Monday, May 14, 2007

Teach for America

Justin wrote to share his thoughts on the Teach for America movement in the United States and thought he'd like to share his ideas with the readers here.

I am Justin Wong, a Malaysian currently studying in USA, and I try to keep my ears open to the socio-economic issues back home (in fact I wrote a paper on it). I have stumbled across a movement that is gaining support and impact here in America and I can't think of a more appropriate person to share this with than one such as yourself.

You might have heard of it but allow me to introduce Teach For America (), a non-profit organization that addresses the achievement gap in the not-so privileged areas in the country. It recruits ready and willing college graduates who commit two years to teach in places in dire need of educators. I find this to be a noble effort indeed.

I have always felt for the 'situation' of the Malaysian education system, though it may not entirely be the case such addressed by Teach For America. With proper planning and execution, I believe that education issues such as lack of capable teachers or unemployment rate can be addressed. If the government is taking its time to do something about the pressing need for better, fairer, or further spread education (regretfully, I do not know every issue there is), a committee of dedicated learned individuals can.

With this letter I am not asking you to act upon my thoughts, instead I'd like to hear what you and perhaps some other capable persons think about an idea to put together an organization that benefits Malaysians. A simple discussion would suffice, regarding any ramifications, possibilities, limitations, or maybe even visions for anything our good countrymen can do for the future's generations. Forwarding this to anyone else who would like to share and add would do much good, I believe.

I intend to see Malaysians help each other for the nation's betterment. I hope you receive this letter well.

- Justin Wong
Junior of Towson University, Maryland, USA


Andrew said...

it aint all that sunny.

In 2005, The New York Times reported Teach For America received applications from "12 percent of Yale's graduates, 11 percent of Dartmouth's and 8 percent of Harvard's and Princeton's." In 2006, close to 19,000 individuals applied for an incoming corps of 2,400.

Despite the program’s popularity, between 10 and 15 percent of each corps class drops out before completing the required two years. Some teachers quit because they feel unsupported by their schools; others are overwhelmed by the challenges of the classroom.

Cynics even suggest that the service is less impressive than it looks because these must obviously be a bunch of elite kids who are padding their resumes so they can make it into a good law or business school.

It was May 2000, and the guy at Al Gore’s polling firm seemed baffled. A Yale political-science major, I’d already walked away from a high-paying consulting job a few weeks earlier, and now I was walking away from a job working on a presidential campaign to do . . . what? How I Joined Teach for America—and Got Sued for $20 Million

Justin Wong said...

Wow.. I had no idea.

That may be the unfortunate situation in TeachForAmerica but doesn't mean we can't try something of our own, does it?

-Justin Wong

Anand said...

I've actually been fortunate enough to know, and speak to quite a few TFA teachers, as well as read the book written by their founder (Wendy Kopp).

I've been paying careful attention to the problems they have been facing - but I thought I'd share some facts as well.

A good number of teachers stay on after 2 years (minus the 10-12 % that drop out) as teachers/and directly involved in the educational field.

Additionally, a very large percentage of graduates of TFA are 'involved' (loose term, thus beware) in education after they stop being teachers.

There's a notable increase in performance in reading and math, and high-schools actively look for TFA teachers.

Some of this facts (tfa website, but research by an outside group)

Overall, the program does have it faults - among them being a low retention rate, resume padding, at times ineffective teachers - but Overall it places a large number of 'more effective than normal' teachers in schools that need them, and most of those teachers have a positive impact, and remain involved in the field after their experience.

Something Malaysia could definately use !

There are some problems with the system however, in terms of transferability to the Malaysian context. These are my thoughts, may not be 100% accurate

a) It is my guess (I could be wrong)that entry level teachers earn less than 50% of the starting salary of a consultant at multi-national (Lets assume thats RM 3500 including bonus).In the US, most teachers earn approximately 50% or more in terms of starting salary relative to other more lucrative occupations they could embark on (such as being a consultant, which would typically pay between 30-50% more than a teaching post in the US).

2. The best and brightest students in the US at times come from families that are relatively well-to-do/financially secure (this once again is an assumption). This produces a 'large number' (especially of females) of relatively financially secure individuals who have time, energy and the passion to devote their careers towards meaningful goals, albiet not financially rewarding. On the other hand, many of the top Malaysian students or graduates, both local or foriegn, may not come from as wealthy families, and the concept of working as a teacher for a few years could be financially damaging.

c) Law schools, medical schools, graduate schools, and several corporate employers in the US have a good understanding and appreciation for the rigour of the TFA teaching program, and looks at former teachers from the program often in favourable light. In Malaysia, there would have to be education of employers (outside of the teaching profession) that the skills and quality of graduates who might participate in a Malaysian "TFA" is valuable. This would be essential as there is a large number of potential Malaysians who might participate with the intent of working as a teacher for a few years but not long term. Which brings me to my third point..

c) One of the purposes of TFA is also to enable these young proffesionals to pursue teaching 'long-term', i.e. stay in the field for a while after their initial 2 years. It should be noted that the compensation levels of a teacher in the US with a masters, in the NY region, is easily over 60-70k, provided he/she has 10 years or so of experience under their belt. Compare this with a simmilar candidate in Malaysia, I belive there might be a large discrepency, (even with accounting for adjustments geographically) and the standard of living awarded to a teacher in KL would be significantly less in the long term than for a teacher in the States.

d) Money aside, many TFA graduates have an impact on education by being involved in policy, and research via non-profits and the goverment after their 'core' teaching experience. In Malaysia, that might be more difficult given less oppurtunities of that sort, and a less fully developed non-profit sector, and less willingness to listen to 'input' from outside parties by the education ministry.

