Monday, July 12, 2010

Is Teach For America A Program For The Poor Or For The Rich?

I'm going to start with full disclosure: I have never liked Teach for America. If that's going to bug you, you might want to move on to the next blog.

Why do I dislike Teach For America? Because it has nothing to do with permanent investment in our schools, or thoughtful reform of education. Because it is one of many organizations that seem to exist more or less to give privileged young people the "life experience" that will qualify them to go on to their next advanced degree. Because it relies for its prestige on the idea that people who are middle or upper class naturally have something special and intangible to offer to the poor. Because it activates our not so thinly-veiled social contempt for people who chose the hard work of teaching public school as a career, often doing it for decades in places where they are forced to buy books and classroom supplies out of their own salaries.

I dislike TFA because public education does not exist to give graduates of elite colleges and universities a couple swing years so that they can later go on to great graduate schools and fabulously well paid careers. I dislike TFA because I am a teacher, and I am quite clear that you don't learn to teach in five weeks, much less teach students who have a range of social, economic and developmental problems; who are often hungry, in pain, angry or frightened; and who come in unruly waves of 40-50 every 45 minutes. So thank you Michael Winerip for interviewing numerous elite college grads who are struggling with the "stigma" of having been rejected by this glitzy non-profit because there aren't so many paralegal and entry-level Wall Street jobs this year; and thank you for using this as an opportunity to take a look at this popular NGO that makes a lot of claims for itself that are thinly documented.

As someone who is a career teacher, I am offended by the notion that anyone can step into a classroom and teach effectively, even though they are inexperienced and virtually untrained, because they are oh-so-smart and have successfully gotten into Harvard or Zenith. And teaching public secondary school is harder than teaching, or being a student in, college. Public school is open to the public, folks, and nobody does a sort for you to separate out the ones who are ready to learn, or who already speak English. Magnet and charter schools can be even harder to teach in, since in their initial years they are often the dumping ground for students who have been expelled from and flunked out of other schools.

But let's be clear: mostly I dislike Teach for America because it is not school reform and it claims to be. It is a neo-liberal romance about the ways in which volunteerism by elites can replace a political and fiscal commitment to lifting Americans out of poverty by supporting, and investing in, the schools that poor people attend. Worse, TFA is a spiritual extension of those internship programs that these eager young things with BA's larded their records with to get into elite colleges and universities in the first place. The logic is: if it looks good for me, then it must be good for "them." As Winerip comments, "Teach for America has become an elite brand that will help build a résumé, whether or not the person stays in teaching. And in a bad economy, it’s a two-year job guarantee with a good paycheck; members earn a beginning teacher’s salary in the districts where they’re placed."

And they don't stay in teaching. Perhaps the worst aspect of TFA is that it views teaching as a kind of boot camp for entering the leadership class. TFA's website claims that "corps members and alumni are creating fundamental change," but what that change comprises, and what counts as change, is not clear. The website cites research "that Teach For America corps members' impact on their students' achievement is equal to or greater than that of other new teachers. Moreover, the most rigorous studies have shown that corps members' impact exceeds that of experienced and certified teachers in the same schools." But in fact, if you click on the link that supposedly leads you to that research, you find that "Studies of TFA teacher vary widely in both their findings and the strength of their methodologies." Hmmm. And actually, although you can get citations for these studies, the documents themselves have not been uploaded to the website.

What the website doesn't tell you is how many of those teachers quit in the first six months. As Winerip notes, according to one study, “by the fourth year, 85 percent of T.F.A. teachers had left” New York City schools." That's change for you. My guess is the rate of attrition is higher and faster in the Mississippi Delta, currently identified by TFA as a location in great need of amateur teachers. According to one of my former students who entered the program over five years ago and is still teaching in the troubled urban system he was assigned to, his cohort lost half its membership in the first year, and he is the only original member of his team still in teaching.

TFA has not helped to build a permanent corps of excellent teachers who will train other career teachers or use their classroom training to become effective principals. Hence, it has nothing to do with a program of fundamental, structural reform for our nation's public schools. It has nothing to do with how schools, and school systems, might use their centrality to communities to address issues that are currently crippling education, such as unfunded testing mandates, the effects of poverty and unemployment, teaching critical thinking rather than rote memorization, or state budget cuts that eliminate books and raise class sizes. TFA does, however, seem to be a training ground for education bureaucrats, such as Chancellor Michelle Rhee of the District of Columbia, who continues to blame most of her system's problems on undocumented teacher incompetence.

Rhee recently laid off over 250 teachers: how many of them will be replaced by TFA fly-by-nighters, whose salary is paid by a combination of private and federal dollars? I don't know about other states, but because of drastically reduced property tax revenues, Connecticut is currently laying off young teachers who have actually committed to teaching as a career, not as a temporary stopgap before law school. Other states are waiting anxiously to hear whether Congress will pass a bill that would fund the Obama Administration's new education initiative, and whether they will actually receive the millions of dollars they were promised for system-wide education initiatives. Will these funds be replaced by well-intentioned and untrained young people from elite schools who are here today and gone tomorrow?

102 comments:

Dragon Management said...

Amen. I've had these thoughts for a while now, and never had the words for them, partly because I thought I was the only one who thought this program was a disservice to our neediest students.

Again, Amen.

takingitoutside said...

I never looked at TFA as training for permanent teachers. To me, it's always been intended as a two-year commitment. One of the main benefits of it - to me, at least - is that it puts (often) privileged young people into poor, inner-city schools where they probably wouldn't have gone otherwise. I've thought of it as a way of teaching those young, privileged people just how hard educating people is, and what the obstacles are. Then, when they get older and have some pull in business/government/society, they will be more likely to support measures in favor of schools and vote for things that will really help schools.

That isn't, by the way, meant to refute your arguments (which I understand, but don't exactly agree with). I don't believe all of the hype about TFA teachers, but I do think more highly of them than you. If I thought they were horrid teachers, the preceding argument wouldn't hold much weight for me. I'm not sure whether this effect would mean much to you, but I thought I'd toss the idea into the mix as one potential benefit.

Tenured Radical said...

To the anonymous commenter I just deleted:

Please check my comments policy (in the sidebar) before commenting again.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. I taught briefly in a DC charter school. Although I wasn't part of TFA, many of my fellow teachers were, and the TFA model that having smart young people in the classroom was more important than having experienced and committed teachers pervaded the place.

Of course, what this meant in reality was that students didn't trust teachers, who were apt to leave at the end of the school year and not before. The few teachers who did return for a second year were treated as heros by the kids.

This way of thinking about education had negative consequences for teachers too. Few of us had any real training, and the attitude from administrators seemed to be that, if we were smart and committed enough, we would figure it out. Like somehow we were all supposed to be stars in one of those "Dangerous Minds" type movies where a newbie teacher goes through hell, then has a breakthrough and suddenly the kids are spouting poetry and going to college. If you were having trouble, or you needed help, then this was clearly a personal failing on your part. At the same time, the administrators were so incompetent and tried to run the school so much like a business, that there was truly no support at all.

In the end, of course, it's the kids who suffer the most from this approach to inner city education as a life changing "experience" for idealistic, wealthy, young, white people. I tried hard--and I had quite a bit of experience in education before going to that school, although not as a classroom teacher--but I'm certain my kids would have been better off with an older, more experienced person in that classroom. Plus it just felt cruddy to know that I wasn't giving them an education, that the curriculum sucked and I couldn't do anything about it, that we didn't have anything that they needed to succeed and that I couldn't give it to them.

TFA is not even a bandaid.

Tenured Radical said...

takingitoutside:

You have put the pro-TFA argument beautifully, and far more succinctly than I, so thank you. And it puts my question at front and center: TFA claims to be benefitting the students, but "we" all know that the enriched experience of privileged young people "experiencing" poverty first-hand is the real priority, and the expectation is that the students are really going to be the "teachers."

Why can't we make the students, and supporting the teachers the students already have, the top priority?

Moria said...

Amen, TR.

I do have some anecdata from the experiences of friends that suggests that TFA can build commitment – one friend still teaches, four years later, in the school to which T.F.A. assigned her; another has moved into a different branch of civil service in his T.F.A. city. Still, the rest of my anecdata supports your thesis. And I absolutely agree that the marketing for the program's prestige, which promises how much privileged kids can gain from a brief stint in the educational ghetto, is absolutely sickening. The cheerful yard-signs quoting poverty statistics that blanket Penn's lush campus once a year are particularly stomach-turning.

What's odd is that the New York Teaching Fellows program doesn't seem to have the same problems – everyone I know who started there is still there. Perhaps it's simply a matter of prestige and marketing.

Anonymous said...

Is it really volunteerism when you get paid? They are making a decent salary, which was surprising. Teach for America has to be paying more than what most first year teachers make. In the suburbs where I live, they are lucky if they make 30-35K in their first year.

At the same time, when and if economy improves, expect Teach for America not to been seen as viable option, since most of the participants admitted they applied because of the economy, not for their love of education.

Tenured Radical said...

True, Moria: I think the big difference is that, for TFA, the teaching certificate that career teachers have is perceived as the sine qua non of mediocrity, whereas for NYTF, the certificate is the goal, and young teachers get there by an alternative, mentor-intensive route.

Anonymous said...

Any time you can substitute an enthusiastic educated young person for a tired, burned-out older person in education, you should do so -- whether the person is teaching at the primary, secondary, or college level. What we need is more subject-matter knowledge and less bullshit, more accountability and less tenure. I also think it helps to appreciate your students, rather than holding them in contempt.

Anonymous said...

One of the things that bugs me about TFA is how relentlessly they recruit applicants. Part of its aura is having a huge application -- and thus a huge rejection -- pool, and so it actively recruit on campuses in ways that they know will draw unqualified applicants.

On the other hand, I've read elsewhere that some of the most provocative (and genuine) ideas about school reform these days are coming from TFA alumni. That is a positive outcome -- but probably not worth using inner-city schools as experience-factories for elite college graduates.

Anonymous said...

Regarding this statement: "I dislike TFA because I am a teacher, and I am quite clear that you don't learn to teach in five weeks, much less teach students who have a range of social, economic and developmental problems; who are often hungry, in pain, angry or frightened; and who come in unruly waves of 40-50 every 45 minutes." you can make this same assessment for 4 year degrees as well. While you may learn about what to look for and how to handle it, the situations are never as clear cut as they are presented to you as a prospective teacher. Teaching is definitely one of those professions that are an aquired skill and doesn't happen over night.

The only real benefit I see to the TFA program is that it at least puts people into those districts that more often than are overlooked by aspiring teachers. I know first hand from some friends that they wouldn't bat an eye at the idea of going into a inner city/urban district simply because they're above it and do not want the challenge or struggle.

Historiann said...

This is an excellent analysis of TFA. Bob Somerby at The Daily Howler (dailyhowler.com) has been on TFA's case for several years, for precisely the reasons you outline here: it's a do-gooder credential for the elite, and there's no proof that it works.

I'm always amazed by people who are convinced that experienced, tenured teachers are just burned-out goldbrickers frittering away their days until they get full retirement benefits. Anyone who thinks teaching K-12 is easy--let alone teaching K-12 students in poverty and/or with tremendous needs--has obviously never taught anyone anything in hir life.

Little wonder that educrats like Rhee (and I would add, the ever-dopey Arne Duncan, and my never-won-a-single-vote U.S. Senator Michael Bennet) have zero experience in teaching.

anthony grafton said...

Thanks for the post, TR. A few of my former students have gone through TFA to become committed lifers trying to make city schools better, and I have enormous respect for them and what they do every day. But that hardly seems to be the majority experience.

