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Is Teach for America Good for America?


Michael Zuckerman

Michael Zuckerman

Photograph by Tom Fitzsimmons

“It’s like you’re the special ops team that’s coming in to rescue education because real teachers are terrible at their jobs. I’m not going to say that every career teacher is an all-star…but I do think it’s problematic to right off the bat blame the shortcomings of education on the people who are trying the hardest to fix it.”—Allison LaFave ’10

“[Teach for America] never set out to be the only teacher training program ever created. It’s gotten top college students talking about wanting to go be a teacher, at least for two years. It’s gotten the whole country to really talk about what’s going on in American schools. It’s gotten people in a ton of different industries to know what’s going on in schools.”—Jarell Lee ’10

“Teachers everywhere—this is not just TFA teachers—all teachers are in the midst of an ongoing debate about education and whether teachers are smart, dumb, well-trained, poorly trained, taking the summers off, working hard, being overpaid, being underpaid.”—Professor Susan Moore Johnson, Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE)


Teach for America (TFA), an AmeriCorps program that provides an accelerated path for elite college graduates to spend two years teaching in low-income community schools, is as prominent—and as controversial—as ever.

In recent years, nearly one in five Harvard seniors has applied to join the organization, which placed 6,000 first-year corps members this academic year. But it has also come under increasing attack, and a spate of articles has run in recent months alternately slamming and lionizing the organization. Just this past October 23, the Harvard Crimson’s editorial page featured a staff editorial supporting TFA dueling with an opinion column opposing it that was much-discussed on campus and beyond.

As TFA scales up, it is becoming increasingly important to reflect on the role it plays in America’s complex education ecosystem. And with the organization producing more alums—there are 32,000 at last count—and the academy analyzing TFA’s effects more closely, a critical mass of guides is now emerging to help us think about how we should think about TFA.  

The interviews conducted here are no scientific sample—and TFA is a regional organization—so it’s important not to overgeneralize. Nevertheless, the debate between TFA’s critics and its supporters seems to have come to an impasse, in part, because there’s an analytical gap between the effects each side identifies: much of the criticism concerns near-term, tangible disruptions, while many of TFA’s declared virtues are tougher to measure and require a longer-term view.

In short, what you think about TFA seems to depend upon how large those immediate costs loom to you, and how large you anticipate those future dividends will be. 

Nearer-term criticism

“If anything you’re promoting the idea that Harvard kids suck, because you come in with the sense that, well, I’m super smart, so I can do your job better than you even though I have no real training in the profession, and in the first few weeks…you realize that you’re floundering, and those people that you were taught to think were what’s wrong with education are the first people you go to begging for help.”—Allison LaFave ’10

Allison LaFave’s experience with TFA was so dissatisfying that she declined to return for a second year.

For most of her young adulthood, LaFave was raised by her father—a lifelong public school teacher—in De Smet, South Dakota, a prairie town of about 1,000 residents. Growing up in a poor community, she was drawn to social justice; after making it to Harvard, she became active in the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), eventually serving as a director for its Harvard Square Homeless Shelter.

LaFave remembers being contacted by a TFA rep who’d gotten her name from a previous shelter leader. “I was really reluctant to meet with her initially,” she recalls. “I had a lot of friends who had really bad experiences.” That said, she also didn’t have spare funds to obtain an education degree, and believed that participating in Harvard’s Undergraduate Teacher Education Program (UTEP) would make it impossible for her both to earn income during the summer to cover term-time expenses and to write a senior thesis, which, as a member of the Lakota people, she was eager to use to research the tribe's history. (Current UTEP director Beth Simpson ’99, who has served since 2011, notes that summer coursework is one of "multiple entry points" into the program and that writing a senior thesis—though potentially "challenging" while fulfilling UTEP requirements—is not prohibited by UTEP.)

Despite her concerns about TFA, LaFave was also driven and fortified by her own experiences. “I grew up in a working class town with modest means, went to pretty lackluster public schools—these are issues that I care a lot about,” she offers. “The fact that I had firsthand experience…with high-needs communities made me feel somehow like my experience wouldn’t be as bad as theirs. Which unfortunately wasn’t true.”

Not all of the factors that made LaFave’s experience bad were TFA’s direct fault, but nearly all stemmed from, in her words, “education reform policies” that TFA “supports.” She certainly didn’t enjoy feeling “pitted against” veteran teachers: “it’s like you’re the special ops team that’s coming in to rescue education because real teachers are terrible at their jobs. I’m not going to say that every career teacher is an all-star…but I do think it’s problematic to right off the bat blame the shortcomings of education on the people who are trying the hardest to fix it.”

