Teachers Are Losing Their Jobs, but Teach for America’s Expanding. What’s Wrong With That?
This story was produced in collaboration with the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.
For the second week in a row in his new home, Kenneth Maldonado’s evening ritual began with lumping sweaters and sleeping bags into the shape of a mattress in his otherwise empty bedroom. It was late September of 2011, the end of his first month as a Teach for America instructor. Having been only recently approved to teach in the Seattle school district, he was broke. But Maldonado and his two roommates—also TFA teachers—were among the lucky ones. Just a few weeks earlier, a half-dozen of their fellow recruits had been camped out on the hardwood floor of the unfurnished common area, homeless and unemployed.
The Teach for America program, now twenty-four years old, selects and sends young college graduates (referred to as “corps members”) to teach in schools serving primarily disadvantaged children of color, after giving its recruits five intensive weeks of training over the summer. Like the Peace Corps, TFA is a résumé booster, and its alumni have gone on to successful careers from the White House to Wall Street.
The 2011–12 school year was the organization’s fledgling year in Seattle, and Maldonado, then 24, initially felt excited to be one of the first thirty-eight recruits. His family didn’t have much when he was growing up in Los Angeles—his father, a former teacher in Guatemala, took on maintenance jobs after fleeing to the United States to escape the country’s civil war. But Maldonado excelled in school, graduating from the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a theater major and an education minor. He soon got a job with a San Jose–based nonprofit that helps people find low-income housing.
Although TFA requires only a two-year commitment, Maldonado was serious about a teaching career, and he saw the program as a guaranteed way into the profession without the time and expense of grad school. He especially appreciated its focus on disadvantaged schools. So when he learned of his acceptance into the program, he quit his job in California and prepared to move to the Pacific Northwest. “I wasn’t stressed out, I wasn’t worried,” he said. “I fully trusted Teach for America had everything figured out.”
It hadn’t. In 2009, the Seattle school district was hardly in the grip of a teacher shortage: 13,800 teachers had applied for just 352 full- and part-time positions. But the schools were facing a $25 million deficit, and TFA was asking for a $4,000 annual fee per recruit (area philanthropists would later cover it; on average, schools contracting with the organization pay $5,000 a year for headhunting and support costs). So the district’s decision to pursue a contract with TFA quickly became controversial. In board meetings that were sometimes standing room only, dozens of community members—including parents, teachers and high school students—signed up in record numbers to testify against the district’s contract with the organization, urging the administration to hire more experienced local teachers. Several people even brought homemade signs with slogans like No TFA Needed!
The aspiring teachers, who arrived in Seattle in June 2011, found themselves in limbo. “Everyone was freaking out about money,” Maldonado recalls. In the end, he was one of thirteen recruits—out of the original thirty-eight—who’d landed a job by October. (One dropped out later that year.) Applying for every open position, the TFA recruits were hired by ten schools—only three of which served the high-needs population (determined by whether 80 percent of the students receive a free or reduced-price lunch) that TFA claims to target exclusively in its federal grant applications.
Eric Scroggins, who oversaw the move into Seattle as the organization’s former director of national expansion, says the blunder was a “complete aberration” for TFA. Maldonado, for his part, says TFA just hadn’t done the research, adding that the national staff came off as “arrogant…they were assigning the blame to everyone but themselves.”
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Teach for America was, from the start, an ambitious idea. In 1990, Wendy Kopp founded the organization within a year of graduating from Princeton University, where she conceived of TFA in her undergraduate thesis. In its first year alone, TFA sent 500 recruits to four states. In the 2013–14 school year, it sent 11,000 recruits to thirty-eight states and Washington, DC.
Although its corps represents less than 0.5 percent of the nation’s 3.3 million public school teachers, TFA has evolved into a political powerhouse, with net assets totaling $419 million. Between 2008 and 2012, when education spending hit the recession’s rock bottom, the organization generated revenues topping $1.1 billion from both government and private sources seeking to invest in K–12 reform. The private nonprofit draws bipartisan support and nearly one-third of its funding from taxpayer dollars. In exchange for a $50 million innovation grant awarded by the Obama administration in 2010, TFA promised in its grant application that it would meet the needs of the “highest-poverty districts in the country” with unprecedented growth: by next fall, 13,500 recruits are slated to reach 850,000 children.
When TFA started up, Kopp prioritized sending its energetic but inexperienced corps to public schools lacking licensed educators—the schools often too poor or too dangerous to attract teachers. But since the recession, with education funding across the country drying up, teacher layoffs have become more of an issue than teacher shortages. Between 2008 and 2013, 324,000 teaching positions in local school districts were eliminated, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. With TFA’s expansion outpacing needs, it has been forced to find new places for its recruits. In the process, the organization has come under increasing fire, not just from outside critics but from its own alumni ranks, which include former recruits who believe the organization’s aggressive growth strategy has compromised its mission.