Knitting Clio said...

Thank your for posting this, TR. As someone who teaches at a state university with a large teacher preparation program, I've always been bothered by the TFA program for all the reasons you cite, plus the fact that it trivializes what teacher preparation programs do. As Historiann says, teaching public school is not easy and teacher preparation programs are rigorous for a reason.

Anonymous said...

As a former corps member, this bothers me. I came into Teach for America not looking for two years of playtime after I got my degree, but because educational inequity is a problem in this country that I want to devote my life to fixing. The people who came in thinking this would be a piece of cake were weeded out early through our intensive summer training.

I worked my tail off for two years and although the profession did not provide me with the amount of joy other teachers derived, I worked extremely hard putting in countless hours of after school instruction with my students and achieved some of the best growth and test scores in the school. I did only stay two years due to frustration with the system and relocation, but I am currently getting a degree that will allow me to focus on college access for underprivileged students. I am now across the country but still write my students, and I flew back to see them graduate elementary school. They are still an integral part of my life, and my motivation for getting this degree.

I would like to point out that my staying two years was an anomaly. As of 2009, studies showed that two thirds of corps members continue teaching after their commitment, and one third remain in the education sector through the entirety of their careers. I realize that I'm probably not going to change most of your minds on this issue, but I also think it is unfair to present a wholly negative story on an organization that is making the population more socially aware and benefiting children across the country.

Susan said...

Sing it, Sister. TFA has made me queasy since it started, partly because of the fact that it doesn't address the core funding issues. It would be much better to think about policies that would attract smart, committed graduates of every college and university to teaching, rather than attracting them to teaching so that they can later get into grad school.

There is a relatively small proportion of TFA people who stay in teaching, and then they find they need to get the credential, especially if they don't stay where they were placed. Many -- like Rhee, get the idea that all you need is bright ideas, and the hard slog of all the problems of education in inner cities or poor rural areas is ignored.

The reality, as our president said about something else, is that if the problem were simple, we'd have solved it already.

Susan said...

Thank you for this post -- I've been saying the same thing for years. One quibble -- I think it's less "neo-liberal" than plain conservative. If you look at Wendy Kopp's model and initial plan, it relied (and still relies) heavily on corporate sponsorship and sells itself as (among other things) a pathway to the elite world of business (TFA has agreements with several b-schools as well as other types of professional schools). Moreover, those who stay in education tend to move to charter schools (KIPP being the most egregious example and one that uses the TFA 'burn-em-out' mentality about how to best use teachers). It also avoids any semblance of systemic school reform though it uses its corps to complain about school systems with no clue about how school systems became what they are today, for better or worse.

Janice said...

It's a very different dynamic and prospect than we see up here in Canada. No "high prestige" program seeking teachers to transform schools, one privileged person at a time but a culture that expects a B.Ed. as well as a B.A. or B.S. on every teacher's part.

Demographic decline in student numbers and a push-back against retirement by financially pinched senior teachers has left little opportunity for many of our recent grads. I have a former student who's off to teach in one of the remote parts of the country and we could consider her to be fortunate. Many more newly qualified teachers don't have that much!

I have to agree with you and many of the other commenters above that teaching K-12 is a tough job and to do it well requires not just a sincere desire and good education, but also a lot of training and support. Sadly, many educational bureaucracies, even here in Canada, don't seem to give helpful support to new teachers and the burnout rate is bad enough. I can't imagine what it would be like to try and do the job with just five weeks of crammed-in prep!

philosoraptor said...

That's a bracing perspective on an organization that I haven't given much thought to, despite knowing that some of my former students joined.

Don't many -- most -- of your criticisms of Teach for America also apply to another graduating-student favorite: the Peace Corps? The question is genuine, not a "let's try to catch you in a contradiction!" trap.

Tenured Radical said...

Well, I have mixed views about the Peace Corps too, but maybe someone who has actually served in it will show up to comment. I would say that for what it is worth, the PC is government-funded, and has a lot of rules about supporting local people -- not co-opting or supplanting them. The PC experience has changed over the years, but it is dramatically less well paid (I think Winerip talks about this) and I don't think it perceives itself as a substitute for foreign policy.

But those are just random thoughts.

undine said...

I'm glad to hear you say something about Michelle Rhee, whose idea of a career in teaching is exactly that followed by most TFA grads (according to your post): spend your twenties teaching at a high intensity; for example, she suggested that teachers give out their cell phone numbers so that students could have 24/7 access. After a few years, the teacher could "easily" transition into investment banking or something lucrative. That's why there's no need for job security, according to Rhee: if you're any good, you'll get out of teaching in 5 years or so. She said as much in a New Yorker or Atlantic article a few years back.

This is a model that she seems to think has a lot of promise--for teachers who come from backgrounds of privilege, anyway.

americorpsvista2010 said...

I have no experience with TFA, but I am serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA, a program with a similar overall goal.

Though I've seen poverty, I'm serving in my home community and dealing with homelessness, a problem I knew very little about before this year.

TFA, and all AmeriCorps programs, strive to do several things. Just my observations, in no particular order:

1. Change the lives of the people who serve by exposing them to new experiences, cultures, etc.
2. Help build the professional experience of the people who serve, so they can move on in their careers.
3. Build the capacity of the cities and organizations where AmeriCorps serve, leaving them better off than before, and in a better position to complete their mission. Of course, this aspect varies depending on the program and the work being done by each volunteer.

Are TFAs teachers? In the truest professional sense, probably not, at least not yet. However, I have known TFAs that have used the TFA experience to go on and become a full-time teacher.

My impression is that TFA has two overall goals:

1. Give volunteers teaching experience and get them passionate about the educational system
2. Give low-income kids, that may not have access to quality education otherwise, an opportunity to learn

Not having served, someone will have to chime in and tell me if this is a fair assessment.

For my part, my VISTA service has strengthened a desire to serve on a federal level, and I will use the year of non-competitive eligibility to apply to federal positions. I do so with a new awareness and understanding of what homelessness truly looks like.

I've read a few comments that have objected to the fact that AmeriCorps volunteers are paid. AmeriCorps volunteers are paid a stipend, enough to be making on par with the communities they are serving. In most cases, this is a poverty-level wage, around $10,000 over 12 months of service. The objective is for each volunteer (in my case VISTA) should have to know what is like to struggle for basic things like food and housing, just like the community they are serving.

Last thing. You can agree or disagree with TFAs program objectives, but your article also was very harsh toward the students who serve. That is uncalled for. Not everyone comes from an Ivy League School and some actually choose to serve because they want to. You make it sound like it is a last resort. It is hard for me to fathom how you can find fault in a student’s desire to serve our country.

Tenured Radical said...

dear americorpsvista2010:

Some big differences -- your program is federally funded, TFA is private and the TFA teachers make four times your salary.

Americorps also goes out of its way to recruit and train working class and poor people, kids coming out of prison and foster care, and so on. It's a very different program.

Another difference: teaching is a *job,* and a good education something which the government has an obligation to provide. Since when has it been up to volunteers to bail the government out of its obligation and commitment to educate its citizens? Teaching is not a sacred mission, not national service, and not hacking through the jungle helping a village secure a source of potable water.

In the period in which private organizations like TFA have thrived, americorps & vista have had their funding slashed repeatedly. There's a connection there (and I would call it neo-liberalism, I guess, because of the corporate replacement of government services.)

Tenured Radical said...

And as for the students? Look, at the very best I think they are suffering from false consciousness. What they should be doing is organizing students and their parents to demand the right to a good education and to fund the schools in the US instead of pouring our money (and other wonderful American youths) into Iraq and Afghanistan.

Emily said...

TR, thank you for articulating very well many of my problems with TFA, particularly the neoliberal or conservative ed reform ideology that supports it.

From my anecdotal experience, however, I think americorpsvista2010 is right to note that many students--particularly those outside of the very-elite-Ivy-League-Zenith-and-equivalents bubble--apply to TFA out of a genuine desire to teach. I know a faculty member at a state university who writes recommendations for serious students committed to education with experience in things like peer tutoring who weren't able to do the teacher-prep program at their university but who want to become teachers and are looking for an alternative path to the classroom. The problem is that hir university has a very poor placement record--as compared to the elite private university where I go to school and which prides itself on a high TFA placement rate for its students. These seem to be more frequently seduced by TFA's noblesse oblige rhetoric, less dedicated to education as a career, and more okay with the idea of it as a short-term thing on the way to a more "elite" or high-paying career. That's a generalization, to be sure, but it concerns me that on average my classmates get into TFA and my state-university acquaintance's students don't. My classmates may have shinier resumes, and may have been groomed to be more articulate in interviews, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they'd make better teachers than state-university students (who are more likely to have been actually educated at public schools themselves!). The program's ideology seems to value exactly the kind of elitism and classism that perpetuates the achievement gap it claims to be redressing.

Kim said...

As a student in a teacher preparation program, Teach for America to me is an perfect just-out-of-college way to get a job in the business of teaching, with the additional opportunity to explore new ideas and theories in teaching. From the articles I've read, TFA seems to be incorporating some new teaching ideas that could reform teaching in the U.S. as we know it. That's something I want to be involved in.

Unfortunately, TFA has become ridiculously competitive. I'm not from an Ivy League School by any means, and for me the message that I should be is daunting to say the least. But this doesn't stop me from wanting to be in the program.

TFA may employ highly-educated students who go into different fields, or use the experience to get into grad school, but they do have the experience. During times when we needs lawyers, higher ups and ivy-league graduates to change policy in education, maybe it will be this experience that makes them decide to invest time into education reform.

On the other hand, it would be really nice if this program was directed more towards people who want to continue teaching after TFA. It even has the added benefit in some areas in the country to give discounted master's and licensure programs. It has the potential to have much more of an impact than it does, at least in giving a new teacher a lesson in teaching.

FrauTech said...

"As someone who is a career teacher, I am offended by the notion that anyone can step into a classroom and teach effectively, even though they are inexperienced and virtually untrained, because they are oh-so-smart and have successfully gotten into Harvard or Zenith."

This! Exactly! I used to be an admin and even with a BA and three years of clerical experience I had a hard time getting hired into the job. Nowadays I hear people say things like "well I can always temp and do admin work" or "I'm willing to start from the bottom up and be an admin." Don't they realize it's a JOB not a stepping stone? That people work hard at these careers to be good at them? People seem to think with a bachelor's degree in whatever that they can do these jobs. But often it takes years. And especially in TFA, these supposedly poor/innercity kids are the one's losing, but not having access to REAL teachers.

Anonymous said...

You misunderstand the TFA mission. The mission isn't to arm schools with legions of high-producing teachers through the TFA program (although that'd be great). The mission is to make education a primary concern of college-educated, success-driven Americans so that policy change can be gradually enacted on the local, state, and national levels.

Student benefit, though significant during the commitment period, is hardly the end goal of the program. TFA aims to improve education in America through policy.

Anonymous said...

I read the article. It notes that Teach for America has an operating budget of $185 million for 4,500 college recruits. Have I done the math right? $41,000 per college recruit? Yikes! Is this really the best way to spend public funds and private donations?

dcarr said...

This is a very typical compliant/argument against Teach for America. I think you may have some of your data/facts skewed. 65% of TFA corps members stay in education. Some stay in teaching, some become principals and vice principals, counselors and/or leaders at charter schools.

