February 10, 2011; Source: Time.com | Even after being around for two decades, Teach for America (TFA), the nonprofit that enlists and trains recent college graduates to commit to teach in urban and rural schools for two years, is still not fully welcomed into the education fold. As this column in Time.com says “the reaction from the education establishment remains one of intense hostility.” 

According to author Andrew J. Rotherham, co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students, some of the dislike seems to center on a series of misconceptions that continue to dog the organization and its founder Wendy Kopp, despite the fact that TFA today has an annual $212 million budget and employs 1,400. 

Some of the myths Rotherham attempts to dismantle include the perception that TFA only recruits from Ivy League schools. Instead, he says that TFA finds and trains “great teachers from a wide variety of schools.”  Another knock is that there isn’t sufficient evidence that TFA teachers are truly effective in the classroom. University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, one of the nation’s leading researchers on teacher effectiveness, disagrees:  “The weight of the evidence suggests that TFA teachers as a whole are at least as effective as other teachers in the schools they end up in.” 

One of the early complaints that still sticks is that TFA teachers do their two years and then leave the profession.  According to Rotherham: “Fifty-two percent of its alumni remain in teaching after their two-year commitment, and 67 percent still work fulltime in education in one way or another.”  Critics also dismiss TFA as incapable of meeting the need for teachers at sufficient scale.  Defenders say that argument is wrong as all the rest, pointing out that TFA bests any other single organization for the numbers of teachers it trains annually. 

Finally, in response to those who complain the group doesn’t adequately prepare teachers, Rotherham notes that TFA apparently “provides more training and support than is commonly assumed.” TFA probably wishes it could send its critics back to school so they can learn the difference between fact and fiction.—Bruce Trachtenberg