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Is Teach for America a Good Thing?

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Teach for America, a nonprofit that selects college grads to work in low-income public schools, has become as elite an honor as being accepted to an Ivy League grad school or becoming a Fulbright scholar -- and equally as competitive. A New York Times article reported that 18 percent of Yale seniors this year applied, and applications overall are up 32 percent. In an uncertain economy, it's easy to see why this prestigious program -- complete with a decent salary of about $45,000 per year and a two-year guaranteed stint -- is appealing to recent grads. And it is clearly advantageous to have bright, eager minds in schools that need them most.

But those in education are wondering if the high turnover is good for high-poverty schools (or any school). A study found that 85 percent of New York City Teach for America teachers leave their posts by the fourth year, and few teachers stay in the profession beyond 5 or 6 years. That's not to say alumni will leave the education field altogether (Michelle Rhee, chancellor of D.C. schools, is a TFA alum), but, as the NYT article states, general research shows experienced, long-term teachers make the best ones.

I think Teach for America is a more than worthy initiative, but I wonder who ultimately benefits most: the college grad who can put in two years and have TFA on their resume, or the students and the schools? As I said, bright, eager minds are instrumental for teaching success, but so is experience, and the willingness to make teaching a career to implement lasting changes. One expert in the NYT’s follow-up debate panel wondered why we aren’t doing the alternative: placing the most experienced and accomplished teachers in where TFA teachers are now: “In the end, inviting young people to a brief tour of duty with little formal preparation is no way to build a profession. We would never treat the law or medicine in this way.” We demand most experienced doctors and lawyers when we need them; why not demand the most experienced teachers for our kids?

Do you think Teach for America is ultimately a good program? What kind of qualities make the best teachers?

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