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Confessions of a (Ssshhh!) Teach For American

When I talk about my two years in Teach For America (P.S. 192, West Harlem), I feel like the Batman villain Two-Face.

My impulse in most situations is to try to get everyone to like me. It doesn’t matter if you’re a stranger on the street. It doesn’t even matter if I don’t like you. I want you to like me.

But when Teach For America comes up, I get combative.

To pro-TFA people, my diatribe goes something like this: “So, if someone went to a really good college, and they really like kids, could they be a pediatrician after five weeks training? How about a surgeon? No? Why, then, should they be able to teach?”

To the anti-TFA crowd, including many of the colleagues I most respect at CTQ, I flip sides. “Criticizing TFA for the poor quality of its teachers is like criticizing a soup kitchen for their low-grade soup. Why do you think inner-city schools are letting in teachers with emergency credentials? Because they can’t fill their positions.”

And so on.

Every time Teach For America comes up, I experience cognitive dissonance. In my head is a prototype modeled on Michelle Rhee: a type-A climber with multiple Blackberrys, ready after two years teaching to be a superintendent for awhile, too arrogant to know what he/she doesn’t know.

And yet.

In my head, too, are the actual Teach For America corps members I know. Yasmin Gutierrez, who grew up in the projects a stone’s throw from the school she attended as a child, where Teach For America corps members inspired her to become a teacher 20 years later at that same school.

The young Yankee teacher whose name I forget, a classic Northeasterner with thick-rimmed glasses and metro hair, who had just deferred Harvard Law to continue teaching in the Mississippi Delta where he had found a home.

Steve Evangelista, who displayed a constant patience and gentleness with every one of his 3rd graders, even when they shouted and knocked over desks. After teaching for five years at the school where he was placed, he became principal of a school down the road in Central Harlem. In my first struggling year, I overheard an African-American parent telling him, “We love you, Mr. E. We are so grateful.”

And on. And on.

Tolstoy wrote that people are like rivers. No one is all shallow or all deep, all rocky or all pure. Maybe it’s the same with programs.

Teach For America has done so much good. Teach For America has done so much harm.

The program has grown, and grown—500 corps members in 1990, 5,800 in the Class of 2012— like a tropical jungle, like the Blob. The word “growth” has a positive connotation, for the most part. But what about the stories of experienced teachers being dismissed to make way for bright-eyed, more pliable new recruits, freshly minted by TFA? What about stories of sneaky maneuvering, if not outright chicanery, gutted by Kris Kohl in “TFA: Reeking of Pork, Again?” Or the hard, cold numbers unveiled by Jon Eckert in “Do Not Operate Unless Trained?” Turns out TFA teachers are about like any other teacher in terms of quantifiable academic gains with low-income minority students.

There are signs of positive growth, too, including the recent announcement that TFA will begin exploring a one-year (rather than five-week) prep program and will focus on retention beyond the current two-year commitment. There are people like Jared Henderson, Vice President of TFA’s Regional Operations in Arkansas, who have shifted the focus toward retention and depth of pedagogical skill rather than quantity of new recruits. Jared has begun building partnerships with organizations that have a deep bench of experienced teachers who can help TFA corps members become better teachers.

We are the blind men, TFA is the elephant. The blind men grabbed the elephant’s tail and claimed the whole beast was thin and stringy, touched the trunk and declared the entire animal to be moist and flexible, pricked a finger on a tusk and said, “Man, this elephant’s sharp.”

For my own part, I will keep starting arguments on both sides. Teaching is a profession, and five weeks is sparse preparation for the complexity of the craft. (Flip!) TFA teachers aren’t the only ones leaving the profession in droves. And there aren’t a lot of other candidates lining up to teach in tougher conditions for lower pay. TFA does a better job of recruiting teachers of color, too.

Whatever your take, Teach For America is too complex for sound bytes. Read the research. Talk to some former corps members. And before you clench the fist, offer the hand.

