Sunday, April 18, 2010

Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America

is perhaps the most important single article to date on what has developed from the Princeton Senior Thesis of Wendy Kopp. Authored by Barbara Miner, it appears in the Spring edition of Rethinking Schools, which if you care about the future of public education you should support (while the material is available online, you can consider contributing if you choose not to subscribe). here is the link directly to the article

A PDF version of the article was circulated among similarly thinkers on education a few weeks before the Spring issue was mailed. I have not written about it until now because I wanted to be certain that it was fully accessible to all I might be able to interest in it, and it was not on the web site (which was being migrated) until earlier this week. It was only on Saturday afternoon that I had sufficient time to do the article justice.

I will be happy if you have already decided to go read the entire article (again, here's the link), but in case you have not, let me offer some thoughts that might persuade you.

First, before I go further, let me note that I have permission from Rethinking Schools to quote beyond the normal fair use limitations for the purpose of my reviewing the article, which begins with an italicized statement that alerts you to the focus, Most Teach for America recruits are idealistic and dedicated. But who is behind the organization, and does its approach bolster or hinder urban education reform?

Miner begins describing her thoughts as she is driving towards St. Louis for part of her research on the article, which is when we we encounter her writing
Do people honestly think that sending Ivy League graduates into the St. Louis schools for two years will somehow unlock the academic achievement that is seen as a cornerstone of rebuilding our cities? Can the antidote to educational inequity, urban disinvestment, and neighborhood decay really be so simple?

Let me stop and digress a moment. Teach for America goes beyond the Ivies to other prestigious schools, including my own Alma Mater, Haverford College, which will on occasion brag to its alumni about the participation of its graduates. I have on occasion talked seniors out of applying, which has not endeared me to some on the campus. My argument as a professional educator is simple - unless the person going in is willing to be open about continuing beyond the required 2-year commitment, it is unfair to the students and the school, because it takes a while for any teacher to become effective, and too many of the students they will encounter already have experienced adults who simply pass through their lives.

I have been vocal in my criticism of Teach for America (TFA) over the years, to the point that once a VP of the organization asked for a meeting to persuade me they had addressed many of the things I had criticized, and they even gave me access to their internal web-based materials. While I appreciated the openness, what I saw then, and what I have seen since, has done little to change my skepticism about the entire approach. Reading Miner's article strongly reinforced what I already felt. If that is going to bother you, you can stop reading now and return to Miner, to which I shall also return.

The purpose of Miner's article, as she notes, is supposed to be about the organization and education reform, not about the abandonment of low income communities of color. Yet when she returns to her home base of Milwaukee after 2 weeks of interviews and research, she is troubled. As she writes,
I have come to distinguish between the generally hard-working, smart, and idealistic TFA classroom teachers, and a nation al organization that is as sophisticated, slippery, and media savvy as any group I have ever written about. TFA is perceived as a major player in the education wars over the future of public schools, and a key ally of those who disparage teacher unions and schools of education, and who are enamored of entrepreneurial reforms that bolster the privatization of a once-sacred public responsibility.

But what exactly is TFA’s role in these education wars? Who is directing the organization and to what ends? More importantly, what is TFA’s role in improving urban education?

For many of us who are committed to public education, the question in that brief paragraph immediately above this are key.

There is no doubt that on some levels TFA, which some critics have labeled as "Teach for Awhile" or "Teach for a Resume," has achieved "success" (although it may not necessarily be on behalf of the students it ostensibly serves). As Miner notes, in 2009 it received over 35,000 applications, including an astonishing 115 of Ivy graduates, and as of the writing of the article it had 7,300 teachers in 35 locations, some of which have
significant teacher turnover and hire large numbers of uncertified teachers.

The article is too rich to fully cover in a posting like this, which is why I will again encourage you to read the entire thing. Let me note a couple of things that caught my attention. TFA now does more training and support of its candidates, including having relationships with a number of schools/colleges of education (which as Miner notes seems to be contrary to the original goal of taking bright graduates and putting them in with little training in the belief that they could still make a difference). What further caught my attention is that some of the training of their candidates is paid for my our tax dollars: members receive tuition towards a masters through Americorp, to the tune of a $4,725 annual educational award. Now, were those receiving that training all committed to remaining in the inner city schools in which they serve I might not object, but for many even this is still but a step on the way to something else, perhaps business school or law school. Of the three members TFA arranged for Miner to interview in St. Louis (out of the total of 183 in public and charter schools), only one was committed to staying beyond the requisite two years, and even she is thinking beyond the classroom: she will spend five years teaching while earning masters in education and educational administration, then go to law school, and then . . .? As this teacher, Melinda Harris, notes
“I can honestly say, what I have learned I could use in another profession: the networking, the time management and organizational skills.”
And of course the ever-present alumni network will help her with whatever goals beyond the classroom she decides to pursue.

