Summer Institute, the teacher training boot camp that according to Teach for America (TFA) advocates amazingly produces effective teachers in only five weeks, will soon begin for over 5,000 corps members. I interviewed Casey (not the real name), a TFA alum who could hardly wait to finish the two-year commitment and get on with life. I asked Casey to share advice with the upcoming batch of new recruits on how to make the most of the experience. But, Casey wanted to tell a different story.
Before the first question eschewed from my lips, Casey blurted out, “They didn’t pay us.” Obviously still steamed after more than two years, Casey repeated, “They didn’t pay us for Summer Institute.” This had plainly been on Casey’s mind for some time, so I encouraged the TFAer to continue.
“On campus, before you apply, they promote themselves as one of the top employers of college grads in the nation. They convinced me that after five weeks of training I would be a great teacher, even better than licensed professionals they said. I couldn’t find any other job, so I signed up to work for them. I expected to earn enough money at Summer Institute to pay my expenses to move halfway across the country to my new teaching job. But, they didn’t pay us. I started off borrowing money through a loan plan they had set up for us.”
“I don’t understand. Did they promise to pay you and then renege?” I asked. I had heard a rumor about this from a disgruntled TFAer several years ago, but had dismissed it as an isolated incident.
“It isn’t really clear in the beginning. It’s embarrassing. We’re supposed to be the best and brightest, but many of us didn’t even know we weren’t getting paid for the work we did in the summer. I’m not the only one who thought we were getting paid. Other recruits thought so, too. So, the first thing I would say to new TFA recruits is that you won’t be paid for Summer Institute. So, make sure you have enough money saved up to move to your new job, pay your first and last month’s rent and security deposit, and pay for teaching materials you’ll need when school starts.
“It’s kind of demoralizing,” Casey continued. “Right from the beginning I felt like I was being taken advantage of; that TFA wasn’t straight with us, and it was too late to do anything else. I felt like, ‘What have I gotten myself into? I’m doing all this work for free?’ Maybe TFA makes it clearer to recruits these days, and if they don’t they should. They don’t pay corps members for Summer Institute. Anyway, I started out financially in the hole and spent over a year paying them back.”
As we moved on to other topics, Casey mentioned all the things I had heard before: five weeks of training isn’t nearly enough; Casey was hired to teach another subject but observed only reading and math classes during the summer; corps members felt totally unprepared to manage a classroom, and so on. So, I decided to investigate the claim about not being paid by TFA. How could a sharp young person like Casey have mistakenly thought that corps members would get a paycheck for summer work from Teach for America?
This is what I found out and quite possibly why Casey and others thought they would be paid by Teach for America:
Eleven TFA Summer Institutes will be held June-July, 2013. This sample institute daily schedule delineates a 16.5 hour work day. If corps members are paid a minimum wage of $8.00 an hour, they would make $3,300 during Institute. (16.5 hrs. x 25 days (5 weeks) x $8.00 = $3,300) If they are paid a salary approximating a beginning teacher’s salary, oddly enough, they would make about the same amount, $3,430. ($35,672/52 weeks x 5 weeks = $3,430) According to Casey, several corps members had expected a paycheck of about $3,000 for their work during Summer Institute.
TFA does have a salary and benefits page which clearly states CORPS MEMBERS RECEIVE A FULL SALARY AND COMPREHENSIVE BENEFITS.
As a corps member, you will be a full-time teacher and receive a full salary and the same comprehensive health benefits as other beginning teachers in your school district.
This statement doesn’t address Summer Institute, nor does it say who will pay the teacher’s salary. The information seems to indicate that recruits will receive a salary from Teach for America, but the amount will vary according to the school district.
Casey mentioned that campus recruiters said Teach for America was a top employer of college graduates. In 2011 College Grad.com ranked Teach for America as Number 2 in Best Companies for New Grads.
No. 2 Teach For America; hiring forecast 4,925. Average salary for teachers, $42,451
For years TV, newspapers, magazines, and websites including ABC, CBS, Washington Post, Forbes, Fortune, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Schools.com have promoted Teach for America as a top employer of college grads.
In 2010 TFA boasted about its “top employer” status to win a $50 million grant from the Department of Education (DOE), saying it ranked higher than both Microsoft and Goldman Sachs. Making the same claim in 2011, TFA was granted another $8 million SEED grant by the DOE. In that grant application TFA reported that the organization spent over $43,000 on each recruit placed in the classroom. It’s no wonder that Casey thought some of that money would be paid to corps members. Most likely the officials at the DOE and politicians promoting Teach for America have that impression, too.
Glass Door, a website that lists salaries paid by companies, reports Teach for America as paying corps member and teacher salaries. At this point I was confused myself. According to 2011 IRS form 990, TFA had assets of nearly $300 million dollars and revenue of over $270 million. You might think that an organization with that kind of moola could afford to pay recruits — their lifeblood — a salary.
Next, I called Teach for America and talked to Carrie Rankin, National Communications Director for Teach for America. I explained the claim that a corps member had made about not being paid for Summer Institute, told her I was confused about the policy myself, and asked if she could offer some clarity. She did not act surprised by my query. Neither did she confirm or deny that she had heard this complaint before. She refrained from commenting any further, and said she would send the documentation that is offered to corps members. A few days later I received this e-mail from her. I’m including her contact information here (it wasn’t easy to find) for anyone seeking clarity on this issue.
Subject: Teach For America
Date: April 15, 2013 7:57:47 AM PDT
I wanted to follow up on the info you requested last week.
First, you said you were investigating an alleged miscommunication about paying corps members for summer Institute. On our website, we explain that Teach For America covers the costs of Institute, but corps members are not told that they will be paid. Teach For America pays for room and board during Institute, as well as for transportation to and from school sites. Corps members are responsible for all other costs. We do have grant programs available to help corps members cover the cost of travel to and from Institute.
Carrie James Rankin
National Communications Director
Teach For America
The “documentation” is nothing more than a connection to TFA’s Financing Your Transition page offering INTEREST-FREE TRANSITIONAL LOANS AND GRANTS. It contains no mention of compensation for Summer Institute nor does it specifically say that recruits will not be paid for their summer work.
So, it would seem that Teach for America does not tell recruits they will be paid for their summer work, nor does the organization tell them they will not be paid. The unambiguous thing to do would be to tell recruits upfront that they will not be paid for Summer Institute. TFA should not pretend to be an employer of college grads when, in fact, they are not.
The simple truth is this: Teach for America does not employ a single teacher straight out of college. Zero. Zip. Teach for America does not employ teachers nor does it pay teachers. Teach for America is a recruiting firm. The organization provides minimally trained temps to work in place of professionals, while falsely promoting itself as a top employer of college grads/teachers.
It does seem that Teach for America is coloring reality by promoting itself as an employer instead of a recruiting firm. It is misleading, to say the least. Some might even say it’s dishonest. Certainly it is confusing to recruits who think they are employed by TFA and expect a paycheck. At any rate, the message from Casey to new TFA recruits is this: “Don’t think of Summer Institute as a summer job, and you are employed by Teach for America. TFA doesn’t pay you anything. You can bank on it.”