too busy teaching for america

The New York Times featured a good long article about a study by Doug McAdam and Cynthia Brandt, scheduled for publication in the next issue of Social Forces, which assesses the long-term effects of serving in Teach for America.  McAdam and Brandt find that people who served in Teach for America score higher on measures of their attitudes towards civic engagement.  But unlike Freedom Summer participants, McAdam and Brandt find that on measures of actual civic or political activity, people who served in Teach for America lag behind those who dropped out of or declined acceptance to the program.  Former Teach for America participants even vote at lower rates than those who dropped out or declined acceptance.

I can’t wait to dig into McAdam and Brandt’s analysis but Social Forces hasn’t published the article online yet (or anyway I can’t get it through NYU yet). Meanwhile, two things strike me as significant here.  First, are these findings counterintuitive?  Freedom Summer participant were volunteers.  But Teach for America participants earn salaries, benefits, and postponement of federal student loans payments during their two years in the program.  In other words, Teach for America participants aren’t volunteering, they’re starting careers. According to the Times, Teach for America is the top recruiter at more than 20 colleges and universities. In 2008, 13 percent of the graduating class at Harvard and 25 percent at Spelman applied.  As Rob Reich, an associate professor of political science at Stanford and former Teach for America participant told the Times “Unlike doing Freedom Summer, joining Teach for America is part of climbing up the elite ladder.”

Second, the Times reports that McAdam and Brandt’s study “was done at the suggestion of Wendy Kopp, Teach for America’s founder and president, who disagrees with the findings.”  Kopp had read McAdam’s Freedom Summer and ostensibly expected him to find similarly high degrees of civic or political activity among former Teach for America participants. Setting the findings aside, I think what’s encouraging about the study is that Teach for America was interested in outcomes – not just for the students they teach, but also for the workers who serve.

18 thoughts on “too busy teaching for america”

  1. I don’t know about the “elite ladder” theory. I have some friends who Taught For America, and their experiences were pretty dire – working for subsistence wages in unairconditioned trailers in Los Angeles, teaching poor immigrant kids. Any chance that one of the key differences is the hope (or lack of hope) for making real social change?


  2. Teach for America has always seemed like one of the really bad ideas, so symptomatic of so much of what is wrong in this country. We are concerned about poor education for low income kids. So do we recruit experienced well-qualified teachers for our neediest students? No, we do not. We recruit smart elite students with no teaching experience so that they can have a meaningful experience learning about inequality in the US. Maybe if they are talented, about the time then end their stint they might have learned how to teach. Is there any evidence anywhere that children’s outcomes are improved by having TfA teachers? Is anybody even bothering to ask this question?


    1. there is some research to show that TFA promotes student achievement

      Click to access glazerman_MPR_TFA_JPAM.pdf

      of course there’s other stuff showing it doesn’t

      neither having read the empirical work closely nor being an education specialist myself, i don’t have much an opinion. it’s an empirical question but my ex ante take is that it’s plausible (but not certain) that people with an elite BA, minimal pedagogical training, and no experience could be more effective teachers than people who spent several years reading paulo freire.


      1. I can be a snide about ed school courses as the next person, and nobody is disagreeing that there are burned-out and bad teachers that end up in front of many students whose families have the least social capital, but teaching well takes practice and experience, and not everyone is good at it even with practice and experience. It takes several years before even a talented teacher is really good. Just about the time a Teach for American volunteer gets to the point of competence, s/he is done with the stint.

        The ease with which people make snide remarks about teachers are, I repeat, a sign of the problem.

        If inexperienced idealistic smart kids can do better than experienced teachers in some instances (per your sources), I’d take it as a sign of how little attention is being given to solving the REAL problem, which is structuring a system so the talented and experienced teachers are teaching the kids who need them.


      2. several years reading paulo freire

        …and, presumably, research on pedagogical technique, history of education, not to mention structured teaching assistantships where they use classroom experience as a teaching tool.

        I have no interest in dissing TFA, but gabriel’s characterization of ed school seems disingenuous.


      3. andrew,
        to clarify my point is not that teacher credentials are useless but that we should not presume that they are useful given that at least some of the content of ed school is dubious prima facie. as an institutionalist, i think it’s entirely plausible that in fields like education (goal ambiguity, heterogenous upstream inputs, difficult evaluation, professionalization, etc) then practices could be very loosely coupled to technical efficacy. i think this is uncontroversial when applied to such cases as that aspiring Roman senators had to study augury. i’m not making so strong a claim about ed schools, i’m just saying that whether pedagogical training is more useful than raw enthusiasm is ambiguous enough an issue that it should be treated as an empirical matter rather than self-evident.


    2. Olderwoman wrote: “So do we recruit experienced well-qualified teachers for our neediest students? No, we do not. We recruit smart elite students with no teaching experience so that they can have a meaningful experience learning about inequality in the US. Maybe if they are talented, about the time then end their stint they might have learned how to teach.”

      You could be describing graduates of elite PhD sociology programs.

