Does "Teach for America" Produce Civic-Minded Individuals?

Not according to a recent study.

Teach for America” (TFA) is a program designed “to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our nation’s most promising future leaders in the effort.” Every year TFA recruits recent college graduates to teach for two years in low-income communities. The goal is to create a group of teachers who will leave the program committed to continue the work of ending educational inequity in the United States.

I don’t know too much about TFA, but every now and then a Messiah College student will apply to the program and I will write a letter on his or her behalf. I have heard about one or two students across campus who have been accepted, but I may be underestimating the number. From what I can tell, it is a wonderful program and I support its mission. So I was a bit disheartened when I read this piece by Amanda Fairbanks (a former TFA participant) in The New York Times:

In areas like voting, charitable giving and civic engagement, graduates of the program lag behind those who were accepted but declined and those who dropped out before completing their two years, according to Doug McAdam, a sociologist at Stanford University, who conducted the study with a colleague, Cynthia Brandt.

The reasons for the lower rates of civic involvement, Professor McAdam said, include not only exhaustion and burnout, but also disillusionment with Teach for America’s approach to the issue of educational inequity, among other factors.

The study compares TFA graduates with the participants in Freedom Summer–the 10 weeks in 1964 when college students went to Mississippi to register black voters. The Freedom Summer students turned out to be much more politically and socially active than those who participated in TFA. While comparing TFA to Freedom Summer is probably a bit unfair, the findings of the study are revealing nonetheless.

Stan Katz has weighed in on this issue over at Brainstorm.

I’ll read the McAdam report when it is published, but for the moment what really interests me is the question of how a project like TFA relates to recent concerns (mostly generated by Bob Putnam’s Bowling Alone) about regenerating social capital in the United States. It sounds to me as though McAdam believes that he has found that the TFA experience does not contribute directly to the creation of general social capital, whereas Kopp’s response (somewhat more modest than some of her claims for TFA) is that her program aims only at generating higher levels of concern and engagement with K-12 education.

There is of course no necessary inconsistency between these positions, since we should not expect that every socially oriented activity produces significant general social capital. This view is confirmed by Professor Rob Reich, a Stanford political scientist and a former volunteer for TFA, who is quoted by Fairbanks as saying that “unlike doing Freedom Summer, joining Teach for America is part of climbing up the elite ladder — it’s part of joining the system, the meritocracy.” And indeed, as Fairbanks notes, there was a flood of applicants for TFA in 2008, most notably on the elite campuses (like my own, and Harvard, where 13 percent of seniors applied). But last year (and this) are probably bad samples of applicant motivation, since at least some of these graduates are applying because alternative employment opportunities have mostly disappeared in the wake of the Great Recession.

I am sure many TFA participants are sincere and deeply committed to their work. Their passion for service in impoverished schools cannot be disparaged by any study. Most of the Messiah College students who apply to TFA apply because they feel called to serve others with their lives out of a sense of Christian vocation. Their passion for things like TFA and similar organizations inspires me daily and often confirms my own sense of vocation as a college teacher.

But when I read stuff like this, the working class kid from north Jersey comes out in me. Has TFA become just another thing for Ivy League kids to put on their resume in order to make them appear socially conscience to high paying law offices, corporations, and brokerage firms? Is TFA really carrying out its mission of preparing a new generation of socially conscience educators? The answer to this question is probably yes. But I wonder if it is also providing a nice “life experience” for the next ruling class?

One thought on “Does "Teach for America" Produce Civic-Minded Individuals?

  1. I feel as though the focus of Teach for America is to train and inspire talented leaders to tackle the issue of educational inequity. The ultimate goal of TFA is to educate young leaders in the causes and ways of poverty and inequality, in order to create a network of dedicated individuals, who will, in some way, leave the program fighting for the future. This is not measured in simple voting averages or giving campaigns. The measurable success of TFA is the success of the students that are affected by the men and women that serve as TFa corps members. TFA has done its job so far, and will continue to increase its effectiveness year after year after year. The scope of TFA's effect has already shown considerable growth, and will continue to display success.

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