Those who do not stay in education become advocates for public education in the private sector. Many have been elected to school boards

Is TFA a program for the privileged? What is your definition of privileged? For my students and parents I worked with in Compton the fact that I graduated from a four year university meant I was privileged. Is the commitment two years after a 6 week boot camp? Yes it is and when I interviewed teachers at a recent trip to a teacher residency program the "residents" talked about how they wish their year long student teaching was two years as opposed to one. Which is better? six weeks? One year? Two years?

Here are the facts:

1.) We still have an achievement gap in the country and while the majority of Americans in our society are concerned about it, we as a nation are not committed to closing the gap. This is due in part to the fact that teaching is not seen as a true profession for a myriad of reasons.

2.) Teach for America is not and never will be the answer to the achievement gap but it has asked the right questions with regards to what makes an effective teacher, how does one select teachers, and can all kids learn.

3.) How do we know TFA is asking the right questions? Teacher residency programs and school districts have adopted their selection model. School districts have hired alumni as administrators throughout the country. You have chatted about the teachers who have left the Mississippi Delta. You would be wise to talk to the folks who have left, gotten degrees in higher ed. and have gone back to the Delta to teach. You may not agree with Michelle Rhee's methods but she has as many supporters as she has critics and her supporters are African American parents who have been let down by DC Public Schools generation upon generation.

4.) Professionalism...I have been on school campuses where you can't tell the teachers from the students. The adults are in sweat pants and football jerseys. When I walk onto an urban campus and see a teacher in a suit and tie my knee jerk reaction is to ask, "are you in Teach for America"? More times than not the answer is "how did you know?"

I always have the same questions with those who bash Teach for America. What else have you seen in America in the last 20 years that has taken on this issue of the achievement gap at the ground level with this much intensity? What is the percentage of teachers who stay in the profession past their first two years who were not in TFA? Remember TFA has never set out to create an army of teachers. The goal has been to create an army of leaders all of whom will teach for two years and many of whom will stay in education in some fashion.

Again I submit Teach for America is not the answer but it is a tool in the name of ed reform just like charter schools, the new teacher project, New Leaders for New schools, the innovation happening in DC and so on.

This year more 1st year corps members will enter inner city and rural classrooms. Some of them will have been taught by TFA teachers when they were in elementary school or high school. The majority of them will work with and learn from their veteran colleagues who are not in the program. They will all become better, stronger teachers and their kids will rise to the academic challenges they put forth.

My questions to you are, how will you support them? What will you do to advance the idea of leveling the playing field? What can we do collectively to ensure all kids are getting an excellent education. For 20 years Teach for America has tried to answer this call. Let's join forces and answer it with them...

Matthew Stephens said...

"...The mission is to make education a primary concern of college-educated, success-driven Americans so that policy change can be gradually enacted on the local, state, and national levels.

... TFA aims to improve education in America through policy."

I would agree with this statement. I also agree that teaching is not for everyone. This includes people with teaching degrees. (Gasp!) Yep, I said it.

Many teachers with degrees in teaching view what they do as a source of income. So how is this different from those who use TFA in the same way?

In all honesty it's not much different. Although they will be stuck doing the job for the next 30 years instead of for two.

As others have stated, how many people with actual teaching degrees are applying for these inner city or southern school jobs?

So would we rather see students receive no form of education?

Teach for America may not be the best solution, but I hear no one offering or creating a better opportunity.

In my opinion TFA is the least of worries as a society.

I attended high school at an affluent suburb of the Metro Detroit Area and graduated in 2004. I can count the number of teachers on my hand who were passionate about what they did. I personally believe their passion to help is what gave their students the motivation to succeed.

I am not a teacher and I do not mean to take away from what many of them do, but passion is lacked by many in the field. In my opinion the passion to help others achieve is something you can't teach.

To all of you teachers out there I challenge you to look at what makes a good vs. a bad teacher. In my experience there was nothing tangible, rather it was a love for their work and students.

Anonymous said...

TR, it would appear from some of the comments here that you made several incorrect statements in your post. If, as some of the folks here noted, over 60% of TFA folks stay in teaching in some capacity, than it is hardly a "fly-by-night" operation. 60% is a better retention rate than some school districts have with regular teachers!

JackDanielsBlack

Perhaps the best way to cure the "elitist" reputation of this program would be to expand it so students from Ole Miss and UNC Greensboro can also participate.

Just as America wasted a lot of creativity and talent by not treating women equally it is now wasting young minds by not educating them properly. In my mind, TFA is one of the few programs that tries to fix this. Yes, it is upsetting the status quo, but as was the case with Brown vs. Board of Education, maybe the status quo desperately needs to be upset. In fact, court cases demanding that the State provide a decent education (as measured by outcome) for all its young citizens may be in order. You know and I know and your readers know that the current education establishment in the U.S. is not up to this task, and to claim otherwise is to sacrifice the future of vulnerable young people to political correctness.

Beth said...

Thank you so much for posting!!! As a 16 year public high school veteran, this program has galled the heck out of me for years. What an insulting joke it is. The return on investment for students and schools is a joke.

Neems said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! As someone who went through the whole application process and made it to the final group interview (read competition) I could not have been more disappointed. I knew the program would be a two-year commitment although not a ideal, I thought it could work because I'm from the said neediest and impoverished area. Unbeknownst to me there was a set of criteria that I did not meet.

In retrospect, I fell for the glamourous allure of the program and know many other students in it now. I have classmates that have joined the corps and many of them say they are nowhere near qualified, especially when it comes to classroom management. Although, he or she may be smart, that's not enough.

Tenured Radical, you hit the nail on the head, TFA is doing a disservice to students and corps members alike. The people I meet whom are out the corps speak of their experience as some kind of stepping stone and look at the areas where they worked with pity and that truly rattles me to my core.

Anonymous said...

Weirdly enough, there is no condemnation of the fact that the current teacher-certification system basically turns what are mostly academic lightweights into "committed teachers" (i.e. tenured teachers). Maybe they're few and far between at schools like Zenith and Harvard, but poor, high-achieving students who go to poor public schools go through years of having (if they're lucky) "committed" but plainly less intelligent people whose only ambition in life was to grow up, go to the local teacher's college and become a third grade teacher They get PhDs and study neighborhood poverty, the kind which lets bad schoolin the same school they themselves went to. I know, because I had them. A lot of them, they teach from book because they can't teach off the cuff.

I know it sounds like I'm singing the praises of paternalism by saying these "elite kids" have something to offer, but I think you underestimate the effect meeting someone from that world has on a poor child. It's not exactly earth shattering, but it's new dreams, new aspirations, new places that now exist in her horizon of opportunity that didn't exist before.

But to echo most of the pro-TFA crowd here, a lot of the change happens ten or twelve years after a teacher serves. They go on to get law degrees and work in juvenile justice. They become legislative assistants who turn the ear of their office mates on education and education finance issues. I don't know why one's commitment to helping poor children begins and ends in the classroom.

People love ripping TFA a new one, but I don't know of any other program that has such an huge impact on that space in the back of the minds of so many ambitious American 20-somethings right now.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I can't speak to the actual evidence whether TFA is a net good or a net bad for the K-12 educational system. What I can say is that university faculty also start teaching students with absolutely zero substantial formal training in teaching. But many of those that stick it out manage to figure out how to be good teachers. But in the universities, you are starting with a population that is highly motivated to stick it out and succeed. Maybe TFA is using the wrong criteria to choose its teachers, and focusing on the future policy douchebags (most of whom flame out) instead of those who are really motivated to become teachers?

flask said...

hello! i came in here by accident, read this beautiful piece and then a handful of others and have decided that if, in a pinch i need to nominate someone to make the rules for the New World, you're on my short list.

just today at lunch i was complaining loudly (loudly is usually the way i complain)that as a nation we are prepared to commit a LOT of resources to prisons and punishments, but not so much to education and social programs.

i believe (although i am not a mathematician or economist) that even if fairness and kindness are taken out of the equation, it is simply more cost-effective to care for people, curb greed, and share enough of the resources to give people decent living standards.

poo on this notion that anyone can teach. poo on this notion that teaching isn't important enough to fund. poo on this stupid stinking political climate that values cookie-cutter production line education of the poorest sort and let's get on the task of educating independent thinkers. let's get on board with providing ESPECIALLY the poor and marginalized a fine education with which to build up not only themselves, but their neighborhoods and everything around them.

maybe i have it all wrong, but i think there's enough "stuff" out there for us all to live decently.

i'm looking around me and noticing the increasing stupidity and ignorance of the typical american (not to mention his increasing debt and waist size) and i have to think that a LOT of people are being hoodwinked pretty big.

think INVESTMENT, people!

i did not go into the field of education because i love children; i went into it because i believe that what kind of resources and energy you put into children has a lot to do with the kind of grownups you're going to get on the other end of the deal.

i really want to believe in a future world not so messed up.

Susan said...

Dcarr writes, "Remember TFA has never set out to create an army of teachers. The goal has been to create an army of leaders all of whom will teach for two years and many of whom will stay in education in some fashion."

You're correct and that's the problem. It sacrifices the K-12 students in need of committed teachers willing to learn, over the long term, how to teach for some future sense of "education leadership." But if one teaches for 2 years and moves on to "leadership" positions, how much has one learned about what it takes to be a committed teacher/teacher committed to the process of education? In other words, since great teachers are made, not born, how does the 2-year experience actually show people who will administer schools, develop education policy, etc how to incubate great teaching that actually lasts -- for more than 2 years of passionate burn-out? I want principals, superintendents, policy makers, think tank researchers, etc who, if they've had classroom experience, have had sufficient experience to think through what it takes to cultivate great teachers. Since teachers have the most sustained contact w/students, their impact is certainly far greater than anything else within the system and yet few 2, even 3-year, TFA members know what it takes to develop teachers over a long period of time.

To that end, if TFA is going to exist (which it will, it seems), I'd like to see a program with a minimum 3-year commitment that insists that in year 1 the "corps members" are apprentice teachers. That is, they are in classrooms with experienced teachers the whole time. This is not student-teaching. This is working as an apprentice, the old-fashioned artisan guild way to learn, not the newfangled model-T factory version. Then, if assessed to be ready, they would have to teach for 2 more years and would have their own classrooms. While there is no reason to keep people as teachers who are flailing, there should be incentives to stay in the classroom, not teach for 2 years and depart. The incentive structure of TFA is poorly-oriented (though doing exactly what Kopp wanted). It needs to reflect school/children needs not individual/elite college grad needs. If this excludes those who were going to med/law/b-school anyways, so be it. I'd rather see TFA get people who want to be in the classroom in these classrooms.

[Sidenote: a college friend of mine was rejected from TFA. She found a different apprentice route into teaching via a private school and, 8 years later, is teaching in public schools, which is what she always wanted. Sad that she wanted to be in teaching for the long haul yet got cut whereas the rest of our friends (from an elite school) who went to TFA, made it between 0-3 years and left.]

Jane said...

Charter schools and TFA are part of a revolution in education which supports forward thinking like increasing teacher accountability and autonomy, offering merit based salaries, and lengthening the school day. Money coming in from the private sector to support these initiatives is fueling the only real education reform that's happening anywhere.

Also, TFA teachers get paid the same starting salary as the other teachers in their school...

WRS said...

I am a history professor and former middle school teacher (of eight years), who got into teaching through TFA. I currently run the social studies training program at my large state university, so I think I have a pretty broad perspective on the subject. I share a lot of your mixed feelings about the organization and the lack of systemic reform that it signifies. I share your fear that it seems like an experiment done at the expense of poor kids, those who can least afford to have untrained teachers, and for the benefit of elite college students. This is one of the reasons I stayed teaching at urban schools for eight years before getting my PhD: to pay back for my incompetence my first couple of years. I can also say that there were the two-years-before-my-MBA crowd in the organization, but they drove most of us crazy, though there is this weird corporate vibe that permeates the entire organization.

