Two On TFA

In Education Next Julie Mikuta and Art Wise discuss/debate the takeaways from Teach For America. Meanwhile, Pondiscio asks why we don’t put TFA teachers in affluent suburban schools and Wendy Kopp responds. She notes that, “It is a rare person who has what it takes to excel as a teacher in a low-income community, and it’s not at all a given that teachers who do well in more privileged communities will do well in urban and rural areas.” I think the evidence on TFA effectiveness generally supports that. The genius of TFA is that they’ve figured out a way to screen for some of the other traits that matter to effective teaching. Unfortunately, as is often the case in our field, rather than replicate or learn from that people are still mostly attacking it…in our industry if you build a better mousetrap you either get an argument about mice or they just come to your door and burn down your house…

14 Replies to “Two On TFA”

  1. Or, as is the case of this blog, you just keep talking about what a better mousetrap you have built, over and over again, until its many imitators start to talk about the “consensus” that has built up around said mousetrap.

    Then, once the rigorous evidence base actually starts to build up demonstrating that mice are actually only marginally more likely to be caught, the argument changes to “well, it never really was about catching mice… these traps really just make for a lovely decor”

  2. It appears to me that the affluent suburban schools, and even the not-so-affluent suburban schools have already built a better mousetrap. I watch it work every day.

    I’m constantly amazed at the sheer numbers of people who steadfastly refuse to follow their very clear example.

  3. “The genius of TFA is that they’ve figured out a way to screen for some of the other traits that matter to effective teaching.”

    I personally think the genius of TFA is discovering reverse psychology.

    Pure genius… take a job like teaching under-performing students in poor schools, in bad neighborhoods; put in a selection process an all of the sudden you have the best and the brightest fighting for it. 20 years ago, we couldn’t have paid enough to get these kids to go into teaching.

    Of course, whats cool now is old news later. TFA’s cool factor will get old sooner or later.

  4. NYC Educator, teaching in the suburbs and teaching in an urban school are completely different jobs. We can’t draw many lessons for NYC schools based on what’s done in Scarsdale. Management skills are barely needed in the suburbs, but are essential in the city.

    Parentalcation, you’ve identified exactly what TFA did, and exactly why the ed schools, with their minimal admissions standards, make teaching look less like a “real” profession. Not sure about the “cool factor” going away, though; Peace Corps enrollment has been increasing for years, for instance. Fads are fads, but strong organizations endure. Crocs may be a flash in the pan, but Nike has been popular for the last 30 years.

  5. I’m always surprised to hear the teeth grinding and bitter enmity surrounding Teach for America. Have the critics of TFA spent time in the schools where TFA places its corps members? From their comments, it seems highly unlikely. Of course TFA has its problems and issues, but it is an overwhelmingly positive organization. To suggest otherwise indicates more about the critic than TFA.

  6. I think Teach for America offers positive connections and experiences. Think about all of the poor kids in Biloxi who would have no idea how beautiful Swarthmore College is in the fall if it was not for their TFA teacher. Not to mention the fact that most of the lower Mississippi delta region would be completely devoid of any knowledge of the sport of lacrosse if it had not been for TFA.

    TFA is an excellent way for the privileged class to work hard in the trenches for a couple of years while the rest of us conveniently ignore the real reasons why these schools struggle: the lack of a substantial and stable tax base and often the lack of a statewide collective bargaining law. These communities need schools that offer their own citizens a means to enter into the middle class and stabilize these schools on a more permanent basis. I am sure that the students benefit from a couple of years of some of the best and brightest “outsiders” this country can offer, but when the TFA grad goes back for his summer kayak trip to Acadia, the kids in his class just stay poor.

  7. Lou –

    Did you really just say that one of the main reasons urban schools struggle is the lack of collective bargaining laws?

    That made me laugh so hard that I shot soda through my nose. Thanks a lot.

  8. @ those claiming that it’s ONLY rich, white privileged graduates teaching through TFA…you are wrong. I am actually from the neighborhood and school district I am teaching in. I am not the only TFA member like this. Not everything is about resume padding and wanting to feel good by helping those “below” us…some of us simply aren’t sitting back just observing the problem and pointing fingers.

