On Kelly Henriod’s second day as a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee, she was confronted in a doorway by a 16-year old girl who looked her dead in the eye and said, “Move!”

“Excuse me?” Henriod stammered. “Move!” the student repeated, and shoved her out of the way.

Just 22, Henriod was a diminutive middle-class white girl fresh from the University of Utah. Her entire teaching experience consisted of six weeks of a summer training program with Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that recruits talented recent college graduates from the best schools, signs them to a two-year commitment, and then puts them in challenging schools that have trouble finding and retaining quality teachers.

Now she had been air-dropped into the second poorest zip code in Memphis, one of the poorest schools in America. And in the doorway as the aggressive student shoved past her, she was flummoxed. It was the first physical confrontation of her life. Nothing had prepared her for this. The incident and others like it, Henriod said, spawned a vicious cycle of disrespect.

Teach for America turns 25 years old this year, and it now boasts over 40,000 alumni, many of whom, like Henriod, came from privileged or at least sheltered backgrounds to teach for at least two years in some of America’s toughest schools.

The concept sounds uncontroversial, and there is some solid research that suggests it works. But TFA has long been the target of deep hostility and organized opposition. A group called United Students Against Sweatshops, with financial support from the American Federation of Teachers, has been pressuring universities from Harvard to Michigan to kick TFA recruiters off campus. Teachers unions and teacher advocates criticize TFA at every turn, often linking the program with other anathemas such as charters, vouchers and standardized testing.

How can such a small program evoke such passion? Even after the program’s significant 2012 expansion, there are still just 10,000 TFA teachers each year, nearly invisible amid 3.1 million public school teachers nationwide.

The answer lies partly in symbolism and timing. Founded in 1989, TFA was a very early mover in a multi-faceted reform movement that would soon engulf the teaching profession. The first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991. And that was a decade before No Child Left Behind transformed education policy with strict and quantified objectives. As most people acknowledged by then, our schools were broken.

TFA thus stands as a beacon for those who think the teaching profession has run off the rails and can and should be overhauled by smart reformers, and as a symbol of loathing for those who think students and teachers have been ill-served by 25 years of TFA reform. The battle over TFA thus becomes an impassioned surrogate in a larger war.

Measuring outcomes

The question of whether TFA teachers are effective in the classroom stirs up a hornet’s nest of controversy, touching on debates about whether test scores can accurately quantify the work of a teacher.

If tests are the measure of effectiveness, then TFA can point to two rigorous studies conducted by Mathematica, a leading social policy research firm to say, yes, TFA teachers do quite well.

The first study, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, found that TFA high school and middle school math teachers significantly outperformed control groups of even very experienced regular teachers. The study found improved performance TFA math classrooms to be equivalent to 2.6 additional months of instruction.

The first Mathematica study, which sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, found that TFA high school and middle school math teachers significantly outperformed control groups of even very experienced regular teachers. The study found improved performance TFA math classrooms to be equivalent to 2.6 additional months of instruction.

And these TFA teachers were not teaching to the test. “The high school students we studied were not required to be tested every year,” Melissa A. Clark, Mathematica’s lead researcher on both studies said, “so we administered our own test. The teachers couldn’t prepare for that, so you can’t explain that by teaching to the test.

A follow-up Mathematica study, released this past March, looked at reading and math performance in elementary schools. This time, the study did not show significantly higher performance. But results were roughly equal, which is itself notable because the TFA teachers studied had 1.7 years of experience, compared to an average of 13.6 for the non-TFA teachers.

“TFA elementary teachers were as effective in reading and math as other teachers,” Clark said, “but when we focus on pre-kindergarten through 2nd grade we saw significant positive results on reading performance.”

Dilettantes and interlopers?

TFA opponents don't think numbers tell the whole story, that the pursuit of numbers is itself part of the problem, and that the real answer is to nurture professionals with a deep commitment to the communities they serve.

“The fact is that we need a well-prepared teacher corps,” wrote Dianne Ravitch, the iconic education scholar at New York University last fall. “We need experienced teachers. What we do not need is the illusion that TFA can change our schools by sending in inexperienced teachers who leave after 2-3 years. That’s a hoax.”

Critics also argue that TFA recruits white elites who fail to connect with their poorer students of color. Even if they eventually become effective teachers elsewhere, they end up creating churn in the community that needs stability.

Henriod remembers John, a special-education student who could not read at all and could barely scribble his name. He sat in the back of classrooms like hers, staring at walls.

“I spent half my time dealing with behavioral issues and half trying to teach the lesson, and I had no time at all to try to help teach John,” Henriod said.

To this day, Henriod said, it is hard for her to talk about John. She wonders what became of him. And, while she knows she did her best, she wonders if someone with more experience or deeper roots in that community may have done a better job.

