While Teach For America gets many qualified teachers into the classroom, it arguably does not provide long-term support for them to stay there. Are there more sustainable paths through which college students can be encouraged to pursue — and remain in — careers in education?

Founded in 1989 by Princeton graduate Wendy Kopp, Teach for America promotes the mission “to enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation's most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence.” The program is now active in nearly every major metropolitan area in the U.S.

Teach For America believes that by creating opportunities for recent graduates to enter the education field and develop their skills at purportedly failing schools, it can simultaneously help young professionals and poor students. The program has recently come under scrutiny, however. A new book, Teach For America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out, offers perspectives from some program graduates, who complain that the rhetoric of TFA propagates a myth of failing schools, and points the finger of blame at bad teachers, rather than the underfunding of schools and the need for better job security and workplace conditions. Indeed, according to the NEA, the starting salary for a teacher is much lower than the starting pay for graduates in other careers with similar levels of required education and training. In addition, “teachers' inflation-adjusted weekly wages [rose] just 0.8%, far less than the 12% weekly wage growth of other college graduates and of all workers.” Because of this, many intelligent, eager college grads may be hesitant to pursue a teaching post. TFA, critics claim, does not address this long-term issue.

Answers

Maryann Aita, Writer and Individualized Educator

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Dr. Pedro Noguera, a professor at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture and Education, points out that Teach for America puts the least qualified teachers into the highest-need schools. He has suggested a number of ways to reform education, but his idea that teachers should be trained more like doctors -- with apprenticeships and residencies -- struck me as a potentially effective way to sustain careers in education.

Teach for America, as several answers have echoed, is becoming a resume point. I knew dozens of undergrad classmates who went into TFA specifically as a way to get something else. Even though many of the classmates I know did continue teaching, many left the schools they were initially placed in, leaving them as they became more qualified. This essentially keeps the cycle going: schools that need qualified teachers keep losing teachers as they become qualified.

Salary increases are certainly one way to incentivize teachers to stay in their profession, but I agree with Dr. Noguera's idea of restructuring the way teachers are trained. For one, if teachers have a larger investment in their training, they will (hopefully) consider it more seriously. Teach for America looks like a great option when you're trying to find your first job, but if you had to invest four more years, for example, into a teaching degree, it makes the decision much bigger.

More importantly, Dr. Noguera suggests that teachers should train under other teachers and I can't think of a better way to prepare someone to enter the classroom. As it is, many student-teaching programs are a matter of months or weeks and the student teacher might get to lead a class or two. But if students had residencies, where they were evaluated by professionals on a regular basis, they would be much better prepared to enter the classroom. That way, qualified teachers are in high-need classrooms, turning new teachers into qualified ones. We wouldn't want to be treated by a doctor that had a summer-long crash course in anatomy. Why should we take education less seriously than our medical needs? We spend decades in school -- it's important.

Better training, along with higher salaries, would give teachers more accountability and preparation, which would be invaluable to keeping great teachers as teachers.

Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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Something we can do is ensure that teachers are rewarded for choosing this career path. Young teachers are often not supported during their first years, are in debt, and are earning low wages. This constellation of issues can't help but lead to teacher burnout.

The path I would ask the nation to support is one of debt forgiveness for those entering service professions. The government provides such a program, but I find that young college students don't know about it. This would be a great way to entice our best students into the field of education--which isn't as lucrative as other professions but can offer different rewards.

But as a student in this economy, looking at the field of education seems to be a losing battle. Hard to find a job? Check. Crushing debt? Check. Mounting social pressures to perform? Check. Low wages? Check. PBS sums up the issues facing new teachers here.

I can't blame a student who doesn't feel like teaching is a good choice. Idealism doesn't pay the bills. So thinking about programs that support these students financially is a good option to consider, along with all of the great service options listed in this debate.

