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Posted at 2:00 PM ET, 02/13/2011

Veteran teacher: My problem(s) with Teach For America

By Valerie Strauss

The first part of this was written by educator Anthony Cody, who taught science for 18 years in inner-city Oakland and now works with a team of science teacher-coaches that supports novice teachers. He is a National Board-certified teacher and an active member of the Teacher Leaders Network. This is part of a post he wrote that appeared on his Education Week Teacher blog, Living in Dialogue.

Following Cody's piece is a response from veteran educator Nancy Flanagan that further develops the discussion about the best way to develop teachers. Flanagan is an education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership who spentt 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Mich, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and also member of the Teacher Leaders Network.

By Anthony Cody
I recently shared a conversation [which you can find here] between an ex-Teach For America intern and his mentor. The focus of their discussion was on the need for far more effective forms of mentoring than is offered by TFA - but they indicated this problem is not unique to that program. David Greene described an alternative vision, built around the capacity of experienced teachers to serve as mentors to up and coming novices. That is music to my ears, because I have spent the last several years building a mentoring program on this premise.

Several commenters have come to the defense of TFA, including one named Steve, who wrote:

"Is TFA the answer to all problems with the education system in our country? Absolutely not. I understand criticisms of the program as promoting short-term, rather than career teaching, and failing to prepare teachers adequately. What critics do not understand is that TFA teachers are recruited from amongst the best and brightest and placed in schools where other good teachers won't go. Most come in with a dead set determination to succeed, and a will to work extremely hard.

"With the terrible pay and conditions in these schools, there are not enough 20 year career saints to go around. I have seen my share of veteran teachers that sit at their desk and watch movies all day after passing out worksheets. Would I rather have a top notch veteran teaching my kids than a TFA corp member? Yes! But given what I saw at my urban school, I would take a brand new TFA teacher over at least 70% of the "veteran" teachers there.

"The system needs change, but until vast improvements are made, TFA will remain relevant and necessary."

Steve makes a very good point. Teach For America did not create the shortage of science teachers in my District. Teach For America is not responsible for the low pay and poor conditions that drive turnover and make it hard to find credentialed teachers. So Teach For America is a stop-gap. A temporary measure, that gives us some people to teach our students when we have few alternatives. I understand this well, having worked in Oakland for the past 24 years.

Here are my problems with Teach For America.

1) The organization has fallen into the trap of believing that test scores are a valid indicator of effectiveness. This leads to a widespread emphasis on test preparation, so that the organization can justify its worth. The TFA coaches I have encountered focus almost exclusively on test data when meeting with their interns, and put great pressure on them to achieve 80% mastery on all their tests. TFA did not invent this destructive game, but they have become adept at playing by these rules. Last year when examining student work with a mentee I saw that all the work looked like a test - nothing but short answer and multiple choice questions. She explained that her students were doing poorly on her weekly tests, so her TFA coach had advised her to make all of her classwork the same format as her tests. The test scores rose, but I do not think the students were learning the material in meaningful ways.

2) The organization explicitly recruits people for a two-year commitment. In my experience, most interns are just beginning to become effective in their second year. In Oakland, after three years, 75% of our interns are gone. This problem is not limited to Teach For America, but the fact that they make the two-year commitment an explicit part of their design disturbs me. I believe the thing our high needs schools need most is dedicated and stable teachers, willing to invest for the long run. They need teachers to develop a deep understanding of the cultures of our students, and a relationship to the communities in which we work. Teach For America is not responsible for the high turnover at these schools, but by recruiting people for a two-year stint, they are not helping to fix this either.

What do we need to do instead? I recently described the TeamScience mentoring program I help lead in Oakland, which has made a dent in the turnover rate. As David Greene suggested, every beginning teacher ought to begin gradually, under the expert guidance of a master teacher. There ought to be time to observe, to consult and reflect with that mentor, so the invisible machinery of a great classroom can be understood.