However, TFA is far from the unalloyed evil you portray it to be. It is true, as dcarr wrote, that TFA, more than any other organization, has turned America's racial and socio-economic achievement gap into a national issue. Further, my teacher training program is a relatively strong one and yet very few of my students would: (a) get into TFA; (b) teach in a poor urban or rural school if they had the choice. Call me an elitist, but recruiting the best students into urban education is not a bad thing. TFA also recruits a FAR higher percentage of people of color into the classroom than most universities. You may see the students entering TFA as apolitical social climbers, but I can tell you that a lot more radical ideas got tossed around in my TFA training than in any teacher education program I've witnessed. (How you described the Peace Corps attitude characterized the training btw.) Yes, we need people who learn the craft and you're right to call out TFA on this; but we also need a little more fire in the system to change some pretty dire situations that for decades people have just accepted as "the way it is." TFA has provided this. It is true that FAR too many corps members do not treat teaching as the profession it is. But the ones who stay often end up being pretty astounding teachers. In an ideal world, those of us involved in education credentialing programs would figure out a way to get those same students into our programs and also commit to training more teachers for the most under-resourced schools.

Finally, a correction. The money TFA spends is on the recruitment, training, and support of teachers. TFA teachers are hired by school districts and paid by school districts just like any first-year teacher at their local district. Their salary is not paid by TFA or the feds.

Sorry for the length...

Naphtali said...

Exactly! My mom taught kindergarten for over a decade, so I grew up in a house hold where (the politics of) education was central. I've lost count of how many times she came home talking about the lack of resources for teachers; how many times she had to buy things for the class with her own money, etc. I applied for TFA, and was denied (because of extremely ableist standards--if they don't have resources for any teachers, I could only imagine how I would handle it as someone with a disability). I'm glad I was. I was a depoliticized, ignorant white kid.

WRS said...

I should add that I agree with your critique of ed funding and TFA as the neo-liberal provider of services the government should be providing.

thefrogprincess said...

I don't have a strong opinion on TFA but I appreciate your critique of it, Tenured Radical. For what it's worth, I know someone who is still teaching in the southern school system she started in with TFA and I know someone who left New York Teaching Fellows program after a few months, ended up teaching at a public school in the South for a year and a half and then went off to professional school.

But my real question is this, and Comrade Physio Prof raised it. It's not like we get all that much training in pedagogical method in graduate school. Some of us teach more than others but isn't that about universities exploiting graduate labor instead of a commitment to the importance of teaching?

I've been having a conversation with a colleague about this and ze continually brings up the pervasive notion in grad school that teaching is something we have to do that takes away from our research time, when in reality it's going to be the majority of what we do as academics. Just a thought.

JKD2 said...

Many here have commented that TFA's goal of producing "educational leaders" with experience of urban schools outweighs the goal of the teacher's actual effectiveness in the classroom. This is exactly what's wrong with the situation -- the students are NOT guinea pigs! They are not some ethnographic experiment for people who want to be policy makers to tinker around with for two years while they learn about the lives of people in poverty. Want to learn about people living in poverty, volunteer at a soup kitchen or a community organization. A two year commitment by an unprepared teacher who is still learning the ropes is two years' worth of hundreds of students who will miss a golden opportunity to succeed.

The irony is, that these students from "elite" colleges are often retarding the progress of their students to those very same institutions. One need only ask if the parents of these TFA workers would have tolerated a brand new teacher with little to no training or credentials to teach THEM high-school math and science. No, their parents are demanding master's degrees and PhDs.

Traditionally, students from elite schools with little additional experience or academic training beyond the B.A. taught at private schools. Because students at private schools were best able to succeed DESPITE teachers who taught from the textbook, had poor classroom management, knew nothing about child psychology or diagnosing learning disabilities, and had no prior practice in front of a classroom. They had the resources, both in and out of school, to make up for that fact.

Finally, how is it that we require our hairdressers to be certified but not our teachers?

Bardiac said...

This is a helpful analysis. I think you've hit the mark well. I think it's especially important that TFA folks are potentially taking jobs from people who DO want to teach for real, and not just spend two years. And it's important that they're not contributing to systemic reform.

As a teacher, I think what I tend to hear about their radical wonderfulness sounds like BS.

As a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I think that Peace Corps is also problematic, but effective in some ways. In my experience, the Peace Corps volunteers I knew were fairly privileged (all college grads in my group, mostly white, middle class--this was early 1980s), but less elite (almost all from public universities, not privates). Most of us had no prior overseas experience (no study or travel abroad), so it was important in our development.

From my group, several are now development professionals or professionals in the US in the field. Others (including me) have moved into different fields. We still get together, though, and my impression is that the Peace Corps was a life changing experience for all of us. (And that's one of the goals of the Peace Corps.)

Did we make a positive impact where we were? That's a lot harder question. The Peace Corps hasn't worked itself out of a job, and we've been at it a long time. On the other hand, the money volunteers spend on rent and food and such goes far more directly to local people than to armies and government elites. That and giving local folks an opportunity to know some US volunteers seems to be a positive thing for US foreign policy. (Another Peace Corps goal.)

Peace Corps volunteers are there at the invitation of host governments and institutions; the idea is to transfer skills. Does it work? I don't know. I have my doubts.

Both programs park mostly privileged young people for a couple of years in "jobs" where they'll get experiences that will help them professionally and personally. It's what the military is for poor folks, but lots less dangerous. Maybe we should give the poor folks opportunities and send the privileged kids into the military. (Want to bet we'd find a way out of our wars a lot quicker if we did that?)

Thanks for this analysis.

Z said...

While I agree with almost all of your comments below, I am surprised by how misguided and skewed your arguments are in your initial blog post. If you really think the problem is not enough funding for public schools (which I would 100% agree with) than TFA is arguably a great impetus to finally get this to be changed.
Are people who go to school, get an education degree and plan to become teachers for life going to change this problem? No way, if teachers and underprivileged students had the sway to change this it would've happened already. But is it possible that some "elite on their way to bigger things etc.. etc.." as you characterized TFAers, possibly going to become President or an influential politician, philanthropist, business leader who actually could make this shifting of federal funds from war, for example, to education at underfunded schools a reality. Yes I think that is a much more real possibility than anything you've suggested. If someone just comes out of the woodwork with the same idea and finally makes the changes this company needs completely unrelated to TFA? Well then we all got lucky that an intelligent visionary made a difference, but at least TFA is doing more than just sitting back and hoping this will happen while poking holes in everyone else's plan.

youngbroke said...

I worked in a similar program - New York City Teaching Fellows. I agree with a lot of what you said, but will say that I understood the point of TFA was to be a program for the elite, so that when they do go on to other careers that they will understand how broken public education is and will be able to influence change in a top-down way. While frustrating in the short-term, it is meant to create lasting change. It's kind of like a foreign exchange program for the elite to experience how the other other half lives, because otherwise they would be totally ignorant to the realities of inner city public education.

Z said...

Also- just to be a hypocrite and poke out the holes in your facts. Retention in education careers is much higher than you say for TFA people. The NY corps is the most difficult to get into and thus the least representative of TFA as a whole, this is truly the best of the best applicants. Also many in the NYC corps do not stay in education because of the same layoffs that you are wailing about as affecting Connecticut. TFA teachers are treated the same as all other teachers and they are almost all junior in seniority and thus get hit first by layoffs.
The Mississippi river delta corps was only started a couple of years ago so there is not as much data about long term retention in the education field but it will almost surely be higher than NY corps, for example, because of the nature of the dedication of corps members heading to those locales.
Also in reference to your salary comments in the section below, TFA members teaching in the Mississippi river delta area make less than $20k a year, and Americorps members who are not part of TFA get their housing paid for, whereas TFA corps members do not.
Lastly whatever you may think of Michelle Rhee, the way you characterize her is completely skewed and incorrect. I suggest you do some research on her ideas as opposed to taking her quotes completely out of context. She said that a teacher who is any good will be gone in 5 years because of the system we have in place now, and how it does not incentivize teachers to be as good as they can be and work as hard as they can, so they move to other fields. So she is taking her IDEAS and actually implementing them in the real world (in the DC school district) by creating a system that does have the right incentives to attract the best and brightest teachers for the long term. She is repeatedly cited almost universally as someone who is at least bringing new and credible ideas to the table, and then walking the walk when it comes to implementing them. Will she be successful? Time will tell, but at least she is out in the world doing something, and not going the cop-out easy route of poking holes in the ideas of others. (cont'd..)

Z said...

(cont'd)
As for Teaching Fellows, it is a completely different program from TFA, and attracts completely different types of applicants. Fellows is more for older people switching careers after a decade or more in a previous career, and it is generally a more permanent move. It also has less cache because the applicants are less qualified (in the easiest way to measure-GPA, quality of school, test scores etc), and have less ambition (within) and beyond education. Fellows want to be teachers, TFA corps members want to change the system of educational inequality in this country.
One last note, I also love how many of the post-ers say that they only know a couple of people who did TFA, or one person who did TFA, who decided to stay in education and is still making a real difference etc... "but as a whole it doesn't seem to work like that." Whereas I would argue that getting a few talented and capable people to make a life-long commitment to education that they otherwise wouldn't have made makes the whole program worthwhile...

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I am going only on what I have read about TFA---I don't know anyone who actually teaches in it. What worries me is that people in favor of it stress the incredibly hard and committed work that its teachers do, pretty much 24/7 lesson planning, availability to students, etc. That is simply not sustainable over a career. Is the idea that bright young people should burn themselves out on teaching and then move on? Is the idea that older teachers, with families and hobbies, should sustain the same level of availability and constant re-working of their classes, and if they don't then they're not good teachers and should leave the field to the young strong ones? I would like to see some discussion of how, and whether, TFA might influence *career* teaching in the long term, rather than the enthusiastic praise many pro-TFA writers lavish on the work that short-haul teachers are doing.

Anonymous said...

In reading these comments, they all appear to fall into two camps: (1) Teachers (or people related to teachers) who claim (without any statistical evidence and just personal feelings/stories) supporting the post; and (2) others (including many TFA alums) who point out that the post is contradicted by factual evidence and that the post contains numerous false assumptions (such as that all TFA members are "privileged").

In reality, this post is just an example of teachers (and the author of this post) trying to protect their union/cartel and justify the need for education classes. I think that teachers can't handle the fact (backed by statistical evidence) that top college graduates are able to walk in and do a better job than they can, even though they may not have had the years of education classes.

This post just reinforces the criticism that teachers are more concerned about their own personal interests and the interests of their union than they are with actually helping students.

Alexandre said...

Similar points have been made about some of the "without borders" programs, including France's Médecins sans frontières which, like TFA, tends to carry a very strong "brand recognition" as an unequivocally "Good Thing(tm)." The added dimension, there, is an inter-national one, with very similar structures of inequality.
The courage in posting your piece comes in part from the expectation that people "on both sides of the political spectrum" will favour such programs. Of course, it comes with the idea that this political spectrum has "liberalism" (including neo-liberal ideology) on the far "Left," for some reason. But one can imagine the surprise of some do-gooders on "the Left" at reading something so carefully describing the flaws behind the TFA logic. In the case of a few curious people with critical thinking habits, this initial surprise may lead to further investigation into TFA. For ore people, it may cause the sort of "clamming up" which makes learning so difficult.
Hopefully, given your introduction and overall readership, you'll get more of the former than the latter. But, with the way he Interwebs work, you can't know for sure.