TFA has been very open about responding to criticism, says Becky O'Neill, a TFA communications director. "Some of our alumni who are most critical are the ones who have pushed us in the best ways," she said. "TFA is anxious to have those conversations."

TFA now boasts of ethnic and economic diversity, fewer hires from the Ivy League. And, O’Neill says, 80 percent of its graduates now remain in the teaching profession and/or continue to work in disadvantaged communities.

More to the point, O’Neill argues, is that TFA teachers provide quality teaching where it is badly needed.

The profession

Much of the dispute over TFA centers on what it means to be a professional teacher. Critics of TFA argue that its corps members like Kelly Henriod are dilettantes who undermine the teaching profession. They see TFA not as professional training, but more like the Peace Corps — a resume polisher for students on their way to law school.

Teaching is not a natural skill, argues Jenny DeMonte, a consultant at the American Institutes of Research, nor is passion for teaching a substitute for learned skill.

DeMonte challenges the notion that passion for teaching is critical to making an effective teacher. "When future lawyers enter law school," DeMonte said, "they may or may not have passion. We don't measure their passion when they leave. We measure their skills."

But everyone thinks they know how to teach, DeMonte notes, because everyone has spent at least 12 years being taught. This is a dangerous fallacy, according to DeMonte. "Being a student doesn't make you a teacher anymore than being a patient makes you a doctor," she said.

"There is no Teach for Finland," National Education Association President Lily Eskelson Garcia said. In the widely admired Finish system, she notes, teachers learn their profession in a yearlong apprenticeship with a master teacher.

"Finns cannot comprehend why Americans take a college graduate who knows nothing about child development, put them in front of the most challenging kids you have, and tell them to give it a shot for two years before they go to law school, and churn them in and out," Garcia said.

Supporters counter that TFA brings an infusion of talent to the profession that would never find its way through the traditional teacher training pathways.

And according to O'Neill, two-thirds of TFA's over 40,000 alumni have remained in the teaching profession, she says, and altogether over 80 percent are now working either in schools or are working in other community services for impoverished neighborhoods.

Broader diversity

Another persistent critique is that that TFA recruits wealthy graduates from elite schools who have little stake in the communities of color they serve. TFA does not dispute that this was once the case, but O’Neill insists that critique is long out of date.

TFA does hire more and more teachers who were taught by TFA teachers themselves. Sometimes that means that TFA must look beyond GPAs and school rankings in its recruitment, and increasingly it has meant recruiting from the communities and among the ethnicities that it will be asked to serve.

"We know we need to look at someone's life story," O'Neill said. "Maybe your GPA is not as high, but you were the family breadwinner all through college. We're looking for signs of grit, persistence, staying power."

Of 5,300 new TFA teachers in 2014, 49 percent were "people of color," while 64 percent were either “of color” or from low-income backgrounds and 33 percent were the first in their family to graduate from college. The program also drew from 850 different colleges and universities, challenging the stereotype of Ivy League exclusivity.

Some TFA defenders believe pulling people into poor neighborhoods from different backgrounds can only help. "You have TFA people working in some of the most distressed communities in this country," said Howard Fuller, 73, a longtime Black Power activist and a sociology professor who heads the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. "To me it's mind-boggling that some people want to prevent them from recruiting on college campuses."

Change

Based on Kelly Henriod's experience and on TFA's own recent policy changes, it seems clear that the future of the program requires prioritizing even more dynamic teachers who grew up in the neighborhoods they will serve. That demographic shift will deflect much of the criticism, and it will matter less and less whether elite campuses like Harvard continue to allow TFA to recruit.

Henriod is deeply ambivalent about her TFA experience. It was the hardest thing she has done, and she’s grateful for how it changed her. After she and her husband, Jeff, who also taught did TFA in Memphis, finished their two years, he did an MBA at the University of North Carolina. They now live in Seattle where he works at Amazon and she is a full-time mom.

Were her students better off than they would have been without her? She is less sure on this point. “There were certainly quite a few teachers Memphis born-and-bred who could relate to all those challenges much better than I did,” she said.

Henriod describes one poignant conversation she had with a very bright 11th-grader who said, “You grew up being fed from a silver spoon. What makes you think anyone here is going to listen to you?”

“I could think of nothing to say in response," she said.

Not surprisingly, she approves of TFA’s recent push to broaden its ethnic and socio-economic diversity and wriggle away from its reputation as a domestic Peace Corps for rich Ivy Leaguers.

“TFA had the best interest of the students at heart,” Henriod said. “But I do think it would be good if they recruited more teachers who had attended high schools like the one I worked at.”

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com