Richard Cohen’s Teach for America Column Deserves a Failing Grade

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen‘s Teach for America column today (2/15/11) demonstrates a real problem with logic. “Cut Teach for America Funding and We’ll Be Closer to Flunking the Future,” declares the headline, with Cohen kicking things off this way:

The best teacher in America was in Washington over the weekend. So was the best principal. I cannot name these individuals because they are early in their careers, and the truth of the matter is that I am just playing the odds. They are members of Teach for America, a kind of Peace Corps for the school room–a program so select that most applicants had an easier time being admitted to their college than they did getting into Teach for America. No matter. Its funding is being cut.

Cohen goes on to explain thatthe program’s fundinglikely won’t be cut. But thebigger problem is the assumption that Teach for America teachers are the best–he’s just “playing the odds” here, predicting that the best educators of the future willbe drawn from the ranks of this “Peace Corps for the school room.” His evidence for this could charitably be called “thin.” Teach for America, he writes,

is supposed to produce smart students. It also produces incredible statistics. This year it got 48,000 applicants and accepted 5,300 of them. About 18 percent of the Harvard senior class applied; so did 27 percent of Spelman’s, a traditionally black women’s school.

Note that these statistics don’t say anything at all about whether Teach for America actually produces “smart students.” But that’s all that Cohen comes up with.

What are the real odds that Teach for America teachers will be the best, or even good? I have no idea.Barbara Miner’s profile ofTeach for America in the Spring2010 issue of Rethinking Schools points out thatone of the chief criticisms of the program is that many who go through the two-year program don’t stick around the classroom. But are they better teachers? One study found “no instance where uncerti­fied Teach for America teachers per­formed as well as standard certified teachers of comparable experience levels teaching in similar settings.” Yes, the program attracts a lot of applicants. But it alsoseems designed to promote career paths outside the classroom:

TFA, meanwhile, actively promotes the value of joining its teaching corps, especially for those thinking of gradu­ate school or immediately transition­ing to a corporate job. Its website boasts of TFA’s partnership with over 150 graduate schools offering TFA alumni benefits such as two-year de­ferrals, fellowships, course credits and waived application fees. The most popular schools for TFA alumni are Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Northwest­ern and the University of California-Berkeley–with Harvard the overall top choice. Its employer partners, which ac­tively recruit TFA alumni, are equal­ly prestigious and include Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, KPMG, Credit Suisse, McKinsey & Company and Google.

Cohen’s column is yet more example of corporate media’s fondndess for Teach for America. “If the maniacal budget cutters have their way, the best teacher in America will become another investment banker,” he writes. But Cohen provides no evidence that Teach for America produces such teachers–and apparently doesn’t think he needs to.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.