Teach for America CEO blames ‘toxic debate’ about education after applications plummet by 35% in 3 years

Elisa Villanueva Beard
TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard. Teach for America

Applications for Teach for America (TFA), the venerated yet polarising teacher recruitment and training organisation, have plummeted for the third year in a row, The Washington Post reported.

The 37,000 applications in 2016 were down from 57,000 in 2013, marking a 35% dip over the period.

It’s sobering news for an organisation that was at the forefront of innovative education policy in the 1990s, with its unique approach to funelling recent college graduates into two-year stints in schools.

Elisa Villanueva Beard, chief executive of TFA, pointed to the financial incentives of employment in other sectors as a potential explanation for decreasing applications.

And in a nod to some of the critics TFA, she said negative attacks on TFA discourage new teachers from applying.

“The toxic debate surrounding education — and attacks on organisations that seek to bring more people to the field — is undeniably pushing future leaders away from considering education as a space where they can have real impact,” she wrote in a letter on the site.

Indeed, there are vocal critics of the organisation. At the TFA 25th anniversary event in Washington, DC, in February, a subset of the TFA community set out to be a disruptive force.

Gary Rubinstein
Gary Rubinstein Gary Rubinstein

About 100 so-called disrupters attended a meeting called “Critics not Haters” where they could discuss their issues with TFA, according to Gary Rubinstein, a maths teacher and former TFA member who attended the session. The group was not welcomed by everybody else in attendance, he said.

“The people who criticise me, they were taunting me for the whole weekend,” Rubinstein told Business Insider.

Rubinstein doesn’t mince words when talking about TFA, placing much of the blame squarely on its shoulders for supposedly denigrating the state of education. He asserts that TFA and many of the organisation’s alumni have bolstered a harmful narrative about traditional public schools and have taken part in “teacher bashing.”

“TFA has highlighted their few successes so much that many politicians actually believe that first year TFA teachers are effective,” Rubinstein has written on his blog. “They believe that there are lazy veteran teachers who are not ‘accountable’ to their students and who are making a lot of money so we’re better off firing those older teachers and replacing them with these young go-getters.”

TFA was founded in 1989 by Wendy Kopp, a Princeton graduate, who wrote her thesis on building such an organisation. It places college graduates in public and charter K-12 schools with the promise they will serve two years in the program.

The organisation has successfully introduced highly qualified new teachers into the profession, and studies have shown the teachers in the program are effective educators. One of the most cited, a study out of Mathematica Policy Research, showed that TFA teachers were just as effective as their counterparts in other schools who had an average of 13.6 years experience teaching, versus a TFA average of 1.5 years.

Still, one prominent education researcher said that study didn’t have a big enough sample size. There is other criticism of TFA, primarily for the short (five-week) training that teachers receive, and the fact that many don’t have education degrees when they enter the workforce. (TFA also provides “individual and team coaching” to its teachers once they’re in the classroom, according to its website.) Critics, including Rubinstein, also attack the program for displacing veteran teachers.

For its part, TFA seems open to a healthy dialogue about improving the state of education. “Overall our thoughtful critics make us better,” a spokesperson for TFA told Business Insider in February. “I think the day that any one person or group thinks they have all the answers, TFA included, is the day we’ve lost the fight for equity.”

However, the CEO’s recent suggestion that the “toxic debate” about education hurts TFA seems to conflict with the organisation’s previous statement that its critics make it better.

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