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Lammerman: The dark side of Teach For America

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By Eric Lammerman

For the past five years, the Hawaii Department of Education (DOE) has been using recruits from an organization called Teach For America (TFA) to fill out its teaching ranks on Oahu and the Big Island. Since TFA’s contract with the DOE expires at the end of the current school year, it’s time to evaluate the program’s impact in Hawaii.

On the surface, TFA seems shiny: They take “high-achieving” college graduates and place them in “hard to fill” teaching positions. Of course, TFA is a $38 million national nonprofit with a slick, well-oiled PR machine. I have discovered some serious problems with TFA in Hawaii that deserve consideration as we evaluate the organization.

Problem No. 1: TFA drains a lot of money from our education system.

In April, First Hawaiian Bank awarded Teach For America (TFA) a grant of $50,000. First Hawaiian has contributed more than $300,000 to Teach for America Hawaii since the program’s inception in 2006. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs awarded a grant of $100,000 to the organization in 2009. And the DOE has paid $577,000 over five years to Teach For America.

TFA has accrued at least $977,000 since 2006. With 122 TFA recruits currently teaching in the state of Hawaii, the organization has siphoned over $8,000 per recruit out of the system.

Problem No. 2: TFA recruits drain energy from the education system.

The DOE invests in each teacher it hires through professional development. TFA recruits require a higher degree of professional support, which is one of many hidden costs of TFA in Hawaii. New teachers work with mentor teachers, who provide hands-on support and guidance.

Since TFA recruits enter the classroom with no experience and only five weeks of teacher training, their mentors have their work cut out for them. Mentor teachers working with TFA recruits have less time and energy to focus on a) their own students, b) mentoring new teachers with superior training, and c) their personal lives.

TFA hacks would have you believe that TFA recruits are as well-prepared as anyone when they first enter the classroom: Ask a teacher mentor if they agree with this.

Problem No. 3: TFA recruits represent a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

TFA recruits generally leave Hawaii once they complete their two-year teaching commitment. The state spends several thousand dollars per TFA recruit, and invests a fair amount of time and energy in their professional development.

What is the return on the state’s investment? When one experienced, trained TFA recruit departs, the DOE gets to hire an inexperienced, untrained TFA recruit. And overpay him or her for their work.

Problem No. 4: TFA creates inequity in terms of teacher pay.

If it weren’t for the provisional licenses granted TFA recruits, these young men and women would have to compete for their jobs against teachers with experience and valid out-of-state teaching credentials. Not only do TFA recruits get a competitive advantage they do not deserve, they get paid more than the state should be paying them.

TFA recruits earn roughly $41,000 per year. Teachers with a bachelor’s degree that have not completed a state approved teacher education program (SATEP) are supposed to be paid about $33,000 per year, according to the DOE’s teacher salary schedule.

Why do we pay TFA recruits (who have not completed a SATEP) $8,000 more per year than we should be paying them? With 122 TFA recruits in place, the DOE is spending $976,000 more in wages than it ought to be this year. In the five years that TFA has been in Hawaii, the DOE has employed 504 recruits: Multiply this number by the $8,000 “bonus” TFA recruits receive every year, and you get more than $4 million.

Problem No. 5: TFA has taken 122 job opportunities from local teachers.

TFA recruits generally enter the classroom with no prior teaching experience, and five weeks of teacher training; but the DOE gives them provisional licenses to teach. With these provisional licenses in hand, TFA recruits are interviewed and hired ahead of many local teachers.

While TFA would like you to believe that its recruits are simply sliding into empty positions, positions for which there are no qualified applicants, I can tell you for a fact that this is not true.

For example, I have over four years of teaching experience and have completed 35 weeks of teacher training through UH Manoa; but I am “emergency hire,” and the DOE’s hiring policy places TFA recruits two tiers above me.

Are TFA recruits given preferential treatment by the DOE because they are such “high achievers?” Since I completed a Masters degree and graduated with a 3.94 GPA, I’m going to rule that out.

I’m not the only one with an axe to grind when it comes to TFA costing local teachers jobs. I know a woman with a valid California teaching credential and years of experience who is looking for work: TFA recruits get priority over her, too.