  9. What purpose does it achieve to villify actual TFA teachers? I’m perplexed and appalled by some of the politics of some TFA leaders.

    But if we have political disagreements with some TFA teachers, lets debate. But do any of us go on the blogs to attack our other colleagues because we disagree with their politics?

    I personally welcome anybody who wants to tackle the challenge of urban education.

  10. I am an ’05 Cornell University graduate who taught 3rd grade in Camden, New Jersey. When I entered the program I thought it would be an excellent way to pay back some loans, have a “meaningful job” immediately after college, and would help me get into grad school. However, I really had no intention of staying connected to education past my two year commitment.

    Wow, was I wrong.

    Although I am personally not remaining in the classroom, it will be impossible to forget the student who showed 4 years of reading growth in one, the hard work behind 90% of my class passing the NJASK my first year, and the exciting impact of high expectations upon student learning. As such, I am dedicating the next six years to obtaining a PhD in Developmental Psych that will focus on academic and socioemotional development in underprivileged urban children. As the articles stated, I am not the only one.

    As I realized, is almost impossible to spend two years intimately involved in a struggling school district without developing an urgent sense of the injustices of this nation’s education system. While many Corps Members may not remain in the classroom itself, Teach For America has created a slew of educated, dedicated, and impassioned advocates for education policy, school reform, and child welfare who have actually spent some time in the classrooms they are working to improve.

    Is that really such a bad thing?

  11. No, not such a bad thing. But WOW! Imagine the impact if you took the experiences of those 2 years where you got basic training as a beginning teacher and then applied them to continue teaching for the next 10 years. The numbers of childen you would reach would far outstrip the numbers you will reach after 6 more years in school and a career focusing on academic study of underprivileged children.

    I had the same choice as you after I fulfilled a 2 year commitment to the NYC schools in a similar program in the late 60’s. I was already on my way towards a grad degree in history and hopefully on to an academic career or the foreign service. But I was caught in the web of some wonderful kids and remained for over 30 years. Absolutely not one regret.

    You are certainly correct in choosing the career path that works for you, but those of us who could have taken a different road but didn’t do not see the TFA model as heroic or even useful other than filling empty classrooms with needed bodies. That you all had great experiences is wonderful – for you.

    But building a school community takes more commitment. Teaching kids from the same family and developing relationships with many different resources takes years and as time goes on the things teachers learn about academic and socioemotional development go way beyond a phd. Teach those 6 years and you will be way ahead of the game.

  12. If you have a TFA teacher who comes in for two years, thinks that history began with him or her, and acts like a jerk, then we can criticize that individual.

    But if a TFA teacher comes in, teaches for two years, and reaches conclusions that I disagree with, that’s life.

    If veteran teachers don’t want to be judged in a broadbrush way, let’s stop doing that to the kids who join TFA.

  13. I think the TFA criticism arises from a false dichotomy: if the teacher has an enriching/positive/ educational/eye-opening/”life-changing”/”inspirational” etc experience, than the student does not. Is it not possible that a teacher can arrive, drive student achievement and simultaneously have a positive personal experience? TFA does not claim to be the solution to problems. Ed Notes suggests above that all TFA does is “fill an empty classroom with bodies.” After my experience in TFA, one thing I learned was that those bodies – the human captial – are often what makes the difference in the success of individual students.

    If my students achieved (which they did) and then I was replaced by another TFA teacher following similar best practices, is that really a detriment to the next class of students? To the school? While I understand it might not be the absolute ideal, I have trouble seeing it has real crisis, especially when the turnover at my school for non-TFA was just about the same. For the most part, TFA teachers enter historically struggling schools that desperately need motivated and driven thinkers;”bodies” to fill rooms are precisely the point sometimes.

    As a side note, I still keep in touch with many of my students who are now in college. They have reflected on the value of TFA and rely on their former TFA teachers as mentors and guides for their university studies and careers.

    In the end, the conversation should be centered on what is best for students. In my experience, students – if no one else – really value TFA.

  14. TFA is a nice bauble in education. It’s lovely and precious….and irrelevant. There are several million teachers at work in the US. A few thousand of those are TFAers. So, that’s nice but does little or nothing to solve the much larger problem of having qualified and competent teachers in every classroom.

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