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.