I also know two young men from Big Island who completed teacher certification programs last Spring: One of them had to move to Oahu to find work, and the other is still looking for a full-time teaching position.

While newly certified teachers are supposed to get jobs before TFA recruits, it takes several weeks for the DOE to process certification. By the time the paperwork is done, TFA recruits have already been placed.

Furthermore, there is financial incentive for administrators to favor TFA recruits over probationary teachers: Probationary teachers costs $2,000-$5,000 more per year than TFA recruits, a gap that would widen as the “probies” gain experience. Cost-conscious administrators might be tempted to compromise the quality of their school’s teaching staff (while maintaining the same number of “highly qualified teachers”) in order to balance their budgets.

Problem No. 6: TFA undermines teacher professionalism.

A standard teacher preparation program requires two years to complete. TFA uses the adjective “intensive” to describe its five-week teacher “boot camp.”

No matter how “intensive” this training might be, there is absolutely no way it is equal to a state-approved teacher education program: To pretend otherwise is to devalue the quality and importance of teacher education programs across the country.

Thanks to an “anomaly amendment” passed by congress this past December, however, TFA recruits are now “highly qualified teachers.”

Does anyone really believe that you can become a highly qualified teacher in five weeks? If so, I recommend that you volunteer in a classroom for a few days.

Problem No. 7: TFA intensifies tension in the teaching ranks.

When you consider the problems listed above, you would think this a natural consequence. Of course, teachers working alongside TFA recruits are in an awkward position: they value collegiality, and they have a job to do that requires successful cooperation.

The Hawaii State Teacher’s Association (HSTA) is also in an awkward position, because it is obligated to represent the interest of its dues-paying members — which includes TFA recruits. Sadly, according to my source in the union, the HSTA did not participate in creating the labor agreement between the DOE and TFA (I’m not sure how the state managed to circumvent the union in this process; but that’s a separate issue).

Various teacher unions, individuals, and community organizations on the mainland have sued TFA over the years: TFA has been booted out of several school districts, including Detroit and Seattle in the 2010-2011 school year.

Problem No. 8: TFA is playing with a stacked deck.

First Hawaiian Bank, as mentioned above, has given $300,000 to TFA over the past five years. Don Horner is the CEO of First Hawaiian and also the chairman of the nine-member Hawaii Board of Education, which will help determine whether or not TFA will retain its presence in the state of Hawaii.

From my perspective, this is pretty clear conflict of interest: Horner should recuse himself of any decisions he might make involving TFA.

Also, since TFA recruits count as “highly qualified teachers,” they artificially boost school/state numbers…which might help schools/the state to secure additional Federal funding. Counting an inexperienced teacher with five weeks of training as “highly qualified” is absurd, and this loophole should be closed out of respect for teachers who actually earn this distinction.

Given all of these drawbacks, it’s hard to imagine how the state’s policy-makers could justify continuing their relationship with TFA.

TFA has drained millions of dollars as well as substantial energy from Hawaii’s education system. It offers a short-term solution to our state’s long-term need for qualified teachers, and in the process creates inequity in terms of teacher hiring and pay.

In these hard economic times, policy-makers should be careful to preserve job opportunities for local teachers that deserve them — and to make sure that local teachers are paid fairly. TFA also undermines teacher professionalism, and intensifies tension in the teaching ranks.

Please join me in writing a letter to each member of Hawaii’s Board of Education: Let them know how you feel about wasteful, short-sighted, and unjust policy in our schools. The health of the state’s educational system is at stake, and we need to make sound decisions to ensure that the children of Hawaii receive a quality education.

Hawaii Board of Education
P.O. Box 2360
Honolulu, HI 96804
Board Office Phone: (808) 586-3334

Board Members:
Donald G. Horner (Chairman)
Brian DeLima (Vice Chairman and Big Island Rep:
Kim Gennaula
Wesley Lo
Keith Amemiya
Nancy Budd
Jim Williams
Charlene Cuaresma
Cheryl Kauhane Lupenui

(Eric Lammerman is a Kailua-Kona resident who has taught for over four years, working in schools in California, Oregon and Hawaii. He earned his master’s degree in Journalism from the University of Oregon (2002), and is currently working on his teacher certification through UH Manoa.)