One problem with TFA and how it selects its teachers is the mismatch between teachers and students.
In 2008 about 10 percent of corps members nationwide were African American, and about 7.5 percent were Latino; overall, almost 29 percent are people of color. Figures for the TFA staff are similar. TFA classrooms, meanwhile, are about 90 percent African American and Latino.
In theory, there is not necessarily a stumbling block between having white middle class teachers in a predominantly minority school - I and a majority of the teachers in my school are white, while we are a minority majority school. But there are differences. First, while we have students from a variety of economic circumstances, they are still predominantly middle class. Second, our teachers are committed to the school: an art teacher who passed away earlier this week had been there since the building opened in the 1970s. I arrived at the school in 1998, and in my department of 17 teachers there are 5 who were there when I arrived.

Further, 7,500 is a drop in the ocean of millions of teachers. Even if we look at the needs of inner-city and rural schools with high degrees of poverty, we needs hundreds of thousands of teachers. It is not clear to me, or to anyone who has seriously and dispassionately studied TFA, that it provides any kind of useful model for how we serve the millions of children in such schools. The article includes a separate box which has some remarks from Barnett Berry, who coincidentally is co-founder of the Teacher Leaders Network of which I am a member. Barnett acknowledges that a Teach for America Recruit might well be better than the uncertified substitute that a child in an inner city school might otherwise have, and of course we should encourage bright and enthusiastic young people to take on the task of such educational settings. Let me quote 3 paragraphs from that box, so that you get the full impact of Berry's concerns:
“But,” Berry continues, “to suggest that TFA is the solution to the nation’s teaching quality gap is misguided at best.”

Berry likens the TFA recruits to sprinters—talented athletes, but insufficient if one wants to build a well-rounded track team. “TFA gets its recruits ready for a sprint, not a 10K or a marathon,” Berry notes. “They look like they are working harder than the veteran teachers. But the veteran teacher has experience and knows that if you want to make a career of teaching, a sprinting pace will burn you out.”

Because TFA recruits aren’t expected to stay, they have two other advantages: they cost less and they tend to do what they are told. “By and large, they don’t raise questions,” Berry notes.

they don't raise questions - we already have a problem that the voices of teachers are often not part of the discussions about educational policy. Teacher Leaders Network is one attempt to try to change that, and one of my compatriots, Anthony Cody, organized the Letters to the President effort that led to a large Facebook group that is now leading to a conversation with Secretary of Education Duncan. But by and large those of us who are committed to remaining in the classroom have to struggle to get our voices heard. That may explain some of the hostility one experiences from professional educators towards Teach for America - we see those with little teaching experience, sometimes not all that effective, suddenly being turned to as the experts on how to "fix" education when the voices of those whose efforts will be needed for the success of any meaningful reform continue to be excluded.

Teach for America requires a 2-year commitment. The statistics on those completing the commitment are somewhat inflated by TFA - in 2007 only 87% of those who should have been completing the 2 years actually were, and as Miner notes, the completion rate was lower in earlier years. Further, TFA claims that a survey of its alumni (who are supposed to include only those who completed the 2 years) shows “more than two-thirds of Teach for America alumni are working or studying full-time in the field of education.” The accompanying graph shows 50% of these as teachers. But as Miner notes, only 57% of those defined as alumni responded to the survey, and we have no figures on the 43% who did not. Further,
the field of education is loosely defined to include everything from working with a nonprofit advocacy group to getting a graduate education degree. . . . there is no sense of whether those who responded to the survey tended to be recent alumni, perhaps only a year past their initial commitments and more likely to be in graduate school or teaching for a third year, or older alumni who have moved on to other careers.

