Mr. Parello Sensei

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 25 2013

Where TFA Succeeds and Where it Fails

Recently, on Twitter, TFA’s new co-CEO Matt Kramer posted an article called “Why Are We Burning Teach For America at the Stake?” written by alum Lauren Boyle. Lauren is rare among TFA alums for having participated both in a traditional credentialing program and in TFA’s training, so she has perspectives into both. The article caught my attention because I followed a similar path, but in a different order. She did her traditional training first before joining TFA, and I did TFA for one year and then enrolled in a traditional program after resigning as a corps member.

Overall, her central point is strong: that most growth for teachers happens on the job- not through credentialing coursework. The character traits that are required to be a successful teacher, such as resourcefulness, tenacity, and a desire for feedback, are not often taught in traditional teacher training programs, but can be recruited for, which Teach for America does. Teach for America supplies urban and rural school districts with a steady supply of extremely resourceful young people who might not have chosen to go into education otherwise.

I agree with all of these points, and like her, I have no wish to “burn TFA at the stake” without acknowledging what it does well. My traditional teacher-prep program was much better than institute and gave me hundreds of more hours in front of students, but ultimately there is no substitute for making decisions in front of your own classroom, and graduates from my traditional program are also likely to face rough first years if placed in a high-poverty schools. Most of the research on corps member effectiveness seems to suggest that CMs are about as effective in high-poverty schools as traditionally trained new teachers.

With this in mind, I think that there is an important role for corps members in school districts where there is a shortage of teachers. If students are faced with a string of substitutes, I would choose a resourceful TFA corps member for them any day. Some of those corps members may fall in love with teaching and stay well past their two year commitments. I think this is definitely a net gain for those districts. In other cases a district may not face an acute shortage of teachers, but a small number of corps members, bringing with them their characteristic tenacity and desire for growth, could bolster the efforts already underway. I see this as being the case in my hometown of San Diego, where TFA has opened a small corps. In cases like these, I can support TFA’s efforts.

However, somewhere along the line, TFA got the idea into its head that its corps members were better than veteran teachers. It began to believe that tenacity and resourcefulness were lacking among veteran teachers and that its corps members were preferable to them. This mentality is the only explanation that I can find for the fact that TFA continues to place its corps member in cities like Chicago where teachers are being laid off. It must believe that hiring corps members is a better use of resources for Chicago Public Schools than retaining the veteran teachers who lost their jobs. Because what Lauren Boyle said is true: the most important factor in teacher growth is on-the-job experience, and those veterans have a lot more of it. When TFA behaves in this manner, the only thing that I can say is this: Remember where you came from. You are not better than the alternative, and your corps members are not the only teachers who care about fighting for educational equity. Your organization was founded to support a struggle that was already being fought.

Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard have been doing a lot of listening recently, and for this I applaud them. TFA is facing an unprecedented wave of criticism, and listening to all of it cannot be easy. Since I believe that both are sincere about their desire to listen, as a former corps member, I can offer this advice:

-Focus first on revamping institute. When I attended LA institute in 2007 it was a joke. The staff was very dedicated and sincere, but we spent hour upon hour writing five-step lessons from scratch, when we should have been learning how to use a lot of the specific curriculums in our districts. We reinvented the wheel every day, and badly. We taught for one hour a day, and spent no time observing our master teacher or being coached by them. There has to be a way to fit more teaching time into those five weeks and to have the corps members practice with more relevant curriculum. When people complain about TFA, they often complain about the lack of training for the corps members. A real push to address the problems of institute would demonstrate seriousness to maximize the short training time that there is.

-Remember that quality is more important than quantity. TFA has been following a growth model for as long as I have had contact with the organization. It has prided itself on how many new locations it can open and how many corps members it can place. TFA needs to scale back. The mentality of growth has led to a belief that TFA corps members are not merely supporters in the fight for educational equity, but the leaders of that fight. As this mentality expands, it leads to the belief that TFA corps members are the best teachers in town and that they can and should replace veteran teachers. The organization should stop placing new CMs in cities where teachers are being laid off- where frankly, those corps members are not needed. Additionally, TFA’s growth model has led to many corps members feeling unsupported if they are struggling with the administrations at their school sites. The desire to continue placing corps members in schools has led TFA to minimize the complaints of corps members who are struggling with hostile administrators. In my case, after I faced unjust accusations from my administrators, the LA team’s only reaction was that I needed to mend the relationship with the administrators myself. Corps members who feel unsupported are less effective, and TFA can only afford to have effective corps members at this point.

-Look towards different star alums. In her book, “A Chance to Make History,” Wendy Kopp identifies Michelle Rhee as a transformational leader. The new leadership has a chance to move away from Rhee’s views. I’m aware that this has already begun, but the best way to keep moving forward in this area is to hold up the work of different alums. Rhee, and other “reformers” like her have consistently demonstrated hubris and arrogance in their approaches to the communities in which they work, viewing themselves as saviors of rotten systems. On the other hand, alums like Steve Zimmer in Los Angeles and Dr. Camika Royal in Philadelphia have consistently seen themselves as supporters of a movement already in place within their communities, and have used their careers to bolster the work on the ground. If they were the face of TFA alums rather than Michelle Rhee, I am sure that TFA would engender a lot more goodwill.

-Finally, place a moratorium on the word “status quo.” The alternative to the current model of education reform doesn’t have to be the status quo. I recognize the need for our education system to change, but it doesn’t mean that I support everything TFA and Ed reformers do because its against the status quo. As it stands, the status quo is actually the mind numbing testing regime that the reformers have put into place. So I’m that sense, people who oppose that are the biggest opponents of the status quo.

There are many other alums like myself who have no desire to burn TFA at the stake, but have been troubled by its direction for a long time. In a time of increased criticism, there are clear steps that the organization can take to change course.

One Response

  1. Well said. I find TFA’s role in Chicago troubling right now, but there’s no doubt that corps members across the country can make a meaningful impact and hopefully stay in the profession.

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