David said...

The rich get richer...

I found out recently that my former school district (I went to high school at an inter-city public in the Midwest) is introducing TFA this school year, and I am deeply ambivalent about it. While the points about how TFA has publicized inter-city educational problems are, in my estimate, valid, I am still troubled.

The heart of it, I think, is class. I appreciate Emily's post because I think that it honestly and fairly illustrates an issue of which I have become painfully and acutely aware. The fact is that TFA is designed by and for the elite; the kids at these inter-city publics are clearly not the prime beneficiaries. Look at the pro-TFA comments on this board.

From an anonymous post:

"The mission is to make education a primary concern of college-educated, success-driven Americans so that policy change can be gradually enacted on the local, state, and national levels.

Student benefit, though significant during the commitment period, is hardly the end goal of the program."

As a former student at one of these schools, I can assure that I would not appreciate being used as a stepping-stone in somebody's career.

And that's my problem with TFA. I'm like one of Emily's public university friends (and indeed I am currently a student at my state flagship), and I've seen through personal experience the perks and privileges that Ivy Leaguers and other elite university students get that are denied to us, often with little rationale (don't get me started on rampant grade inflation at the elites -- once you start sucking at that golden teat, I guess you're set in life). And here's one area that we'd really shine at -- helping young students get a shot at college and steering them away from the mistakes that put our brothers, sisters, and friends on the wrong track in life. But more important than that, apparently, is helping those who already have the means to help themselves.

So while I try to keep an open mind about how to improve secondary education in this country, at this juncture in my life I can't say that I'm a fan of the TFA concept as it currently stands.

But who knows? I have decent grades (nothing spectacular, i.e. I'd be disqualified from the Rhodes scholarship or Harvard Law but enough to graduate magna cum laude) and a seriously proven track record of leadership and engagement with students, albeit with history of working closely with the local teacher's union (ironically the best teachers I had were union activists -- take that, Michelle Rhee!). Maybe I'll apply for the next cycle and see if the program is as elitist/corporatist as I suspect. And if it is, well, there are other, better, and more selfless ways to serve the community.

Jacques said...

As a one-time TFA staff member (on the alumni affairs team, not as a corps member) and a brother, son, and nephew of many career teachers, I've had a lot of opportunity to hear both sides of this story.

While I think there are a lot of misconstrued facts and figures on both sides of this argument, it comes down to a simple set of truths.

TFA corps members, particularly in their first year, are not as strong as the strongest teachers, and are not as weak as the weakest (and due to market forces and teacher mobility, poor school districts tend to have high proportions of weaker teachers).

In the TFA model, a lack of experience and a relative lack of formal training is counteracted by a high aptitude, leadership, and work ethic that makes corps members go above and beyond to "catch up," in the 2, 3, or more years that they spend in the classroom.

Many TFA corps members have stayed on in the classroom, and become master teachers, exponentially more than have gone onto the Goldman Sachs route (despite the popular use of the trope, an extraordinarily small number of TFA alumni actually go into investment banking, even if that was the path some had thought they might take upon entry to the corps).

And those who cite New York City Teaching Fellows as a superior alternative to TFA might be surprised to know that NYcTF (and the resulting organization -- the New Teacher Project, which helps set up similar programs) was not only created by TFA alumni, but it was actually created as a spin-off organization by TFA itself, for the exact reasons cited... that our cities need more high-quality teachers who seek to make teaching a career, and that the same cachet enjoyed by TFA might make for more qualified applicants to teach in poor urban environments.

Ultimately, the Great TFA debate comes down to a simple question: Do you think a Band-Aid fix (in the form of TFA teachers) is better than the current situation or do you think a Band-Aid fix actively precludes real solutions?

If you're interested, I've written
a blog post with more on the subject.

Vishka Ann said...

I think the comment by anonymous 8:57 illustrates why this post by TR was needed. I don't agree with everything TR says here, but I'm glad she wrote it. Why? Because she challenges an assumption cherished by many neoliberal school reformers: that anyone who criticizes programs like TFA, charter schools, merit pay, etc. must not truly care about education reform.

Personally, I don't see how one can come away from this post convinced that TR is only interested in "protecting her union/cartel" and not about helping students. Rather, it seems to me that she's so critical of TFA precisely because she's worried that the program may be doing a disservice to students (with that said, I'm not sure I agree with her on this point...I think the program, like most fellowship programs of its kind, is a mixed bag that can yield both good and underwhelming results).

"I think that teachers can't handle the fact (backed by statistical evidence) that top college graduates are able to walk in and do a better job than they can, even though they may not have had the years of education classes."

Hmm, "backed by statistical evidence," most of the evidence that TFA teachers perform better than non-TFA teachers shows, at best, a SLIGHT advantage for the TFA group. While I agree that education classes, in and of themselves, do not a good teacher make, neither does being a "top college graduate."

Elissa said...

As a career public school teacher who started as part of NYC Teaching Fellows, I have a lot of thoughts about TFA, but I'll just say two things: First, thank you. So many good points here. Second, the recent article on TFA in Rethinking Schools might be of interest to many here. It certainly was to me: http://www.rethinkingschools.org/restrict.asp?path=archive/24_03/24_03_TFA.shtml

Anonymous said...

As a recently retired teacher with thirty years experience, I must say that I agree with your view of Teach for America. Over the past two years, one of my son's close friends has been a social studies teacher in a small charter school in NYC through the TFA program. He is a very bright, articulate young man, and a graduate of a top school. The support and training he received before beginning his teaching position was minimal. The hours of classroom instruction and the summer school internship piece did little to assist him in his first year. He was also not prepared for the pressure he received from his administration to improve student performance on NY State Regents exams. Students who rarely came to school were expected to be prepared to take and pass these assessments. Any feelings of self doubt were worsened when he was reminded that if he were to leave the program he would be failing his students. He kept his two year commitment and now, like most of his friends, has decided that teaching is not for him. He is going to study for the LSAT and figure out which direction to go. Sadly, there are so many young people who would love to teach, but don't have prestigious college credentials. What they have are BS, and BA degrees from state colleges and universities, and passing grades on all the required teaching assessments, but no places to work. Wouldn't it be better to offer positions to these young people who clearly trained for and hoped to obtain teaching positions? Why not recruit them on their campuses? Wealth and privilege do not necessarily bring dedication and desire to assist students. Why not use the young resources that we have?

Stylish Intellect said...

Check your data on TFA funding. TFA teachers are all funded through the DOE, just as any other public school teacher. Same hiring process, same salary.

Anonymous said...

i am a 6th year special education teacher. i received my masters degree from AU while in tfa and a k-12 sped certification. i have no plans on the leaving the classroom or becoming a school leader. i am grateful for tfa for "scaffolding" the process of becoming a certified teacher. i have always regretted not majoring in education as an undergrad. i feel like my experience with tfa was positive b/c i viewed it as means to get into the classroom and stay there. tfa is not without problems. i agree with the comment that tfa would be best if it was a 3 year program with a required 1st year as a student teacher. i also think that tfa could do a better job of encourage teachers to stay in the classroom with more professional development from outside of the tfa community. corps members must respect the many great teachers that are around them and the wealth of knowledge they offer.

kat calvin said...

A lot of people here have said the things that I would have said so I'll try not to repeat myself and I'm sorry if someone has already said this.

However, a lot of people are complaining about TFA only accepting people from elite schools but when I did TFA my three best friends went to the University of North Carolina, Georgia State University, and the University of New Mexico. One of the most charming young men in our corps went to Ole Miss and, because we were in South Louisiana, we had quite a few LSU alum as well. In fact, the University of Michigan is I think one of, if not the, largest producers of TFA corps members every year. There were also in my corps two people who went to Harvard, one who went to Stanford, and one who went to Yale, but there was another who went to Arizona State University, there were a couple of people from UC schools, and one from the University of Wisconsin. So I think perhaps, at least in our corps, the educational background of TFA members is more diverse than many suspect it is.

kat calvin said...

Oh, one more thing. A lot of people have said that we're using the kids as "guinea pigs" but when my kids left the first grade at the end of every year they were on a third grade reading and math level. So I really don't think I did too badly by them.

intotheveld said...

I agree with a lot of what TR says here, but let's examine the idea of Teach For America a little more closely:
Education researchers/reformers generally agree that good teaching has the biggest impact on educational outcomes for students. It's more important than class size, whether or not the teacher has a master's, how much we're spending per student, etc. It's also been established (as far as I can tell) that teacher's don't get much better after that first or second year. If we hired good teachers or fired bad ones, the fact that teachers don't get much better after a couple of years wouldn't be a big deal. Based on our outcomes, we're not hiring, keeping and promoting good teachers. On the other end, we're not providing effective remedial training for bad teachers or getting rid of them when/if that fails. So the problem can be broken down into pre-hiring and post-hiring phases. In essence, TFA has attempted to tackle the pre-hiring phase (which I think is the harder problem to solve), as they provide an alternate screening and hiring method. Based on the results of their teachers, their alternative screening/hiring method is not better than the one it supplements, but it's also not any worse. I agree with TR that it mainly functions as a resume builder for elites -- a resume builder that I definitely wanted access to at one time (I only got as far as an interview). So TFA and others haven't found out how to competently identify and develop teaching talent -- it was worth a shot, but it should be scrapped (elites have enough ways to signal their superiority to the world thank you very much).

We should be focusing on the post-hiring phase here unless we figure out a better system for identifying and developing teaching talent (KIPPS?). I think this is by far the easier problem. It should be pretty easy to identify a teacher that is consistently improving student performance on standardized tests and/or their competency in various academic areas (however you measure that) from one who is not.

TR hints at her preferred solutions throughout the article (more money, more protections for veteran teachers, in short, more of the same), but her solutions don't address either of the fundamental problems as I've identified them. All she has done is identify flaws in TFA's effort to address the problems of pre-hiring.

Sarah said...

While I am not particularly a fan of TFA because it is inviting to mostly college graduates that are looking to fluff their resume as opposed to stay in education, I disagree with you on many points. I am with a similar program called the Teaching Fellows with the New Teacher Project. I also received similar training as TFA does. No surprise there as the New Teachers Project was created by Michelle Rhee. In my high need school the majority of the new teachers were fellows and there were a couple of TFA fellows. I have the experience, at my school, that it is the teachers that have come through these programs that have been better prepared than the teachers that attended school to be a teacher. I am not saying this is the case for all teachers. But at my school that is what I have witnessed. Further, I realized no mater how much training you get to become a teacher, by doing an alternative route or going to undergraduate to become a teacher, nothing prepares you like jumping into a classroom and learning hands on. There are some good teachers that come out of these alternative programs, including TFA. Again, I will agree that TFA fosters a much more "come in, get out" attitude than other alternative route programs but those TFA teachers I have met that choose to make a career out of this decision are really amazing teachers.

Doug Roberts said...

You raise some terrific and important points that the folks at TFA would be wise to study, in particular the notion that great teachers can take years to develop, and that students are not one-size-fits-all beings for whom a generic band-aid solution will universally work.

Yet we do have a teacher shortage crisis looming: (http://www.nyc.gov/html/records/pdf/govpub/1024teachersal.pdf)


You talk about TFA corps members as if they all simply want to puff up resumes before heading to law school or a career in finance. Yet look at these data from the Harvard Graduate School of Education- hardly a bastion of pro-TFA sentiment:

http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news_events/features/2008/05/21_project.php

60% stayed in teaching longer than their 2-year commitment, and 25% stayed in teaching over 4 years.