Lois Weiner, Teacher educator, researcher, former city teacher

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Whoa! I think we need to take a step back and look at whether TFA really does put “qualified” teachers into classrooms. Does “qualified” mean young college graduates who are idealistic and have strong academic credentials? Those are qualities that can help teacher candidates to become qualified but to work successfully with the kids in what’s called “hard to staff” schools, where TFA puts its teachers, you need much more. When I took a job in a “hard to staff” school I had already taught successfully for 7 years in the suburbs. I had quite a shock about how different it was and struggled the first several months, seriously considering leaving teaching. I made it and thrived because I was skilled and (pretty) mature at 30. TFA seems to be rethinking its model of preparation, as it should. It also needs to rethink whom it recruits. Thoughtful engagement with life experiences with racism, anti-immigrant prejudice, economic hardship and living in a community with your students can make you “qualified” to teach in ways getting straight A’s and high SATs do not. That’s one reason TFA’s policy of placing its grads in schools that have gotten rid of long-standing teachers of color is so very, very wrong. The people who can teach them best how to work with kids who grow up in unimaginably (to TFAers) demanding life circumstances are the ones they’ve replaced. My open letter to TFAers here: http://newpol.org/content/getting-personal-open-letter-tfa-recruits-chicago

Mat Cusick, Teacher, Writer, Founder of Q Arts Foundation, Research & Develop

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There are a lot of issues with TFA, many of which have already been touched upon by other Noodle experts, for instance: 1) TFA teachers are young and inexperienced; 2) TFA teachers aren't well-supported 3) TFA teachers are put in some of the most difficult environments; 4) TFA teachers tend not to be personally familiar (socially, racially, economically, etc.) with the school environments they are recruited to serve; 5) TFA wasn't designed with teacher-retention in mind—teachers are encouraged "to pursue leadership in whatever way feels most impactful for them"—instead, the idea was to build a corps of professionals outside of classrooms who have some personal experience with teaching, while covering the perpetual staffing shortfall in schools.

The retention problem with TFA is a problem for all of public education, however. There are alternative certification programs (many of which have better records of retention than TFA), including the teaching fellows programs created by The New Teacher Project, and various teaching residency programs across the country (see a list of programs). Some of these may be more sustainable pathways for college students to become and remain teachers. But obviously—let's not beat around the bush—the most egregious problem that is to blame for teacher retention is the terrible teacher pay. (Hear it from teachers themselves in this AJ+ video.)

In a Washington Post piece on "Why teachers' salaries should be doubled—now," Nínive Calegari, a former schoolteacher and founding president of The Teacher Salary Project, pointed out that if salaries had grown "proportionally to our classroom spending, the average salary would now be $120,000." Instead, as a McKinsey study entitled “Closing the Talent Gap” notes, teachers’ salaries have declined for the past 40 years. It was recently reported that the San Francisco school district was having difficulty covering a teacher shortage because teachers literally couldn't afford to live anywhere in the district on their salary. Innovative solutions to ease the transition of becoming a teacher can only go so far to solve the retention problem if teachers are still paid so little that they have to moonlight in a second job to pay the bills.

That being said, simply criticizing public school financing would be a cop-out as a response to this question. So, here are a few ideas for making all pathways into teaching more sustainable:

1) Provide more support to schools for counseling, social work, and other social services so that these burdens don't weigh so heavily upon the shoulders of educators. (Read Alex Kotlowitz, "Are We Asking Too Much From Our Teachers?" The New York Times: "Are we expecting too much of our teachers? Schools are clearly a critical piece — no, the critical piece — in any anti-poverty strategy, but they can’t go it alone. Nor can we do school reform on the cheap. In the absence of any bold effort to alleviate the pressures of poverty, in the absence of any bold investment in educating our children, is it fair to ask that the schools — and by default, the teachers — bear sole responsibility for closing the economic divide?")

2) Provide more support for mentoring, after-school programs, and any other ways to bring members of the community into schools to support professional teachers and the educational mission. (Dave Eggers, author, publisher and founder of the education nonprofit, 826 National, made this his wish when he won the 2008 Ted Prize, in an initiative that he called Once Upon a School: "I wish that you — you personally and every creative individual and organization you know — will find a way to directly engage with a public school in your area, and that you’ll then tell the story of how you got involved, so that within a year we have 1,000 examples of innovative public-private partnerships."

3) Engage teachers more in co-teaching (team teaching, professional mentorship, etc.), so that teaching isn't a burden that a teacher bears alone. (Read more about co-teaching).

4) Support other ways to build collaboration, support networks, and mutual aid among professional teachers, both online (through sites like weareteachers.com, sharemylesson.com, and betterlesson.com) and in the real world.

Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant, and Author

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I agree with many of the answers the other contributors have offered. I especially agree with Amanda Uhry who likens Teach for America (TFA) to the Peace Corps and the fact that it has become a resume builder. I always saw TFA as our nation's version of the Peace Corps and also, a meaningful place to hang out until one's "real" vocation or path became more clear. Employers valued the TFA experience it provided candidates. It seemed a win-win for directionless or "holding pattern" grads and the companies that eventually hired them. But I worried about the temporary nature of the TFA teaching posts, and what true and lasting impacts their role would have on troubled school systems. To be fair, fixing failing and struggling schools, particularly those in poverty stricken areas, is an entrenched, thorny issue. Even Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook money of $100 million to the Newark public school district has lurched along, and hardly offered the seamless, easy fix that many thought money would solve. There has been no Newark school district success story. $20 million went to a consulting group that made thousands a day to assess the problem. Well, that could be part of the problem. And so the story goes.

My feeling is that teachers in general, particularly those who work in these kinds of high-stress districts need to be well incentivized. I think that incentive should be financial. I think we need to change the salary structure for teachers and make it more competitive with other professions. The combination of low wages and high pressure is hardly an inviting career path. College kids need to know they will be able to a make a reasonable living. Many are initially idealistic in their goals, but idealism does not put food on the table. And I believe teachers can quickly burn-out or become hardened in their classrooms. So the wage issue is a huge problem to overcome. That being said, If Newark can't figure out how to intelligently spend $100 million, I'm not going to suggest I have any better answers myself. But I do think debt/tuition forgiveness is a start. So is a sign-on bonus. Beyond that, I had always hoped that Wendy's mission to have young adults serve in schools would catch on with corporate America. It is possibly quite Pollyanna of me to suggest this, but Wall Street with all it's corporate greed, scandals and debacles could do a lot to burnish it's PR image by jumping in this marketplace and adopting schools, or creating it's own version of a corporate service requirement/option. It could be a corporate version of TFA, but with more money. With more clout. With real access to real mentors and real employment opportunities for young kids. At my college reunions, I am always taken aback by how many graduates in their 40's and 50's have now taken up teaching. Of course, this was not their first choice career path. Their first choice was to go out and make a fortune - on Wall Street - and then flush and comfortable - give back, and pursue a vocation of meaning. Translation: become a teacher. The point is, the heart is clearly there for the teaching profession, but not in the first round. So why not turn on this teaching gene in corporate America a lot sooner? Why not offer established executives a several year sabbatical to go serve in these districts too? My guess is that with the right supports, training and preparation, a good number of these teachers might never leave their teaching posts. I'm not sure the best and only source of teachers should be from college. I believe a great resource could be these second career professionals. Well established professionally and personally, they may be best poised to enjoy the psychic rewards of teaching - and worry far less about the money.

Gina Badalaty, Parent of 2 kids with disabilities, Professional Blogger

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Lois has a wonderful point. As the mom of 2 kids with learning disabilities and an advocate for their inclusion in school, experience is a critical tool for any teacher in a "hard to keep them" school. I have been there, and some of the problems in our school have stemmed from the lack of a long term contract and the pay. In fact, I have a friend studying social work and what she has learned there (for example, attending a "poverty workshop") would be a great track for teachers. If TFA included that kind of service work as a prereq to completing their program, would that help? The reality is that for teachers - and I have a lot of them in my family - the burden of the workload does not meet the resources supplied by school budgets. Someone near and dear to me is in a poor neighborhood taught in an overcrowded classroom filled with kids with special needs and only a handful of aide hours a weeks to support those kids. How can she adequately support all her students (37, I believe, in the first grade)? This woman is a skilled teacher with a real heart for teaching, and yet the job wore on her early on. I can't see how you can take on a job like this and be effective if you don't really have a passion for children and education, with the low pay and tight budgets.

Amanda Uhry, Owner/Founder Manhattan Private School Advisors

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Teach For America certainly a good idea, based on an even better one, The Peace Corps. \In recent years, however, I feel many college grads have used Teach For America as a career stepping stone, a resume builder. I own a large educational advisory firm that extends from preschool to college and I hear the same rather strange response from college applicants -- that when college ends they can always "go Teach For America for a year until they get a REAL job. Well, that is right and wrong. It IS what TFA has become but teaching itself is most definitely a very very real job that we as a society cannot continue to grow without. So we have a double edge sword here: a great program that in some ways is ephemeral.

