During a class discussion today, a student made an interesting claim -- that Teach for America raises the status of the teaching profession. The rationale was that TFA attracts students from Ivy League and other prestigious colleges and universities to the field -- graduates that, by and large, would not otherwise enter teaching.
To some extent, I buy the rationale -- TFA certainly raises the prestige level of the current teaching force in districts where they're present. But, after some thought, I have to disagree with the claim. TFA attracts academic stars into teaching, but I don't think they raise the prestige of the teaching profession as a whole; if anything, TFA lowers it.
When I applied to TFA my plan was to teach in an urban school for a couple years or so, help some kids, gain some experience, and then move on to bigger and better things. And TFA very much sells itself that way to prospective applicants; promotional materials discuss how many TFA alums enroll in law school or business school, for example. And current TFA corps members have access to an online jobs portal where they are recruited by some of the top firms in the country.
I don't know the precise figures, but the vast majority of TFA members do not make a career out of teaching. I believe somewhere around half stick around for a third year, and the numbers decline for every year after that.
I have a hard time believing that convincing people to teach for a few years and then move on to bigger and better things raises the status of the teaching profession. If anything, it lowers it. Teaching with TFA is akin to joining the peace corps -- it looks great on your resume and you have the opportunity to make a difference in the world, but for most people it's not a permanent career. In other words, teaching is a stepping stone. And making a profession a stepping stone doesn't exactly encourage the best and the brightest to pursue it as their lifetime occupation.
So, upon further reflection, I'd have to say I'm pretty sure that TFA reduces the status of the teaching profession in America. Now, this is not to say that TFA is evil or that, on net, they do more harm than good. Indeed, many TFA alums go on to bigger and better things within the field of education. In the long run, I think the biggest impact of the program will be the alums who ascend to positions of power in government, business, and school management. It's a pretty safe bet that TFA provides some of the poorest students in the country with better teachers than they would've otherwise had and also exposes some of the best and brightest young college graduates to the realities of high-poverty schools -- two very valuable things. But, at the same time, it lowers the level of prestige associated with a career in teaching -- and I'm not sure which one is more important.