LaFave taught third grade at a charter school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) neighborhood of Brooklyn, and was unhappy both with what she saw as a “competitive martyrdom” culture in TFA, and an “insanely rigid military culture” in her placement school. “[The kids] have structured play for like 12 minutes a day,” she details, and the school focused heavily on high-stakes testing. The testing issue was cast into stark relief when LaFave encountered a third grader who was making himself vomit in school. “At first we just thought he was chronically ill,” she relates, “and then we finally realized that, oh, he was held back last year because he failed these tests. He doesn’t want to be held back again, but he’s not doing great. And so he was making himself throw up every day right before the reading block of test prep.”

“It’s hard to fathom if you’re not living it,” she explains. “And I think teachers are upset because that’s the reality of their jobs now, and people don’t give them accolades for it. It’s like: do you know how hard it is to deal with a room full of kids who are so stressed that they’ll make themselves vomit?”

LaFave’s is only one experience and her comments above may reflect more on the charter school she worked at than on TFA. But she and several other TFA skeptics cited several key concerns about the organization itself; others, more favorable to TFA, also raised some of the same issues.  

Among the most-cited concerns:

TFA fails to prepare its teachers for the classroom. This past October 24, Harvard’s Memorial Church filled with people waiting for Diane Ravitch to discuss her new book. The crowd skewed older—which could have stemmed from the $12 ticket price—but there were also students in the pews. Ravitch didn’t spend much time on TFA, but she did cite the anti-TFA Crimson column from the day before. And she drew applause several times by assailing the organization, the loudest coming when she listed among the reformers’ “hoaxes” the idea that “the very best teachers are people who have just graduated college and gotten five weeks of training!”

After the event concluded, responding to a question about TFA’s role in promoting the prestige of the teaching profession on campus, Ravitch quickly returned to the inadequate-training charge:

“I mean teaching, if you think of any profession—say, would you go to a doctor who had five weeks’ training? He wouldn’t be a doctor! You wouldn’t consider a lawyer who had five weeks’ training.” 

Katherine Merseth, senior lecturer in education at HGSE and director of HGSE’s Teacher Education Program, shares the view that TFA’s five-week Institute (as the summer training is called) is insufficient. “And why do I think that?” she asks. “Because there’s more to teaching than just standing and imparting knowledge…there’s also a very big relational piece.”  

No one denies that Institute is rigorous, but some feel that five weeks, no matter how rigorous, is not enough. At an extracurricular “EdChat” convened this past October by Merseth’s highly popular undergraduate course, “Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education,” 25 undergrads gathered in Emerson Hall to hear from five Harvard alums who had become teachers. A central point from a TFA corps member: “The things you need to consider as a teacher are deeper than five weeks allows you to get at.”

TFA teachers leave too soon. Attrition is a thorny problem for both TFA and its critics.

On the one hand, many of TFA’s teachers do leave: in their study of three national cohorts of TFA corps members, HGSE professor Susan Moore Johnson—a former high school teacher and administrator and an expert on teacher policy and school reform—and Morgaen Donaldson (an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut) found that 72 percent leave teaching within five years.

On the other hand, attrition is high among all new teachers: 46 percent leave within five years, and turnover in high-needs schools is especially high. As Donaldson and Johnson write, “Good data are not currently available that would allow us to compare TFA teachers’ turnover to teachers’ turnover in similar high-poverty schools, although reports from Philadelphia suggest that the rates may be roughly comparable.” There is no evidence, in other words, that TFA teachers are leaving high-needs schools any faster than anyone else is—but they are leaving.

In response to the “revolving door” critique, TFA’s website notes that “unfortunately, teaching in high needs schools in America is already a revolving door.” That’s true, and it’s a problem—Johnson contends that high turnover prevents schools from building institutional capacity and points to research showing that it harms student achievement.

With its two-year commitment, critics assert, TFA further ingrains this major problem. (According to Donaldson and Johnson’s research, 56 percent of corps members leave their initial placements once their commitments are up; 85 percent are gone by five.) “If you have a system of constantly replacing people, then you never get better, you never build capacity,” Johnson argues. “It doesn’t make the organization better. That instability in a school is not a good thing, and to institutionalize it is not a good thing.”

