Valerie Strauss, in her seemingly limitless capacity to focus on the critical rather than the positive in the world of education, included in her column today a piece by Diane Ravitch that examines the principal shortcoming of Teach For America (which, by the way, capitalizes the For). Here’s what I think.
Ravitch echoes familiar criticisms. “The problem with TFA is that it grossly overstates its role in American education. This year, TFA sent 8,000 young people into high-needs schools; they agree to stay for two years; some stay longer, but most will be gone within three years.” The brevity of the teaching commitment bothers a lot of people, and for many good reasons. However, over 60% of corps members choose to stay in the classroom longer than two years. I actually think that percentage might even be growing – the majority of my friends from the DC corps are still teaching (year number four now). Ravitch continues further on: “TFA is a huge success story, but there is also something scary about seeing so much money and power assembled around its core belief that a brand-new college graduate with only five weeks of training is just right to educate our nation’s most vulnerable students.”
I don’t think even Wendy Kopp (the founder and CEO of TFA) thinks that TFA corps members are “just right” or that they are preferable to any other options. But in my experience and that of many others, we are definitely preferable to some of the people in classrooms now. Do I have criticisms of how we were trained and supported? YES. (See my blog on 4 claims about TFA from last week.) But despite the many things I knew I needed to improve, I also heard (far too frequently) from my students that I was one of the best teachers they’d ever had – and I was in the first cohort of TFAers to teach in my school district, so that wasn’t based on previous bad experience with other people with my training. The fundamental question that kept me from ever considering quitting was: who will teach them if I don’t? TFA corps members aren’t perfect, but they are relentless in their quest to improve – and at the end of the day, for our students, a mediocre teacher is unfortunately probably better than an average teacher.
Ravitch and I do find some common ground with her next point, that “recently, some 60 civil rights organizations wrote a letter to President Obama, with a copy to Secretary Duncan, contesting the claim that teachers with so little training should be considered ‘highly qualified.’” I don’t think I was highly qualified. I do think, however, that we need to rework the definitions in No Child Left Behind of different teacher qualifiers. TFA corps members deserve to teach where they are needed, and many districts (DC included) require corps members to enroll in graduate school programs while they are teaching in order to continue boosting their training. TFA’s own professional development sessions (which are mandatory and take place at least monthly) also help to ensure that corps members are reaching a level of maximum impact in the classroom.
I like Ravitch’s closing paragraph because it provides an invitation for me to respond.
“The alums of TFA are now taking their places in Congress, state legislatures, Wall Street, and the other corridors of power in public and private sectors. Will they recognize the need for a genuine national solution, modeled on the progress made in other nations, or will they simply continue to expand TFA’s belief in the virtue of a revolving door of bright young people? The future of the teaching profession hinges on the answer to that question.”
This issue isn’t so black and white. I don’t know a single person (and this includes a lot of people who now work for TFA) who think that Teach For America is the ultimate solution to the problem of education in the United States. Everyone, regardless of how much of “the TFA Kool-Aid” they drank, has criticisms of the organization. It is not perfect, and its leaders know it – that’s why they expend so much energy and funding working to figure out what works and what doesn’t. TFA doesn’t advocate for the abolition of traditional teacher training programs. Both approaches have merits and faults and can learn from each other. Last year, TFA published Teaching As Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher’s Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap. This book isn’t meant to brainwash graduates of traditional teacher preparation programs or to replace that experience – it’s meant to provide an approach to leading students to success for the courageous educators of any age who are teaching the students most disadvantaged by our current system of education. It’s based on 20 years of trial and error, and let’s not forget – especially in its earliest days, but even now, TFA’s training relies on some of the same research that determines what education majors learn.
Teach For America’s success depends only in part on the type of people it selects. There ARE a very definite set of characteristics that make someone more likely to be successful in difficult teaching environments, but that’s definitely not a guarantee of stellar student performance. We TFA alumni who are shaping and will shape some of the educational discourse in the US are looking for solutions that can help the greatest number of students – we are, after all, looking forward to the realization of the promise in our mission, that “one day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education”. Realistically, TFA cannot be THE solution. It should, however, be part of it. Amidst all the celebration at the summit this past weekend, we heard from Wendy Kopp and from others the sobering reminder that we still have millions of children in this country living in poverty and more likely to fulfill the destiny promised to too many in their zip code, socioeconomic group, or race. TFA is pursuing education reform with the kind of urgent zeal that ought to drive everyone in the education world, regardless of ideology and experience. I hope we’ll soon reach a point at which all parties can recognize their respective strengths and shortcomings and work together to find solutions that work for any teacher in any school in any city.