This February, Teach For America begins its third decade of operations and its fourth year in the Twin Cities. Roughly 10 percent of graduating seniors at Macalester and Carleton Colleges have applied, as well as 3 percent of those at the University of Minnesota.

Depending on whom you side with, that's cause for either celebration or despair.

Reformers praise TFA for recruiting the nation's top college students to teach in underserved urban and rural schools. The participants make a minimum commitment of two years and, according to TFA, often stay on longer.

The education establishment, meanwhile, has shouted itself hoarse about the fact that TFA places undertrained teachers in already disadvantaged schools. It's harmful, they argue, to our most vulnerable children.

So who's right?

Both sides frantically wave data in support of their cases. But poring over the research yields no definitive or powerful findings. The average TFA corps member is either slightly more, or slightly less, effective than the average newly licensed teacher. Ho-hum.

And why should that be surprising? Even though licensed teachers receive far more training, they often come from the bottom third of their graduating classes.

TFA recruits, by contrast, come from estimable colleges where they collectively maintain an A- average. But some of them have never set foot in a public school before; they could all use a bit more of an apprenticeship experience, and many never finish their two-year service commitments.

So is TFA, as their opponents would have us believe, hurting poor kids? Hardly.

According to one principal, TFA recruits kept his school from facing the reality of staffing nearly half of his classrooms with substitutes. As another noted, TFA corps members remain preferable to the "dying-on-the-vine" teachers he otherwise might have to tap.

But TFA doesn't harvest its $200 million annual operating budget by pitching itself as a stopgap. Instead, the organization promotes itself as a panacea for the nation's schooling woes. And, more important, reformers believe it.

The Medtronic Foundation and the General Mills Foundation cut huge checks to bring TFA to the Twin Cities, and state leaders trip all over themselves in praising the organization.

How can that be, one might ask, if the results are less than overwhelming?

TFA is a juggernaut not because of results, but because it taps into the reform spirit of the age -- a spirit neatly summed up in the ubiquitous phrase "excellence for all."

Beyond being a piece of rhetoric, the slogan implies a very particular approach to reform, rooted in identifying successful practices and trying to replicate them.

Equity, in such a scenario, need not come at the expense of the privileged through contentious efforts like school busing. Instead, high-flying schools can serve as models for their lower-achieving peers. The aim is to identify what makes good schools special, then reproduce it.

TFA makes reformers swoon because it squares perfectly with this vision. According to founder Wendy Kopp, TFA can "ensure that children in the poorest communities in America have the same average achievement rates as more privileged children."

And how will they do it? By recruiting the same kinds of people often found teaching at the nation's best K-12 schools -- graduates of elite colleges -- and putting them in underserved urban and rural schools. Find "what works" and take it to scale.

Of course, the nation's top K-12 schools are successful for lots of reasons. Sure, their teachers are often the products of prestigious colleges. But such schools also have engaged and healthy students, supportive parents and communities, a strong sense of school culture, state-of-the-art facilities, and boatloads of resources.

And, as it so happens, their teachers tend to stay not for two years, but for decades. They become masters of their craft.

Copying one tiny piece of the puzzle won't fix the problem, especially when it isn't even a faithful copy. Can we really expect lightly trained novices, smart and relentless though they are, to fix America's schools? The answer should be obvious.

Yet a generation of education policymakers sees TFA, and other reforms like it, as a magic cure for the nation's schooling problems.

Not because of results, but rather because these people have fallen under the spell of the "excellence for all" vision -- a vision in which school reform requires nothing resembling redistribution. It requires only common sense and entrepreneurism.

Fixing schools isn't that simple. But if critical observers want to shape policy debate, they need to recognize that this is a new era in American education reform.

They need to begin not by attacking Teach For America, but by unpacking the school reform climate in which TFA looks like a silver bullet. They need to recognize that the last thing a fish is likely to notice is the water in which it swims.

The fish, for their part, would do well do open their eyes.


Jack Schneider is Robert A. Oden Jr. Postdoctoral Fellow for Innovation in the Liberal Arts at Carleton College and the author of "Excellence For All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America's Public Schools."