STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A quarter century ago, a senior at Princeton University had a big idea - sign up recent college grads to teach for two years in low-income schools. A year later, Teach For America was born. The goal was to help shrink the achievement gap between rich and poor children by bringing in new teachers. Today, more than 30,000 people have gone through the program, but some of those former teachers are raising questions about the program's mission and its impact. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Twenty-three-year-old Julia Velasco Guerrero has a pedagogic ace up her sleeve at Alliance Academy in Oakland, California.
VALASCO GUERRERO: I get here, and they give us our keys. And I find that I have this room. This was my sixth-grade English class. I don't know, to me it was just like it was meant to be.
WESTERVELT: Shortly after graduating from UC-Berkeley, Valasco Guerrero joined Teach For America. After five weeks of training, she took control of her old classroom here at Alliance Academy.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)
WESTERVELT: On a recent afternoon, it's clear there's no Common Core for jump shots. Eighth-graders are getting clobbered by school staff in a spirited basketball game.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)
WESTERVELT: Velasco Guerrero is a first-generation college student. Her parents were born in Mexico. She's exactly what Teach For America wants - energetic, creative, smart. And it helps a lot that she's Latina and from the neighborhood. Didn't do your homework? Velasco Guerrero might get on the phone to your brother or a cousin of yours she grew up with.
GUERRERO: There's been times when I have called his brother and I'm like, hey, you know, this is Julia. I'm actually - well, now I'm Ms. Velasco. I'm your brother's seventh-grade math and science teacher. This is what's going on. Like, OK, you know, can you talk to your cousin about this, or can you motivate her to do this?
MATT KRAMER: The mission of Teach For America is remarkably similar to 25 years ago.
WESTERVELT: That's Matt Kramer, Teach For America's co-CEO. He says TFA set out to help address a huge problem - racial and economic educational inequality in America's schools.
KRAMER: Right from the beginning, the idea was that when we face a problem of enormous magnitude, the thing to do is make sure the most extraordinary people we can find are working on it.
WESTERVELT: A second big foundational idea, Kramer says, is also very much alive today at TFA - that the teaching experience, even if fleeting, would change the lives and outlook of its participants.
KRAMER: That we'd be taking folks who had extraordinary leadership potential, and we'd be putting them in a situation where they would develop real perspective on the nature of this problem.
WESTERVELT: But critics and some alums say the group has lost sight of the problem. Criticisms include charges that the program promotes an obsession with standardized testing, that there's not enough racial diversity, that there's too little training, that the group ends up promoting charters over traditional public schools and that TFA's two-year teaching pledge worsens the teacher turnover problem.
TERRENDA WHITE: Sometimes the message can be, oh, after you teach you can do something more, you know, as if teaching isn't big enough or good enough or powerful enough.
WESTERVELT: Fresh out of Northwestern University in 2002, Terrenda White, like many recent grads, wasn't sure what was next. But the young African-American, first-generation college grad wanted to make a difference. She was disturbed that zip code and family income too often determined kids' schooling.
WHITE: I was very, very much committed to ideas of equity, but I hadn't really thought about a profession in teaching.
WESTERVELT: She signed on with TFA for a two-year tour and headed into that intensive five-week crash training - lesson planning, classroom management and more. Then she got a call from TFA headquarters. Would you mind if a camera crew follows you around for a CNN documentary on TFA? Why not, White said.
WHITE: That was intense. And you start to realize, whoa, in five weeks, I'm going to be fully in charge of young people and their educational experiences, and it's going to be documented and aired on national television.
WESTERVELT: White was supposed to do a school in Los Angeles. This is White from the 2001 CNN documentary "Teaching For America."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TEACHING FOR AMERICA")
WHITE: I look at myself in the mirror, and I say I'm a teacher. I am a teacher.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She looks at her students and sees 20 reasons to be a teacher.
WHITE: I look back, and I cringe. And I really want to reclaim my narrative for myself. It would look very different than, look at Terrenda and her zealousness, and she's what TFA represents.
WESTERVELT: White is hardly alone. Critical alumni groups have cropped up across the U.S., and it's not just alumni. There's now even an effort underway to boot TFA recruiters off campuses and disrupt the group's corporate contracts. United Students Against Sweatshops charges that TFA is in the pocket of corporate reformers who are displacing veteran teachers and undermining public education. The group recently met with senior TFA officials in New York. Leewana Thomas with USAF says the group left unsatisfied.
LEEWANA THOMAS: Their avoidance of actually addressing these problems and our concerns and demands probably warrants us continuing to fight to kick them off of our campuses unless they're willing to change.
WESTERVELT: Matt Kramer, TFA's co-CEO, insists the organization isn't just listening to its critics, it's making real changes. They include pilot projects to start training corps members as juniors in college and to better support and encourage teachers to teach longer than two years. Two-thirds of TFA alums, he says, are working full-time in education today. And he points out the group's strides in diversity. Half of this year's TFA corps identify as people of color. That percentage is a lot higher than the teaching profession as a whole.
KRAMER: We're really proud of that. We think that it's important to have diversity in the corps. We also think it's important to have folks who people who identify as white or who come from middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds in the corps as long as they're committed to using all the privilege that they bring with them for the purpose of justice.
WESTERVELT: TFA alum Terrenda White worries that despite reform efforts, the organization is in the end doing more harm than good. She remembers the day she turned in her TFA resignation slip after 3 years in a Southeast LA classroom.
WHITE: There was a parent who said to me - you know, she said, oh, I thought - you know, I just planned on having my younger child being in your classroom or having you as a teacher. You guys come, and you leave so quickly, you know? And I became one of hundreds of corps members that passed through that community in ways that I'm not comfortable with.
WESTERVELT: Back at Oakland's Alliance Academy, first-year TFA teacher Julia Velasco Guerrero says she knows the criticisms. But this one teacher anyway says she's known since childhood this was her calling.
GUERRERO: My goal was to graduate from college and be a teacher. Personally, it's something that I definitely want to continue to do, ideally here still at my middle school or even if it's high school.
WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.