Go back to the NYC study I cited earlier- 25% attrition rate in NYC after 2 years- better than TFA. BUT this study also found that 29% of NYC teachers say they don't plan to say longer than 3 years!

If you've got some data to back up your ideas, I'm sure we'd all love to read it. But to rail against TFA with only your own anecdotal information is likely not to get your argument too far.

Perhaps most concerning about your piece, though, is that you seem to unintentionally be arguing that teaching is not a career worthy of our nation's best and brightest, including those who can "get themselves into ivy league schools." This very attitude has, in many cases, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Couldn't there be room for talented, passionate, career educators like yourself to work alongside and mentor younger folks with talents and a passion for students and learning whose teaching needs to develop? And perhaps if more folks like you embraced TFA corps-members, more of them would stay in classrooms.

Thank you for your work and for launching this discussion.

Gabe said...

You CLEARLY haven't been exposed to the non-TFA teachers at these schools. At the school I worked at in Houston, the non-TFA teachers were a random mix of disinterested, incompetent, absent, and highly medicated.

There are exceptions to every rule, but let's be clear here, TFA only places recruits in the WORST public schools...the ones that are failing and need any number of changes and resources. Are there good teachers at some of those schools? Of course. And I find that most of those WELCOME an infusion of like-minded, energetic, well-educated energy to their communities.

Miss Bee said...

I became a NYC teacher in the pre-TFA, pre- NYC Teaching Fellows years. I resented that these teachers came and went, tuition fully paid, while I had to pay my own way. It created a two tier system having nothing to do with age, and everything to do with how we perceived teaching. Eleven years later I am still there AND paying off my loans all the elite corps (TFA, FEllows) are long gone and debt-free!

Anonymous said...

I am so glad to see someone that I finally agree with on this issue. I am now on my sixth year at a Title One school. I was mortified when I went to a board meeting where Teach for America presented. Although I worked hard to graduate from one of the top education schools in the nation, Teach for America presented that their teachers were more qualified, more intelligent, and proved to be better teachers. They also said that their teachers had a better retention rate. I know the retention rate is not very good in Title One schools, but I have never seen Teach for America teachers stay past their necessary two years. Most of them don’t even want to become teachers. I was also shocked that our school district decided to keep the program even though I knew teachers that were losing their jobs, due to budget cuts. I was under the impression that Teach for America was for schools where there was a “need” for teachers. Instead they were taking other teachers’ jobs that probably would have stayed in the profession. It makes me sad to see that this program is not really benefiting our schools.

Frederika said...

My district in Wilmington, Delaware is paying $10,000 per corps member per year for TFA. We have a three-year contract: six corps members this year, and additional six next year. That will cost us $60,000 this year, $120,000 next year, and a final $60,000 the third year, all for the privilege of hosting non-certified, less than fully-trained adults in the classrooms of our needier schools.

Each cohort stays for at least two years. They each get full salary, full benefits, and the additional $10,000 fee goes to TFA for training, administration costs, and on to a local university which is providing the corps members with a master's degree program in educational leadership. They will end their two-year stint in local elementary schools with a virtually free master's degree, two years of teacher salary and benefits, and walk away with a $9K stipend that they can use for their future education--most likely NOT in teaching. What's not to like about a program like this!

Meanwhile, 6-12 teaching positions will NOT be available to those folks who completed accredited teacher training programs in colleges across the country. Apparently in someone's mind, TFA is better than an edcuation degree with 2-3 years of classroom experience. What';s wrong with this picture.

BTW: I am entering my 39th year of teaching. I have plenty of challenging students in my middle school science classes. I may be old, but I ain't tired, dried-up or burned out. I am a damned fine experienced teacher.

Anonymous said...

I do understand that teaching is an underpaid profession, but I do somewhat resent that TFA is making it look like a volunteer position instead of a job.

Anonymous said...

I agree with many of your arguments, but I do want to mention another benefit of TFA.

Currently school budgets across the country are being cut. As a career teacher, my hopes of getting a pay increase or help in paying for my classroom supplies any time soon are slim.

I am not sure if this is the same throughout the country or not, but it seems that in VA the first programs cut in a budget crunch are education.

Educators are not the only people that can be advocates for education, but too frequently I feel we are. As you mentioned TFA alums tend to go onto Ivy schools and that can lead to some pretty influential places later in life.

Hopefully these former TFA teachers that go onto become doctors, lawyers, etc. will continue to be advocates for education. Having friends in high places can help education.

If these "elites" as you mentioned did not have the TFA experience then it is much less likely they would realize the extent of the problems we are facing in education.

Frederika said...

In my mind it is a fantasy to believe that former TFA participants will in future provide true support and sustenance for public education just because they themselves spent a few years in a classroom somewhere in America.

When in your experience as a teacher have you ever had the power elites stand up for you, for your students, for your school, for your profession, for public education???

In my district, lawyers and corporate types liked to be on the school board, and some even sent their own children to public schools, but one could not count on them to have teachers' backs. Teachers were seen as cannon fodder, as one Board President put it--"fungible units."

As soon as charter schools and school choice came along ten glorious years ago, our school board was behind that in a flash. We are the only local school district in the state to have chartered our own schools--we currently have five--rather than leave that up to the state. The local charter schools have had a HUGE impact on our remaining community public schools.

These are some of the same people who through negligence and apathy, drove our district into bankruptcy a few years ago.

Recently, we have been forced to take in TFA corps members as part of the Race-to-the-Top competition.

Anonymous said...

As a recent TFA alumni this article is completely offensive and honestly not completely factual. First off, in response to the general that the program is set up primarily for a few privileged and elite members of society real world experience so that they can inevitably move on to something bigger and better is untrue. I am an African-American female who grew up learning in the very same school system that I taught in ( this was actually one of the reasons I chose to join TFA). I know so many of my other colleagues who, like me, also did not grow up privileged.
So if we didn't grow up privileged what other reasons are there for us to join this corp- since we cannot place ourselves that much higher than the "poor" masses that we teach. For me the answer is simple- that I care!!!! For my two years as a teacher I point in countless hours at school and at home- usually much later than most of my counterparts who were not corps members. And did I automatically think that I was better than them?- of course not. I learned from them, took their advice, and appreciated the help they were willing to offer. And did my children outperform them?-in some instances yes but in most instances my children performed on the exact same level as my team teachers, despite my lack of knowledge on education. And I can think of dozens of similar stories from my fellow TFA corps members who helped their students to achieve outstanding academic gains in the time we spent with them. Why?- because people do not join TFA simply as a resume builder. In fact, I do not know a single TFA corps member who joined the corps because of it.
You are right- many of us do not stay in the classroom after our two year commitment is complete But you better believe that while we are in that classroom that we give those children our all. I have given countless dollars, hours, and tears for my children because I went to that room every day and did my best not because I wanted my resume to look good, but because I truly cared about my children. And I'm 100% positive that if you asked any of the 30 plus children that I impacted while I was teaching, their parents, or my co-workers that that they would tell you the same. So your comments are completely infuriating and completely undermines the work that so many young and eager people put in for their students- not because they think it will take them to a better and higher paid position- but because we actually care about our students.
That is definitely more than I can say for many so-called experienced teachers who continue sitting on their asses year after year collecting a paycheck while the students in their class learn absolutely nothing.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm pretty late on this post, but as someone who grew up in poverty, went to and deeply benefitted from public schools, and had amazing career teachers deeply impact my life I wanted to chime in.

I am conflicted about TFA. While in college I considered it to be a good program that would make all public schools more like my public schools. As I've gotten older I've been disturbed by three aspects of the program. The first echoes the many posts concerning the program being an opportunity for elites to find another way for to use the disinvested as stepping stones to power, prestige and wealth.

My second concern has to do with how much is this really helping students. I want to see longitudinal studies that identify whether students who have been in TFA classrooms and had remarkable gains retain any of those gains over the long haul.

My third concern is that these gains are solely based on testing. This generally has to do with my deep distrust of tests as a marker for learning. TFA bases a lot of its credibility on raising test scores, but, in my view, test scores are a horrible way to measure progress. Instead it measures a child's ability to think in a box, trains that child to think in a box, and punishes the child who doesn't think in the right box. I have always done well on standardized tests, but many of my friends growing up did not and it's not because of a lack of intellect. Teaching to a test is not education; suggesting that you are improving the education of students because you are improving test scores doesn't sit well with me as a credible marker for improvement.

I think I lean towards folks who are saying we need to invest in our public schools. Outsourcing education to private entities is dangerous; it encourages disinvestment in underserved communities and it undermines the teaching profession.

As a woman with a 2 year old child of my own I worry about what kind of education my son will be receiving in the next 3 years and TFA doesn't make me feel any better about the situation.

Tenured Radical said...

I think the TFA grads who are defending their service have some important things to say about their perception of what they did there, and I take it seriously.

That said, despite the earnestness and commitment that characterizes the most vigorous comments, they also verge on the solipsistic: i.e., "*my* experience as a volunteer proves that the program is great, and the only answer to fixing the nation's schools." The experience of any single individual as a volunteer says little about the impact of the whole program. As a teacher, if you approach your work with dedication, empathy and a willingness to learn, you are laying down a baseline for doing a good job. That said, TFA is hardly the only model for producing such peopel; and TFA grads represent a tiny fraction of the teachers out there who are doing a great job and who are trying to turn the system around. It is precisely this kind of narcissism, and the need to stigmatize teachers who are not part of the privatization model, that career teachers resent in TFA.

Second, go ahead and believe in privatization if you want to -- but it isn't progressive, and there is no evidence that, on the whole, it produces better educated students. In some cases it produces better test takers, but even this isn't clear, because one of the things the privatization and testing regime has produced is "push out:" out of every 1000 students who matriculate in the ninth grade, nearly half drop out prior to entering the twelfth grade, often because they are urged to leave school. Charter and magnet schools can also cull the students they don't want, sending them back to regular public schools (which then have a higher chance of becoming "failing schools.")

TFA does what it does, and in some cases may produce fine teachers. But it isn't reform, and it doesn't "turn schools around." In contrast, parochial schools do a great job of producing competent, disciplined college-ready students with good skill sets, many of whom are working class, but no one ever claimed that what they were doing was inventive or new, or in any way progressive.

Third, one thing I am noticing is that the TFA commenters seem entirely unwilling to engage criticisms of the program, and its structural flaws, from career teachers who have commented here. Nor do they see teacher training, as it is conducted in public universities and state systems, as anything but an idiotic hurdle that smart people can just skip. This,despite the fact that most of our finest public school teachers are produced that way.

For more discussion on the Winerip piece, go here.

Anonymous said...

Tenured Radical, you sound a bit bitter. With all of your loathing about the privileged and successful young adults trying to get into the best schools that they can one would think you might regret some life decisions yourself. Would you rather there be no organization attempting to help out the education system? Would you rather young people take no interest at all in the troubling public education system? Nothing in life is perfect but if we all had the attitude you do about such situations nothing would ever change, organizations and systems that didn't work perfectly would be given the "thanks for trying" salutation and shown the door. You don't like TFA? Then do something about it. Don't just spit your radical crap all over the internet and complain till the sun goes down.

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous 9:40 -- should you return to comment here again, it is not a response to a blog post to make weird and insulting assumptions about me. And your comment violates the stricture against personal attack.

Since I went to Yale, got a Ph.D., and teach at a fine college, and have done a ton of organizing in my youth, my regrets would be far more personal and arcane than a critique of an NGO -- one that is shared by many others -- could possibly reveal to you.

Anonymous said...