What can CTQ teach TFA? What can TFA teach us?

13 Comments

Jon Eckert commented on March 7, 2014 at 11:49am:

I was also encouraged by TFA's recent announcement

Thanks for this, Justin. I was also encouraged by TFA's recent announcement and felt like I should post something to commend them for the apparent growth. Thanks for getting this out there. 

You and Kris Kohl classic examples of why I appreciate TFA because we might not have you in education otherwise. You cite other great examples in your post. I will support anyone who will build the teaching profession with outstanding professionals.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on March 7, 2014 at 12:05pm:

What TFA can teach the profession

Thanks, Jon, for the kind words and your thoughts. I see a handful of positives that TFA can offer the teaching profession at large:

1. Importance of a cohort: TFA has built a spirit of camaraderie that gets college graduates with plenty of easier and more lucrative options to persist at a tough profession in tough conditions. I've talked with new teachers in inner-city schools who did go through traditional prep programs, and the loneliness and isolation they describe is deeply troubling.

2. Diversity of teachers: TFA has made solid progress in recruiting teachers of color, and they're doing better than the rest of the profession in that regard. It matters.

3. Systemic approach: Though TFA is often criticized for attrition rates, I've seen remarkable examples of corps members who leave teaching but advocate for kids and lower-income communities of color in other ways, whether it's starting a credit union that provides financial literacy classes for low-income adults, or the more conventional route of becoming a principal. I'd rather see that kind of attrition than people completely leaving the world of education and equity for low-income students and their families.

 

My main criticism of TFA has always been that they can be too tribal, existing in alum-staffed echo chambers that don't always make room for 'critical friends' from outside the ranks. I hope that this move toward retention and more thorough teacher prep marks a pivot toward increased collaboration. 

Jon Eckert commented on March 7, 2014 at 12:22pm:

Good points

On point 1 - have seen this play out with some of our grads who join TFA. They do appreciate the support in tough contexts where some of our other grads do feel isolated in their practice.

On point 2 - Totally agree that this is important but again is a place where TFA seems to be purposely opaque. By teachers of color, does that mean under-represented minority candidates, or teachers of color more broadly? What we all seem to be doing a poor job of is attracting under-represented minority candidates.

On point 3 - This was Wendy Kopp's original vision, and it is powerful. I think this is a large part fo the reason why TFA has a tremendous amount of influence. I am just not sure that this type of Peace Corps model is ideal for the profession. However, it may be that the increased awareness and understanding of leaders who move on from TFA may outweigh the professional erosion that comes from a two-year immersion experience. What do you think?

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on March 9, 2014 at 2:16pm:

Leaving, leading, leading without leaving

It's a great question, Jon, and one I've thought about recently in light of a different organization: The National Teacher of the Year program. I'm amazed by the number of Teachers of the Year who have left the classroom. They go on to do remarkable work, and not a single one of the many I know personally or professionally has in any way lost her/his compass in terms of dedication to students and families. Some are professors who prepare future teachers; some have become principals; some write books and create curriculum.

On an individual basis, I admire all of them. It takes courage to make a life change, and they are using their talents in different ways to serve students. In the aggregate, though, it's troubling to me that so many great teachers are choosing to leave teaching.

TFA is the most visible example of teacher attrition, and you may know the stats (I don't) on how different retention is in TFA than in the profession at large, which also suffers from rapid turnover. On an anecdotal basis, the TFA teachers I know who leave the classroom tend to directly impact students in the work they go on to do. The non-TFA teachers I know who leave teaching often go into real estate or other jobs unrelated to teaching, when they don't go the usual paths of administration/consulting/university position.

Possibly related to this phenomenon: I used to read a lot of research that teachers don't get much better after 5 years. It boggled me then and still does not, and it's striking that high-performing countries don't report the same trend. People who do cite that research often use it to imply some kind of ceiling on improvement in teaching that is immutable, while I think if it is true, it points to our school system's failure to provide meaningful job-embedded and differentiated professional development.

