Explaining Teach for America Graduates’ Lack of Activism
A study has found Teach for America graduates to be less politically active than people who were accepted into the program but didn’t complete it. Several newspapers and blogs are reporting the finding as a poor reflection on Teach for America. This is from a New York Times article titled “Gauging the Dedication of Teacher Corps Grads”:
In areas like voting, charitable giving and civic engagement, graduates of the program lag behind those who were accepted but declined and those who dropped out before completing their two years, according to Doug McAdam, a sociologist at Stanford University, who conducted the study with a colleague, Cynthia Brandt.
The reasons for the lower rates of civic involvement, Professor McAdam said, include not only exhaustion and burnout, but also disillusionment with Teach for America’s approach to the issue of educational inequity, among other factors.
The study isn’t online yet, but when it is, I’d like to read how McAdam concluded that burnout and disillusionment account for the graduates’ lower rates of political activity. Were those reasons self-reported by the graduates? Or are they the researchers’ conjecture?
I can think of a few other reasons that graduates might be less likely to vote or participate in campaigns. Perhaps the people who completed the program were the most dedicated to their teaching jobs, and now that they’ve graduated, they’re equally dedicated to the jobs they currently hold. Maybe they’re so busy working that they don’t have time to dabble in the political process.
Another possibility is that their teaching experience convinced graduates that the political process is not the best way to achieve their goals. Maybe graduates remain as idealistic as when they started, but they now want to pursue their ideals through means other than politics.
As for the lower rate of charitable giving, a licensing effect could be at work. Alyssa Curran explained what a licensing effect is in her post about a study that found a connection between purchase of “green” products and a decline in altruism. Researchers don’t think subjects in that study became disillusioned with the products; rather, subjects acted as though choosing a socially-valued product gave them a license to be less generous later on. Similarly, Teach for America graduates may feel that because their service was worthwhile and important, they have already done their part for society and are free to be less charitable later.
Whatever the true reasons are, it’s odd to evaluate Teach for America based on graduates’ behavior. What matters is whether participants in the program are effective teachers. It would make more sense to research students’ test scores after they’ve been taught by a Teach for America participant than to analyze their former teachers’ levels of civic engagement.
I hope residents of St. Louis and Kansas City don’t look unfavorably on Teach for America participants in their cities because of research findings that are beside the point.