As a current Teach for America New York City Corps Member, I have to disagree with this argument, and point out that it sounds as if you, Tenured Radical, have never stepped foot into a classroom being led by a Teach for America teacher.
I teach in a self-contained special education classroom in a Queens, NY. My students have a range of high need classifications, including autism, mental retardation, and emotional disturbance.
I challenge you to come to MY classroom and do what I do, with the dedication and commitment to each child's development that I bring every day, and write a blog entry like this.
I challenge you to go to a KIPP school, or an Uncommon school, or an Achievement First school, or any of the fantastic schools serving our city's poorest children and pushing them to their greatest potentials, and yes, filling their staff with the thoughtful, energetic, compassionate, intelligent people I am proud to call my fellow corps members, and write a blog entry like this.
Many Teach for America teachers do not stay beyond their 4th year. This statistic seems to be true. But in those 4 years, I see them bringing an incredible energy, a commitment to every child and to educational equality, a willingness to learn and try new best practices, an ability to raise student achievement, and a connection to and passion for the larger picture of educational reform in America.

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous 10:28 --

No one said your classroom was not a place of inspiration and light, dear one. The point of the post is that TFA is *not* school reform, and has not (will not) produce a better educational system under hte current privatization regime -- not that none of its corps members aren't hardworking and effective as individuals.

Kari said...

I have to disagree with the people who say that students are not guinea pigs. I'm getting ready to enter my 9th year of teaching. While I've saved every single handout, lesson plan, presentation, and classroom activity I've ever created, chances are I'll only dip into about half of it this year. Why? Because I'm CONSTANTLY creating and recreating and reinventing what I do. My students ARE my guinea pigs, each and every single school year. The day I decide I'm done using them as guinea pigs since I know what I'm doing now is the day I need to leave the classroom.


Second of all, what's so bad about TFA's stats for teacher retention? This isn't the 1950s--a person who stays in the same job for decades is a rarity now, and I don't see that as a bad thing. Most of my coworkers at the charter school where I teach are NOT career teachers--they are teachers who transitioned into teaching from other careers. They have enthusiasm for their jobs and a real-world perspective on what employers want that I have to admit I don't even always see, as teaching is my first and only career. Do I want to stay teaching? Yes. Do I think I'll be in a classroom for the next 25 years? I HOPE NOT. It's not that I don't love it--I do. I just don't think it's healthy for me with regards to how effective of a teacher I am to only stay as a classroom teacher. My school is my second home, but I know it won't always be such, and I know I have other talents that can and should be used in other ways in the educational field.


@Tenured Radical

I'm a career teacher--I went to school in California, majored in my subject area, and went through a traditional teacher credentialing program, and I have 80 quarter units of post-BA continuing education classes. This fall I'm heading back to get my masters in Ed while continuing to teach high school English full-time.

That said, I felt and still feel that with the exception of the single English methods class and the special education class we were required to take, every single teacher education class I've taken was a complete waste of time. When I was in college getting my BA in English Lit, I spent a considerable amount of time working with a couple of horse trainers to learn how to train horses, and honestly, I learned MUCH more there about how to effectively manage my classroom and deal with student behavior to be an effective teacher than I ever did in any education class I took.

Honestly, I don't need the pedagogy. I don't need to memorize jargon. What I needed was to work closely for a couple of years with at least two mentor teachers. I had six months of student teaching experience--three with a fantastic mentor teacher, and three with an exhausted, alcoholic, verbally abusive teacher a year from retirement. My university advisor assigned me to her because they'd been friends back when my advisor taught at that school, and she knew that my mentor teacher was having "personal problems" and could benefit from a strong student teacher to help her out. Those were my advisor's words to me when I went to her, two weeks before the end of the term, in tears because I had an ulcer from the stress of the daily verbal abuse from the teacher (who also condoned it when the class acted the same.)

I wasn't there to provide relief for another teacher who was trying to make it until the magical age of retirement. I was there to learn. What did I learn? I learned that if it ever got that bad ever again, that if my job ever gave me an ulcer and made me so miserable that I couldn't get out of bed, that I'd quit immediately. Life is too short to be that miserable, and it's not fair to the students to be that miserable around them.

Kari said...

I have to disagree with the people who say that students are not guinea pigs. I'm getting ready to enter my 9th year of teaching. While I've saved every single handout, lesson plan, presentation, and classroom activity I've ever created, chances are I'll only dip into about half of it this year. Why? Because I'm CONSTANTLY creating and recreating and reinventing what I do. My students ARE my guinea pigs, each and every single school year. The day I decide I'm done using them as guinea pigs since I know what I'm doing now is the day I need to leave the classroom.


Second of all, what's so bad about TFA's stats for teacher retention? This isn't the 1950s--a person who stays in the same job for decades is a rarity now, and I don't see that as a bad thing. Most of my coworkers at the charter school where I teach are NOT career teachers--they are teachers who transitioned into teaching from other careers. They have enthusiasm for their jobs and a real-world perspective on what employers want that I have to admit I don't even always see, as teaching is my first and only career. Do I want to stay teaching? Yes. Do I think I'll be in a classroom for the next 25 years? I HOPE NOT. It's not that I don't love it--I do. I just don't think it's healthy for me with regards to how effective of a teacher I am to only stay as a classroom teacher. My school is my second home, but I know it won't always be such, and I know I have other talents that can and should be used in other ways in the educational field.

kmbluff said...

@Tenured Radical

I'm a career teacher--I went to school in California, majored in my subject area, and went through a traditional teacher credentialing program, and I have 80 quarter units of post-BA continuing education classes. This fall I'm heading back to get my masters in Ed while continuing to teach high school English full-time.

That said, I felt and still feel that with the exception of the single English methods class and the special education class we were required to take, every single teacher education class I've taken was a complete waste of time. When I was in college getting my BA in English Lit, I spent a considerable amount of time working with a couple of horse trainers to learn how to train horses, and honestly, I learned MUCH more there about how to effectively manage my classroom and deal with student behavior to be an effective teacher than I ever did in any education class I took.

Honestly, I don't need the pedagogy. I don't need to memorize jargon. What I needed was to work closely for a couple of years with at least two mentor teachers. I had six months of student teaching experience--three with a fantastic mentor teacher, and three with an exhausted, alcoholic, verbally abusive teacher a year from retirement. My university advisor assigned me to her because they'd been friends back when my advisor taught at that school, and she knew that my mentor teacher was having "personal problems" and could benefit from a strong student teacher to help her out. Those were my advisor's words to me when I went to her, two weeks before the end of the term, in tears because I had an ulcer from the stress of the daily verbal abuse from the teacher (who also condoned it when the class acted the same.)

kmbluff said...

I wasn't there to provide relief for another teacher who was trying to make it until the magical age of retirement. I was there to learn. What did I learn? I learned that if it ever got that bad ever again, that if my job ever gave me an ulcer and made me so miserable that I couldn't get out of bed, that I'd quit immediately. Life is too short to be that miserable, and it's not fair to the students to be that miserable around them.

When I got my first full-time teaching position, I was fortunate to have two good mentors. Unfortunately, due to school (union) politics, I was thrown into the deep end with the specific position I accepted, and to make things worse, one of my two mentors had run afoul of the union constantly, so because of that and because of the political situation I walked into, my first two years were pure hell. I spent almost as much time navigating the politics of the job as I did actually teaching.


When I got my first full-time teaching position, I was fortunate to have two good mentors. Unfortunately, due to school (union) politics, I was thrown into the deep end with the specific position I accepted, and to make things worse, one of my two mentors had run afoul of the union constantly, so because of that and because of the political situation I walked into, my first two years were pure hell. I spent almost as much time navigating the politics of the job as I did actually teaching.

kmbluff said...

I didn't need that. No new teacher does. I lasted six years at that school and fled to a charter school where I took a HUGE ($25K) pay cut, but the working environment is INFINITELY better. That's not to say that the student population is better--due to the nature of our charter, we get students who don't fit in comprehensive schools for a variety of reasons (gang issues, expulsion, teen parents, etc.) But I'm in a truly professional working environment with truly professional teachers and a fantastic administration. We don't do jargon, rhetoric, or even formal written lesson plans. We just do what we need to do to achieve the goals we've set as a school. And it works.

I believe all elementary teachers should have a broad-based liberal studies bachelors degree that covers everything they're required to teach up until about the 5th grade. I believe that middle school teachers should have essentially the same thing, only they should be required to focus on whatever area they're going to receive their credential in. I believe high school teachers should have a degree in whatever field in which they are going to teach. If they don't have a degree in that specific field, they need to have thorough supplemental education in that subject. I also believe they should have to take a subject matter competency test before getting their credential, and each time they need to renew it.

I DON'T think every teacher needs a full year (or two years, for those states requiring a masters degree in education) of education classes to become a good teacher. Although I will be starting my MA in Ed this fall, I'm only doing it to give me more career options in the future, since there seem to be a number of positions in the educational field that require a MA in Ed for no other reason than it looks good to say that all of your employees have at least a masters degree.

kmbluff said...

If we really were serious about helping teachers learn to teach, we'd get them in a classroom immediately, and we'd skip the ed programs entirely and have them ramp up from observation to co-teaching to full-time independent classroom teaching with at least two simultaneous mentor teachers. There also needs to be a regular, built-in process of peer observation, discussion, collaboration, and review.

This is a more expensive option than simply taking former teachers and sticking them in the ivory towers of the schools of education, but if we truly want to invest in our students' futures and develop an outstanding teaching force that's in it for the long haul, then we'll spend the money.

Amerloc said...

TFA takes us back two generations: my grandmother taught until she could find a husband; TFAers teach till they can find a job.

Tenured Radical said...

kmbluf:

I think this is a very good idea, and I'm not sure it is a more expensive option. But it is certainly an option that would shift the expense of teacher training back to government and the public (where it belongs), rather than on private individuals, who take out large loans that are very difficult to repay on a teacher's salary.

I mean, one of the reasons TFA is so popular I am sure is not just that it is organized the hero-teacher model, or that it burnishes the old resume with a little "public service." It is that TFA is *free* for those who are training to teach. This means that, like any other job, you can try it out without making a huge investment of your own $$. It also means, like many privatization schemes, that those who have get more (note how many non-TFA teachers here mention their dismay at paying back loans as kids from the nation's elite colleges skate into teaching jobs for the same pay.)

Anonymous said...

As much as TFA claims to try to decrease the achievement gap for poor and minority students, they do turn down a lot of qualified people of color who have never wanted anything more than to teach in their communities.

I've known so many smart and passionate people of color who applied and were rejected (most of them women). It was a damn shame to see that happen, and that was enough for me to see that this program was only fronting to help people from under-served communities.

IrishAsian said...

THANK YOU FOR THIS. I just wrote a policy brief on the same issue. I'm a teacher as well, and TFA de-professionalizes all that we do. This issue needs MUCH more attention.

jd2718 said...

In New York City (and probably in many other places) we do not have a shortage of applicants.

TfAers knock out other applicants.

Who? Locals. More teachers of color. Teachers who may intend to stay longer than 2 years.

Does it matter? Yup. TfAers are taking up slots in our poorest neighborhoods. In some of these places the church and the school are the only stable institutions. And TfA, with its 2 years and out approach, adds instability to one of these.

Our schools, our kids, our neighborhoods, they all deserve better.

And frankly we as teachers deserve better. We need colleagues who help shape things for the long haul, not just until law school acceptance.

Jonathan

Anonymous said...

Well done!

I hope you don't mind that I quoted you and linked to your essay in a discussion on TFA in another forum (http://www.dcurbanmom.com/jforum/posts/list/60/117076.page#989962).

Anonymous said...