I'd love to hear your thoughts--you tend to go beyond the surface of research on these trends to find the reality represented by the data. Thanks for engaging in this conversation.

Dixie Keyes commented on March 7, 2014 at 3:35pm:

Experiences in our State

Experiences are contextualized in dimensions of place, of the social/personal and in temporality. In the rural, low-socioeconomic places in our state, we have new teaching professionals prepared initially by TFA, working in classrooms where others dare not go. This particular time in their lives has brought them in front of young people where they have dedicated worthwhile efforts to contribute to our educational system. Justin, I too, know of 5-6 teachers prepared by TFA who may have experienced initial frustrations at a lack of preparedness to teach, yet who sought out assistance and who are no staying in their locales and growing as professionals. Several of these colleagues have participated in our National Writing Project summer institutes for teachers and some are in the LEAD 21 program. Many not only teach, but are also active in community programs or have established community programs for young people and families. I love that you see both sides of the track; we have a lot to value in our teachers in the state who came our way because of TFA...It's to their credit though, as exceptional people (the personal/social dimension) who knew it was their time to give (temporality) in a relevant place that would absorb their efforts (place.)

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on March 9, 2014 at 2:21pm:

Love this lens

Dixie, I really think you should write a book, if you aren't already. I always learn so much from not just your knowledge of the field, but your lens for looking at it. I think the issues facing TFA are similar to those facing many teachers who went through alternative certification or went through a traditional program but still didn't feel fully prepared for classroom realities. The role you play in preparing future teachers is tremendous, and one of my biggest frustrations is the illogical argument I sometimes hear:

A. Teacher prep programs in America are generally poor, so B. we don't need teacher prep programs.

Even if you agree with claim A, the logical conclusion to me would be B. we need to improve teacher prep programs.

You, your students, and your program are an inspiring example of what teacher prep can and should be.

Brianna Crowley commented on March 8, 2014 at 10:29pm:

Reminder of Summer!

...and boy do I need that as the snow melts, the wind stays cold, and everything looks brown and dingy here :)

I remember you telling me about your journey through TFA and the ways you felt conflicted about representing/defending it. I'm so glad you used this powerful platform to explore that dichotomy you felt.

This is a powerful post in that it goes beyond the false either/or situation we resort to when an organization produces mixed results. Your position reminds me of Lori's recent post around the Common Core--we have more in common than we think.

I truly love the idea of a dialgue between the two "camps" being the most beneficial way to effect positive change in our classrooms, communities, and schools. Conversation is the first step because it takes great strength in an oppositional relationship to listen. I feel like it usually goes like this: Listen and retort. Listen and  respond. Listen and ask a question...reflect. Listen more, ask more, reflect more. Listen...agree and build toward a joint solution.

Perhaps we are moving to a stage of asking more questions rather than immediately responding?

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on March 9, 2014 at 2:26pm:

Listening eloquently

Brianna,

I love your philosophy on this.Myles Horton coined the term "listening eloquently," and I think we need more of it. That's why my approach toward teacher impact on policy has changed so much. I used to be more tribal and applauded those times when teachers "spoke truth to power," usually in a one-time interaction with a policymaker/administrator up on a raised dais at a meeting or conference. What's harder is getting power to listen.

I focus much more now on partnerships between teachers and policymakers/administrators. Right now the two groups have too many one-night stands (one-time adversarial exchanges at conferences before we go back to our separate worlds); we need more marriages. I think that's true of many groups, including TFA and those who favor more traditional teacher prep programs.

Thanks for making connections, as you always do so wonderfully, between blogs and between ideas.