11 Responses to “Lammerman: The dark side of Teach For America”

  1. Terry Marie says:

    You write: Why do we pay TFA recruits (who have not completed a SATEP) $8,000 more per year than we should be paying them? With 122 TFA recruits in place, the DOE is spending $976,000 more in wages than it ought to be this year.

    Then you write: Furthermore, there is financial incentive for administrators to favor TFA recruits over probationary teachers: Probationary teachers costs $2,000-$5,000 more per year than TFA recruits, a gap that would widen as the “probies” gain experience.

    These seem to contradict each other. Is it more expensive to hire TFA or regular teachers? Please explain. Mahalo.

    • Eric Lammerman says:

      It is more expensive to hire TFA recruits (41K/yr) than other teachers who have not completed a State Approved Teacher Education Program (SATEP)–who make 33K/yr. TFA recruits, obviously, have not completed a SATEP.

      TFA recruits cost less than any teacher who has completed a SATEP, however. Since they are considered “highly qualified” under NCLB, this means that administrators can hire a “highly qualifed” TFA recruit and save $2,000-$5,000 (or more) per year.

      • Nellie says:

        You also realize that all of your numbers are highly incorrect and NOT factual right? Don’t be a bitter SATEP grad dude. We’re on your side, just report facts, not opinion.

  2. Eric,

    I appreciate your article. Im in the program with you bud, (pbsped) and I had know idea about TFA until I read this. Very interesting. We have 6 more months to go in the program and then we’ll graduate with our sped certificates. I agree that it is unfair that TFA’s do take up positions that could be filled by SATEP graduates. Keep strong and we’ll finish the program in Dec. It might be a different landscape then and openings might be in your area.

  3. BigIslandTFA says:

    I am a TFA teacher, and I do think you make some valid points. There are a couple of things that might need clarifying, however. The “Highly Qualified” (HQ) designation is not automatic for TFA. All teachers must earn an HQ designation, and TFA teachers are the same. HQ does not refer to teaching ability, it refers to content knowledge. So English teachers must earn HQ in English, science teachers in science, math teachers in math, etc. The Hawaii DOE (as many other states) struggles with teachers being placed outside their content area – eg. a school that can’t find a HS math teacher might stick the MS health teacher in that position. TFA candidates are attractive to the DOE because they are guaranteed HQ in their content area: either they majored in that field as undergrads, or they studied for and passed the national exam for that content area.
    Additionally, TFA teachers are required to enroll in a SATEP program as part of their agreement with the DOE. They may or may not have teaching credentials going in, but they are required to be taking the classes to work on getting them.
    Last, you mention that TFA teachers get “extra” professional development from the DOE – but neither I nor any TFA teachers I know have been offered any PD that was more than other first year teachers. I am in the same PD program as all new teachers at my school.
    I do think it is wrong if TFA is displacing experienced teachers. However, I did have to interview to be hired at my school, and hiring for TFA does not take place until June/July after at least 2 rounds of transfers/hiring in the DOE. Therefore principals are at a point of needing to fill a position by the time they turn to TFA.
    Keep in mind, although there may be teachers looking for work, what subject did they want to teach? TFA staffs hard-to-fill positions like math, where there are not many teachers floating around qualified to teach.
    Hope this is helpful.

  4. Eric Lammerman says:

    1) Just curious: Are you saying that TFA recruits that teach in SPED inclusion classes, which seems to be a common placement for them, have passed a SPED core content knowledge test before they begin teaching? Are you also saying that passing tests has something to do with the hiring priority granted TFA recruits?

    2) In spite of being “required to enroll in a SATEP program as part of their agreement with the DOE,” many TFA recruits were NOT, in fact, enrolled in a SATEP during the 2010-2011 school year. I have been told that TFA forgot to let their recruits know about this requirement last year. The point, however, is that TFA recruits are given full-time teaching jobs before they have completed a single semester of their SATEP. Meanwhile, (most) non-TFA teacher candidates have to complete their entire SATEP before getting the same opportunity.

