The Curious Case Against Teach For America
Last week’s NYT story about how Teach For America is a feather-in-your-cap for high achievers interested in finance and consulting has dredged up a lot of old attacks, namely that not enough TFA corps members remain in teaching. Yet these attacks ignore the fact that the hardest part about getting somebody to do something for a long time is getting them to try it for a short time. Often getting somebody to just try something is all you can do.
Thus far, nobody has done a better job than TFA in getting top college graduates to try teaching. Yes, TFA doesn’t make enormous efforts to keep people in teaching, but it’s not as if the AFT is signing up 20% of Harvard’s graduating class to 30-year teaching careers. Therefore, any critique of TFA should start with a question: “Compared to what?”
The answer is that there are no comparisons. TFA is the best innovation society has ever had for attracting high quality college graduates to teaching. I don’t see how it’s a problem if along with the wheat there’s a little chaff (in the form of people using TFA to pad their McKinsey resumes.) TFA is still bringing in the most wheat. In fact, the dearth of teaching programs that match TFA’s scale and succes suggests that the lack of top graduates in teaching is not because of TFA’s failings, it’s because of the construction of the teaching profession itself.
In general, high-achievers are attracted to opportunities where they can differentiate themselves and show off their talents. That means professions that make it clear that some people are superstars and some don’t have what it takes. Goldman Sachs is attractive to young people because when a trader has a great year they can wave their $50,000 bonus in the air and say “I’m the #2 trader on this floor.” Most unionized professions, including teaching, work to avoid these outcomes by prioritizing job security and a flat wage scale. Even in the NBA Lebron James is underpaid relative to what would happen if the NBA players union didn’t exist. These priorities makes sense because collective bargaining works best when everybody ostensibly deserves a similar bargain.
The result is that unions would rather have a system where everybody makes $60,000 and 2% of teachers get fired, but top graduates would be more attracted to a system where 20% make $140,000, 80% make $40,000, and 3% of teachers get fired. You don’t get admitted to Harvard without wanting to differentiate yourself and succeed where many others fail.
The implication is that prestige will only be increased through a decrease in other things unions value — mainly job security and the absence of powerful value-added evaluations. In other words, the future of the teaching profession can essentially be summed up by the following statement: “1990’s level job security, extreme evaluation-based merit pay, attractive to top graduates. Choose two.” For a profession to have prestige it must be difficult to be hired or retained, or there must be large rewards for those who objectively excel at it. Right now teaching has neither. (Unions have proposed creating a higher barrier to entry, but any barrier high enough to attract top tier candidates would leave the country with a devastating teacher shortage.)
Without giving ground on dismissals or merit pay it will be difficult for teaching to attract a significantly larger number of top college graduates. At this point unions are not ready to make that sacrifice and I don’t blame them. Their responsibility is to current teachers, not college students. Making the profession more attractive to top graduates would throw the median teacher’s life into a tizzy, and so if I were a union employee my position would be exactly where unions stand now — fighting against dismissals and test-based evaluations while only paying lip service to the notion of attracting better teaching candidates.
All of this is to say that TFA is essentially being criticized for failing to achieve an impossible outcome, even while coming closer to that outcome than anybody else. Because the current lack of differentiation in the teaching profession prevents it from attracting and retaining the nation’s top college graduates, merely getting top graduates to try teaching is nothing to sneeze at. Instead of faulting TFA for not retaining, critics should laud it for successfully attracting.