TFA hurts the profession by taking veteran teachers’ jobs and belittling their work. Noam Hassenfeld ’12 grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and attended a private high school. After studying music and religion at Harvard, he traveled south to serve as a third grade TFA teacher in New Orleans, ultimately declining to return for a second year. He recalls first feeling uncomfortable with TFA’s effects on veteran teachers while being trained at Institute in Atlanta. “There was this cheating scandal [in Atlanta]—they laid off several hundred teachers because several schools closed,” he heard, “but they had already signed several hundred TFA corps members to come in, so you had these teachers being laid off while you had these new TFA corps members coming in. Which is strange, because these are people with no experience putting out of work people with lots of experience.”

Beyond the jobs that TFA “takes” from veteran teachers (with 11,200 total corps members, they’re a tiny sliver of America’s 3.4 million public school teachers), critics also see TFA as undermining the profession’s prestige (a longer-term charge that Ravitch echoes, as noted above). Though one argued that TFA boosts teaching’s cache by establishing it as a viable career for elite university graduates, more were skeptical. Meg Durgin ’11, for example, argues that TFA’s elite recruits “improve the status of TFA, which is very different from improving the status of all teachers.” Durgin, who did her two years in the Bronx and now teachers at a charter school in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, continues: “I’m pretty insulted at all these social gatherings that [whether I’m in TFA] is the first question I get when I say I’m a teacher—as it if would be embarrassing if I had to say no.”

Hassenfeld agrees:

“[I]t’s driving home this idea that those who can’t do, teach. It’s saying that if you don’t have anything you really want to do, you can just be a teacher. If you scored high on your SATs and got a good GPA at a top university, yeah, you can totally be a teacher. That does a disservice to the profession. Because if you got a good GPA and you majored in literature, you can’t go be an engineer.”

Anthony Britt ’10 grew up in northern Maine, attending public schools with such meager budgets that his class had to share their AP calculus teacher with four other districts via TV screen. Even so, he wanted to be a teacher. “I really looked up to my teachers—especially my male teachers, because I didn’t have a father at home,” he recalls. Having taught eighth-grade science in the Mississippi Delta for two years through TFA, he is uncomfortable with what he perceives as an organizational ethos that focuses blame on veteran teachers. “When you take the fact that we haven’t cured cancer yet, we deem that an issue with cancer, not with doctors,” he says. “Why isn’t that the deal with poverty and education? People are saying it must be because of the teachers…maybe, like cancer, it’s just really hard.”

If it were easy to measure a given teacher’s impact, many of these arguments would be moot.

Measuring impact involves numerous variables across varied districts—from subject matter to demographics to whether you want to compare TFA teachers to all teachers, or just the new ones. Moreover, schools are tough places in which to run pristine, “hands-off,” randomized trials. As Susan Moore Johnson notes, the research design of such studies has often been “compromised by the fact that people within the schools knew who was TFA and who wasn’t, and it changed what kind of support and assistance they’d give people.” Nevertheless, Johnson affirms that the general consensus has been that TFA teachers, on average, produce minor gains in math, but none in reading.  

This September, Mathematica Policy Research, a company that specializes in evaluating social policies, released a study widely hailed as a win for TFA. The study, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, evaluated only secondary (middle and high-school) math teachers, but it compared TFA teachers against colleagues of all experience levels—that is, not just against other, struggling novices—and controlled for an impressive array of variables. It found that, on average, a secondary-school student with a TFA teacher learns an extra 2.6 months of math compared to a fellow student with a non-TFA teacher.

A 2.6-month gain in secondary-school math is significant. (Bloomberg professor of economics Raj Chetty, assistant professor of public policy John Friedman, and Columbia professor Jonah Rockoff have found that even a year of learning under a teacher who substantially raises test scores can yield lifelong, nonacademic benefits.) But when compared with other alleged effects—displaced or antagonized teachers, institutionalized turnover, stressed-out students, burnt-out corps members, no gains in reading—and considering the resources invested, it strikes some as dispiritingly small. “If I had invested money in TFA,” Johnson reflects, “I wouldn’t be reassured by that study. Because here are all these really smart people—highly dedicated, determined, and working 24/7. And they basically [produce] a few months’ advance in math.”

Forward-looking support

“I don’t think TFA was ever meant to be the solution. I think TFA was meant to create a movement that would eventually walk—no march—toward that solution.” —Jarell Lee ’10

Jarell Lee grew up poor and black in Cleveland, raised by a single mother. When he was in first and second grade, they were homeless, “living in and out of shelters.” He went to low-achieving public schools, but excelled; in ninth grade, he earned a scholarship to one of the area’s best private schools.