We need to recognize that these sorts of mentoring and induction programs are absolutely necessary to have success in our high needs schools. Stability is necessary. Therefore decent pay and working conditions are necessary. Bringing in a program that plugs some of the gaps created by the absence of these things, as Teach For America does, should not be confused with systemic reform for our schools - even if they get good test scores. And I am concerned that some people may not understand that.

Response from Nancy Flanagan
Thanks for hosting this discussion, Anthony. Reading through the many comments on your previous blog, I was struck---once again--by the way Teach for America #1) is positioned as a competitive leadership opportunity and #2) is continuously under the microscope as we look at the (in)adequacy of preparation, the conditions in the schools where TFA corps members are sent, the curricula they are compelled to teach, the ultimate length of their service in education, and the support they receive once on-site.

Here's my question: Since we're so interested in all of these indicators for Teach for America teachers, why aren't we paying the same amount of attention and care to the recruitment, training and support of those who actually choose teaching (not "education") as long-term career?

What if teaching were portrayed as a Peace Corp-like opportunity for everyone, with high and rigorous standards for admission, a longer commitment time (certainly justified, given the amount of money invested, up front, in training and mentorship), rich on-site learning and residency programs?

The irritation that "ordinary" teachers feel toward TFA corps members stems from the fact that they have often committed their own time and resources into becoming excellent long-term teachers; seeing the limelight and funding (including the recent $100 million) devoted to those who never would have chosen a pedestrian occupation like teaching without the competition and the hype is discouraging. It's about distinction--is it better to serve our neediest kids quietly for a decade or more or do your two years then go on grad school and "leadership" roles?

I have worked with TFA teachers as mentor, and found them bright, enthusiastic, and dedicated--smart enough to know what they didn't know, and quick learners. They also separated themselves, quickly, from the other teachers on staff, including novices. They had their own professional development (lots of it, on Saturdays), they had their own social group. They were not part of the (excuse the buzz words) learning community. They were dedicated to raising the numbers, not building relationships. They were missionaries.

In the big picture, I do not think it bodes well for this country when the most promising program we can conceive of for kids in poverty is a rotating crew of well-meaning missionaries. This kind of thinking (along with lotteries to attend a handful of "better" schools) further embeds a culture of poverty and a two-tiered education system for an increasing percentage of children in America.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 13, 2011; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Anthony Cody, Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  education, school reform, schools, teach for america, teacher development  
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Does the Washington Post do ANY actual reporting anymore?*

You would think its education reporters/columnists would jump all over the opportunity to gather information (and some facts) with over 10,000 TFA folks from across the country meeting up at the DC Convention Center. But I guess that would mean leaving your cozy Upper NW enclaves (and risk challenging your preconceived notions).

*Since the answer is apparently no, here are excerpts from some actual reporting:

"Meanwhile, Across Town Posted by JOE KLEIN Sunday, February 13, 2011

An interesting weekend in Washington. Two conventions claiming 11,000 attendees each. One, the CPAC convention was heavily reported in the press--including by me, below; the other was the annual Teach For America alumni conference, where I moderated a panel after I'd spent three days listening to the Republican presidential candidates at CPAC.

Both crowds were pretty young, but they could not have been more different. The CPAC crowd was full of grievances--America was falling apart, into a European-style socialism, the tax burden "crushing" entrepreneurs. The TFA crowd was full of questions--how do you educate more kids and teach them better, how do you deal with the stultifying education bureaucracies, how do you take the rigor and excellence that marks TFA into the broader society?

This is the second time I've moderated a panel at the Teach for America conference--and both times I've come away exhilarated. Wendy Kopp, TFA's founder, has not only sent tens of thousands of college graduates to teach in America's poorest schools--where 60% of them remain after their two-year obligation ends--she's also built a movement that is political in only one crucial aspect: its adherents believe that what they do for their country is more important than what their country does for them."

Posted by: frankb1 | February 13, 2011 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Here's more blogging on the TFA shindig
(Anyone see Justin Beiber?)