    3) Regarding the “extra” professional development: I have spoken with several teachers who have indicated that mentoring/collaborating with a fresh TFA recruit requires A LOT more work than teaching with someone with more than five weeks of training/experience. The teachers that have shared these opinions have talked about working late and giving up Saturdays to help/teach their mentees how to write lesson plans and IEPs, how to modify assignments, etc. I’m not sure how professional development works at your school; but where I work, it is both a formal and informal process. Just because you are in the same PD program doesn’t mean you are getting the same level of professional support.

    4) You are correct that TFA recruits have to be interviewed and are not given tip-top hiring priority: I never asserted otherwise. What I wrote in this piece, though, is that TFA recruits are granted priority over many local teachers with more experience and training. If TFA recruits are really entering hard-to-fill positions, then they should be “emergency hires.” TFA recruits should have to compete with the entire field of candidates for their jobs, especially since most of the field is superior in terms of training and experience. I believe it is fundamentally wrong for the state to compromise their standards for TFA.

    5) I want to add something. I’ve worked with several very likable, capable and motivated TFA recruits. I’ve also met some serious duds. None of this matters, though. This is a policy discussion, and I firmly believe that TFA (as it stands) is bad policy.

  5. Oahu Educator says:

    Hi Eric,

    I just came across your article and while the financial and big picture comments are topics that I have not researched, I do have something to add about the day to day of Teach For America Teachers in Hawaii.

    I am a teacher at an Oahu high school and I can honestly say that the average teacher in Teach for America is more willing to work and more energetic than the average teacher at our school. You talk about TFA duds but how many duds of career track, tenured teachers are there in the Hawaii DOE? Too many. You know it and I know it. And those teachers are collecting paychecks and not doing much work.

    Your entire argument is based on money, requirements, job security, and policy. NOT ONCE do you talk about the education and the changes that occur in the classroom of TFAers. NOT ONCE.

    I do believe to be a great teacher you have to stay for a long time in a community and hone your skill of educating. But to be a good teacher, it is not that difficult. You have to work real hard, remain humble, ask a lot of questions and deliver every day. I know this is biased but I am sick of career track teachers complaining about their benefits or time or the work they have to put in. Even worse it saddens me to see a young energetic career track teacher slowly lose their drive and enthusiasm. These TFA kids may not be the best, but are way better than our average career track teacher.

    I have taught for 6 years on the Leeward coast, rougher and with lower performance precedents than many of the other schools on the islands. And to me, these kids, these adults are a very good force in the schools.

    Our education is 48th out of 50th in the state and I know that there are many valid reasons for that. However, the fact of the matter is that our old guard, what we were doing was not working. The fear that these TFAers bring is not that they are bad teachers, it is that they are taking “our jobs” and giving a bit of a “run for our money.”

    I say that is a good thing. We need that. I’m not saying that job security is not a good thing, but it shouldn’t be a blindly guaranteed thing. Because if we are really in this for the kids, then we would learn very quickly how to fire the teachers that complain too much, work too little, and are not right fits for the job.

    As for “them” taking “our” jobs, though qualification is a good thing, it shouldn’t guarantee a job. I mean, Eric, you harp on qualification. Coudln’t it be possible that the issue might be a bit personal for you since you are “currently working on your teaching certificate at UH Manoa”? Isn’t there a bias that you are not acknowledging when you talk about how # of weeks and how much time YOU put into your program and are still ranked below TFAers.

    I grew up here, went to public school, graduated from UH School of Ed with a masters and came back here to teach. We know the statistics. So if we are in this for the kids, why are we, as career teachers, so vehemently resistant to change.

    Eric, as a sidenote, I do not completely support TFA but I think its irresponsible to present only one side of an argument without acknowledging that there are benefits to Teach for America teachers in the classroom and in the school environments. And if you are unaware of these things then I think it best you inform yourself because some of these “kids” are very solid and incredibly passionate teachers.

    You want change? Change your priorities.

    Math Teacher

    PS. As a Gen ED teacher the PD I recieve is 75% useless. As I hear the work and the life of a SPED teacher is very difficult, nuanced, and requires much organization, I can see how the PD is very important. However, generally PD for Gen ED is useless, ask any teacher this and for the most part they will agree.

