Teach for America… the Controversy

A rigorous, comprehensive educational system is fundamental to developing individuals to be intellectually competitive on an international scale.  In the U.S., the race is on; yet, certain groups are being left behind.  What happens when young people do not receive the education they need and deserve? The non-profit sector has provided some solutions to tackle educational inequity.


Teach for America (TFA) is the biggest non-governmental educational program in the U.S. TFA aims to “provide an excellent education for kids in low-income communities” by training educators to teach in these particularly underserved areas (1). Founded in 1990, TFA has trained 33,000 members to serve over three million students across the U.S. Recent college graduates are trained to teach in a variety of fields in education, from science to foreign language to special education. trainees learn to address prevalent problems in low-income cities (2). The upcoming teachers can choose their field of instruction or receive a position in a similar branch. After being trained by TFA, teachers are mandated to teach for two years, after which they may quit or continue teaching.


Although research supporting the TFA training program is strong, some critics question the effectiveness of the program. Controversy exists over the method in which TFA conducts its seminars and educational instruction.


Negative Criticism:

  1. Teach for America operates under the assumption that current public and charter schoolteachers are not adequate. TFA’s alternative teaching style can be viewed as a “replacement” for present educators.
  2. The “revolving door” is not stopped by TFA. TFA admits it has not helped decrease dropout rates of teachers, especially for high school teachers. Only 61% of TFA teachers return for another year of teaching after their mandatory two years of service (3).
  3. The TFA program inadequately prepares upcoming teachers for their jobs. The program only lasts five weeks for previously certified teachers, an extremely brief amount of time to teach the material necessary to help individuals become adept teachers. A 2011 alumni of the program reported being “immersed in a sea of jargon, buzzwords, and touchy-feely exercises,” instead of receiving the most basic fundamentals to teaching (4).
  4. Teachers unions are affected by the growth of TFA positions. Because TFA members are not eligible for unions, they can be hired with lower salaries than union teachers and potentially displace them. This has already occurred in a few cities. Chicago, for example, is closing 48 schools and laying off 850 teachers and staff while welcoming 350 corps members (5). However, economic and other policy decisions need to be examined.
  5. TFA alumni are not necessarily compelled to remain with the program, instigating instability for the institution and students alike. The alumni may leave after their compulsory two years, potentially leaving the school floundering to hire a replacement.
  6. Enormous endowments. Teach for America operates on a budget of around $350 million. An endowment by Eli Broad and a few other wealthy philanthropists donated over $100 Million to TFA, providing more money for teacher education (6). This type of funding may not be sustainable.


Positive Attributes:

  1. Many of the TFA applicants are Ivy League graduates with a strong educational background. Twenty two percent of Yale graduates and18 percent of Harvard graduates applied to join TFA. The prestige of these schools can help attract fantastic graduates from any university to apply, thus helping improve the quality of teachers and TFA itself.
  2. Teach for America teachers do help students score better on tests. TFA educators are teaching across the country in varied demographics and regions, making performance difficult to track closely. However, these findings from studies demonstrated that students with TFA teachers performed better on math tests (7).
  3. Money earned is – for the most part – spent on educational expenses. According to CharityNavigator.com, TFA spends 82.2% of its resources on its programs, with minimal fundraising and administrative expenses. In addition, TFA is very transparent in its expenditures (8).
  4. Resources are available across the U.S. to offer upcoming teachers support and information about the communities in which they will be teaching. TFA areas include San Diego, Baltimore, Detroit, San Francisco, Houston, Kansas City, and more.
  5. TFA’s ultimate goal is admirable. This organization is not attempting to profit maximize or provide an obsolete service; Teach for America aims to educate students who are not receiving the best support possible and supply the country with invaluable resources.


The NGS Movement recognizes Teach For America as an opportunity for recent graduates to be of service, but we also think it is important for young people to work for an organization they believe in. We prepared this resource to give a summary of the benefits and challenges surrounding the organization. Please use our site to ask questions and leave comments for discussion. If you do not think you are a good fit for TFA, but want to serve in education, check out our list of similar programs here.

Author: Nicole Morozov

Editor: Nicole Campbell

(1)  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/sats/etc/gap.html

(2)  http://www.teachforamerica.org/why-teach-for-america/where-and-what-youll-teach

(3)  http://www.teachforamerica.org/why-teach-for-america/how-to-apply/applicant-prerequisites

(4)  http://www.teachforamerica.org/our-organization/faq

(5)  http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/09/i-quit-teach-for-america/279724/

(6)  http://prospect.org/article/teach-americas-civil-war

(7)  http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2011/01/teach-for-america-endowment-eli-broad.html

(8)  http://www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications/pdfs/teach.pdf