Is Teach For America Failing?

Teach for America has been touted for its success in bringing talented people into the field of education. But it has also been drawing criticism, even from former supporters, about whether the program is effective. Host Michel Martin talks with Gary Rubenstein, a Teach for America alum, a veteran teacher and a critic of the program.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. As the school year winds down around the country, we decided to take a closer look at a widely touted success story in education that's getting new scrutiny.

When then-Princeton University student Wendy Kopp created the idea for Teach for America as part of a student thesis, an adviser told her she was, quote, "quite evidently deranged," unquote.

But the idea of bringing outstanding college students from a variety of fields to teach at needy or underperforming schools caught on. Since 1990, Teach for America has trained over 20,000 would-be teachers. And it is still a powerful draw for many college graduates.

Teach for America, or TFA, reports that nearly 50,000 applications were received for just about 5,000 openings in the most recent program here. But now, some graduates of the TFA program are among those criticizing the group, and questioning whether it is really helping struggling students and schools. One of those is Gary Rubinstein. He is a math teacher at New York City's prestigious Stuyvesant High School. He's a two-time recipient of Math For America's Master Teacher Fellow. He's written books about teaching, and is a contributor to Teach for Us. That's an independent blog for Teach for America alums.

One of his more recent blog posts was titled "Why I Did TFA, and Why You Shouldn't," and he's with us now. And let me just note that we will hear from a representative from Teach for America in just a few minutes, but schedules did not permit all of us to speak together, and that's why we're hearing from Mr. Rubinstein first.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

GARY RUBINSTEIN: Oh, you're quite welcome. Thanks to - having me.

MARTIN: So let me just start by asking you why you were attracted to Teach for America. You've written a number of pieces about it - and recruiting pieces, in fact, talking about your affection for the program.

RUBINSTEIN: Well, yes. I was part of the 1991 core, which was the second year of Teach for America. And I did it for the same reason that a lot of people nowadays do it. We want to give back to society that's treated us well, and we feel we maybe have something special to offer students.

MARTIN: I was wondering whether your criticisms came over time; or was there kind of a eureka moment, when you said to yourself, well, wait a minute, this is not right.

RUBINSTEIN: From pretty early on, I became critical of their training model. I felt like it wasn't preparing people. Teach for America has only five weeks of training, And I actually think that it could be enough time, but I don't think they use the time wisely. These student teachers sometimes only - they only teach for 12 days, one hour a day, and the classes often only have maybe 10 or 12 students in them. Some classes have as few as four students. So this is not a realistic training model, and you need to practice teaching to get good at it.

MARTIN: You've got a number of criticisms, which you've kind of enumerated - lack of training or really, inadequate training. But you also said that the context has changed. You know, when you were hired - that you were filling vacancies. There were jurisdictions where there just weren't enough teachers. So it was kind of, somebody is better than nobody.

You're saying now, that situation has changed. Overall - I mean - is the most significant criticism that the context has changed, or you just think the program just doesn't work?

RUBINSTEIN: Well, my most significant criticism is that their exaggerated claims of success end up, I think, harming the education system in a couple of different ways. For instance, they claim that their first-year teachers are doing really well. Like, on their website, it says that 41 percent of the first-years achieve a year and a half worth of progress in one year.

When I hear this, as a veteran educator, it's like hearing that there's a group of rookie baseball pitchers that all throw the ball 200 miles per hour. It just - it's not the way it works. I've been teaching for almost 20 years. I don't know that I get a year and a half of growth every year.

Now, these exaggerations are problematic. One, I think they give the trainees - the new trainees get a false sense of confidence. They hear all these stories about how great they're going to be. And I think at least subconsciously, it makes them not train as seriously as they might.

The second thing is, I think TFA might believe some of their own - sort of exaggerations, and that causes them not to improve their training model. But the biggest thing is that politicians hear these inflated successes, and then they buy into the current myth that we've got these old, lazy teachers that need to be replaced with these young go-getters. And that's also not the way it works.

But the huge issue - and the thing that got me, about a year ago, writing on this almost weekly - is the TFA alumni who, after two or three years, leave the classroom and go into a leadership pipeline. Now, there are some great Teach for America alumni that became leaders. They taught for a lot of years, and they became principals and things like that.

But I'm talking about a certain, small class of them. They taught for maybe two or three years, and then they were given the reigns to take over a district - and they have not done a very good job. A prime example is Washington, D.C., where Teach for America alumni are sort of at all levels, including the very top, and they haven't succeeded there. They have a policy of shutting down schools, firing teachers, given bonuses based on what I consider to be inaccurate metrics. And they've sort of bought into the whole corporate reform movement.

MARTIN: I'm talking with Gary Rubinstein. He is an alumnus of the Teach for America program. He's now a veteran teacher, and he has become a critic of the program.

When you say corporate reform movement, what are you talking about, specifically?

RUBINSTEIN: Oh, oh. Well, corporate reform movement is based on - sort of business principles; the idea that in business, if you don't get - if people aren't making a profit, you threaten them; if you don't get your profits up, we're going to fire you. And then there's competition with other stores, and that drives everyone to do better.

But in the world of education, it doesn't work so well that way. You have these charter schools that Teach for America alumni often are principals, and they lead charter networks, and we find that they sometimes get better results. And then when we look into why their results are better, we find that they don't serve some of the hardest-to-serve kids, which is the original point of Teach for America.

MARTIN: Forgive me, Mr. Rubinstein. I'm struggling with a way to ask this question because I think that your comments should be addressed on the merits, but I can't help but notice that you are currently teaching at a selective high school. You're critical of the program for saying - you're saying that some of these schools massage the numbers by kicking out kids who are less likely to succeed. But kids can't even get into your school unless they pass a difficult exam. I'm just wondering how that frames your thoughts about this.

RUBINSTEIN: Oh, I taught - well, first, I taught for four years in Houston, which was my original placement site; and then I also taught in Denver. So I taught in three different schools where students were suffering in this way and in that time, I learned a lot about that.

Now, I don't teach in a school like that anymore, and it's partly because I don't think I have the energy right now to do it - you know, with my family, and all that. So I've decided for myself, since I don't know that I can make the phone calls every night, and do all those extra hours of work that I would need to do, to do the best job that I could, I decided, you know, I'll teach at a place where I can - where I won't have to do as much of that after-school calling.

But I always made sure that I would train, and share what I learned about teaching in these other schools, with the new Teach for America teachers. So right from the time I left Teach for America, I started writing my advice about teaching. I volunteered to go to the institutes. I worked as a trainer for the institute, and I wrote books about teaching. So I've kept up on all these issues.

But you don't have to be in one of the schools to know what's going on. I have taught there. I've seen brilliant students in my old schools, so it's not that I think that poor kids can't learn - because I know that they can.I don't think Teach for America is proving that they've figured out how to really overcome it in a big way.

MARTIN: Gary Rubinstein is an alumnus of Teach for America. He currently teaches at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York City. That's a selective public high schoo. And he was kind enough to join us from New York. Gary Rubinstein, thank you so much for speaking with us.

RUBINSTEIN: Oh, I really appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

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