Fold or Rethink: A Teach For America Civil War?

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Is a Civil War brewing amongst the legion of highly-educated (mostly temporary) corps alumni? I have been surprised by the recent articles from former Teach For America teachers discussing a variety of critiques. Emma Lind, a Harvard grad and a former corp member, called for a “rethink” of TFA in the Harvard Crimson. Matt Barnum, the another former corps member, called for TFA to “fold” in the Washington Post. I have written extensively on TFA here. And to be honest, when each new school year dawns, I receive 1-2 calls per week from the media asking about TFA. The piece that drew the most heat was my editorial in the New York Times. Anyways, most of the stories have already been written when the conversations occur with reporters, they are typically looking for a quick quote for an “alternative” perspective on TFA. Occasionally, I receive a call from a reporter that has a critical eye and has done their homework. I would say one of the few non-puff pieces I have read and provided input on about TFA was written not too long ago by Christine Armario from the Associated Press.

What is TFA? Why the controversy? Valerie Strauss writes:

Teach For America is one of the most controversial school reform organizations operating today. TFA recruits new college graduates, gives them five weeks of summer training and then places them in some of America’s neediest classrooms, presuming that just a little over a month of training is sufficient to do the job. Critics point out that high-needs students, who are the ones who get TFA teachers, are the children who most need veteran teachers. In fact, some veterans are now losing their jobs to TFA corps members, because TFAers are less expensive to hire, and some school teaching communities are becoming less cohesive because TFA members promise only to stay for two years and leave teaching at a greater rate than traditionally trained teachers.

What interesting about the current civil war amongst former corps members is that its nowhere near the start of the year news cycle when TFA typically garners so much adoring attention from the news media…For your viewing pleasure, a few excerpts from the recent TFA rebellion:

Matt Barnum: A call for TFA to “fold”

Here I have only my own experience to draw from; the validity of my claims can only be judged by other corps members’, educators’, and district leaders’ experiences. I’ve come to fear that many schools have become overly reliant on TFA as a teacher pipeline.  Think about this way: A district has trouble filling all its teaching slots, so it hires many TFA corps members; inevitably, a large number of those teachers leave after two or three years; the district then fills those vacant slots with even more novice teachers. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The other problem is the wasted investment a school makes in a teacher who leaves after just a few years. Sadly, I’m a poster child for this. I remember my last day at my school in Colorado, as I made the rounds saying goodbye to veteran teachers, my friends and colleagues who had provided me such crucial support and mentorship. As I talked of my plans for law school in Chicago, and they bade me best wishes, I felt an overwhelming wave of guilt. Their time and energy spent making me a better teacher – and I was massively better on that day compared to my first – was for naught. The previous summer I had spent a week of training, paid for by my school, to learn to teach pre–Advanced Placement classes. I taught the class for a year; presumably, I thought, someone else would have to receive the same training – or, worse, someone else would not receive the same training. All that work on classroom management and understanding of the curriculum, all the support in connecting with students and writing lesson – it would all have to begin again with a new teacher. (Indeed, my replacement apparently had a nervous breakdown and quit after a few months. She was replaced by a long-term substitute who one of my former colleagues must write lesson plans for.)

For many corps members, the required five-week summer training “institute” is close to useless. Why? Not, as some have argued, because it’s so short. Rather, it’s because for many of us the training doesn’t come close to simulating what it’s like to be teaching during the real school year. As alumni blogger Gary Rubinstein has pointed out, many institutes’ corps members teach for very little time in front of very few students.

That was precisely my experience. At the Phoenix Institute, I taught for four weeks, one-hour each day, in front of an average of ten exceptionally well-behaved sixth graders. (The first week of Institute did not involve any teaching.) And did I mention that there was no summer school on Fridays? In sum, I taught for a total of sixteen hours, in a room that often had half as many adults as students. At my middle school in Colorado, I taught an average of eighteen eighth-graders per class for about six hours a day, where I was almost always the only adult present. And these students’ parents had not elected for them to attend summer school. In other words, my placement school had more students, more hours, more days of the week, fewer adults, and a different student population (not to mention a different age group, and, for many, a different subject). TFA’s training model is not effective, yet $33 million is spent to doing a poor job teaching corps members to teach.

Managers of Teacher Leadership and Development (MTLDs) are supposed to be the first line of support for corps members struggling in the classroom. My MTLD – at the time, called a PD, program director – my first year did her best, but stopping by my classroom once a month, and having a half hour “debrief” after was little help. This support mirrored TFA’s training: not enough depth, not enough breadth, not enough time. My second MTLD was no better. I didn’t know her until a week into the school year, when she appeared in my classroom with no warning – I had not met her, and didn’t even know who she was as first – only to sweep out, fifteen minutes later, after leaving a post-it note that said something along the lines of, “Keep up the great work!” That about set the tone for the rest of our interactions.

