The New York Times has an interesting article by Amanda M. Fairbanks on Teach For America. She reports on the findings of a recent study by my colleague in the sociology department, Doug McAdam. McAdam finds that TFA corps members, after their two years of teaching, score lower on civic engagement measures than applicants to TFA who were accepted but did not matriculate or than corps members who were accepted but dropped out before completing two years of teaching. In what respect lower? Lower voting rates, less charitable giving, less public service work.
The article reports this as if it represented a dust-up with the TFA mission. Fairbanks quotes Wendy Kopp, the founder of TFA, who records her disappointment with McAdam’s study.
But Kopp and TFA shouldn’t feel disappointed. There are a variety of explanations for the lower civic engagement rates. First, TFA corps members were already off the charts on civic engagement when they applied to TFA. If participating in TFA transformed them from their already very high levels of civic engagement, that finding would be remarkable. Second, after the TFA experience, it should be no surprise that the alumni of TFA take a “service break”, so to speak, akin to what is sometimes called “donor fatigue” by fund-raisers. Third, the McAdam study didn’t attempt to measure specific forms of educational engagement, which the TFA experience might plausibly be thought to effect. For example, are TFA alumni more or less likely to vote for a local school bond measure, relative to their pre-TFA experience or relative to non-matriculants or dropouts? Are TFA alumni more or less likely to follow education policy discussions? Are TFA alumni more or less likely to make a charitable contribution to a charter school organization or a scholarship fund for disadvantaged children? My guess is that TFA alumni would do better on these dimensions of what we could call educational civic engagement.
Full disclosure: I’m quoted in the NY Times article and also provided feedback to McAdam as he prepared the survey whose results form the basis of his article.