How Wise Is TFA’s Plan to Export an Unproven Solution?

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July 1, 2016; The Nation

Imagine a new drug meant to address a childhood disease. There’s no question that it’s ethically shaky to export that drug before it has been shown to be safe to take and more effective than current medications. When it comes to education, however, we seem ready to accept a lower standard. Educational strategies that have yet to be definitively proven in the United States are now being prepared for rapid expansion in developing countries across the globe.

In June, NPQ’s nonprofit news coverage addressed aggressive efforts to privatize education in Africa. This week, The Nation spotlighted the rapid expansion of Teach for America in 34 countries across the globe.

Teach for America was formed in 1989 as a response to continuing inequality in our public school systems. Despite the ending of formal school segregation, too many children were attending effectively segregated schools, and the quality of education was very different for poor and rich students. Wendy Kopp, TFA’s founder, saw the problem and wished to be part of its solution. Her diagnosis was that the core issue was that teachers were often ineffective and uninspired. Her big idea was to recruit graduating seniors from some of the country’s best universities for a two-year teaching commitment—no prior training required. TFA’s five-week summer training program would let these novice teachers teach in some of the nation’s most challenging classrooms.

The business model of TFA has proven to be a runaway smash hit. The number of TFA teachers has grown from less than 500 in 1990 to more than 12,000 teaching more than 500,000 students in the last school year. With a budget now exceeding $350 million, it has quickly grown to become one of the nation’s largest nonprofit organizations.

As an educational enterprise, the results are much less dramatic. Last September, NPQ’s Pat Schaefer looked at TFA’s impact after its first 25 years in an article entitled, “After 25 Years, Teach for America Results are Consistently Underwhelming.” The positive impact of this program is questionable. External evaluators have found little measurable difference in performance between students taught by TFA corps members and those taught by traditional teachers. Beyond the individual classroom, critics claim TFA has had a significant negative impact on the teaching profession. It has strongly encouraged the belief that teaching isn’t a profession like law or medicine, and certainly not a career worth a lifetime commitment.

The number of students in U.S. teacher’s colleges has plummeted, resignations and retirements are growing nationwide, and many areas are now reporting significant difficulty in finding enough qualified teachers to staff their classrooms. This may be a result of TFA’s impact on the perception of the teaching profession, or it may be a further justification for TFA’s mission to provide teachers to the schools and students least likely to attract teaching professionals.

It may be too soon to see TFA’s real impact; perhaps more time is needed to prove the model’s effectiveness. But it is clearly too early to claim effectiveness and share it across the globe as one of the solutions to education in the developing world.

Not so, says TFA. In 2007, with support from the Clinton Global Initiative, TFA launched Teach for All as “a network of independent organizations with a unifying mission to expand educational opportunity around the world.” The export of the TFA model had begun.

Rather than support the deep systemic changes necessary to overcome poverty and alleviate the lack of proper infrastructure within which teachers can function effectively, TFA has supported the growth of national clone organizations that focus on recruiting short-term para-teachers. In 2013, Khadija S. Bakhtiar, Teach for Pakistan’s CEO, described the program’s philosophy to a group of soon-to-be teachers:

Your classrooms may be hot and lack electricity, and you may not have enough desks or books, but we know that a high-quality teacher can do more to change a student’s life than fans and desks. Be the teacher and leave your students independent, empowered, and inquisitive.

Meghna Rakshit, Teach for India’s director of communications, explained their “theory of change” to The Nation’s George Joseph. “Oftentimes, you blame the system. But our core belief is that it’s the people who are putting the system together—that’s the problem. Underlying all these issues is a lack of leadership. It’s not a systemic problem; it’s a problem of people.”

As it is in our country, this can be a very politically powerful message. Teachers become scapegoats for a visible, pervasive problem, meaning that more difficult issues like tackling economic inequality and racism do not need to be faced. Business and political elites are protected. But how does it work out for the children and the families? Twenty-five years into the experiment, we have no way to say yes and many reasons to say no. So why are we pushing this “pill” on others?—Martin Levine