Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Reformers, TFA and Me.

Good teachers are always in demand.  Yet it seems many good ones can't find a job.  Specifically a job where they want.    Some good ones are even losing their jobs in our current economic climate through no fault of their own.  In demand school systems are more appealing to recruits based on many factors including compensation, benefits, student populations and of course where you are from.

In that sense I am fortunate to have grown up in Albemarle and even more fortunate to have finally* been hired to teach in the system.  (* it took me 4 years to become full time) One thing true of our division is they are not wanting for a supply of talented new teachers.  With the University of Virginia's Curry school a stone's throw away a steady stream of some of the best helps us fulfill our needs for new teachers.  Other communities around this nation are not so fortunate.

Enter Teach for America.  Its stated purpose to bring high quality individuals from all over from all types of fields into the world of teaching.  I am so tired of hearing about TFA that honestly I rarely read about them and try not to think about them any more.    I recently caught an  NPR story about TFA and it got me thinking.   I went to their site for the first time in a while and saw "Teach For America is growing the movement of leaders who work to ensure that kids growing up in poverty get an excellent education."   Slow down there, that is not exactly the context I usually hear about TFA.   Many teachers aren't too fond of it. Maybe I am too hard on them.  Maybe not.  But it is worth considering TFA, hence the today's post

I've never actually worked directly with anyone from TFA.  My only real experience with "the corps" is with two amazing former students who sought a TFA recommendation.  So how can I possibly be able to judge it?  You'll just have to trust me.  My credentials as an experienced teacher are spotty and I didn't attend Yale or Harvard.   I wrestle with how I feel about TFA and acknowledge my views are not static.   I have a healthy and innate sense of insecurity common among teachers which may explain why I was defensive towards the concept of TFA from the get go.  Flawed as teachers are, good ones care less how they "look" and more how they are "seen", meaning they understand teachers do more than simply instruct.  They  know they can do a great job with that instruction and still fall short by some measurements.  Moving beyond professional resentment,  I personally am still leaning over the fence far enough to conclude that I dislike more than I like about TFA.  The marketing and closely massaged public image coupled with intensive lobbying probably contribute to that and the slick video spots leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Several former students of mine are still working as part of the "corps".   They are great kids.    I'd trust them with my own children.  This is why I am so torn.  I think it is safe to assume that the majority of people serving/ involved with TFA are good people, probably better than me even.   I have little doubt they are affecting kids in a positive way as they work with them and take their mission seriously. But beyond the ones I know,  why are the future leaders of TFA signing up and doing this? Altrusim?  Does the optimism spewing from TFA blind us to the complexity what is going on?  Are they altering the way teachers are trained and schools are staffed?   One thing that bugs me is the concept that it is OK to leave teaching after 2-3 years.  That in my view does more potential harm than good.

Take for example Colorado State Senator  Michael Johnston, former TFA member  My impression is that Johnston is a great guy.  He's done probably more good than I ever will and he is a year younger.  But  mere weeks of training and two years in the classroom can scarcely be a substitute for wisdom and knowledge built through real experience.  Like many TFA members he quickly elevated to graduate student, then law school, became a policy maker, then a principal and finally a legislator.  I know in my second year as a teacher I had little concept of what excellence in the classroom was and hadn't even begun to consider a teacher's role in larger issues affecting education.  But I didn't go to Yale.

As a result of TFA contracts with local districts did Johnston potentially take the spot of someone who might still be serving those kids in that school?  Did he really want to be a teacher or did he simply sign up for the chance to do some good during that time with those kids and see it as a rung on his way up?  Who am I to say?   But what I can say is afterwards he ascended to be named by Forbes as among the 7 most influential educators in the country(Why does Forbes even have that list?).  As I proofread it sounds like Sour Grapes but underneath what it reveals is a philosophical difference.    At best someone who is a teacher for two years can be good, at worst awful.   It would seem the antithesis of what I see a teacher should be.  Far more than simply transmitting knowledge teachers should be be loyal, dedicated, engaged and involved in community.  Not interlopers. 

As a state legislator Johnston worked to pass major teacher evaluation reform.  Half of a teacher's rating will be based on student growth.  Much of that will come from statewide tests and while this reform might do some good, it will do a lot of harm.  And most teachers agree why.   Teachers are the biggest in-school factor for a child, but much evidence supports we are not the biggest factor.  Even if we were, there are many things beyond our control that are simply seen by too many as excuses.    So Johnston and TFA's stance on poverty has directly altered the accountability placing it squarely on the teacher. Does this serve kids?  But legislators tend to see the world in terms of things they can actually control.  Since poverty or social inequity wasn't one of those it is only natural that things would gravitate towards education.

What really sticks in my craw is that TFA works hard to bring the best and brightest into the classroom, only to work equally as hard to move them out.  This is traitorous.  As if they cannot affect enough change working face to face with students inside a classroom.  If we are to continually move in a positive direction we need teachers.  Not everyone can be a "leader" as TFA sees it.   And by teachers I mean people committed to the classroom and the students in them.  We can be leaders too. I believe change needs to happen from the bottom up and not so much from the top down. 

