Research News

Teach for America service leads to empathy

Cecilia Mo (Vanderbilt University)

Two years in the Teach for America program influences participants to empathize with the poorer members of society and accept that poverty is not a choice they make, according to a new study co-written by a Vanderbilt University researcher.

“The results were sizeable across the board,” said Cecilia Mo, assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt and co-author of the study with Katharine Conn. “TFA participants take on attitudes that are closer to those of the ‘have-nots’ regarding the fairness of the economic, social and political status quo. They are more likely to recognize the external barriers to advancement faced by disadvantaged populations.”

The study takes into account the possibility that those who are interested in joining TFA may already be sympathetic to the experiences of marginalized and low-income communities, Mo said.

“The effects we see is not simply a sign that TFA is just doing a great job of selecting the people who have these belief systems,” Mo said. “We are seeing that the act of participating in a national service program as a teacher in a low-income classroom had an effect on these individuals.”

Teach for America

TFA is a national service program that puts college graduates into low-income communities as volunteers for two years to help disadvantaged students. It was founded in 1989, based on founder Wendy Kopp’s Princeton University undergraduate thesis.

Conn, a Peace Corps alumna, and Mo, a TFA alumna, studied the records of more than 32,000 applicants who applied to the program from 2007 to 2015. They were seeking to see if the TFA experience led participants to “see the world more through the lens of the poor.”

“There’s a wealth of literature that says just mixing people isn’t enough,” Mo said. “Participation catalyzes beliefs that systematic injustices are more to blame for the positions of disadvantaged Americans than their positions being a natural consequence of the individuals’ own decisions and merit.”

How long does it last?

The sympathetic perspective on the poor lasts at least seven years after the TFA experience, according to the study. Seven years was the most that could be tracked in the time period of the study.

“My sense is that the effects might last for the rest of their lives,” Mo said. “This is especially the case because the service experience might cause individuals to pursue career paths that re-cement and crystallize some of these belief changes.”

Mo and Conn next plan to investigate whether the attitude change caused by TFA service leads to action.

“Belief changes might cause individuals to become jaded or they might push people to engage in issues of inequality and poverty,” Mo said. “Are people likely to become jaded from the TFA experience or more likely to act to change the system?”

Conn is a senior research scientist at the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at Columbia University.