This is perhaps an appropriate time to remind those of you still reading of Miner's title, which includes the words Looking Past the Spin. Teach for America has been very successful in gaining favorable coverage from Main Stream Media. I have read the results of the survey to which Miner refers in several major newspapers, both in news stories and opinion pieces, yet I had not before her article seen the details of that survey properly deconstructed and analyzed. The positive spin the organization receives is continued with the reflected glory by its alumni who go on to other challenges that are also often not examined as critically as they should be. Thus we have seen favorable news coverage of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools, founded by TFA alums Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, coverage that has now lead to a positive book by Washington Post writer Jay Mathews, who had previously written about Jaime Escalante (full disclosure - I have known Jay since 1998, and consider him a friend, even though I disagree with his evaluation of KIPP), and of course, former TFA'er and now Chancellor of DC Public Schools Michelle Rhee (whose ex-husband and father of her children, Kevin Huffman, is now Executive Vice President of Public Affairs for TFA and, oh by the way, just so happened to win the Washington Post's Next Great Pundit contest.

What concerns many of us committed to public education is the outsized influence and voice TFA and its people have. Let me quote two brief paragraphs from Miner to attempt to illustrate the reasons for my concern.

Twenty years ago, before TFA had placed a single teacher in a single school, there were glowing articles in the New York Times, Newsweek, and Time, and a segment on Good Morning America. The media love-fest with TFA has never stopped, extending to soft publications always eager for a feel-good story, such as Reader’s Digest and Good Housekeeping. When TFA founder Kopp calls Thomas Friedman at the New York Times, he not only answers her call, but also quotes her extensively (see Friedman’s April 22, 2009, column).

And then, this:
Some 27 TFA alumni are currently in office, nine more are running for office, and more than 700 are interested in “pursuing political leadership.” TFA has a goal of 100 elected officials in 2010.

Stop and consider that for a moment. A publicly stated goal of elected officials.

I know teachers who have pursued public office directly from their classrooms - both Tim Walz of MN and Larry Kissell of NC were elected to the US House of Representatives directly from their social studies classrooms. Former Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of MD was, like me, both a former Marine and a social studies teacher. We have had presidents who served as teachers - Lyndon Johnson began his work career teaching poor children (largely Hispanic) in Texas, an experience which certainly shaped his agenda in the Great Society while serving as our Chief Executive.

Still, I would hope that we would be encouraging gifted, bright, enthusiastic people who can teach to remain in schools. I think we should be reshaping the teaching profession so one does not have to leave the classroom to make an adequate living. That SOME may go on to administration, or school boards, or even elective or appointive office is fine, but I question if that should be the goal. I wonder how that actually contributes to making our schools better for the children who so desperately need our help.

It seems as if political power is important to those involved with TFA. This became evident during the putting together of the Obama administration. Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford had been one of the principal advisors on education during the campaign, and had headed up the transition team on education. For many, she was a logical choice for Secretary of Education. She had served as an inner city school teacher, and in her years in academia had participated in many important initiatives about teaching and education. But she was the principal author of a study that had been critical of TFA, and she was vociferously opposed by the TFA network. For what it is worth, one does not have to be a TFA alumni to participate in politics, and living as I do just outside our national capital I take full advantage of proximity to develop relationships. I heard both personally and via the internet of the organized campaign against Darling-Hammond, the roots of which were solidly within TFA and its alumni.

Let me return to Miner's article. I previously mentioned Kevin Huffman. Miner interviewed him. He made clear that the two-year commitment, about which I and so many are critical, is key to TFA's theory of change. Let me quote two relevant paragraphs:
I struggled to remember media references to this “theory of change.” What was this theory? “That we will bring in great people who will have a tremendous impact on the kids they are teaching and who will go on for the rest of their careers to have an impact on root causes that cause the gap in educational outcomes in this country,” Huffman explained.

I noted that TFA’s theory of change sounded top-down and that it left out the voices and perspectives of the communities who were supposed to benefit. I could sense Huffman’s frustration. “I think that misapprehends our theory of change,” he said. This wasn’t just an educational policy initiative, he noted, because TFA hoped that alumni would enter other fields such as medicine and law and make equally important contributions. “We are decidedly nonpartisan and apolitical about what our alumni are pursuing or pushing,” he said. “We have a belief that our alumni have had an experience that will help them make better decisions.”

