Teach for Goldman Sachs

I’m convinced that the best way to track the mood of Stanford University is to keep an eye on your News Feed. And there’s one thing in particular that keeps popping up on mine- a prestigious program for which dozens of my friends have applied, and to which a lucky few have been accepted. I’m talking, of course, about Teach for America, the educational service corps that places fresh-faced graduates in troubled urban and rural classrooms across the U.S. The program’s rise has been meteoric: it currently boasts 8,200 corps members and claims to have reached 3 million students since it was founded in 1990. Its popularity at Stanford is no mere trick of my News Feed. The Daily recently reported that TFA and similar organizations “have witnessed a surge in applications from Stanford” in recent years.

So here’s the question: what are we to make of the fact that TFA recently established a very public partnership with Goldman Sachs, one of the most popular targets for campus (and national) ire over the recent fiscal crisis? Under the terms of the partnership, Goldman will grant deferments of full employment for certain interns who are accepted to TFA, and also recruit “Teach For America corps members for summer internship opportunities.”

The official release doesn’t say what TFA gets out of this deal, but I’d be willing to be that it comes with a dollar sign and lots of zeroes. But it’s crystal clear what Goldman gets: improved recruiting access to a pool of some of the best-educated and most successful college graduates in the U.S. In a 2006 article in Fortune magazine, a Goldman official admitted that “one of the few jobs that people pass up Goldman Sachs offers for is Teach for America.” It looks like they’ve found a way to fix that- why not have them go off to TFA and then still end up at Goldman Sachs?

Should we- as citizens whose tax dollars help fund TFA (they’re asking for $50 million in public money for FY 2011), as recruitment targets for the organization, as graduates of America’s school systems- be concerned about this? One could argue that this collaboration just formalized what was already happening (it’s a sure bet that Goldman sought out TFA grads before now), and that it probably secured much-needed money for an organization doing valuable public service. But those less inclined to be optimistic could easily see it as a “capture” of an already-flawed organization by a corporate giant dedicated to siphoning talent out of public service and into private money-making.

To me, the whole question hinges on what, exactly, TFA is trying to achieve. Is the point simply to put fresh, enthusiastic instructors in classrooms, even if they do end up cycling out of the system after two years? If so, this partnership really isn’t news- the folks Goldman eventually hires will still put in their time at the schools, and they’ll be replaced by a new crop of teachers. Some studies and commentators have praised TFA for simply doing this much, noting (as this WSJ op-ed does) that TFA corps members can (in certain situation) outperform experienced teachers. But I am deeply, deeply skeptical that installing a perpetual revolving door on our classrooms will really lead to long-term educational improvement, and I’m far from alone in holding that view. (Full disclosure: both of my parents are public school teachers.)

But if TFA is trying to do more than just provide “boots on the ground” in education- if it’s really trying to get people deeply involved in and passionate about education and service- then the value of this Goldman Sachs partnership is highly questionable. I think Daily columnist Aysha Bagchi ’11 got it right when she described her own interactions with a TFA recruiter:

She said that not only would I be able to impact children growing up in low-income communities, but would also “position” myself for success in whatever field I choose. She informed me that leading corporations and graduate schools have partnered up with TFA and added that it “doesn’t hurt to have a few options on the table when you graduate”.

There’s nothing at all horrible about a student thinking about all the considerations she cited. But there was something horribly disappointing in seeing that these are TFA’s current selling points.

The TFA-Goldman partnership and TFA’s recruiting strategies seem designed to give students the impression that education and public service are to be treated like another bullet on the resume, and then abandoned in favor of more lucrative pursuits. TFA argues out that its alumni, having been exposed to the problems of the American education system, are likely to stay focused on education issues even if they don’t work directly in the field. But I can’t help but think that TFA’s current strategies are more likely to turn people off to public service (as a recent Stanford study suggested) and contribute greatly to what the University of Chicago Maroon called the “disillusionment, frustration, and decline in civic involvement reported by TFA alumni.”

Now, obviously, I don’t doubt the commitment, motives, or dedication of my classmates who are joining TFA. I do, however, doubt that the Goldman-TFA partnership is good news. I’m worried that TFA’s culture and strategies are edging dangerously close to counterproductivity, and more broadly concerned that the program’s very structure might limit its positive impact. But enough from me- what do you think?

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