Teach for America’s poverty safari

I am not a fan of Teach for America, as regular readers probably know by now. I don’t think they have properly diagnosed the cause of the gap between rich and poor students, and I wish they’d rename their organization Give Poor People Money for America, and go from there.

For the most part, TFA critics have seized upon the bad track record of the organization in studies of its effectiveness. In the biggest such study, students of TFA teachers managed to do worse on all six administered tests than their counterparts instructed by a certified teacher. From there, the reports get a bit better at times, but even at their best, they show TFA teachers either having no effect or a trivially small positive effect on the test scores of the kids they teach. Even former TFA head Wendy Kopp now concedes that TFA teachers don’t, on average, improve the outcomes of the kids they instruct.

But some TFA people actually have a response to these points. The purpose of TFA is not to necessarily improve the lives of the kids their teachers teach; rather, it is to give bright, young leaders direct experience of the problem. The TFA recruits get to see right in front of them with a human face where we are failing our poor kids. And since these recruits are bright, young leaders, when they go on to do bright, young leader things, they will have this in their mind and fight for change. So on this view, TFA has a long-game strategy that will materialize down the line when these TFA teachers — most of whom quit of course — get into positions of political (or other sorts of) power and have the ability to make things better.

On its face, this strategy is wildly offensive. Basically it says that we are sending TFA recruits on 2-year poverty safaris. The point is not to accomplish anything while on the safari: it is just to watch and observe. See what it is like and become acquainted and maybe emotionally attached to the issue in some way so that later down the line you can do something more meaningful about it.

In addition to being fairly cringe-inducing, the theory is off-the-wall ridiculous. The basic problem is that even if these folks find themselves empowered to remake education, two years of failing in a classroom will give them no earthly idea as to what the problem is. These are not social science researchers and collecting impressionistic experiences during a couple of years of teaching some poors is not a good method for figuring out the drivers of a big, widespread problem like this. What’s more, since they are primarily just in the classroom, their “solutions” will almost certainly focus on schools. This would be fine if there was some consensus that this was the best place to focus, but the big counter-theory is that this is a totally misguided focus from the beginning. The poverty safari method for analyzing and coming to understand the contours of this problem is a total joke.

So how is this supposed to play out then? You send some privileged kids on poverty safaris for a couple of years, they generate some half-baked, non-serious, non-rigorous, goofy ideas about what the real problem is, and then they get in political power down the line and try to put those thoughts into practice? That is a terrifyingly dumb idea. If TFA wants to increase understanding of class-based educational disparities, they’d be better off spending some of their massive endowment on grants for actual researchers to go in and do studies, not on poverty safaris for 20-something do-gooders.