Dear TFA: You Don’t Need to Keep Telling Us How Excellent You Are (Because We Already Know)

TFA founder Wendy Kopp.

Dear Teach for America:
I trust that this letter finds you in excellent form. I write concerning a subject that concerns us both: your excellence. You see, I am in receipt of this recent announcement regarding your excellence, this one, this one, as well as this one, and would like to let you know that I will require no further communication on this topic. I get it. We get it. TFA is excellent.

And by excellent, of course, I mean REALLY excellent. Like SAT score *crushing,* GPA pefecting, top college of your choosing, 22nd century career readying kind of excellence. While we were still lying in our state-schooled beds of mediocrity this morning, fantasizing about school vacation or worse, retirement, you were up early, achieving excellence excellently. In fact, in the time it took me to type that last sentence you exfoliated one layer of excellence, only to reveal another layer of even more excellent excellence underneath. In other words, enough already. I get it. We get it. So please stop.

Here’s the thing, Teach for America. Every time you pronounce your now well-established excellence, every time TFA founder Wendy Kopp tweets ecstatically about yet another study proving once again that Teach for America is even better than we thought, you drain a little more life blood from the teaching profession. You suck the marrow from it. Think I’m exaggerating? That extra half year of learning Kopp refers to above translates into a single additional correct answer on a standardized test. Which is another way of saying that the *value added* of teaching can be reduced, not just to increased test scores, but to a single bubble shaded in correctly.

And it’s worse than that. Every time you toot the horn of triumph, alerting us to the good news that your new teachers are better than our new teachers, even though the evidence is indisputable that all new teachers struggle, or that your handful of alumni teachers are better than our experienced teachers, you hammer the nail in a little deeper. You fan the illusion that temporary teachers who jet in from elsewhere are just as good, are in fact more excellent, than real teachers who are in it for the long haul.

Consider this exchange I had last week with an opinion writer from the Boston Globe. Boston is poised to eliminate the cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in the city, and if current trends are any indication, we are likely to see a teaching force that is now mixed in age, race and years of experience, replaced by one that is overwhelmingly white, young and temporary. I asked him if this concerns him at all.

As to the idea of young teachers leaving the profession after a few years, that’s something to watch, certainly, but at this point I’m not sure it’s a bad model to have some young people teach for a few years and then move on to something else if they want, particularly if the schools they are teaching in are yielding strong results.

I couldn’t help but think of my sister’s school in poor, rural Illinois, a school that is “yielding strong results.” But these are tough times in Illinois. And much as predicted, administrators are using the new “flexibility” given to them by the Stand-for-Children-crafted Senate Bill 7 to go after the most expensive teachers. Teachers of “nonessential” subjects are the most vulnerable; the loudmouths who stand up for them are vulnerable too. For much of the past year my sister and her colleagues have waged a passionate, public fight to ensure that students at their school don’t get short changed.

Would temporary teachers do the same, I wonder? Would they be brave enough to attend school committee meetings and deliver speeches or hand out fliers, even when it’s scary? And who could blame them if they didn’t have the nerve, since temporary teachers have no protections at all, not even their own excellence. For now, at least, the teaching staff at my sister’s school remains intact and students still have a gym teacher, an art teacher and a music teacher. How different might the last year have looked, though, if the school were merely a stopping place for temporary teachers who were en route to become lawyers, consultants, investment bankers or education reformers…

The idea that it’s possible to replace our entire teaching force with TFA-style excellence is a fantasy, of course. There are more than 3 million teachers in the country and fewer than 6,000 new TFA corps members each year. And yet the steady drum beat, the constant horn tooting, hat raising and praise singing, creates the illusion that such a thing is not just possible but a worthy goal.

So please stop, Teach for America. I get it. We get it. The question is do you get it?

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  1. Excellent piece excellently representing my exact same excellent feelings on TFA excellence 🙂

  2. The Kramers love to have their TFAers speak for all Minneapolis teachers. They show up at every event that MinnCAN and Educators4Equity sponsors and represent us.
    Here is a piece that four TFAers wrote last spring about the urgency of ending seniority rehire in times of layoffs. “A heavy burden rests on our shoulders as teachers: Alleviate Minnesota’s large achievement gaps, accelerate learning gains, and get all children college- and career-ready. We’re up to the challenge.” Apparently three of them were not really up for the challenge after all. Only one of these teachers is still in the classroom.

  3. Wendy might need to re-read the myth of Icarus. Maybe she’ll learn humility. If not, one can only hope her wings melt very soon.

  4. Real life, sadly, is somewhat more inconsistent in punishing hubris than the gods of Olympus…

  5. First of all, I love you Edushyster!

    Secondly, here is a peek at the kind of excellence I saw as a TFA teacher in 1991, again as a veteran teacher in a public high school which hired TFA teachers when they couldn’t find anyone else, and here again on OWN’s Blackboard Wars documentary …The more excellence changes, the more it stays the same. The tears, the cluelessness, the bad clothes, the tears, the incompetence, the lack of any socio-economic awareness, the Duke education, the tears, and, of course, the job offer that is so much better than what she is being paid to not teach….

  6. “In fact, in the time it took me to type that last sentence you exfoliated one layer of excellence, only to reveal another layer of even more excellent excellence underneath.”