Is it possible to separate the larger organization from the people within it?  Sure.  TFA does much good.  Specifically targeting under-performing schools they in some cases fill a need and schools that are difficult to staff.   I know they do good there.  Just as there are many great teachers serving in schools that are labelled as "failing" in so many case around the nation.  But does the fact kids are poor justify a reliance on TFA members?  Would it be OK in a more affluent community?

 I agree with much of what they stand for "poverty is not destiny" and find their abundance of infographics hypnotically appealing.  They are more successful at recruiting a more diverse teaching force than most school systems.  TFA is selective.  So the assumption is people they seek are on the whole more capable in many ways.  But smarter doesn't mean gooder when it comes to teaching and educating children(It hurt to type that).  TFA quickly points to research to the contrary maintaining their leaders outperform "regular" teachers.  But much of their sand castle is built on test scores.   Kids need and deserve more.  They deserve caring and committed professionals well versed in how to excel at their job.  Not simply banking their Peace Corps time in the trenches always looking ahead.

So effectiveness is an immediate concern.  If any other profession were to propose bringing in people with a few short weeks training and handing them the keys of a hugely important job(doctor, pilot, bus driver, machinist) there would of course be some objections, maybe more.  But anyone CAN teach right?  Wrong.   I can do the jobs of a lot of different intelligent people but know quite well they could barely function in mine.  That is not boasting.  You learn a few things about the world after being a teacher for 15 years.  In discussing TFA we are talking about what amounts to the largest teacher preparation program in the nation.  That scares me more than a bit.  Measuring the effectiveness of TFA, like a lot of education research,  remains muddy even after 20 years.  I can locate studies and research concluding TFA is good, and ones that say TFA is bad.  Who to trust?  Trust the person whose been there working for years and isn't going anywhere.  The one that doesn't want to.

Trust teachers.   Worth pointing out is that many TFA members remain as dedicated teachers and I commend and welcome them.   Maintaining great respect for the folks I know who have joined up and those that want to isn't that hard.  Yet I remain conflicted.  I don't think this is true for many non-teachers as the public image carved out by TFA is overwhelmingly positive, if ill informed.  It is not so much that I have a problem with TFA so much as what it is made out to be.   Politicians and reformers have mistakenly seen and promoted TFA as a model for change at scale.  I am resolute in my belief that what is needed in the most at risk under-performing school is not always what's best for every school.  Hiring a top notch graduate versus a novice may prove fruitful in the short term but what of comparing them to an experienced teacher?  The motivation to hire TFA members versus "regular" teachers makes you think.   One thing that struck me from the website was a comment I read from a member: "I am a teacher - not a student teacher, not a volunteer worker or a tutor - but a teacher."   No doubt with a larger support network, broader resources, and a clearer mission I might have been a vastly better teacher in my first years.  But I was always very careful about how I presented myself.  And even today I see my humility and insecurity as a strength.

TFA expends a great deal of effort and funds to present itself a certain way.  Today's press and media do little to alter their carefully crafted narrative.  That makes me both nervous and suspicious.  You learn those traits with years of teaching,  it has hardened my idealistic soul.  The promotion and marketing of such a program I believe does harm and has moved it far from its grass roots beginning to a data fed monster.     That expansion effort is more indicative of a business than a agent of change.  I'm not a big fan of Wendy Kopp.  I'll just put that out there.  Not a big fan of higher ups in the organization who see it as a cash cow funneling funds their direction.  Not a big fan of the folks who sign up, "serve their time", and kick on up the chain to assume more comfortable(and potentially lucrative) role in the ever swelling educational bureaucracy.

Good teaching is still very much a mystery.  TFA has not found a silver bullet nor an 8-fold path to learning.  Given that fact we must resolve to use something that appears lacking the higher up you go.  Good common sense.  Is it wise to bring people in, train them with great haste, and then cast them out to teach our children?  I have an opinion.  That is one thing that there is no shortage of, and it has taken far longer than a few weeks or two years to become informed.   Arrive at your own conclusions but just be sure to look before you leap.

Can we do better?

Here's some additional resources:
Teach for America Site

National Education Policy Center

Living in Dialogue(an great site)

Education Week

1 comment:

  1. Enjoying the blog. Having more experience with TFA in my building I can say you are spot on with some of your concerns. No real problems with the TFA members themselves, but as a self described regular teacher from a traditional preparatory background I take issue with the way districts and politicians are utilizing and promoting this resource. The result is that TFA has grown well beyond what I feel it should be intended. This has the potential to alter education in an unhealthy manner.

    Even with multi-tiered and well thought out support network it can be a struggle for even the most exceptional individuals to meet the challenges we confront each and every day. This adjustment can even be an additional burden. Many of the schools they enter and children and staff they work with, like my own, can be described as in crisis. For that reason alone we should expect and demand more and appropriate preparation from anyone entrusted to teach. Is there resentment? Probably. But open and honest conversations about the realities of TFA are helpful and necessary. Though they seem increasingly rare.