WaPo Columnists Debate Teach for America

Is TFA our best method for getting talented young people into the classroom?

Some of the best coverage on education that you'll read in the United States is in The Washington Post, which attacks the subject with reported news and features, as well as via several blogs and columns. Obviously, the outfit had been pretty busy over the last three-and-a-half years, as it bore witness to the lightning-fast reforms in the Michelle Rhee-run D.C. public schools. This week's two of its top voices, Jay Mathews and Valerie Strauss had a polite, but firm debate over the value of Teach for America to education reform.

Mathews wrote a book on the KIPP network of charter schools, is a fan of innovations that are brought into school systems, and was a sympathetic observer of Michelle Rhee's reign. Strauss, on the other hand, is put off by the sudden emergence of so-called "reformers" on the education scene, she finds the obsession with standardized tests to be counterproductive, and was significantly less charitable than Mathews when analyzing Rhee's tenure.

In a mid-November post on her The Answer Sheet blog, Strauss pilloried Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Maryland Governor Mark O'Malley for giving Teach for America way too much credit for changing the education system. She believes that the five-week crash courses that TFA participants go through before being tossed in the classroom are insufficient and that its higher than normal attrition rate isn't doing any favors for kids.

Mathews took issue with it—among his arguments is that there would be no KIPP if there were no TFA (since KIPP's cofounders are TFA alums)—and provoked a dialogue between the education writers, asking: "Don’t you think our education system would be worse off without [TFA and KIPP]?"

Strauss's answer: "[N]ot so much," as well as that they're hogging money, both philanthropic and public, that should be going to efforts that will have a more widespread effect.

TFA has, it is true, helped make teaching sexy again among a certain young set, and I’m sure it produces some teachers who turn out to be terrific. But I don’t know what important question it answers. Our nation has more than 3 million teachers; we need to replace 300,000 who leave every year. TFA sent 4,500 teachers with little training into some of the nation’s neediest schools this past fall. Regular teacher attrition is about 50 percent after five years; the percentage is higher for TFA teachers after just a few years. How does that solve the need to improve the profession?


Mathews' retort gets to one of the central questions in education today: TFA is able to coax students who might go into careers perceived as more prestigious as teaching and expose them to the educational system. Some of those teachers then become lifelong educators. How else besides TFA would you attract the best and brightest coming out of our colleges and universities to the profession?

And I'll put that question to you, GOOD readers. Any ideas?

Photo (cc) via Flickr user Tulane Publications


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