Teach for America and the definition of a myth

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la riotsThere’s been a lot happening on Twitter this month in regards to Teach for America. The resist TFA twitter bomb went off and is still resonating. Apparently the “bomb” resonated enough that it encouraged one of the upper ranking TFA administrator’s to write a lengthy piece trying to counter the “myth’s”. TFA communication specialist Juice Fong jumped into the fray as well. Unfortunately countering a “myth” with a ‘myth” doesn’t make a truism. If we hadn’t all but decimated Liberal Arts education we would already know that.

A more academic type person would  take the TFA pieces and systematically point/counter point them. Yea, I’m not that guy. There are people much more talented then I for that and the truth is they’ve already done an exceptional job at it. So, you’ll just have to bear with me as I kind of free associate through the various themes.

The first counter argument that really got me irritable was the argument that TFA applies for open positions available to every teacher. True they do. What they fail to mention is that due to their contract with the school districts and the 5k per corp member fee, TFA teachers go to the head of the line. In Tennessee, state law requires that you hire a displaced teacher first. However, you can bypass a displaced teacher if you are hiring a TFA corp member. Only after all TFA teachers and displaced teachers are hired will the district consider a new teacher.

Teach for America typically contracts with a district for anywhere between 75 and 100 teachers. That means as a district, you have to run through the whole displaced teacher list plus the 100 or so TFA fresh new faces before you can hire a potentially exceptional new candidate. That includes candidates fresh out of college or an experienced high quality teacher that just moved into your district. That’s a lot of people to stand in line behind. A line that automatically reserves a spot at the front for TFA.students-in-line-with-teacher

So yes, Teach for America does just apply for jobs open to all teachers, but its like going to an Easter egg hunt and getting to start 10 minutes before everybody else. Non-TFA teachers get invited to the hunt but have to stand around and watch all the good eggs get gathered up before they get a chance to search. Doesn’t really seem fair does it? That’s because its not, but Teach For America won’t tell you that part.

Another thing they won’t tell you about is that vaunted “on going” training that TFA supposedly supplies. You know where that actually comes from right? The district, through their own existing teachers, coaches and personal development programs. I know the contract is full of fancy language about observations, personal coaches and consultations, even mentions video taping and reviewing. The truth is their professional growth is managed the same way all first year teachers growth is managed, through experienced teachers and coaches. The difference is that most first year teachers don’t come with a 5k price tag.

Teachers that have come through a traditional licensing program have usually spent a year student teaching. That means they show up with some basic classroom management knowledge. TFA corps members get five weeks in the summer with virtually no student teaching. You tell me which of these two are going to require the most district training resources? Lets add that up, 5k plus taking away valuable time that could also be used on another first year teacher. Deal gets better all the time doesn’t it.

This leads us right to the “usually quit after their 2 year contract is up” argument. TFA likes to point out the large amount of corp member’s that remain in education and the fact that there is an incredible turn over rate in teachers regardless of what TFA does. As far as the latter goes, when I was a kid, the “everybody’s doing it” defense never held up. My parent’s always held me to a higher standard. Why should TFA be any different. If there is a problem with retention why shouldn’t we demand that they try to help solve it instead of acerbate it? Like I tell my kids, we’re in the solution business, not the problem business.

I’ll be honest with you, I know of some good TFA corp member’s that are good teachers, and could become great ones, who are leaving this year as their two year commitment is up. Some are moving to non-profits that work in education, or going to work for senators that sit on education committees, while some may be even going to work for the Tennessee Department of Education. TFA will be touting the fact that they will be remaining in education and thats true, but aren’t we in the midst of a drive to put a great teacher in every classroom? So shouldn’t every effort be focused on keeping these “best and brightest” in the classroom? Lets also not forget those previously discussed diverted training resources that could have been dedicated to another first year teacher that might have been retained.  Just another inconvenient truth we are not supposed to talk about.

the-best-and-the-brightest-720226l-imagineWhich brings us to that “best and brightest thing”, its a good example of saying something enough times and people will take it as fact. Often touted is a recent study that supposedly demonstrates corp member add an average 2.5 months to a child’s learning. How they arrive at that number completely baffles me. An argument that somethings adds 2.5 months to a child’s learning has to begin with the assumption that all chidren develop at a similar rate. Anybody that has spent anytime around children can attest that’s pretty much not true. So how can you calculate two and half months added learning unless you are using voodoo math or “value added.”

Yep, the study uses value added figures.  Now this is good. Value added is like me giving you the formula on how I’m going to calculate your paycheck and then cutting you a check with out ever giving you the figures that went into that formula. That’s right the individual test scores that make up the value added grade aren’t available to the general public. The testing companies claim they are proprietary. You’ll just have to trust that those numbers are correct. I’m assuming you’d trust me if I applied this method to your paycheck right?

Now for my last counter argument. TFA likes to scream, “Everybody’s a critic. They just like to point out flaws. Nobody has solutions.” Well, once again, that’s not true. There have been lots of suggestions on how to make the program more effective. Julian Vasquez-Heilig has one of the best. Change the recruitment program to target education majors and provide them with a two year internship. Put in a stipulation that during the summer between years they be required to take classes at a local university. This ensures that they remain a part of the community during the summer. Problem with this? J Crew doesn’t print shirts for interns.

There’s also suggestions of lengthening the commitment period, greater professional development that would encourage them to remain in the classroom and having corp member’s work as teacher’s aides for the first year. The problem with all these is that they mess with the business model. Businessman donate to TFA not because they are effective but because as NPT puts it, they are sexy. See we like sexy, we are not so fond of the unglamorous tedious work that is often required to make a difference. We also like to feel good. Unleashing bright shining faces on the down trodden masses, makes us feel good. We need to work a little more on feeling a sense of accomplishment instead of just feeling good.

I’d like to think that my counter arguments won’t fall on deaf ears. That confronting people with the facts will actually change opinions on Teach for America. However, at this juncture, I have no illusions about that. TFA is a juggernaut and will roll right over critics today. The key word in that sentence though is, today. I do believe that some eyes are beginning to open and there are some chinks in the armor. I’m going to keep trying to widen those chinks. I encourage others to also do their due diligence, don’t just take my word for it,  and really look at the research that’s beginning to amass. If enough people really engage, maybe at some point we will turn away from these educational tourists and start really talking about how to put an excellent teacher in every classroom and how to afford the profession of teaching the level of respect it deserves.

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2 comments on “Teach for America and the definition of a myth

  1. Martha says:

    Could you please provide some actual facts and data to backup your argument? Not just telling us without the facts. It could all be a myth. At least Teach for America provides some evidence of studies and hardcore data, not just an opinion.

  2. norinrad10 says:

    I’m curious, what facts would you like? All the information comes from contracts, observations and research by others. If you could supply me with the data to calculate value added I’d be happy to add more facts.

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