Lee traces his early thoughts about education back to that transition. “I realized that I wasn’t at school with the smartest kids,” he recalls. “I was at school with the richest kids. It made me realize that the problems in education…were structural factors. And I didn’t think it was fair at all, that rich kids were getting better opportunities, because they were rich, than poor kids were getting.”

He first considered TFA during his freshman year, when a recruiter came to a Harvard Black Men’s Forum meeting—“I said to myself, ‘This sounds like something I can do.’” By his senior year, Lee had already earned—through a summer program run by Uncommon Schools, a well-known charter network—an offer to teach the following year in a charter school classroom in Bed-Stuy. But he specifically wanted to enter the classroom as a TFA corps member. “I wanted to be part of the movement,” he explains.

Like LaFave, Lee grew up poor in a single-parent home; attended lackluster public schools; came to Harvard, was active in PBHA, and graduated in 2010; and became an elementary-school teacher at a charter in Bed-Stuy. Unlike LaFave, Lee loved TFA.

“I think a lot of the criticism of TFA,” he reflects, “is criticism about what people think education and teacher training should look like in America, and not based on what Teach for America is. TFA…never set out to be the only teacher-training program ever created.” Instead, he sees TFA’s effects extending far beyond the classroom: “It’s gotten top college students talking about wanting to go be a teacher, at least for two years. It’s gotten the whole country to really talk about what’s going on in American schools. It’s gotten people in a ton of different industries to know what’s going on in schools.”

Lee stayed an extra year after his TFA commitment and now is the founding dean of school culture at Achievement First Aspire Elementary, a charter school in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood. He doesn’t claim TFA is perfect, but sees it as a productive force in a broken system. “The question is, are we criticizing TFA or are we criticizing the American education system?” is how he puts it. “Where we are right now, TFA is not going to be the one solution to solve the symptoms we see in the American education system. It is one medicine. It is one of many medications that this very sick system is going to have to take.”

Reckoned short-term, TFA is a wash on teacher attrition and a medium-sized improvement on student achievement in math. What about the longer view?

Katherine Merseth is no starry-eyed TFA apostle, but she does admit that TFA has been “what Clay Christensen at the Business School calls a ‘disruptive innovation.’” Before TFA, she explains, “Higher education had a cartel on the certification of teachers;” TFA came in “and they have really changed the language and sort of blown the thing apart.” She continues:

What the creation of TFA has caused is all these other alternatives, like Boston Teacher Residency, or New York Teaching Fellows, or various charter schools that now have their own teacher-education programs. And I think that’s a good thing. I like to break up the monopoly—and higher ed had a monopoly on the training of teachers. So its effect on the sector has been immense.”

Merseth is “less sanguine” about TFA’s near-term effects in the classroom: “It’s kind of a squandered resource.” But TFA’s effect on teacher training in America is a longer-term dividend—further away, and even harder to measure than student achievement—that the program’s supporters ascribe to TFA. It’s not the only one.

Among the most-cited potential benefits:

The Movement Hypothesis. Just as it marshaled Jarell Lee’s desire to “be part of the movement,” TFA succeeds in pulling new people and ideas into education. Janet Wee ’11 was a Harvard senior interested in communications or corporate social responsibility—“I had never really considered being a professional in the education industry”—when she decided to attend a TFA info session on campus on “a whim.” Deeply moved, she joined and spent two years teaching kindergarten in Baltimore’s Mount Royal Elementary Middle School; she now works for TFA’s Baltimore office. (Though most corps members leave teaching, most—roughly two-thirds, according to TFA—continue working in education.)

Millicent Younger ’10 thought she would work at an arts nonprofit; instead, she was recruited into TFA and is now in her fourth year as a kindergarten teacher at her original placement. “As a Teach for America corps member,” she recalls, “I truly felt like I belonged to a movement in Baltimore. Even after my toughest days in the classroom, there was no way not to get fired up when in a room with 200 other teachers [at a monthly all-corps professional-development gathering], chanting ‘B'MORE HARD CORPS.’”

That level of interest has generated ripple effects on campuses across the country: HGSE dean James Ryan reports that, as an addition to UTEP, the school is mulling further “ways of enabling Harvard seniors to get into teaching in addition to TFA.” Ryan is careful to note that these plans are “definitely in the gestation phase,” but he calls undergraduate interest in teaching “a really fantastic development” that “we ought to capitalize on.” Though it’s not clear what kind of a program the University might launch—one could imagine an expanded version of UTEP or a prestigious postgraduate teaching fellowship—it’s unlikely Harvard (or its peers) would be considering such a program had TFA not paved the way.  

