donors support both Teach For America and charter management organizations. However, Teach For America continues to place the majority of its corps members in traditional district schools.

Myth #5: Teach For America alumni are advancing a “corporate reform” agenda.

There are over 5,000 Google hits connecting “Teach For America” to “corporate reform.” In recent years, critics have pointed to Teach For America as part of a larger agenda to privatize education by shutting down traditional public schools, replacing them with charter schools, and taking power away from teachers unions. Yet Teach For America was not created to advance a particular education policy agenda, but rather to attract and cultivate talented young people to become leaders in education, regardless of their ideological perspectives.

While the organization’s rapid growth means that its network is far-reaching, alumni voices are far from monolithic. Alums range the political spectrum, from Rob Bryan—a Republican state representative in North Carolina opposing teacher tenure—to Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of the Los Angeles teachers union working to defend tenure practices.