All that being said, there are many passionate individuals who might be interested in a Malaysian equivalent - if it is planned, and administered properly. With proper corporate understanding, some acceptance from the Malaysian education (formal) system that this is a 'good' program (if indeed it is), and commitment from participants, it could work.

There are hundreds of teachers out there in Malaysia who are doing what they do because they care, and want to make a difference - and the level of compensation (aka Money $$) has not deterred them from their goal.

I belive that if enough newly minted graduates can overcome the financial barrier, and there is proper buy in and planning - a program such as TFA could have some impact in Malaysia.

ps: Although, based on the difficulty in measuring any progress at times in our education system, it might be hard to prove impact. The real impact would come from more aware, and broad-minded graduates who would experience a true spectrum of Malaysia after they have been teaching for a few years.

Everyone's thoughts appreciated ! Shoot down some of my arguments, thats part of the fun :)


Anonymous said...

Anand - good post, but where are you getting the salary figures for U.S. teachers from? TFA starting salaries are in the US$29-41K range, according to Vault ( - a far cry from the $100K+ total compensation that entry-level analysts at top-tier consulting firms such as Bain, BCG and McKinsey can expect to earn.

Charis Quay said...

Some facts that might be relevant to this discussion: Recent rumours have it that it's now more difficult to get into teachers' training in Malaysia than to get into Harvard. Engineers are supposedly applying because of the relatively high salary now that the economy is not doing so well. Teachers recently got a pay increase such that the gap between them and civil servants on the medical side has narrowed quite a bit. The goverment was also talking about benefits for people going to really ulu areas. What do these things mean for such a programme in Malaysia?

Local conditions have to be taken into account. Just because numbers are good in the US does not mean that something identical will work just as well in Malaysia. Apart from cultural things, the biggest difference that I can see is that the US does not have a centralised education system. Have there been similar programmes in other countries?

Anonymous said...

UK has its TeachFirst program, which follows from the above-mentioned US teaching program.

However, I think it applies only to EU or UK citizens.

Justin Wong said...

Hmm.. okay. I have come to understand that a Malaysian TFA would not be an overnight success. But outlining all possible complications of starting something is better than solely visioning the benefits. Thanks Anand for your thoughtful input.

I believe that there are plenty who are "concerned" about the Malaysian education system as much as the readers and commenters of this blog. Though such organization, if established, will face all sorts of problems like the ones outlined above, it is not unwise to think that it might to more good than harm.

It seems that salary/motivation is one of the driving factors here. Is there something practical that someone can do?

Asha said...


By chance i came upon this blog. and was every intrigued by the suggestions made. And am willing to spare time to look into sponsorship etc needs if there is a serious attempt at making this work in malaysia. With all pros and cons stated....i do believe theres no harm trying....

Justin Wong said...

Hello, Asha. I'm only a student, but you can correspond with me if you wish:

Anand said...

Hi All,

My friend works as a teacher in NYC (first year, Teach for America) and the salary is closer to $45k. It is lower in other places, but so are most corporate jobs there.

I have several friends working in the private sector - Bain, and Boston Consulting Group - the base salary is closer to $60k, plus a bonus of $10-$20k, vault's numbers are not really accurate.

Do remember that teachers have approximately 3 months out of the year, during summer free (as well as any normal leave), so in the US most of them can easily earn an additional $10-$20k over the 3 months if they decide to teach.

I do belive the salaries are much more competitive with high end private sector jobs.

(also note that the top tier consulting firms in Malaysia pay FAR more than 2x a teachers salary, a starting grad at BCG in KL could probably pull 10k a month).

Hope that helps.

Once again, I do belive money is not the only part of the system.

Someone brought up a point about how Malaysia's system is standardized - this is a very good point !

Many teachers I know in TFA teach at charter schools, where they have more free reign over the curriculum

Anucia said...


Just to share with you, Australia has followed suit with its Teach for Australia program. I am doing my Dip Ed in Australia and we had a good discussion during one of our lectures about the pros and cons of the program.

While there are many areas that need to be addressed, the idea is noble and we generally came to the consensus that modifications to the program need to be made.

Candidates choosing to follow this program should be subject to rigorous training as with regular education students, with ample practicum with mixed ability students, so that they really know what they're getting themselves into. Then again, what is the point of investing so much in these candidates who eventually leave to join their sponsoring corporation after the stipulated period when we have people who really want to teach? Shouldn't they be the ones that need to be invested in?

With everything else, people will try to exploit the system, ie for resume/job security purposes, etc. What needs to be understood is that when it comes to teaching, there must really be a passion for it.

One will not survive or reap/contribute much if not driven by the desire to make a difference.