    Good one. We should definitely be harvesting this excellence. Should we be looking for exfoliated scales or discarded loufah sponges?

  7. Dear Shystie,

    I have to know: which artifact of excellence was the straw that broke the camel’s back? I don’t normally hear you get so Jon-Stewart-hardballs-Hardball, but I love it! Does this mean you are cracking open an ice cold can of real talk (rizzle tizzle) on teacher preparation (tizzer prizzle) programs in the Unizzle Stizzle? Cuz I’d love me a big gulp of that high fructose corn syrupy goodness! Wait, what’s that? It’s a nutrasweet???

    But seriously, forget Wendy-come-lately alt cert programs, let’s just showcase what REAL professional preparation for one of the world’s most challenging professions looks like in universities? Just how rigorous and efficacious are the tried and true traditional teacher prep programs? Are you thinking what I’m thinking? VENN DIAGRAM PARTY!!! (I learned about those in my education classes!) Let’s do a comparison of how much better traditional programs are than alt cert prep and let the evidence speak for itself! (We HAVE evidence, right? Right?!?)

    Speaking as a TFA alum who did the summer training and then took the two years of masters classes at a local university, I know that my masters program trained me to….um….well….ahem. You see, it demanded that I think critically about….herm….well, this is a bit uncomfortable…I could have sworn there was something of substance I got out of two years of masters level traditional education training. Let me get back to you- I need to rustle up the really ambitious sounding program description from the school’s website.

    Sorry I forgot we are doing real talk Thursday. Real talk- with the exception of two courses, the two years of classes I took to earn my masters degree in teaching were less demanding than the AP classes I took at my (public) high school. I was simply required to show up to class, turn in assignments, and was guaranteed good grades. Professors were well-intentioned, kind people, but I learned way more about pedagogy, classroom management, and planning for instruction in my five weeks at TFA camp than I did in my two years of courses.

    I hear the arguments- “a masters program isn’t designed to teach you how to teach”, “you can’t extrapolate one program into all teacher prep programs”, “maybe if you had had training previously you would have gotten more out of the program”etc., etc. Look, I’m not saying all ed schools are as bad as the one I attended. What I am saying is that there is well-documented significant variance in the quality of traditional teacher programs in ed schools, so let’s not act as though TFA is light years behind in it’s teacher training methods. Quantity of training before entering a classroom? Absolutely a concern. Quality of training? My admittedly limited experience suggests the gap isn’t quite as large. I’ve seen the traditional student teacher practicum process as a classroom teacher. Sometimes it is amazing, but sometimes it consists of a student teacher getting dropped into the room of the first teacher who will take them and they waste their time doing piddly activities and leave no better prepared to teacher having watched someone (or worse had to do it themselves!) administer worksheets for six months. Ask any teacher in a middle to low performing urban school and I’d bet dollars to cents they’d have similar anecdotes. IMO, TFA overstates its impact, but good gracious people, TFA serves an incredibly small percentage of our children compared to the much larger number of teacher prep programs that serve our nation! It’s like trying to stamp out your campfire when the forest is ablaze (ok that was overly dramatic but the point is we are fixating on a small challenge when a huge challenge of setting a clear, demanding expectations for what teacher prep looks like looms behind us). And this isn’t a knock on universities alone (or as a whole- we have some amazing teacher ed schools out their developing amazing educators and leaders)- our state DOEs are complicit in the bars they set for entering the profession. Just saying. Real talk.

    Bwa ha ha

    1. “Sometimes it is amazing, but sometimes it consists of a student teacher getting dropped into the room of the first teacher who will take them and they waste their time doing piddly activities and leave no better prepared to teacher having watched someone (or worse had to do it themselves!) administer worksheets for six months. Ask any teacher in a middle to low performing urban school and I’d bet dollars to cents they’d have similar anecdotes.”

      Wow…that sounds just like the teach for awhiler whiners….eerily similar.

    2. Great to hear from a future, oh so excellent TFAer rephormer. What grad school did you attend? Come on name names so the rest of us won’t have to suffer through that crap. And why not name yourself and stand up behind the words you write? You got mine!

  8. In the 60s, when it was still common for women to leave teaching when they married, my urban school would always have several young, white, female teachers, who taught French, or German for almost exactly two years. At the two-year point, their engagement announcement to their affianced doctor or lawyer would be published in the New York Times, and that would be the end of their teaching “career.” That is exactly what TFA feels like to me. Get your urban “bona fides,” then either opt out or cop out.

  9. Wendy Kopp must tout the excellent excellence of corps members or the excellent money dries up. They must be seen as stronger, faster, more diverse and more passionate than those ignorant hacks who enter teaching with a degree in education, otherwise the DOE grants, billionaire funding and alumni giving go away.

    When I was a TFA corps member, I helped “train” new teachers after my first highly un-excellent year of teaching, working as a team leader under a much less famous, Michelle Rhee, who at that time had two or three years of teaching experience. Now, after years of education in education, I teach future teachers in a school of ed. Each year, these students will compete with TFAers for jobs in places where there are no longer teacher shortages (as there were when I was a corps member). Did I say compete? School districts have agreements with TFA to hire corps members. Education students who have spent years and tuition money to become professional teachers, who take the risk of having a fairly specialized degree, will go to the back of the line in hiring. This is not how you build a strong profession, it is how you dismantle one.

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