Does Teach for America Build Civic Engagement?

John Sides Jan 4 '10

No, according to a new study by Doug McAdam and Cynthia Brandt. This New York Times piece has the details:

bq. 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…

The comparison of graduates to those who declined or dropped out is an interesting way to mitigate the obvious concern: people who join Teach for America are more engaged in their communities than those who do not.

McAdam compares these findings to his previous research on participants in Freedom Summer:

bq. Professor McAdam’s findings that nearly all of Freedom Summer’s participants were still engaged in progressive activism when he tracked them down 20 years later have contributed to the widely held notion that civic advocacy and service among the young make for better citizens….Professor McAdam, 57, said Freedom Summer was the exception, not the rule. “Freedom Summer is the odd civic experience, and hardly representative of what happens when young people do service,” he said. “A lot of the impact of any experience is where it’s historically situated.”

The founder of Teach for America, Wendy Kopp, suggested the study but seems to object to its findings:

bq. It’s hard to see the incredible outpouring of interest among this generation and think of it as a lack of civic engagement. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem as if this study looked at Teach for America’s core mission, by evaluating whether we are producing more leaders who believe educational inequity is a solvable problem, who have a deep understanding of the causes and solutions, and who are taking steps to address it in fundamental and lasting ways.

Interestingly, McAdam suggests that the part of the problem is that some graduates come to doubt Teach for America’s approach to educational inequity:

bq. 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 is forthcoming in _Social Forces_.

[Hat tip to Doug Hess.]