Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Teach for America and civic engagement

For the past 20 years, Teach for America has sent new grads from top colleges into troubled schools to teach for 2 years. The idea is that these young, energetic teachers will inspire their charges, and that, in turn, having the experience of teaching will turn these young grads into better citizens.

It's an intriguing idea, but there's now some new evidence that the latter is not necessarily true. According to a new study from Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam (written about here), rates of voting, charitable giving and civic engagement are lower among Teach for America grads (who completed their two years) than among those who were selected to the program but declined the offer.

While there's some controversy about these findings (founder Wendy Kopp disputes them) it does raise the question of why this would be the case. I think the answer has to do with how much we, as a society, like neat narratives. We like stories that make sense. What could make more sense than people having a life-changing experience doing something like the Peace Corps, or Freedom Summer (when college students helped register black Mississippi residents to vote back in the Civil Rights era), AmeriCorps or now Teach for America? Thess life-changing experiences, according to the story line, would then inspire people to a life of service.

But real life seldom fits into neat narratives. As McAdam points out, the Freedom Summer folks (who did stick around in progressive activism) were undertaking something pretty risky and counter-cultural. When 13% of Harvard's graduating class applies for Teach for America, though, it's hard to think of it as a counter-cultural thing that would truly inspire you to do difficult and potentially unpopular things for the rest of your life.

It's also possible that serving in an inner-city school for two years can make people feel like they're "done" -- they've done their work for humanity, and now they don't need to volunteer or give money. Or perhaps people get so burned out doing this difficult work that they no longer care about public policy (why vote for politicians who will just grandstand about education anyway?)

These are tough questions, and I don't know the answer. In general, I think it's not a bad thing to have young, smart people try teaching. One of the few metrics that actually matter in teacher quality is the teachers' own scores on standardized tests. Clearly, the Ivy League grads who fill Teach for America's ranks do well on that metric. So maybe this study was going after the wrong thing. After all, if more than 60% of Teach for America grads are still involved in education, then it's certainly a success on that front.


Anonymous said...

"When 13% of Harvard's graduating class applies for Teach for America ..."

Can't help wondering how many people go into stuff like this in order to get some help with their college debt (which is fine as a secondary motive, but if it's anywhere near primary, not so great).

Rosin said...

I (who love teaching about the Transcendentalists and Beats as much as anything else in American literature) am thrilled when "counter-culture" becomes culture for the right reasons, as long as it's not just bandwagon-jumping or marketing. Maybe these kids are realizing that teaching is an ideal career for people who love to think and engage in discourse.

Anonymous said...

Rosin says, "Maybe these kids are realizing that teaching is an ideal career for people who like to think and engage in discourse." One would hope so, but my brief experience in teaching without the usual pre-professional training (in particular, without student teaching) was an absolute disaster. I was too busy trying to keep order, follow a schedule, and get work graded to be able to engage my students in much thinking.

I don't know what kind of preparation the Teach for America kids get, but I hope it is heavy on organization and behavioral management. If I'd had those skills, I would have had a lot more opportunity for thinking and helping my students think.