Kathleen Melville commented on March 9, 2014 at 10:33am:

I think what dismays me the

I think what dismays me the most about TFA is that it is predicated upon some of the fundamental problems in our education system as a whole. The fact that TFA exists and that it has been so successful (at least in terms of its growth and influence) highlights the low status of our profession and the lack of long-term investment in preparing teachers. As Justin points out, "there aren’t a lot of other candidates lining up to teach in tougher conditions for lower pay." These are fundamental problems. The tough conditions are a problem; the low pay is a problem; and the lack of candidates is a problem! And while TFA addresses these problems, it doesn't seek to change the system. In places like Finland and Singapore, there are no programs like TFA because they aren't necessary! To me, arguing for the importance of TFA is a little like arguing for the importance of buckets in a house with a leaky roof. Of course the buckets are necessary, but it would be much better (and much harder!) to fix the roof. 

Another thing that dismays me is how good TFA is at PR! They employ so many talented people to hone and broadcast their message, to raise money, and to influence policy. I wish we, as practicing teachers, had the same level of influence. It often seems to me that TFA is invested in a system that makes their program more necessary, not less. 

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on March 9, 2014 at 2:36pm:

Does TFA try to change the system?

Kathleen, much of what you say resonates with me, especially the idea that TFA's existence can be a symptom rather than a cure. To me, the glaring disease is inequity. Kozol called it "the shame of the nation"--if your parents are poor, you are almost guaranteed worse schools than if your parents are rich. I teach in a high-poverty high-performing public school that succeeds in part because it's within a more middle-class district. Our kids have great needs, and they get the resources to meet those needs. Conditions in many inner-city and low-income rural districts are shameful.

Where we disagree is on whether TFA seeks to change the system. Again, it's the blind men and the elephant, and visible people like Michelle Rhee have done a lot of damage. But I know many Teach For America teachers and staff who say and believe that if TFA succeeds in its mission--to provide all students with excellent teachers--the program will no longer need to exist.

I understand the arguments about ways in which TFA exacerbates the problem. What troubles me is how often I hear everyone except the actual students and parents directly impacted by TFA weighing in on its merits and flaws.

In my limited experiences of schools with TFA teachers, I saw excellent corps members in their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd through 10th years working respectfully alongside non-TFA colleagues in tehir first 1st, 2nd, and 3rd through 30th years. Those schools needed TFA teachers because the alternative was uncertified teachers who didn't have the benefits of TFA--a cohort to support one another professionally and personally, ongoing PD in addition to what the district provided, and an ethic of high expectations that goes much deeper than rhetoric.

I'd love to see our nation become more equitable, more like Finland, where it's not so much that every classroom is amazing, but that there's not a huge disparity between schools. I'd love for the most effective teachers to work with the most needy students. If salaries in inner-city schools were $60,000-$120,000, while in more affluent districts the salaries were $40,000-$60,000, we'd see a shift. But that's not the current reality, and I know many TFA corps members--some still teaching, some in other roles--who are working to create a more equitable system.

Thanks for writing. I appreciate your insights and share many of your concerns and beliefs about what needs to change.

 

 

Carrie Kamm commented on March 12, 2014 at 9:57am:

Hi Justin,

Hi Justin,

When you and I first met @ CTQ I recall a conversation you and I had about TFA.  I am sure I communicated my disdain for the inadequate training their model promotes.  I appreicate your post and am working towards being a more eloquent listener especially on this topic.  Today in Salon, Diane Ravitch said this about TFA and their training:

I think that public education would be better off if Teach for American trained young people to become assistant teachers, and they would then come into the classroom to help experienced teachers learn their craft, and then spend two years as teachers. Obviously, they’re not going to shut down. They’re one of the wealthiest organizations in America… Look at their board of directors — wow. They got 50 million dollars from Arne Duncan, 100 million dollars from Eli Broad and friends, and 100 million dollars from the Walton Foundation. They’re not going away, but what they need to do is, first of all, to make sure that when they send these young kids in the schools that they have some training. Five weeks of training does not a professional make. So they’re coming in unprepared for the challenges they face.

And then after two years, most of them are gone. They should make a commitment to three years, and the first year ought to be a year of preparing to learn how to teach.

