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Teach For America... The New Peace Corps?

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Let me start off with a disclaimer. I am a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Botswana, RPCV 88-91). 

I am a self-confessed believer in the value of public service. I even persuaded my reluctant son, Thato, to join AmeriCorps in between his college matriculation and finding himself. He volunteered at Harding Middle School. It would have been a financial hardship if he didn’t have parental support, but that’s another blog post.

It should not come as a surprise that I value the public service mission of the Teach For America (TFA) program.

Interestingly, in some circles, TFA is described as the “New Peace Corps.” Based upon my Peace Corps service and experience working with TFA, I recognize some parallels between both organizations.

Both TFA and Peace Corps attract bright, talented, and highly motivated people. The recruitment process and the application processes for TFA and Peace Corps are  rigorous and selective. According to a major TFA donor's Carnegie Reporter article, “Teach For America: A Band of Thinkers and Doers,” in 2007 approximately 18,000 people applied to become TFA fellows. Nearly 2,800 offers were made, which gave the program an acceptance rate of roughly 19%. The average GPA for an accepted corps member in that year was 3.6, and 94% of accepted applicants held leadership positions on campus.

There is some criticism of the Peace Corps' recruitment and placement practices. See Robert Strauss’ New York Times opinion piece “Too Many Innocents Abroad." But when I reflect on the 40 or so Peace Corps volunteers in Botswana who went through training with me, we had MBAs, law degrees, doctorates, Ivy league educations, state college and liberal arts backgrounds; all around impressive folks. Of course, we had a few slackers and folks simply looking for a third world tourism jaunt. Those folks in most cases didn't complete their two-year commitment.

Both TFA and the Peace Corps are great programs, but they both have flaws. Their missions are problematic because they are both linked to social justice and altruism while constrained by political and social forces outside of the control of the best intentions of their recruits.

Altruism can be a good thing. However, when I signed up for the Peace Corps, I didn’t sign up for purely altruistic reasons. I had recently graduated with my MBA from Atlanta University--at the time, one of the leading producers of black MBAs in America. I didn’t want to enter the corporate world like many of my colleagues. I wanted to run my own business, but I didn’t have enough capital or life experience. So the Peace Corps was an excellent option for me to incubate my entrepreneurial passion.  

II’ll admit this was a plush assignment for a Peace Corps volunteer.  I worked as an Operations Officer for the Botswana Development Corporation (BDC), a quasi-public company that served as the main agency for commercial and industrial development in the country. I volunteered an additional year beyond my two-year commitment and eventually leveraged the experience and contacts I made at BDC to start up and run an information service and training company. After spending a total of eight years in Botswana, I returned to the U.S. and enrolled in the Peace Corps Fellows program for RPCV at Temple University to obtain my teaching certification.

During my tenure as a Peace Corps volunteer and while chasing my entrepreneurial dreams, I questioned if I was making any meaningful impact in Botswana. The gap between the rich and poor seemed to increase while I was in Botswana. Was I a mere puppet inculcating a "free enterprise" philosophy to support our government’s foreign economic policy agenda in sub-Saharan Africa?

Peace Corps volunteers, knowingly or not, support US foreign policy agendas.

I entered urban education hoping to leverage my international experience, and to address pressing domestic inequities. I figured I could make an impact as teacher, in my hometown that some compare to a third-world country.

"Together we can do this" is the motto I found on TFA's Web site. Detractors will point out that TFA is merely a band-aid, which undermines traditional certified teacher education programs, discourages teacher retention by only limiting fellows to a two-year commitment, and only serves as a portal for fellows to figure out their post-graduate and professional goals toward higher earning careers, such as law, medicine, or business.

While serving as a co-facilitator for the TFA Summer Bridge course developed in conjunction with the Graduate School of Education (GSE) at the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Writing Project,  I attended a guest lecture by Dr. Ravitch, co-director, Center for Collaborative Research and Practice in Teacher Education. Dr. Ravitch challenged the mostly 20-something--few were mature career changers--fledgling teachers to resist the “white knight mentality.” She emphasized that teaching isn’t the “noble notion” romanticized in Hollywood. “It’s a job.”

Kind of like the Peace Corp motto, I remember. “It’s the toughest job you will ever love."

Most TFA fellows complete their two-year commitment. According to Dr. Portnoy, the Director GSE/TFA Urban Teacher Master's and Certification Program, the retention rate in Philadelphia is between 92% and 97% for first and second year fellows. TFA fellows in Philadelphia including the current crop, number over 500 teachers. Half of these fellows remain in urban education beyond their two-year commitment. Some relocate to other cities as teachers, move to charter schools, or take up educational policy or advocacy positions. The national retention level is higher than in Philadelphia, at closer to 60%.    

I know that some people do not like the fact that TFA's two-year committment has a built-in turnover motivator. Sadly, if the inequities in schools did not exist, maybe there wouldn’t be a need for a TFA model. Similarly if there were no such vast socio-economic gaps in developing countries, the Peace Corps would have long worked itself out of a job.

The net benefits of both programs are worth the risks and rewards. Sure, some TFA fellows will leave teaching and go get their MBAs, start businesses, go to medical school, or maybe join the Peace Corps. But just as I was made a better person from my Peace Corps experience, so will this “2.0” group of public servants.

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