Thursday, June 21, 2007

Balanced Discussion of Teach For America?

This looks like a fairly balanced discussion of the Teach for America program. See the nice graphs at the bottom. 130 full-time recruiters? $56 million bucks? I had no idea they had that much money. I don't know a lot about TFA. Comments?


Jane said...

There was a pretty lively discussion about TFA on the Inside Higher Ed website back in the fall, with Dan Butin being a major participant. You can see the original article and the many comments here:

Time To Team Up With TFA

A. G. Rud said...

Our daughter just graduated from college last weekend, and several of her friends are doing TFA. I shared this article with her and others. It is very balanced. My take is that TFA can be a wonderful experience for kids, but is not, as Darling-Hammond and others argue, necessarily good for the schools nor is it a systemic fix. I am, however, impressed by how TFA tracks their graduates and how many of them go into ed leadership positions. I can't help but think that even a short two years of "character building" after college will affect a person's outlook on schooling and the plight of public schools today, in spite of its many flaws and admittedly bandaid approach to school reform.

Dan W. Butin said...

I actually found the Chronicle article to be fairly negative, in that it positioned TFA (as most articles do) as a false intervention, some kind of interloper, to support struggling schools when in fact TFA has begun to offer to urban and rural school systems another entry pathway which offers better qualified teachers than other alternative pathways. (An immediate admission: I was one of the original group of people [as the chief financial officer] that helped to start the program in 1990; so I know many of the key players involved.)

Here is my problem with critiques of TFA, many of which are in the Chronicle article:
1) TFA graduates do not just “burnish” their resumes with a 2-year stint. As any teacher knows, every day can feel like two years if you are not prepared. So it’s not as if these TFA teachers are just hanging out for two years, putting it on their resumes, and moving on. They are working for it. As any other dedicated teacher is. Moreover, once you look at the horrific teacher retention rates in urban districts, two year commitments are nothing to sneeze at. I’m not justifying leaving after two years, but one has to put it into comparison with what urban school districts already have to deal with.
2) 5-weeks in the summer is, granted, not enough time to learn how to teach. But, speaking from having taught in a traditional teacher education program for 5 years, having teacher education drag on for four years, taking classes completely removed from teaching practicum, etc., is a poor way to do teacher education as well. Dan Goldhaber, among others, has clearly demonstrated that teacher certification is a very poor indicator of student outcomes (and I am all too aware of the immense ongoing methodological debate around such studies.) Moreover, I actually found the TFA curriculum (7 detailed binders) to be fairly well done. Until someone takes the time to read through them and do a thorough comparison with traditional program content, I’m not convinced that the curriculum is fluff.
3) I actually find the potential long-term impact of TFA immensely powerful. While Jay Mathews’ recent column in the Washington Post is a little over the top for me (, I think he is completely right that TFA has created a network of individuals committed to reforming education. We talked about this idea internally at TFA back in 1990 when we started, and it looks like they have become much more systematic about it.

Finally, as I have said for a long time, I think the key is that teacher preparation consists of the opportunity to learn (e.g., methods courses), the opportunity to practice (e.g., student teaching), and the opportunity to change (e.g., foundations courses). Where this actually happens, I really don’t much care. What I care about is that future teachers are exposed to the important content and pedagogical content, the opportunity to practice it in a realistic environment, and the opportunity to question and rethink their fundamental assumptions about teaching and learning within a pluralistic society. I think TFA offers this. If they do it well, I say amen.

Jane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jane said...

Ok, with HTML repair from my first attempt!


I think that my questions about TFA are about what participants do learn in those two years about the directions that reform might take when the basic premise of the program is that teaching requires little more than five weeks of preparation, success in one's own education, and a heady dose of enthusiasm.

I understand that many TFA teachers find the work much more challenging than expected, but this has not influenced the basic model.

I just happened upon two interesting perspectives on TFA in my blog reader today.

The first is an interesting post from A TFA alum in which he expresses reservation about the insularity of the network of TFA grads:

This Job Is Not Your Service Project

A quote from this post speaks not only the short-term need to fill classrooms, but also the long-term need to build a sense of professionalism in teaching:

"Through TFA, teaching is increasingly seen as service, not vocation. Volunteerism, not professionalism. The arena for the missionary, not the visionary. Teaching continues to be degraded as this thing you tried for a little while and then moved beyond, like writing for your college newspaper, taking that yoga class, or spending your last vacation hammering away for Jimmah Carter's favorite charity".

I found this blog referenced in today's post from Barnett Berry's blog, in which he speaks of other alternatives (and I'm sure that we'd all support [and perhaps even work in] something other than 4 year teacher ed programs with coursework disconnected from practica.):

Finding A Better Way

I've wondered at times why TFA doesn't send its members to middle-class schools so that successful, experienced teachers might go to do two-year stints in under-resourced schools -- at least those in urban areas just down the road from the suburban schools. I fear that the middle-class parents would be uneasy about having people with so little preparation teaching their kids; I wonder, too, if as many college grads would sign up if they didn't get to tell stories about working with poor kids once they finished their stint.

I don't mean to sound snarky about this, but the model that TFA chose is only one of many in which those same participants might have contributed to the well-being of kids in poor schools.

I'd be interested in learning more from you about how the decisions were made about how to structure the program.

Jane said...

So, HTML lesson is over for today, with me stranded on the far left side of the evaluation rubric.

Here's the link for the AFT alum blog:

And for Barnett's blog:

Dan W. Butin said...

Hi Jane and others,

Thanks for pushing the issue.

First, I am in full agreement that equating teaching with service and “saving” those poor and downtrodden is disturbing and inappropriate for teachers, the students they teach, and the profession of teaching. Having said that, I would suggest that most pre-service teachers enter the teaching pipeline for many of the same reasons; we all want to “make a difference” “one child at a time.” To disparage TFA seems to me as such somewhat of a case of transference; focusing on TFA for many of the faults within our own system.

Second, I completely agree that if teacher education creates positive alternative (and Barry’s examples are all great programs), then of course there would be much less need for organizations like TFA and the New Teacher Project. But here’s where we can’t have our cake and eat it too. Teacher education critics (primarily on the political right) consistently disparage the teaching profession because its’ candidates traditionally have much lower academic qualifications (as measured by standardized tests such as the SAT and GRE). (Which is, I acknowledge, a whole other can of worms.) So TFA brings in individuals with very high academic qualifications and then they get berated for serving the “privileged.” I’m not sure this is a fair attack.

Third, I have done a lot of scholarship in the service-learning field, so I am very attuned to the many nuances of the word “service.” For the life of me I cannot see how we can equate teaching two years in “under-resourced” schools as “service” except as a political and rhetorical maneuver. Service is an individual, one-shot, no-consequences endeavor (I generalize grossly here). Teaching is a daily, systematic, carefully-thought-through, end-in-mind endeavor. Especially at the elementary school level, when you are with the same 23 children for 180 days a year, I’m sorry, but that’s a job, and a darn demanding one at that.

I’ll try and write more about what I see as the meta-move of TFA as one amongst many alternatives in another post.

Aaron Schutz said...

A key question for me is what kind of attitude towards impoverished communities and kids TFA grads generally leave with. Of course this is no different than any teaching experience. But as a context that exposes priveliged young people to the schools, it seems crucial to understand what they think is required for "reform". My worry is that they leave with pretty negative visions of the communities and families they work with. And given the specific context of TFA, this would be both a tragic outcome and an opportunity for the participation of foundations scholars.