The Ec 10 in Dorchester Hypothesis. Several years ago, in Harvard’s Ec 10—the massive introductory course that teaches undergraduates the basic principles of free-market economics—some students who’d grown up on the wrong side of the tracks used to joke, half-seriously, that a week of classes should be devoted to hanging out in Dorchester, one of Boston’s poorer neighborhoods. That way, the idea went, everyone in the class would gain at least some idea of what capitalism looks like for those whose skills are not heavily bid-up on the open market.  

For some, TFA is that idea brought to life—and put on steroids. Lee, for example, cites the merits of TFA alums who “go into all these other industries, with this bank of knowledge about what’s going on in American schools.” Amanda Savage ’10, who taught in Washington, D.C., for two years and plans to become a public defender after graduating from Harvard Law School, echoes that point: “I don’t think it’s just about teaching, it’s about understanding the problems that people are facing in these underprivileged schools…and realizing ways to help.”

Neither Lee nor Savage grew up rich, but some corps members did. Although 39 percent of TFA’s 2013 corps received Pell Grants, the organization also mobilizes people of privilege to work in high-needs communities. Some find that model philosophically problematic; it may also, however, be a practical path to change in a society in which elites, say what you will, are likely to remain influential. Jocey Karlan ’12, for example, who attended Beverly Hills High School, now teaches at Susan Miller Dorsey High School, one of the lowest-performing schools in Los Angeles. “I wouldn’t be at Dorsey if it weren’t for TFA,” she states simply.

The Baxter Travenol Hypothesis. In 2005, Monica Higgins, now a professor of education at HGSE, published Career Imprints, a book that traced the burgeoning biotech field to one “prolific spawner”: Baxter Travenol, a healthcare-supplies company that somehow wound up with former managers “on the IPO teams of nearly one-quarter of all of the biotechnology companies that went public between 1979 and 1996.” Higgins’s research showed that Baxter’s organizational practices left “career imprints” that launched so many “Baxter Boys” into influential, entrepreneurial roles. The company helped birth an industry.

After Career Imprints, Higgins found herself working with education groups on leadership development. As she delved deeper, she found herself bumping into a lot of TFA alums. “I thought, hmm, that’s interesting—it sounds like TFA is a spawner like Baxter Travenol was a spawner. I wonder if I could actually study this?”

Higgins did study it, and found that TFA is, in fact, “more prolific than other organizations” in producing “founders and top management team members of organizations in the education entrepreneurship space.” (Of the “entrepreneurial” education organizations that Higgins and her team identified, at least 15 percent had one TFA founder; several groups—including San Francisco Public Schools, AmeriCorps, McKinsey, and the White House Fellowships—tied for second place at 4 percent.) Higgins is careful to qualify that this doesn’t necessarily mean the effect is positive—“whether or not those firms are good entrepreneurial firms is another question, and whether or not TFA is good at doing it is another”—but the data suggest that the organization is having a “long-term effect” in producing a rising generation of alums who could revolutionize the field. (Colorado state senator Mike Johnston, for example, has been widely hailed in this regard.)

In other words, even if it doesn’t move the needle much in the classroom today, TFA could still produce the people who will move the needle far tomorrow. Higgins’s research puts data behind the “movement of leaders” aspect of TFA’s mission that critics sometimes disparage. “I became interested personally,” Higgins explains, “just from all this focus on whether these were great teachers. And the evidence suggests they’re basically on par, or maybe a little better in math. But then I thought, ‘Gosh, there’s just a much longer-term perspective on this.’”

If an organization is successful enough, it eventually turns from an underdog into a favorite. This transition forces it to adapt. What works for David when he is David does not necessarily work for David when he becomes Goliath (and people start slinging rocks at him).

Teach for America, today, looks increasingly more Goliath than David. And one of the most encouraging facts about the organization is that it does seem to be adaptive. Janet Wee, who now works in development for TFA’s Baltimore office, stressed this repeatedly: “It’s an incredible group of people, who are so introspective [about our work] to the extent that sometimes we’re really tough on ourselves…[we’re] always thinking about what else can we do, what more do we do, how do we improve?” Susan Moore Johnson agrees: “It’s a moving stream in the sense that the organization has developed. They reinvent themselves—they’re very agile that way.” (One example is TFA’s Values-Based Leadership Collaborative, which was founded two years ago by Andrew Mandel ’00 and helps TFA “put a renewed emphasis on making sure self-scrutiny is a central part of what we do.”)