And this what I am strongly against-a model that promotes sending novice teachers with little training into classrooms that have the highest of needs. It does not promote teaching as a profession. We do have preparation programs-like teacher residency models-that include year-long apprenticeships alongside experienced, mentor teahers.  I recently read that TFA is piloting a program that includes a more robust training period, but don't know enough about it to say that my mind has changed. 

 

 

Carrie Kamm commented on March 12, 2014 at 9:57am:

Hi Justin,

Hi Justin,

When you and I first met @ CTQ I recall a conversation you and I had about TFA.  I am sure I communicated my disdain for the inadequate training their model promotes.  I appreicate your post and am working towards being a more eloquent listener especially on this topic.  Today in Salon, Diane Ravitch said this about TFA and their training:

I think that public education would be better off if Teach for American trained young people to become assistant teachers, and they would then come into the classroom to help experienced teachers learn their craft, and then spend two years as teachers. Obviously, they’re not going to shut down. They’re one of the wealthiest organizations in America… Look at their board of directors — wow. They got 50 million dollars from Arne Duncan, 100 million dollars from Eli Broad and friends, and 100 million dollars from the Walton Foundation. They’re not going away, but what they need to do is, first of all, to make sure that when they send these young kids in the schools that they have some training. Five weeks of training does not a professional make. So they’re coming in unprepared for the challenges they face.

And then after two years, most of them are gone. They should make a commitment to three years, and the first year ought to be a year of preparing to learn how to teach.

And this what I am strongly against-a model that promotes sending novice teachers with little training into classrooms that have the highest of needs. It does not promote teaching as a profession. We do have preparation programs-like teacher residency models-that include year-long apprenticeships alongside experienced, mentor teahers.  I recently read that TFA is piloting a program that includes a more robust training period, but don't know enough about it to say that my mind has changed. 

 

 

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on March 12, 2014 at 10:23am:

What's the better solution, absent omnipotence?

Carrie, I agree with pretty much everything you said. A question and a disagreement:

Question. What do you think is a feasible solution to the teacher shortage and teacher quality crisis in lower-income schools? I remember you saying that Chicago doesn't have a teacher shortage, and I believe you. But in many regions where TFA corps members are placed, like the Mississippi Delta, the shortage/crisis does exist.

My own piece  of the elephant: At my school in New York, the best 5 teachers were a mix between veteran teachers who'd done traditional prep programs and TFA teachers in their 3rd/4th/5th year. The worst 5 teachers were all non-TFA teachers who'd done traditional programs, including a teacher who did the crossword puzzle in class and slammed 5th graders against lockers as a discipline technique.

If I were omnipotent, I'd create an equitable system--not just teachers in inner-city and poor rural schools who are as good as though in affluent districts, but a system where they're better. Greater need, most skilled teachers.

Given the reality of inequity, though, what do you think is feasible to do to address the teacher shortage?

I know we need better prep programs--it's troubling to me that TFA teachers are actually very slightly better than teachers who have done traditional prep programs, nationwide, in the schools where they're placed (see Jon Eckert's piece linked in my post.) But how would you address the inequity issue, absent absolute power, given the long-standing "shame of the nation?" (That's not in any way a rhetorical question--I struggle with it and would love to hear your thoughts.)

Disagreement: Joe Biden said in the VP debates that he learned in the Senate to question colleagues' judgment but not their intentions. The TFA corps members and staff I know are genuine in their commitment to lower-income students and families and they believe the organization is doing the right things to improve education. That doesn't mean they're right, nor that individuals (like Michelle Rhee) have not been guilty of arrogance. But they're in no way nefarious or self-serving. That's why I could never feel disdain for individuals in the organization, though I might disagree with them.

Thanks for writing, and thanks even more for living your beliefs--I think part of the solution is programs like yours in lower-income rural and urban areas (more feasible in urban areas because young teachers are willing to live in Chicago long-term; not always true in the Rio Grande Valley or the Delta) that treat teaching as a profession that requires in-depth quality preparation.

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