By now I hope I have convinced you of some of the riches of Barbara Miner's piece. But there is much more. She examines the 501(c)4 that is used in what seems a strange fashion to advance the agenda of TFA. She also talks with people on the political and educational left who raise concerns about TFA, most notably Mike Rose and the late Howard Zinn (who is honored in the same issue as this article in Losing our Favorite Teacher). Zinn's words are important:
“The idea of bringing in ‘great’ people, ‘important’ people, is counter to the idea of a democratic education,” he wrote. “And all the insistence on not taking policy stands, not having an ‘ideology,’ is simply na├»ve. Not taking policy stands is itself an ideology, and an ideology which reinforces the status quo in education and in society.”

I am firm believer that one function of our schools should be democratic empowerment, especially of those we teach. It is one reason I have explored rethinking (now there's an appropriate word, eh?) how we design, structure, and operate our schools. One might hope that those who teach in public schools would have similar aspirations for our students, and thus might model it themselves. Which is why a recent study from Stanford is quite illuminating. On the question of civic engagement, the study
found that TFA alumni actually had lower rates of civic involvement than those who were accepted by TFA but declined, and also had lower rates than those who dropped out before their two years were completed, according to a summary in the New York Times.

Miner also follows the money - the sources of funding for TFA. I will let you explore this section of the article on your own. She also explores a study of TFA teachers at which she was pointed by a TFA exec, and which was done by Mathematica. I suppose the exec cited the Mathematica piece because it offered some criticism of the study led by Darling-Hammond which caused such hostility towards the Stanford Prof from TFA circles. Let me offer just a snip from that sidebar:
I went to the Mathematica study and, quite frankly, wondered why TFA was promoting it. I imagined how the Onion might summarize the study: “Teach for America goes up against the worst teachers in the country—they’re both awful!”

Let me offer a couple of other snips to give you a sense of the depth of this article.

In a cover story last fall, Business Week put TFA at the number seven spot in its top 10 listing of “The Best Places to Launch a Career,” just after Goldman Sachs and just before Target.

TFA, meanwhile, actively promotes the value of joining its teaching corps, especially for those thinking of graduate school or immediately transitioning to a corporate job. Its website boasts of TFA’s partnership with over 150 graduate schools offering TFA alumni benefits such as two-year deferrals, fellowships, course credits, and waived application fees. The most popular schools for TFA alumni are Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Northwestern, and the University of California-Berkeley—with Harvard the overall top choice.

Its employer partners, which actively recruit TFA alumni, are equally prestigious and include Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, KPMG, Credit Suisse, McKinsey and Company, and Google. TFA partners in its School Leadership Initiative for alumni, meanwhile, include the for-profit Edison Schools. (TFA founder Kopp has nothing but praise for Edison in her memoir. She is also open to the idea of vouchers.)

So, TFA becomes a ticket-punching stop on the way to a more "important" and lucrative career outside of teaching, with the added benefit that the alum can feel as if s/he has done a good deed and is now also an expert on education?

TFA is big business: "TFA had revenues of $159 million in fiscal year 2008 and expenses of $124.5 million." Remember, this is for a total of about 7,500 actually in classrooms. Do the math . . .

TFA is lucrative for its executives:
CEO and founder Wendy Kopp made $265,585, with an additional $17,027 in benefits and deferred compensation. She also made an additional $71,021 in compensation and benefits through the TFA-related organization Teach for All. Seven other TFA staffers are listed as making more than $200,000 in pay and benefits, with another four approaching that amount.

Let's return to Kopp's praise for Edison, Chris Whittle's failed attempt at a for profit chain of schools in the public sector, which lost contracts in multiple cities for failure to perform, whose stock was about to be delisted by NASDAQ when it was propped up when then Governor Jeb Bush of Florida used money from the pension fund of Florida teachers to buy shares and thus prop up the stock price. Kopp just happens to be married to Richard Barth, a former Edison VP (and TFA staffer) who just so happens to be president and CEO of the Kipp foundation. As Miner notes, the joint salary of this new power couple in education is over 600,000/year.

Miner also examines Wendy Kopp's memoir, of which she notes that the only time a school child is mentioned by name is briefly, about 20 pages from the end. I want to react to this.

I need permission to use the names or identifying information of my current students, or students who were minors at the time they were in my classroom. Yet if I think about the times I write about education here or elsewhere, it is not at all unusual for me to mention one or more specific students in a piece of 2,500 words or less. After all, as a teacher I believe my focus is the individual student before me: that is where I must start and that should be the standard by which my effectiveness should be measured. It bothers me that Kopp can opine as an expert on education with little reference to individual students. Perhaps that is because the focus of her organization seems to be on the teachers/future alumni more than it is on the children they should be serving. I admit it, that bothers me.