Emma Lind: A call for a “rethink” of TFA in the Harvard Crimson

Originally a 2009 Teach For America Mississippi Delta Corps Member, I am now a fourth-year teacher of low-income and minority students at a public charter high school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I would not be a teacher today without the support of TFA, and the majority of my incredible colleagues are Teach For America alumni. My principal—the most effective school leader I have ever witnessed as a teacher or a student—is a TFA alumnus.

But February 15 marks the final deadline to apply to be a 2013 TFA Corps Member, and you should not click “submit.”

Unfortunately, many TFA alumni (including myself) allow sentimentality to blind us to the harsh practicalities of TFA and its place in the education reform movement. The truth is, TFA teachers within their two-year corps commitment window do not, by and large, have tangible positive impacts on their classrooms. The natural extension is that if you join TFA, you will most likely have a neutral or negative impact on the academic gains of the students that you teach.

TFA paints a rosy picture for its prospective applicants when it glows that TFA corps members enable “students in high-need communities [to] make the academic progress that expands their opportunities.” But this statement isn’t bolstered by fact. TFA is not a traditional teacher-education program. In lieu of obtaining extensive preparation in multi-year undergraduate teacher credentialing programs, TFA corps members complete a five-week training program called “institute” in the summer immediately before they begin teaching. One study on the subject has shown that when compared a relatable cohort, teachers in the same schools who are untraditionally prepared and less likely to be certified, novice TFA teachers perform equivalently—but not superior—to those colleagues.

If you feel inspired to teach, I beg you: teach! There are young people who need “lifers” committed to powering through the inevitable first three years of being terrible at teaching sinusoidal curves to hormonal 17 year-olds. I encourage you to pursue an alternative route to licensure and placement: one that encourages and actively supports longevity in the classroom and does not facilitate teacher turnover by encouraging its alumni to move into policy or other professions. If you feel compelled to Teach For America instead of teaching for America, please preference a region that has demonstrated a high need for novice teachers due to verifiable teacher shortages. And then stay in the classroom. For a long time. Feel at home teaching, and feel even more at home learning how to get better. Sit. Stay a while. Then stand and deliver.

I lean more towards a rethink of TFA. However, why TFA reformers are so resistant to reform is quite puzzling to me. What do you think?

p.s. To continue the discussion on the issues raised in this post, please Tweet and Facebook Like it for others below. ciao!

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Categories: Teach For America, Teacher Quality

Author:Julian Vasquez Heilig

Julian Vasquez Heilig is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning and African and African Diaspora Studies (by courtesy) at the University of Texas at Austin.

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7 Comments on “Fold or Rethink: A Teach For America Civil War?”

  1. Suzanne
    March 4, 2013 at 9:37 am #

    I sought an alternative route to licensure after my undergraduate degree in history, and I specifically avoided TFA after spending a year in the Marshall Islands, where I saw the devastating effects that World Teach (a similar organization, but international in nature) has had on the public school system in that country. Students in World Teach also serve for two years. My observation is that by the time a teacher gets the “hang” of teaching, they leave, and students are again subjected to another novice. Educational institutions thrive with a combination of new and veteran teachers, both dedicated to the long haul. More importantly, I believe students feel more confident and secure when they know that next year they will have so-and-so for math and so-and-so for reading, with a new teacher for science. New teachers also need the support of veteran teachers, and veteran teachers benefit from the energy and drive of new teachers. Additionally, some (not all!) TFAers and World Teachers enter the program to put a notch in their belt – i.e. make their resume more attractive to potential grad schools. And finally, my understanding is that there is little cultural competency training for TFA inductees because they are trained all together and then dropped in their district. The Phoenix region, for example, includes Phoenix, South Dakota, Colorado, New Mexico, Hawai’i, Northeast Ohio-Cleveland, St. Louis, and the Las Vegas Valley. These places and the sub-cultures within them are incredibly different. The students and cultures of reservations, inner-cities, and islands are incredibly different. And while kids are kids, the nuances of culture that impact the effectiveness of one’s instruction are profound and cannot be ignored.

  2. Joe Chase
    March 5, 2013 at 9:37 am #

    This is a very interesting article that mirrors my own observations of TFA. The organization has lost it’s mission among the political issues that plague the group. I think when you value intellect over the wisdom of experience you are doomed to continually make the same mistakes.

  3. Publius
    March 5, 2013 at 10:33 am #

    Julian, solid piece on TFA. At this point I’m a recovering corps member. Was in the system for half a year doing special education. Complete lack of preparation coupled with serious problems with my regional corps and placement school led me to see how misguided the program was. We literally had 3 days of training focused on special education before we got sent into the classroom.

    Also, heads up if you want to really poke on a big problem in TFA focused on the specialized programs Special Ed in particular we literally had 3 days of training in special ed before we got sent into the classroom.

    Keep up the work, more light needs to be focused on it

  4. Harlem Music Teacher
    March 12, 2013 at 7:25 pm #

    Don’t forget Gary Rubinstein who is also a frequent critic of TFA. http://garyrubinstein.teachforus.org/

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