Last year, 45 seniors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison went off to classrooms across the country for two-year tours with Teach for America. Founded in 1990, the program sends recent college graduates into under-served rural and urban school districts to bolster thin teacher corps and help improve the education of students in poverty.
But in recent years, criticism of the program has become more widespread. Some former participants -- most of whom did not study education formally before participating in Teach for America's five-week boot camp -- have claimed the program failed to sufficiently prepare them for the problems they would encounter in classrooms. Others say the program has betrayed its initial mission, and is now a destabilizing force in public education through ties to charter schools that are publicly funded but privately run.
These voices came together as a movement for the first time this summer in Chicago at the Free Minds, Free People conference. Beth Sondel and Kerry Kretchmar, two TFA alums and recent graduates of UW-Madison's doctoral program in curriculum and instruction, participated in a panel discussion there titled "Organizing Resistance to Teach for America and its role in Privatization." Last week, the two discussed their research on Teach For America's connections with charter schools and education reformers at a talk sponsored by the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education at UW-Madison. (Their complete presentation can be viewed on WisconsinEye.)
"It was very painful to come to the realization that despite the best intentions and hard work, we were part of something that had a negative impact on students," said Kretchmar, who is now an assistant professor of education at Carroll College in Waukesha.
Kretchmar and Sondel, an assistant professor in the department of elementary education at North Carolina State University, say the program fails to live up to its professed social justice goals.
"TFA alumni occupy a growing number of positions as superintendents and elected officials," Kretchmar said. "Many of these leaders have supported charter reform and other market-based policies."
Their presentation explored the network of connections between Teach for America, charter schools, and the school choice movement, arguing that the program acts as an "incubator" of leadership and advocacy for market-based education policies at the local, state and federal levels.
One third of its recruits are placed in privately run charter schools, and the program collects millions in public funds annually, according to a 2012 Reuters report. The program's growth comes at the expense of university-based teacher education and traditionally trained teachers, the critics charge.
"Research tells us it can take up to five years to become a fully proficient teacher," Sondel said. "TFA's two-year commitment and very high attrition rates ... make it nearly impossible for communities to build a sustainable teaching force."
But Maurice Thomas, the executive director of Teach For America Milwaukee, disagrees that recruits are ill prepared for their jobs. He says some states even require teachers to work toward graduate degrees in education on top of the program's five-week training sessions.
And he says the program is a great way to bring college graduates to the field of public education.
"Many of those people would not be working in education if it weren't for TFA," says Thomas, who enlisted in the program in Atlanta after graduating from UW-Madison. "I would not be working in education today if it weren't for TFA."
Connections with charter schools
Sondel discussed some of her research on charter schools in New Orleans, where the number of charter schools significantly expanded following Hurricane Katrina.
This transformation, she said, included the firing of 7,500 longtime public school personnel and the earmarking of $47 million in public funding exclusively for charter schools.
"In many regards, New Orleans has become a Teach for America district," said Sondel, who also contributed the lead article on Dec. 10 to "The Teach For America Truth Squad" -- part of the new Public School Shakedown project by The Progressive magazine.
In the 2012 Reuters article, Wendy Kopp said the rapid growth of the organization she founded more than two decades ago left it "scrambling for every placement." This has led to increased placement in charter schools.
Kopp said there was intense internal debate within Teach for America over this but she ultimately decided it was a wise move. She said one of the goals of the organization is to turn recruits into educational leaders who will drive "transformational change." Teaching in charter schools allows them to see what is possible in a high-performing school, Kopp explained.
Though they considered organizing Teach for America protests this summer in light of the Chicago summit, Sondel and Kretchmar said they were not "anti-Teach For America" or critical of those involved in the organization. They even praised Teach for America's ability to motivate students to care about education inequity.
"We raise these critiques because we believe they are important to envisioning and creating a socially just educational system and society," Kretchmar said. "We know a better [education] system and world is possible, but we do not see the TFA as engaged in that struggle."
Thomas says that in the Milwaukee public schools, TFA members are not at odds with professional teachers; in fact many got the boot along with other teachers during district layoffs in 2010.
As long as all kinds of schools can benefit from the presence of the program, says Maurice, Teach for America is doing its job.
"We focus on underserved students and under-resourced schools when it comes to choice -- charter or traditional," Thomas says. "As long as we have partners who see value in what our teachers bring our students, then we'll continue to work in those areas."