Barbara Miner is a very effective writer. And an effective writer best skewers a target using that target's own words. I believe the conclusion to Miner's piece properly frames, using Wendy Kopp's own words, what is wrong with the TFA model, which requires only a 2-year commitment to teaching.

So let me conclude using Miner's words, and in advance wish you my final salutation:


But what if one accepts TFA’s assumptions—that its purpose is purely to address educational inequity by recruiting the best and the brightest, training them briefly, and having them teach for two years in a low-income school? And that its model trumps the value of recruiting accredited teachers who view teaching as a career?

Given that the revolving door of unqualified teachers is a key factor in the poor performance of many low-income schools, what are the repercussions of those assumptions? Is TFA aggravating a problem that it claims to be solving?

It is Kopp herself who perhaps best answers that question. Speaking in a 2007 commencement speech at Mt. Holyoke College, Kopp said:

What I have come to appreciate is that things that matter take time. We live in an era when it is rare to meet people in their 20s and 30s who have stayed with something for more than a few years. And certainly, in some cases the right thing is to experiment and move on. But in many cases, the right thing is to stay with something, internalize tough lessons, and push yourself to new levels of knowledge and responsibility. Deep and widespread change comes from sticking with things.


Art said...

The world does not divide neatly into 21 year olds who really want a lifelong career in teaching and 21 year olds who go into teaching through TFA.

Nobody really believes that sending small numbers of high achieving and highly motivated 21 year olds from elite colleges is by itself going to solve all of America's educational problems. Setting up and knocking down straw men is beyond pointlessness.

Anonymous said...

As a successful business person I know that I would not be anywhere without my teachers. I grew up in Miami, FL in a very large urban district. We may not have been wealthy but we benefited from the era when women in large numbers sought careers in education. We all know that many stayed until they married and/or had children or their husbands became more successful.It may have been 2, 3 or 10 years. My favorite gov't teacher worked for 5 years to earn money for law school and HE became a judge. That was bad? None of us cared--as long as kids were taught, we were happy. When I graduated from college in 1971 I wanted to be anything a women didn’t do: lawyer, business leader, business owner, CEO, scientist.

1971 was the cusp of that major work force change. Forty years later, young people no longer enter the education field in large #'s--they have so many choices. We know the avg. GPA of all Ed majors across the USA may be (a lot) less than a 3.5. Teaching is a noble profession and so why should it matter how we recruit new teachers thru TFA or New Teacher Project or Troops for Teachers or college Ed programs--we need smart, qualified teachers. The fact is that once we recruit them, we should try to get them to stay.

Does anyone know how long an Ed grad who accepts a job in an urban school stays in that job? Does anyone know how many Ed grads even apply for jobs in our urban and rural schools? We have the data on TFA because they value data but no one mentions this issue for non TFA teachers. Teach For America teachers join the unions and maybe one day one of them will become a Union President like Randi Weingarten who was a lawyer and like Wendy Kopp who runs TFA, also makes a six figure salary plus lucrative benefits I am sure. As she should. She works hard for children every day. She is educated, runs a large organization and manages many constituents. We should not begrudge them their hard earned pay!

I have worked hard to help our local urban and near urban schools get better with more resources, better teachers and more awareness in our community. I mentor teachers, some Teach For America teachers and others not and principals and district staff. We can't all be classroom teachers but we all know the value of a good one and the value of mentoring as a form of teaching too.

I for one am all about attracting the best and brightest from Ed schools or other majors like Science, math, music, English, Spanish and helping them succeed so our children succeed. We need passion and compassion and we need smart people sharing their wisdom with our children.

Maybe the Ed schools of the USA ought to learn from TFA and see what they are doing to get so many young people passionate about considering education as a profession when they were unable to even attract them to their education schools. The majority of Teach For America teachers come from our large state universities, bastions for Ed programs for centuries. To me Teach For America is the Peace Corps for the 21st century and the war on poverty we are fighting is in the urban and rural centers of our country. The only way out is a quality education.

It is all about the children and what we can do to give them a life of possibility.
We should stop the bickering over is Teach For America a good way to attract teachers or not and welcome these bright young people into the profession gladly. Maybe they will wake up and be proud and glad they became teachers and who will care 5 years or 50 years from now whether they came as Ed majors or through an alternative introduction as long as they were a good teacher!

