By Samanta Gonzalez Castro
A young, enthusiastic teacher stood in the middle of my seventh grade classroom, looking ready for whatever we threw at him. The teacher, a corps member with Teach for America (TFA), injected enthusiasm and liveliness into my class.
The image of a teacher has completely changed within the YES Prep Brays Oaks campus—my middle and high school— since 2016, when the Houston Independent School District ended its contract with TFA. The district cited, “among other reasons, its teachers’ relatively low retention rate,” according to an article in ProPublica. Education Dive wrote that “90 percent of TFA teachers reported they did not plan to stay in education long-term.” These criticisms are at the core of disputes over TFA and its role in educational systems.
Yet TFA leaders defend their system as bringing “academically able” but “nontraditional” teachers to the classroom. Anna Almore, a managing director for TFA in South Dakota, said the program’s goals include “bringing people who may not have typically, or traditionally, thought of themselves as a teacher” to the profession. They help corps members transition from college to teaching with a “rigorous five to six weeks” of extensive training, Almore said, where they learn “the art of teaching” with the goal of “equity.” Wendy Kopp, the co-founder and CEO of TFA, wrote that encountering low-qualified teachers motivated her to search for potential educators from non-traditional backgrounds who excel academically.
This plan has transformed American classrooms. A 2013 study by Emily K. Penner found that “students of TFA secondary math teachers outperformed students in comparison classrooms in 11 districts in eight states.” These conflicting views of Teach for America are what has made it a controversial organization. “No teacher is ready,” Almore says of her experience in South Dakota, both admitting their short preparation period and pointing out the complexity of the task at hand. TFA, in contrast to other programs, is “there during the process,” Almore adds. It’s that dedication that has made the TFA teachers’ absence so pronounced now that they’ve left YES Prep Brays Oaks.