    • Eric Lammerman says:

      Dear Oahu Educator,

      You make a couple of valid points; but I generally disagree with the content of your post. I’ll keeping going with the numbered list thing, and try to respond to you point-by-point.

      1) You’re right. “NOT ONCE” did I talk about teacher effectiveness, because that is BEYOND THE SCOPE OF MY ARGUMENT. Fairness and value for the taxpayer’s dollar has been my concern. As far as I’m concerned, TFA is largely a veiled attempt at union-busting. However, if you want to get into the whole effectiveness thing…

      2) Yes, there are tenured teacher duds as well as TFA duds; but SERIOUSLY. Give me an apples-to-apples, statistically-reliable comparison of teacher effectiveness between the two. I’ll bet the farm the average tenured teacher is far superior to the average TFA recruit.

      Here’s a study published in the New York Times to back up my “uninformed” position:

      Please don’t try to pawn one of those biased studies published by the multi-million dollar “non-profit,” either. A year ago, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser published one that compares TFA recruits to (other) uncredentialed, untrained and inexperienced teachers. You know the one? That study conveniently leaves off the “uncredentialed, untrained and inexperienced” part of the comparison, so the reader (falsely) concludes that TFA recruits are more effective than teachers in general. The Star-Advertiser published this (biased)statistic in an ostensibly objective news story, and that is a disgrace.

      2) Regarding bias: There’s nothing wrong with it in OPINION JOURNALISM, as long as you are up front about your point-of-view. It is up to the reader to exercise his/her good judgement, and it’s an article of faith between the opinion writer and his/her audience. In fact, I’ll up the ante: I actually applied for TFA in 2009, and was unsuccessful.

      The thing is, I didn’t know about all the dark TFA stuff until the following summer. I’ll admit, I bought the hype at first. I didn’t look closely enough at the program when I applied–I just saw it as my fastest route into the classroom. I only dug deeper when the inequity of the program slapped me in the face. That’s when I started asking questions. What can I say? TFA hacks are really effective. SPEAKING OF WHICH…

      4) As far as I’m concerned, you don’t have a leg to stand on when you cry “bias!” You don’t disclose your name, unlike myself. Odds are, you’re a TFA troll. I suspect you aren’t even the first one in this strand.

      5) TFA recruits CAN benefit the system. I have never denied this. At present, however, the benefits do not outweigh the cost (i.e. the sacrifice of both fairness and value, the focus of my essay). I believe the only way that “we the people” can reap a net benefit from TFA in Hawaii is if TFA recruits are hired AS EMERGENCY TEACHERS ONLY. The way the program IMPLIES they will be used, through its PR wing. There is absolutely no reason to give TFA recruits an ADVANTAGE in the job market over probationary teachers, teachers with credentials from other states…or candidates like myself. There is also no reason that TFA recruits should be paid more than emergency teachers.

      10) I’m not the one who’s resistant to change: I’m advocating for change, and you’re the one arguing for the status quo. I can sleep well at night, because I firmly believe I am 100% right on this issue. I’ve done my due diligence. And for what it’s worth, I’m not a big fan of the tenure system as it exists.

      11) I’m sorry that you think the majority of credentialed teachers are not as “solid” and “passionate” as the average TFA recruit. That isn’t what I have seen in my 3 years in the state educational system, not at all. Most of the teachers at my school are better than “solid,” and remain passionate.

      12) Full disclosure: I now hold a position as a Temporary Teacher, in spite of the many obstacles in procuring the position. I was hired the week before the school year began, however, and I make about $8,000 less per year than TFA recruits. I’m honestly just glad to have a job, though. I remain a dedicated opponent of TFA on principle.

      13) I don’t think my colleagues, in general, would agree with your argument that 3/4 of their professional development is “useless.” The field is constantly changing, for both Gen Ed and SPED teachers, and we are increasingly using technology to enhance teaching. The vast majority of my colleagues want to improve themselves, so they take professional development seriously. I’m sorry you and some of your colleagues feel that way about your PD.