For once parent and teacher and union, Teach For America and Troops for Teachers and the New Teacher Project and universities and colleges around the country let’s get on the side of kids and their education needs and work together to make a difference. We should have the best school system in the world not the most polarized. Our kids deserve better.

Dan W. Butin said...

Hi Ken,

I’m sorry, but this is a hatchet job. The key question is not what TFA or TFA teachers do or don’t do, but compared to what else is out there. The author’s argument, and your post, is a set up: if you disagree with your arguments, it is as if we are for high turnover or for high executive salaries or for unseemly political influence. I am for none of these things. And you are still inaccurate.

300,000 teachers leave the profession every year. That’s 15% of the workforce. Richard Ingersoll’s work in the last decade, moreover, has shown that it is just as much about teachers transferring in and out. Added together, we’re talking more than half a million teachers needing to be hired every year. TFA’s 4,000 is nothing.

And, if anyone on this blog needs to be told, the numbers for urban and rural schools is double the national average when it comes to teacher attrition. This has nothing to do with TFA. This is a demand and supply problem that superintendents and principals have to deal with all the time. Some urban schools and school systems have 50-80% attrition every single year. The research is there.

We can agree to disagree about the best way to prepare teachers and whether TFA does or does not do that. But I, as a current dean of a school of education, wish I had six support staff per location supporting my alumni, as TFA does. I don’t begrudge TFA; I simply watch how they support their teachers and learn a little from them, as I do with every other initiative I feel has value.

Finally, as I’ve written about before, I am “biased” because I was – for the sake of this article – one of the individuals namelessly referred to of sharing the empty office space donated smack in the middle of mid-town Manhattan. I knew and worked alongside Richard and Wendy way before they even liked each other. We all made $25,000 a year. Every single staff member. For the first two years of the organization’s existence. (I left after that.) If Wendy makes $325,000 now, good for her. We all wondered when she would leave the organization for a better deal somewhere else. She never has.

I could do a much longer post, but this article is to me another standard attack on TFA that has absolutely no context or history of the realities of the statistics of urban education. TFA is far from perfect. As is much of urban education. But this article is a story that was written way before this author ever got in her car to drive to St. Louis.


teacherken said...


I wrote a long response to your comment, but somehow blogger ate it, and I do not have time to reconstruct the entire thing. My primary concern with TFA is that I do not think we solve problems by taking in people who view teaching as a 2-year stop on the way to something else. For what it is worth, I was accepted into the Peace Corps and decided not to go for precisely the same reason. My niece did (Central African Republic) and felt she did some good. I am sure she did. I am sure that the enthusiasm and dedication of many of the TFA volunteers offers something better than staffing the room with an unqualified substitute. But that is not a solution problems that concern both of us in our commitment to public education.

I think you are unfair in calling this a hatchet job, either towards Barbara Miner or especially towards me. I will acknowledge that you have a personal relationship with some of the figures which may color your reaction, as my experience of the impact of turnover and its impact on a school's culture has on my mine.

I am more than aware of the problems of urban education: I live just outside DC, and teach in an adjacent district with many of the problems of the typical urban setting. Nevertheless, I think the resources that TFA applies might be better applied to those willing to commit for longer than two years as a way station. That is my principle criticism of TFA. I am pleased that over time they have lengthened the preparation before placement, and increased the support during placement. I still think the preparation is insufficient, but I also note that many states are turning to sources of teachers that are even less rigorous than TFA.

We are going to disagree on the value of TFA. I respect your commitment to public education. I would hope you would also respect mine.

FWIW - that someone can make much more doing something else does not impress me - when I left my managerial job in data processing in 1994 to become a teacher I did not reach the same level in nominal dollars until around 2004, and I still have not recovered the purchasing power I had when I became a teacher. Most of the teachers in my building could make more doing something else - after all, we have precisely the same skills cited by the one young lady now in St. Louis.

I think you do Barbara Miner a disservice. I know you do me one.


Dan W. Butin said...

Hi Ken,

I am deeply impressed by you as a teacher (from the way you write and the awards you receive) and have nothing but respect for your perspectives and arguments in general.

