Why two years?
A lot has changed about TFA since it began in 1990. Of all the changes, the biggest one is TFA’s ‘mission.’ The original mission was not “One day all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” Instead there was a much more modest mission to fill teacher shortages with bright short-term teachers.
On page 109 of Wendy’s 1989 Princeton thesis “An Argument and Plan for the Creation of the Teacher Corps”, she outlines the original goals of the organization, all of which, incredibly, have been met.
A. To help solve teacher shortages.
B. To focus positive attention on the education system and on the profession of teaching.
C. To attract the ‘best and the brightest’ to teach.
D. To provide the opportunity for a group of individuals who would not otherwise teach to do so.
Before I get too far into this, I want to let everyone know that I really admire Wendy Kopp. She is incredibly smart and talented. By creating TFA she has altered the course of my life. She’s also been very nice to me the dozen or so times throughout the past 17 years where we’ve talked or wrote to one-another. My intention here is to argue that TFA has grown beyond what she ever expected, and how one of the initial premises, that a two-year commitment is optimum, is no longer valid.
TFA is based, in part, on president Kennedy’s 1961 Peace Corps and president Johnson’s 1965 National Teacher Corps. These programs were both two-year commitments. Two years seems like a very appropriate length of time for the Peace Corps. More than two years could discourage people from volunteering, especially to recent college graduates. One year would be too short. It would be inefficient to spend all the resources training the volunteers for only a one-year stint. The National Teacher Corps was two years also. We don’t know how they decided that this was also an appropriate number of years for teaching, but since it was based on the Peace Corps, they probably figured that this was a good number. It seems to be not too short to make an impact nor too long to discourage participation. Of course there’s a big difference between teaching and volunteering for the Peace Corps. For example, it probably doesn’t take six months to get good at whatever you are required to do in the Peace Corps. Also, if you mess up your first month of the Peace Corps, you won’t have to wait until the beginning of your second year to get a fresh start at being very effective.
When Wendy proposed Teach For America (known then as “The Teacher Corps”), she also made it a two-year commitment. I think that given the goals of the proposal, this was the appropriate amount of time. Three years would have scared away many of the people who were planning to give back to society while still pursuing their own professional goals.
On page 45 of her thesis, Wendy writes,
it requests that individuals take a break from their fast-paced lives to serve the nation.
Three years is, understandably, more than just ‘a break.’ Three years is too long.
On page 114 of Wendy’s thesis she explains the rationale for the two-years:
Corps members will agree to serve two full years. The two-year term would give Teacher Corps members a chance to become more effective in the classroom and would also provide a general incentive for schools to devote time during the first year for adequate support and supervision.
In other words, she’s explaining why a one-year commitment would be too short.
Thus we’ve got the two-years. Not too short. Not too long.
I think that this was very valid in 1990. But once TFA began to take off, Wendy got a much bigger vision. She had already done something that was seemingly impossible. Now she was going to do more. I can’t remember what year I started hearing the new mission “One day all students in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” Now, that’s an amazing ambitious goal. And as TFA worked to meet this new mission, a lot of things changed to accommodate this new vision. They began investing in better recruitment, more staff members, more sites, more institutes. They have also spent a lot of time and energy improving the training to meet the enhanced goal.
But one thing has not changed. It’s still a two-year commitment.
I think that this should be bumped up to three years.
I say this because I know that after two years of teaching, most CMs have become really excellent teachers. (I’m in my 11th year now, and I don’t think I’m that much better than I was in my third year. I taught for 4 years total in Houston.) Right now there are approximately 3,000 CMs in their first year, 3,000 CMs in their second year in their placement sites. According to TFA 25% of CMs stay for a third year in their original site. (Another 10% continue teaching somewhere else). So that means that there are about 750 third year CMs in their original placement sites, for a total of 6,750. 3,000 them are new, so they’re not as effective as the other 3,750. Let’s say that the new ones are ‘pretty effective’ while the second and third years are ‘very effective.’ So about 55% of 6,750 are ‘very effective.’ If TFA made the commitment three years, you’d have 3,000 first years, 3,000 second years, and 3,000 third years. This would be 9,000 teachers with 67% of them being ‘very effective.’ (I’m not even counting the possible fourth year CMs here). To me, that’s making a good step toward ‘One day all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.’ With 2,250 more third year CMs in the classroom, at an average of 50 students a CM (secondary teachers have 170 students), that’s over 100,000 children getting that opportunity to attain an excellent education. That’s 100,000 closer to ‘all children.’
And, best of all, TFA would have to invest very little to make this policy change. (Those third years don’t really need to tax the support staff anymore.)
I know the main risk in this change: There is a chance that this longer commitment will scare away some perspective teachers. But TFA is such a popular thing to do right now, I believe that they will still get plenty of quality applicants. Maybe a few years ago they wouldn’t, but now they’ve amassed so much power that they can use this power to increase their effectiveness. It’s a risk worth taking, and it’s a gamble that TFA can make because it is such a desirable program right now. It would also silence some of the TFA critics since three years does sound a lot longer than two.
Another idea I have is to give people the option of applying to TFA for either a two-year or a three-year commitment. The people who commit to three years could have a better chance of getting in, kind of like colleges do with early admission.
Anyway, that’s what I think would be the quickest and easiest way for TFA to work toward its ambitious mission statement. Maybe I’ve convinced some people that even three years aren’t enough. If you think it should be even more than that, write your own blog about it. I’d be happy with three.