      Respectfully yours,


  6. Laeila says:

    Update: TFA recruits do not make $41,000 despite what any website may tell you. TFA recruits also are hired as emergency hires and can be replaced at any time. Hope that helps, L. Nunes

  7. Local English Teacher says:

    Hi Eric,

    I understand your concerns, as I share some of them, being that I am a teacher, I grew up in O’ahu, I got my undergrad and grad degrees here in Hawai’i. But I encourage you to consider other perspectives.

    With regards to your problem #1: To say that TFA “drains” money from the education system is in incorrect. TFA is a nonprofit organization. Capable businesses may invest in their cause, but that’s nothing that you or I have control over. To you, is it that bad for those businesses to join a cause that they believe will benefit the children of our community? Also, it costs money to hire any new teacher. Retention is a problem for every school, every school district, every state, and every new teacher, whether TFA or not.

    With regards to your problem #2: Each school is supposed to have some form of mentoring for their new teachers. Some schools have a casual approach to mentoring, some have a structured system in place. I’m sorry if the mentor teachers that you mentioned feel like they’ve wasted their time helping TFA, and I can understand that they have many other important things to do with their time, too. However, I commend them for helping new colleagues that are in need of support. What they did is exactly the kind of thing that a respectable teacher-leader does. This collaboration is something to be proud of. Now, with Race to the Top, there will eventually be a formal, relatively uniform way of mentoring, which may help mentor teachers in the future determine what is “enough” or “too much” in mentoring.

    With regards to your problem #3: As mentioned, teacher retention is a problem everywhere. One way that TFA helps alleviate this problem is by binding corps members for at least two years. Also, most TFA that stop teaching at their placements after their two years continue to work in the field of education. In fact, 78% of alumni stay in education. Some of them decide to teach elsewhere, become advocates for education in the political scheme, work in a different capacity in their placement school or district, etc. Also, TFA encourages its alumni to stay longer than two years by offering professional development and many other forms of continued support. And guess what? many TFA alumni also stay in teaching for the long-run.

    With regards to your problem #4: TFA teachers get paid based on their education level and progress towards SATEP, just like any new teacher coming in.

    With regards to your problem #5: TFA teachers undergo the same application process as any new teacher – DOE paperwork, interview, etc. But, their jobs are always put on the postings. And, they are always hired AFTER principals have interviewed and hired qualified, certified teachers during the postings. Some TFA don’t get their jobs until days before school starts.

    With regards to your problem #6: You’re stretching this argument a little too thin. When I say that my younger brother is smart, that doesn’t mean that I’m saying that I’m dumb. AVID stands for Advancement via Individual Determination. Do all students not accepted into AVID not have individual determination and thus cannot advance?

    With regards to your problem #7: You’re also stretching this argument a little too thin. Yes, there will be tension in competing parties in any field of work. In education, there could be tension about many things – new teachers, teaming, organizations for restructuring, new administration, etc. Tensions will not just disappear if you eliminate TFA. Also, is every single person 100% satisfied with all other teaching programs? Or, how about you research the impact of TFA in Hawai’i specifically? The TFA that have worked at my school have done a great job integrating into our school culture with humility, participate in and even lead existing programs, and they have initiated many new things that our school values. Many of them have stayed longer than their two years. Some of them have decided to stay for good.

    With regards to your problem #8: A teacher’s “highly-qualified” status is determined by the state. TFA teachers who are labeled as “highly-qualified” have met the requirements to be “highly-qualified.” Also, they do a lot of work to make sure they address their areas of improvement. In addition to being full-time graduate students, TFA requires them to participate in TFA professional development, mentoring programs at their school, mentoring programs at their district, ongoing reflection, and portfolio-building. I am very proud of my TFA mentees for being able to do all of this while having to bite their tongues when other people, instead of encouraging and supporting them, put them down, harshly criticize them for every little mistake that any new teacher could have made, and blame them for things that are beyond their control.

    I also want to mention that I’m proud of my school for having a diversified staff and never losing our school’s identity. Yes, we have our own concerns with TFA, but it’s never stopped us from being a school of aloha, collaboration, and rigor.

    I hope you’re happier today than you were two years ago.


    A Fellow Teacher

  8. Lola says:

    Wow. I’m so happy I read the comments. It’s not often that I can say that. I am applying for TFA and see what I could find about Hawai’i placements.
    Thank you all for your insight.


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