But there is something else going on here with the level of your arguments. Your language and your passion on this one issue is way way greater than the issues you claim to have with them. Look at your language: TFA teachers are in fact not “volunteers”; they are paid just like any other teacher under the exact same union contract as everyone else. And their work in the classroom is not a “way station” anymore than the hundreds of thousands of others who pass through urban schools. I am skeptical that your main argument against TFA is that they take up too many resources given what they do. Goodness gracious, the amount of fiscal waste and drain in the educational system is horrific. The NYC “rubber rooms” comes immediately to mind. All I am trying to say in my comments is that the attack on TFA is coming from someplace else; my gut is probably, as the author wrote, having to do with the corporatization of education and the conservative whos-who surrounding TFA. But those are different issues and should be handled with different arguments.

P.s. I hate the comments section too as it eats my stuff lots as well.

Art said...

On the question of whether TFAers abandon education after two years, Andy Rotherham says that more than two thirds of TFAers stay in education after their initial two-year hitch - more than one third remain as teachers and others stay as school administrators or work in government or nonprofits related to education.

Anne Geiger said...

The definition of reform---strengthening what works and fixing what doesn't. A chronic problem that needs to be fixed in urban schools is the relative inexperience and high turnover of teachers. Teach for America’s recruitment model attracts some of the "best and brightest" from elite private and upper-tier public universities to teach in urban (and rural) schools for 2 years. TFA uses savvy branding and cultivates relationships with powerful political networks and high-profile funders. Recruits probably do become more empathetic, knowledgeable citizens and some do stay in education, though my understanding is that most go into administrative or other higher-paying positions outside the classroom. So while TFA should be praised for its business prowess and Peace Corps-like contributions (and individual recruits for their dedication), it shouldn’t be held up as a significant reform agent because its very mission does not fix the chronic problem of inexperience or turnover.

Therefore, I don't see this post as another “attack” on TFA, but rather a way to ask hard and necessary questions. As with most controversies, skeptics often serve an important purpose---to encourage everyone to be more honest, transparent, rational and realistic. Star-struck politicians, think tanks, TV pundits and editorial boards need to be more objective and better analyze the privatized efforts they promote, like TFA and similarly-positioned charter schools/private management companies, to determine if they have the capacity and expertise to truly reform public education or if they are simply small-scale innovations, however well-meaning and successful, that work more around the edges--

We need to be asking more big-picture questions---------

What WORKS within the traditional public school system and how can it be strengthened?

What are the solutions and strategies that can fix problems in urban schools, such as inexperience and turnover, at a SCALE that will make a difference for the majority of students who are enrolled in them?

Where is the definitive COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS of this increasingly popular privatization movement (organizations like TFA, charter schools, private management companies, etc.)---i.e. what is the return on investment of public dollars in these organizations in large-scale reform terms---strengthening what works and fixing what doesn’t?

james boutin said...

Well said, Anne. The scariest part about TFA is the way the media touts it (explicitly or implicitly) as a key in solving public education's problems.

There are 3.3 million teachers in the US. There are something like 340 certified high schools in the state of Georgia and 80 certified physics teachers. If our answer is merely to improve teacher quality (especially with a program like TFA), then we've already lost.

That the likes of Wendy Kopp make so much money on a program that, as Anne noted, is not reforming anything, strongly suggest that they have a financial incentive (i.e. not what's best for kids) to push for funding that might otherwise go toward real reform.

I don't despise TFA. I've worked with some very talented TFAers while teaching in DCPS. But this is not a long-term solution. I'm afraid too many people in TFA are in it for the wrong reasons. I've worked with far too many administrators who did their two years in TFA and then went on to grossly mismanage a teaching staff because they were far more interested in showing everyone how quickly they could rise through the system than they were on doing real teaching.

Teaching is a true profession that deserves more respect from the public, not less. If we send the message that any kid with a college degree can do what we desperately need experienced professionals doing, then we're working backwards.

Steve said...

I think this is a fair question: If you don't think Teach for America is spendng the money it raises as effectively as it could (1) is it your place to complain about that? and (2) can you offer any specific suggestions for how to spend a couple million dollars?

I think it is fair to criticize TFA, but we aren't Wendy Kopp's boss while we are Obama's, Duncan's, your local superintendent's, etc. If TFA is going to waste resources then let it, we have bigger fish to try by ending teacher tenure, reducing class sizes, recruiting better teachers, promoting vouchers--whatever it is you believe it.

My primary field of research is development (secondary is education), and we spent way too much time criticizing NGOs in development (e.g. One Laptop Per Child, Millennium Promise) and not enough time celebrating good ones and fixing up our government agencies. It seems the same is true in education.