M. Erez Kats, Seattle Language Arts Teacher

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There are several other ways young teachers and college students can get into the field of education. Becoming a tutor is one that I find is growing greatly in popularity in recent times. There are an increasing amount of organizations and small businesses that are providing students with extra help through tutoring, and not just at home or after school, but in the classroom and the school during school hours. These tutors gain valuable experience in both working with the children, but also interacting with them and the teachers in class, something that can be invaluable later on. In addition to this, there are organizations such as "City Year", which sends volunteers into schools to perform similar types of duties, and work hand-in-hand with teachers as well. These volunteer members also provide emotional support, and often times are able to participate in extra-curricular activities with students more easily and readily than teachers even are at times. They learn the ins and outs of lesson planning, curriculum, grading, etc. as well, and are well-integrated, so they become a vital part and contributor to the classroom setting. This position would also be an excellent place to start for young and prospective teachers.

Norfina Joves, Educational Specialist, Academic Content Writer, Family Trainer, Contributing Writer

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There are diverse routes that a college student can do if he or she wants to continue to pursue a career in education. A student who is interested in administration, special needs instruction, teaching assistant position, and after school programs can apply directly at a school or at a district. Although many positions are posted by schools and districts require experience of at least 5 or more, college students who already started working for Teach for America or other teaching programs can begin their own teaching portfolio by doing substitute work, applying for after-school programs such as mentoring or tutoring support, and other community-based programs that are geared towards supporting K-12. I find those who work even at Boys and Girls Club gain experience workign with students on mentoring and tutoring. Other educational opportunities that do not include teaching directly or being in the classroom may involve working for private educational companie. Of course, this is more a sales position but they do look for young "entrepreneur-minded" folks that are innovative thinkers and have that "can-do" attitude to contribute to learning solutions. There are certainly many options out there for recent college graduates who enjoy being in the educational field. My key advice is being flexible, using your degree to get you where you want to go (not have your degree dictate where you need to go), and develop a creative portfolio. Those who thrive in the career of education have had diverse experience and skills set. Connect. Network. Think outside the box.

Cindy Terebush, CPC, CYPFC, Certified Youth, Parent, Family Coach; Education & Parenting Consultant, Speaker and Author

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Cultural competency is important for all teachers but especially those who will teach in cultures very different than where they originate. It is nice if TFA finds eager teachers but not only do they lack real classroom experience, they lack added training in the cultures they will encounter. It has to be very daunting to be new at a job, unsure of the skills learned in college and in an unfamiliar cultural environnment. In my opinion, TFA needs to ensure that less experienced teachers are mentored, trained in cultural competence and supported by people who are familiar with the culture in which they are placed.
I have been in the field of education for a long time and have known many teachers. While we all agree that it is an underpaid profession, we obviously don't do it to become wealthy. A love of teaching is like a calling. It is a passion. Yes - we should be paid more. No - many of us would not leave because of the money. There are other factors that play into lack of longevity for many teachers.

Lisa Hiton, poet, filmmaker, professor, writer

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As one of the few people in my Harvard Ed School cohort who is a non-TFA teacher, I have a specific encounter with the ideals of TFA and how they do and do not benefit the ed sector at large, and more importantly, individual classrooms of students. It seems that one of the biggest differences between me and my peers (among English teachers specifically) comes down to ideals of literacy. Many TFA teachers seem to end up teaching toward literacy at large, which is relevant and important, but sometimes fails to address literacy within the discipline (in favor of a larger politic--one that the students may not want to participate in themselves...). (An example of this would be valuing standardized testing over more content deep ideals and skills in the classroom. For my peers, this is a relevant fight for their students (supposedly) because they have to be good at playing the game of school in order to overcome/exit the hardships of their community. This idea in itself is very much part of a narrative written by a white savior complex...I could go on, but by the time I was done, I'd be on my way to writing a dissertation...) In order for students to be successful, they'll need both--to be literate, and to be literate within each discipline. That truer rigor can be gained in teaching and learning from many places. I think TFA was born from a particular issue--not enough teachers--and has failed time and time again to evolve as the education field evolves. I do have some friends who left their TFA time and have stayed lifelong teachers. I know others who used it as a resume builder. It's an institution--one that participates in the fascist capitalism of contemporary education--this sentence horrifies me as a social anthropologist, artist, and activist.