      As for the “elite ladder” idea, I have read in a couple of Atlantic/NYT-style profiles (I don’t remember where now) about TfA being an excellent resume booster for young graduates headed for competitive corporate careers, especially at employers like McKinsey & Co. That’s not hard data, obviously, but it is interesting nonetheless.


  3. My colleague’s work (Dana Fisher — here: ) finds much the same thing. That certain forms of activism actually decrease future political engagement. Part of the reason this is worrying is that it is among those who claim an interest in engagement. Dana focuses a lot on paid activism, of which Teach for America could be thought of as a category.

    As for the “elite ladder” — I buy this. Volunteering among younger folks is part of climbing the ladder. We require it for kids as they apply to college. This kind of civic engagement (feeding the homeless, teach for America, etc.) is often form of professionalization, resume building, or less cynically, the right kind of cultivation of self that has become standard among the elite.

    It’s not that new (think of the aid societies throughout the long 19th century, or scenes in Dickens novels where the upper classes visit poor women). But as the gendered dimensions have shifted away from wives and daughters to men as well, so has the role of such volunteering. It’s not just part of “what you do” — it’s also an almost expected step on a trajectory.


    1. I think more than the issue of paid v unpaid, is a question of the actual framework that the activism teaches.

      I haven’t read anything on construction of civil society in over a decade and I apologize for my lack of theory…but I do remember being really bothered by the TFA recruitment literature that I looked at when I was in college. Their own propaganda used the metaphor of parachuting into hostile trenches (which isn’t a model for building civil society).

      If TFA’s mission is built on the belief that the city (the civic) is a lawless hostile war zone that needs to be saved by outside forces parachuting in—then participants lack of civic participation shouldn’t come as a surprise.

      No one in the Peace Corps thinks that Peace Corps volunteers are a good replacement for professional Foreign Aid workers, agricultural aid or local leadership. Freedom summer was about strengthening communities. TFA is not built on strengthening communities, building sustainable local institutions, or respect for civic structures. It’s built on a Dangerous Minds storyline of outsider fighting system. My sense from talking with alumni is that participants aren’t encouraged to find support within system (instead taught to find support from TFA).

      I can’t see how that framework is going to help”making [better] citizens”.

      I’d also like to problematize the question of what it means to be “involved with education “. The “education field” nowadays is big business filled with hedge fund managers: ;
      and Patrick Byrne style wealthy hucksters. There is nothing wrong with wanting a piece of that pie but it isn’t what we mean when we speak of “civic commitment to education”.

      I’ve had some good experiences with TFA alumni, and lots of bad ones. But I don’t see why the results of this study would be surprising. On some level I find the results that the TFA alumni score high on “attitudes toward civic involvement” is far more surprising than their actual lack of civic involvement.


  4. Although I share some of olderwoman’s concerns about TFA, I still encourage my students to apply. Why? Because I would rather they take two years to do something like this than go right into consulting, finance, or law school. They can figure out what they really want to do (and it might just be teaching).

    However, I wonder if what they are discovering in the process is that what they really want to do is get away from poverty and despair and make money.

    The elite ladder makes since to me too — TFA pushes this in their promotional materials (e.g. top graduate programs recruit directly from TFA).

    What if they are seeing TFA as their ‘giving back’ period and deciding they are done after that? That they have paid their dues?


  5. Glad to be here, shakha! And thanks to tina for inviting me to post!

    I think the “elite ladder” explanation is plausible, but that it could more modestly be called “a career track.” Teaching is not necessarily a ladder into an elite income bracket, particularly compared with a college senior’s peers who might go into finance. But teaching would seem to provide college graduates some instant income security in an evergreen industry that students are familiar with, not to mention the promise of loan forbearance. It sounds less like an elite ladder or volunteering, and more like a foot in the door, and therefore a potentially smart career move.

    I can’t speak to the quality of teaching. But I wonder how Teach for America cohorts compare to those from the New York City Teaching Fellows program who, while teaching, work toward a subsidized master’s degree in education. Are there different outcomes there, either for students or for teachers’ subsequent careers?


  6. @ olderwoman:
    I agree that the TFA is a sign that the educational system needs major changes, but I do not see that it follows that TFA is a bad idea. The people at TFA are not stopping local governments from making other good changes, arguably they are encouraging them.

    p.s. I believe TFA could do much more good than they do and should be encouraged to change. Most importantly, screen the schools you send teachers to… stop sending potentially good teachers into environments that make success almost impossible.


  7. If students want to go into consulting or law after TFA I don’t begrudge them one bit. I live a pretty cushy life doing research on education and reading sociology blogs while the people I know in TFA are pushing themselves to the breaking point.

    If you’d like to learn more about the experience of TFA teachers (and this is not hagiography) I recommend

    This is a great book on KIPP:


  8. One thing TFA alumns like to do is apply to grad school in sociology, even those without background in social sciences. Sometimes this is a great thing – hard working students with teaching experience, and some eye-opening real-world exposure.


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