There aren’t many surprises in Career Services’ annual compilation of Penn undergraduates’ top employers. The University itself tops the list, followed closely by the typical list of banks and consulting firms — Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, the Boston Consulting Group, etc. One employer in particular, however, stands out from the overwhelmingly corporate list: Teach For America clocks in at number four, having hired 24 people from Penn’s 2014 senior class.
TFA — which places recent, high-achieving college graduates in low-income schools across the country — has been no stranger to controversy over the past years. For every article praising the organization, there have been just as many raising concerns. The Daily Pennsylvanian itself hosted the familiar debate last year, when an article about the TFA “Truth Tour” — a panel that raised questions about TFA’s effectiveness and morality — sparked an opposing guest column heralding TFA’s ability to “change the status quo through ... classroom practice.”
We don’t think TFA is out to destroy the American public education system. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a way in which its mission — to improve education in school districts with the least access to resources — isn’t respectable. But we’ve noticed that oftentimes, TFA has alarming similarities with on-campus recruiting firms that place more emphasis on increasing their own profits than improving the common good. Both leverage their selectivity into increased prestige to appeal to more students, both often dedicate hefty funds to “wooing” prospective recruits and, most troublesome of all, both capitalize on Penn seniors’ fear of post-grad uncertainty by recruiting early in the year and locking students in by the end of the fall.
Oftentimes, this recruiting model doesn’t leave a lot of room for a prospective teacher to consider the actual realities of TFA. In a country where education budgets are constantly being slashed and teachers are chronically underappreciated, how harmful is an organization that assumes recent graduates with no teaching experience (much less teaching degrees) can be placed at the head of classrooms after one short summer of training? Does the two-year commitment — which some unprepared teachers don’t even end up completing — increase turnover and instability in already vulnerable schools? And what about the organization’s track record of placing new recruits in school districts for cheap — allowing them to lay off scores of veteran, experienced teachers?
Further troubling is TFA’s tightly controlled, highly defensive PR ship — one that responded to negative publicity by hiring a crisis management consultant. An internal memo detailed TFA’s determination to officially divert any negative Twitter publicity that reached 30,000 people or more — the point at which TFA determined that criticism reaches beyond the “known detractors and catches the attention of new people.” The fact that criticism and negative publicity might contribute to the betterment of the organization escapes the conversation.
As for whether or not the well-documented concerns about TFA are enough to outweigh the undeniable social good of its mission — that’s something that we hope all prospective corps members can determine for themselves. But we hope that students remember that there are plenty of other social impact organizations that don’t have the problems associated with TFA — and we hope TFA’s willingness to engage in OCR tactics in order to seduce panicked seniors doesn't prevent them from giving serious consideration to those other potential employers.
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