TFA alums and scholars from the Harvard community offer a variety of suggestions for how the organization could further adapt:

  • Many proposed that TFA extend the length of its commitment, noting that even the best teachers rarely hit their stride before year two.   
  • In addition to lengthening the commitment, Katherine Merseth suggests that TFA expand the Institute from five weeks to six to nine months. She also advises them to increase support to new teachers once they are in the classroom, because new teachers learn the most from reflecting on these early teaching experiences.
  • Anthony Britt, who included constructive criticism in a column for the Guardian entitled “Teach for America isn’t perfect, but it has been a boost to education,” predicts that TFA will face issues until it clarifies its long-term plan—“especially with respect to charter schools”—and stops “having numerous corporate or controversial stakeholders and donors.”
  • Noam Hassenfeld, who wrote an article for the website PolicyMic entitled “This Former TFA Corps Member Thinks You Should Join City Year Instead,” argues for placing corps members as teaching assistants rather than teachers—“a meaningful educational experience that can only help and not hurt.” He also suggests a “Doctors Without Borders” model for TFA that would provide incentives, financial and otherwise, for teachers who have already demonstrated commitment to the profession—not novices fresh out of college—to take jobs in higher-needs districts.  
  • Susan Moore Johnson, drawing on other research done with Morgaen Donaldson, thinks TFA should improve the way it matches corps members with teaching assignments.
  • Almost everyone agreed that TFA should focus less on simple growth in numbers and more on sending corps members to placements that most need them. “I do not understand why first-year corps members are placed at KIPP [Knowledge Is Power Program] schools, for example,” wrote Millicent Younger, alluding to KIPP’s desirability as a place to teach (its eight public charter schools in Newark and Camden alone report receiving over 3,000 teacher applications per year). “I feel that TFA should use its manpower as a way to put teachers in schools and districts that are struggling to find teachers, not to take higher-demand jobs.”

None of these suggestions comes without tradeoffs, but each passes a test that some of the organization’s most vehement critics fail. The test comes, perhaps ironically, from union organizer Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.”

TFA is one constructive alternative that’s been presented; it’s not a silver bullet. As Jarell Lee says, “It’s American education. The system is completely broken.” (Anyone tempted to see the program as either a silver bullet or poison pill—or question the opposing side’s motives—might reckon with Lee and LaFave’s many shared experiences and their strong, valid, divergent views.)

Instead, TFA introduces some short-term disruptions while placing a bet on longer-term, potential benefits. In that sense, it’s like other hard public choices: Should we take this money out of everyone’s paychecks to provide retirement pensions? Should we send people to fight in a foreign country to safeguard a future peace? Should we blow up the individual insurance market to create a better, risk-pooled one? These efforts all disrupt present lives for uncertain future gains.

In education, because the status quo is failing so dramatically in the highest-need areas, it’s hard to imagine a feasible solution that doesn’t consign some of the current generation to more problems while we try a range of ideas that could, we hope, make things better one day. In theory, could we do something about poverty that would help in the here-and-now? Yes. But we’ve been bad at fixing poverty for quite some time now, and political will is in short supply. Mustering that will may require a model—like TFA’s—that brings elites face-to-face with the fires burning in the most troubled corners of our country. 

The greater hope, then, is that the debate itself will lead to further innovation and action. To some degree, that is already happening—as with some of the new teacher certification programs (e.g., Boston Teacher Residency), or HGSE dean Ryan’s ongoing discussions within the University to support undergraduate interest in teaching. That action seems in the spirit of what’s easiest to love in the TFA story: Wendy Kopp had an idea and went for it. That same opportunity is available to all comers—and TFA, if it can do no other good in its harshest critics’ eyes, may yet impel someone to do something that does shift the status quo. That’s the potential payoff implicit in the organization’s wager.

As Susan Moore Johnson puts it:

“That’s fundamentally the issue for TFA: is this a long-term answer? Those kids deserve well-prepared, committed teachers over time. And yes, we can’t always have them, and that’s a challenge. But I don’t see TFA moving us ahead on that larger organizational problem. That said, TFA has brought terrific people into education who wouldn’t have ever—ever—gotten near it. And I think it’s going to be another decade before we see what the effects of that will be.”


Michael Zuckerman ’10 is a writer, resident tutor at Harvard College’s Lowell House, and staff member at Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership. He will be entering Harvard Law School in the fall. To learn more about him, read his mid-year Commencement address, “In the Valley,” from the Harvard Magazine archives.


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