I agree that there's an advantage to having "elites" aware of educational issues as they ascend through their prestigious careers.

However, they can achieve this noble goal without masquerading as school reform, or causing constant teacher-turnover and taking jobs away from people who want to make a career of teaching.

Here's how: They become teacher's aides/apprentices for two years. those who want to stay in teaching get great experience. So did those who decide to go on to leadership positions in education or on to bigger and better things.

In this case, though, dedicated teachers get help, not competition, and the kids keep their experienced teachers, instead of being subjected to a regular turnover of rookies.

There's a simple solution. The only thing missing is TFA being perceived as the miracle cure to education reform.

Will they go for it?

Kyle said...

I see Teach for America for charter schools that use programs similar to KIPP. No one with a family or much life outside of work would be able to maintain that kind of commitment. My perspective is from living in New Orleans, and my source article is http://www.nola.com/education/index.ssf/2010/03/new_teachers_working_long_hard.html

Anonymous said...

There is no need for me to repeat things others have said repeatedly, but I just wanted to say that as a new Teach For America teacher, the people that have gotten in the coprs in my region truely care about their students. I think that organization recruits and accepts people who deeply care about their students and work for them.

I do appreciate how people are having a civil dialogue here and not bashing other people.

Just know that I am 100% in Teach For America because of my students and I deeply care about them. I will become the teacher they deserve and stay around past my two years.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your post and many assumptions on here. TFA IS school reform. It has brought about school reform. Innovative ideas, such as KIPP, would never existed had it not been for TFA alums.

Many posters mention that TFA'ers take jobs away from veteran teachers. That assumption just screams out ignorance. TFA corps members are hired in schools because other, certified teachers don't want to work here. I am a TFA alumna (still in the classroom) and if I didn't get a job at my school as a Spanish teacher, a long term sub who didn't even know Spanish would be teaching Spanish. While I don't claim to be the best teacher, I know my subject. I majored in it. I have high skill in it, and I am enthusiastic about it, so my kids are as well. I am not an isolated case on this; I know many teachers who took jobs that NO ONE was competing for and that substitutes would take instead. TFA'ers have to meet the highly qualified requirements to get a job: i.e. be knowledgeable in their content area and have enough college credits in it.

What many people are forgetting is that you have to be a first year novice at some point. Whether you come to teaching through TFA or through the traditional route, there is a learning curve, and you are going to struggle regardless during your first year. It's funny how people criticize TFA for this. Being a first year teacher is challenging for anyone, and undergraduate education programs don't exactly help. Unfortunately, you can only learn to teach by teaching. Yes, this might negatively affect students in classes, but it can't be avoided. TFA teachers make up for their lack of experience with enthusiasm and need to constantly improve. I know I worked my tail off the last 2 years, often working until 6 or 7 pm while most of my colleagues peaced out at 3:30.

It's pretty ridiculous that people who have never been inside a classroom spend so much time criticizing a program that is trying to better society. While TFA is not perfect, it has certainly brought about plenty of education reform, despite the original poster repeatedly denying this. There is so much wrong with the education system. Let's start with schools of education. They emphasize teaching methods instead of content. You would not believe how many teachers I've met who are certified but do not really know their content area. College students would be better off mastering their content and then teaching. You do NOT learn how to teach from sitting in classes. You learn from trying something out, reflecting, and improving.

Bob's Journal said...

I am not sure I agree with the author, and I do not recall your name, I am in the comments part so I apologize now. If you answer my comments please leave your name.

Anyway, I am not a teacher now, but I have been one, actually have taught for some 10 years, as a substitute and also as a certified teacher, who learned to teach from other teachers and then went to school to get someone to prove I could teach by issuing me a certificate.

Now I haven't always been the best on discipline but I was able to teach a diverse population of students. This included students from grades 1 through 12, and then adult education which included students old enough to be my parents. I also taught at a business college. I have taught myriads of different types of special education classes from the severely handicapped to students that were put into schools for the gifted.

So when I hear about a program that allows a new teacher just out of college with little real world experience in their major and minor subjects and little real world experience in teaching, I think it is wonderful to allow them to see how some of the unfortunate students in our society live and learn. They will take from their short career in these schools a better understanding of their problems and maybe even help some of these students to better themselves.

More importantly when they join the faculty of a more mainstream school they will always remember the experiences they had teaching during their first years. They may even be able to help the troubled student that no other teacher is able to reach. So I say it's not a program for the rich or the poor but rather a program to better us all. That is the important thing to remember in this Social Web 2.0 world we live in which caters to what can I do for myself, rather than what can I do for my fellow students and teachers. (Didn't we have a President that sort of said this a long time ago?)

emla1886 said...

Thank you for this. One thing that I find missing in the debate from all sides is what the staff and veteran teachers (and for that matter students and parents) who work in or attend the schools TFA folks are dropped in think of them and their performance. To me these voices are critical in any sort of public debate about the program.

Back when TFA started I was a high school student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin a very very messy urban public school. I wanted to give back to the teachers who gave so much to us by teaching. TFA seemed like it would be a great way to get started on that track. By the time I reached college I was no longer interested in teaching in a classroom and I began to see TFA as much more similar to the Harvard programs that sent students to my high school to do SAT prep. That program while well intentioned did not foster any love between us townies and them gownies. The things those Harvard kids would say to my classmates showing an utter ignorance of what it meant to be working class/non white/poor/in a diverse urban school etc. etc. would make the hair curl on all our necks. If TFA students were even a fraction as ignorant there was no way this program was something I wanted to be associated with.

That said, I did wind up a teacher of sorts. I got my MA in museum studies from one of the most elite programs in the country and now (along with 2/3 of my classmates) find myself without an real job. Instead I am a paid intern through Student Conservation Association and Americorps working as staff at a National Park. I get paid minimum wage to teach anyone who walks in our doors about American History. (and thanks to Americorps as long as I'm in the program, I don't have to pay my student loans)

My conclusion from all of this is that instead of griping about the right way to get folks to teach maybe we just need to fund teachers, those of us who teach informally and formally. If we were willing to pay our teachers a wage commensurate to how much we rely on them we would retain young teachers and the band-aid that TFA is seen to be could come off.

Anonymous said...

My daughter is in TFA and she is not a child of privilege. I am a single poor mother and she attended public university. I wish all young people were required to work in the community before they begin their careers. She wasn't chosen because we are elite upper class people. She was chosen because she has a 4.0 average and has demonstrated leadership abilities and a history of working with children and volunteerism. In the areas where TFA sends young teachers there aren't a lot of people waiting in line to teach.
I think she will be a better person for this experience and I believe she will teach but also learn.
Our neediest students have been failed by us...we have let them down for generations. Maybe it's time to give fresh young open-minded motivated people a chance.

Anonymous said...

TFA is not prestigious whatsoever and not necessarily for wealthy students but I would say it would be for somewhat financially stable students.

A few of my housemates with low GPAs who are constantly high on drugs and very immature have received TFA's offer. They are very excited to teach but I feel really bad for their students. Yes, my housemates may mature up through this experience but poor kids having to deal with these immature teachers!

I say it's not "necessarily" for wealthy kids because TFA isn't a well paying job especially when you go to certain areas like the rural regions in the south. Both of my parents are unemployed and going to rural areas require the teacher to have a car/etc. I cannot pay for all that and support my family with TFA. I'm not saying that TFA should pay their teachers better but because of the financial instability that poor college students may face doing TFA makes TFA something for college students with some economic power.

Once you join, you have to drive/fly to different institutes. I am so lost as to how I'm going to come up with the money to move my stuff to somewhere half a nation away. What are my other rich friends doing? They are taking a over $800 flight there, mailing all their belongings, even asking if anyone wants to play golf, if anyone wants to take a leisure trip to places around the institute, etc.

Sure, I can just take TFA, let my family figure out their finances themselves, and make TFA look good on my resume. But is it worth it as much as a job offer that I got that pays three times as much as what I will get from TFA considering the situation that I am in?

This is so stressful... And the guilt that I would face if I quit TFA now... How it is something "prestigious" something that young college students should do because thinking about your own financial stability and taking a break is not something that is as good on the resume, etc.

Anonymous said...

I definitely think that it is a luxury to be able to do TFA in some ways. Today's college students are so pressured to do something "selfless" and "volunteer." Not much time left to find out who they are.

Anonymous said...

I live in the tsunami/earthquake affected area of Japan, and the representatives of soon-to-be Teach for Japan (they haven't officially got that title yet) just came here from Tokyo to recruit local staff members and teachers. The representatives are Goldman Sachs workers and I guess that's because some workers of the company decided to create Teach for Japan based on the model and the principles of Teach for America. TFA made some kind of agreement with Goldman Sachs and now it's in Japan. I attended the recruitment seminar and was truly disappointed. In their sophisticated looking powerpoint presentation, they said that big companies such as Goldman Sachs and Softbank are supporting them, but they told us they are not going to pay even a penny for the local staff members and teachers. It will be 100% unpaid volunteer work. We have the highest unemployment rate here after the disaster and many people are still living in the shelters or evacuation centers. We already have local NGOs and people in the communities supporting children with their education, so what is the point of them coming here if they are not willing to pay? They said they won't even pay for the transportation fee. I know so many college students who had to quit school here because they've lost their home and couldn't continue to afford their education. Please create jobs instead of creating more unpaid work for my people. Please create jobs instead of taking jobs away from my people. Their explanation was that they'd rather spend money for children and buy school supplies for them such as books and pencils, but I believe that the greatest educational environment and tool are not the supplies but the actual teachers. Our children already have textbooks because they are free here. Seeing the representatives from Goldman Sachs in sophisticated and expensive looking suit giving a irrelevant presentation using their ipads made me want to cry. I was sad because they don't know anything about the educational environment here. I think it's time for me to speak up.

Gavin said...

1) I think takingitoutside hit the nail on the head. TFA is about influencing the privileged youngsters so that they make pro-education policies when they grow up and have political or economic clout.

2) I think this is a MUCH more effective strategy overall for educational reform than the alternative that the OP suggests. If TFA were about permenent teaching positions, it would probably get 10-20% as much interest, and the overall benefit to society would be far less than it is now (i.e. not helping kids all that much directly, but influencing policy-makers).

3) Given # 1 and 2, why should we care whether TFA advertises their actual and worthy goal accurately or not?

serviceoriented said...

Tenured Radical,

Firstly, thanks for an interesting read! I'm currently applying for TFA, so this was of particular relevance to me.

That being said, I believe you're making some rather unfair assumptions in regards to the type of people who want to be part of TFA. While I am sure that some who apply do so simply to pad their resumes, many who apply do so because they actually want to give back to their communities. For example, a good friend of mine who grew up in inner city Chicago is currently teaching through TFA for precisely this reason. Another friend who recently got accepted to TFA will be teaching at a school that she had volunteered at for the past two summers - she wanted to continue to the work she began in regards to a leadership training program she had established. Similarly, I am applying because I am a first generation college graduate from a rural public school district and want to work on a personal level to help mitigate the disparity in access to education that currently characterizes our country.

While I agree with you in that TFA is not a long term solution, I think the program is effective in bringing teachers to areas that traditionally have a difficult time recruiting people willing to teach there, and in spreading awareness about the intensity of educational disparity in our country, in some cases to people that would otherwise remain blissfully oblivious (those privileged white kids you describe).

Secondly, why would you denounce people who are privileged enough to have received a college education for choosing a job, even if it is only a two year commitment, that advertises itself as service-oriented? What type of jobs SHOULD recent college graduates be going for, then? Jobs that are blatantly self-serving without even a chance of making a difference in society?