Are TFA Graduates Better Citizens?
Over the winter, thousands of American college students will apply to Teach for America (TFA), one of the preeminent post-college teaching programs. While the direct service provided by TFA constitutes the core goal of the program, proponents of TFA often point to the civic benefits that Corps members gain as a result of their participation. But does Teach for America actually direct college graduates to a lifetime of civic involvement?
In a 2008 study published in Social Forces, Sociologists Doug McAdam and Cynthia Brant surveyed all the college students accepted into TFA between 1993 and 1998. They classify their survey population into three groups – those who were accepted into TFA and completed their two-years of teaching (“graduates”); those who were accepted into TFA, but left the teaching corps before competing their two years of teaching (“drop-outs”); and those who were accepted into TFA, but declined the offer (“non-matriculants”). They’re interested in whether graduates of TFA report stronger civic attitudes or more civic behavior after completing their service than those who were accepted into the program, but dropped out or never matriculated.
The study reports that TFA participants are more likely to hold civic attitudes after their participation, but are less likely to engage in actual civic activities following their two-year commitment with TFA. Graduates are more likely to support the statement, “Much of what I do is for a cause larger than myself,” or “I am willing to go to great lengths to fulfill my obligations to my country,” than both drop-outs and non-matriculants. However, when McAdam and Brant look at actual civic participation, they find that graduates lag behind both drop-outs and non-matriculants. Those who have completed TFA are less likely to participate in civic activities (e.g., volunteer organizations, sports leagues, etc.) and less likely to participate in institutional politics (e.g., political campaigns, party politics) that those that dropped out or never enrolled.
What explains the depressed levels of participation in civic affairs among TFA graduates compared dropouts and non-matriculants? One possibility is service fatigue – the feeling that they’ve done their part. An alternative is that graduates’ experiences in the classroom proved disillusioning, at least temporarily. These negative attitudes could dissuade them from future civic commitments. The authors also raise the possibility that lower levels of civic engagement have nothing to do with TFA. It is possible that non-matriculants found alternative service programs that increased their civic commitments more than TFA would have. (Their survey, which asked non-matriculants what they did instead of TFA, found only 30% engaged in activist-type organizations, although the survey question is not fine-grained enough to really understand their post-college experience.)
But McAdam and Brant really settle on a fourth answer. Among TFA graduates, they find substantial differences about how satisfied they were with their TFA experience. When McAdam and Brant examine only graduates who were “satisfied” with their TFA experience (85 percent of graduates), they actually look no different from non-matriculants in their civic commitments. It’s the 15 percent of dissatisfied graduates driving the difference.
Interesting as the survey findings are, they are subject to one major criticism (acknowledged by the authors). Applicants to Teach for America (and similar programs) are already among the most civically aware group of American college students. In this study, all of the survey respondents were accepted to Teach for America. Both their application and acceptance signal that they are already civically engaged, and therefore asking whether service programs (like TFA) make them into better citizens may not be the most salient question. Instead, a more interesting research design would somehow incentivize students who are not already civic-minded to participate in TFA (or a similar program) and measure the effect of these service programs on their post-program civic engagement.