More sustainable paths would include: studying education at a program whose ideals match with your teaching goals. I find the place where I've learned the most is by meeting with teachers and observing them in their classrooms. That time (which includes my time admiring my good teachers when I was young) made me certain I would be involved with teaching for my whole life in some way--I did not need the two year trial period. I also think that there are many programs now that are similar to TFA in the support they provide new teachers, but which are more community based. If you know where you want to live and the community you'd like to impact, that is a great way to participate in the social labor that is teaching. I know that I stand in a particular camp on this question because of my own experiences as a student who encountered public schools in Illinois until college, as well as my own teaching experiences with Boston Public Schools and college students of vastly different backgrounds. There are plenty of other people in the field who do look at it more capitalistically and find that to be productive. I'm sure there will continue to be a vastly heated array of responses to this question and I encourage deep reading of all of them and as much flexibility as possible in learning from all parts of the spectrum--I know it has encouraged me to rethink my own encounters with teaching and learning.

Dylan Ferniany, Ed.D. in Leadership, Policy, and Organizations

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In my Ed.D. program we often revisited the question: Is it possible to get effective teachers in every classroom, in every school, in front of every student? When we look at the sheer number of students we have the responsibility to care for each day, it seems unlikely that with our current resources, preparation, and cultural acceptance of the teaching profession that we can expect every teacher will thrive and be effective. I've always been bothered by the fact that TFA teachers and traditionally trained teachers are pitted against one another by politics and rhetoric. I started a chapter of Young Education Professionals (YEP) in Birmingham to combat this problem and now work as the Collaboration Director for YEP-National. TFA teachers often fill vacancies in high need areas where a traditionally trained teacher may have access to a more supportive school district with many resources. Many are passionate about education and find ways to stay involved in education even if it is not in the classroom.

I think you will find that there are effective and ineffective teachers among TFA's, and effective and ineffective teachers among the traditional teaching force. Could they be better prepared? Yes. But anyone who has been a first year teacher knows that there is not a whole lot that can prepare you for the teaching profession aside from doing the work and learning from experience. I hope that with networks and support, and all of us working together to do whats best for students, more TFA Corps members and traditional teachers will stay in the classroom and the education field.

Amy McElroy, SMU Law School graduate, Writer, Editor, and Parent of Two

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Obviously, there are two real problems here: (1) teachers are underpaid and (2) if teachers are under-qualified and not fully dedicated to their profession, there is so much more at risk than, for example, an accountant who isn't qualified or passionate about their job.

To address the first problem--at least in part--I think the best suggestion I've read, above, is Colleen's, debt forgiveness. Education debt is growing monumental each year, and becoming a teacher is not an option for so many people at this point. This would be a good first step.

Then hopefully, with a greater pool of applicants, schools would have more options to find teachers who are truly qualified and passionate about teaching children.

The next suggestion will be wildly unpopular, I know. My children attended a Charter school for part of their education where employment was at-will and based on performance. There was no union.

If we are serious about implementing measures like increasing salaries and hiring better teachers to improve the work force in education, I'm not sure we can afford to wait for the current poor teachers to fade away or leave the system on their own, while our kids' education suffers. Perhaps the tenure protection systems should be re-evaluated, too.

Dr. Aaron Smith, Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, Currently Program Director at Aviation Academy, Co-Author of Awakening Your STEM School

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My dissertation was to compare traditional licensure versus alternative licensure (career switchers, teach for America etc) in Social Studies and I found out that it only predicted success only 30% of the time. So I could not make a direct correlation.

In my literature review I noticed that math and science teachers that had a master's degree did have higher standardized test scores compared to those that only had a bachelor's degree.

Ultimately the success of any teacher is going to be three factors: the support that they get in the first three years of teaching such as mentoring, professional development, and how their relationships are formed with their students. Having these vital components will increase the chances that an educator will remain in the classroom.

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