A better way to see TFA is to read the blogs of its members at

I found these from a TFA lady who worked PGCPS two years, help run IMPACT for a year and now works for a major consulting firm:



Posted by: edlharris | February 13, 2011 4:22 PM | Report abuse

SCHOOL OF THOUGHT Teach for America: 5 Myths That Persist 20 Years On By Andrew J. Rotherham Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011

Myth #3. TFA teachers don't stay in education long enough to make a difference.

Interestingly, TFA's strategy doesn't emphasize making a career out of teaching. The organization hardly discourages it, but believes that transforming America's schools requires committed leaders in a variety of sectors and roles. Fifty-two percent of its alumni remain in teaching after their two-year commitment, and 67% still work fulltime in education in one way or another. That includes 553 principals or school district leaders, 548 school-district and state "Teacher of the Year" winners, and a National Teacher of the Year as well as politicians, nonprofit leaders, foundation officials and consultants. My nonprofit firm, for instance, is full of them — one of my partners helped launch TFA — and remarkably that doesn't make us unusual among our peer organizations.,8599,2047211,00.html?artId=2047211?contType=article?chn=us

Posted by: frankb1 | February 13, 2011 4:38 PM | Report abuse

edharris: Thanks for the great links!

Posted by: frankb1 | February 13, 2011 4:44 PM | Report abuse

I feel the TFA teachers will have more respect and a longer term impact if they realize that these questions like, "how do you best educate students?" have been asked for years.

This is what comes across, maybe they are bright and maybe 50% is a high number for retention. But shouldn't we be looking at why the other 50% are leaving? I suspect it is the same reason that non TFA teachers leave. Bad working conditions and bad management and paperwork/documentation overload in the name of accountability.

The fact is that NCLB has had the unintended consequence of requiring teachers to "prove" everything they do with numbers. This is a major waste of time.

Posted by: georgia198305 | February 13, 2011 5:10 PM | Report abuse

Welcome, frankb1.
I like them as they put a human face on TFA. (but they contain enough anecdotal evidence to criticize TFA.)

Posted by: edlharris | February 13, 2011 6:15 PM | Report abuse

There is certainly a place for TFA at the education table. The world could use more altruism.

But let's be candid here:

Districts and principals will abuse it and have abused it to save some bucks(;

despite Frank's expostulations and his penchant for propagandist "good reporting," less than half of the corp stay actual TEACHERS in the classroom (see old news And Frank, what's the point if they are no longer teachers in an actual classroom?;

there's something inherently wrong with the dedicated-two-year commitment, when inner-city kids and low performing schools need more than itinerant, opportunistic missionaries who move on to a higher paying field at the end year two (obviously I agree with Cody on this point);

and having the best and the brightest in classrooms only shows a sliver of positive growth in math and no effect whatsoever with ELA (

Posted by: DHume1 | February 13, 2011 6:52 PM | Report abuse

"With the terrible pay and conditions in these schools, there are not enough 20 year career saints to go around.

"The system needs change, but until vast improvements are made, TFA will remain relevant and necessary."
Exactly the problem with TFA, since TFA insures that the changes and improvements that are needed are never made.

The reality is that career teachers do not want to work in these schools because the conditions are so poor and school administrators simply will do nothing to deal with the problems.

If the conditions of hospitals in an area were so poor that qualified doctors would not want to work in those hospitals would the solution be to bring in unqualified doctors instead of dealing with the problems that make the conditions so poor.
It is also interesting to take a look at the characteristics of those who apply to TFA.

The job market is tight and they need a job now that they have their college degree.

They have no intention to view teaching as a career. It is simply a gig until something better comes along.

They are aware of the very poor conditions but since teaching is simply a gig if they find the job really a bad gig they can quit and the word processor will remove all trace of TFA from their resume.

The salary is not low since the starting salary is for those with teaching credentials. For someone out of college and without qualifications for any field the pay is handsome.
The actuality is that TFA is simply a means to lower costs and retain the status quo at substandard schools.

In Washington D.C., TFA was used as to lower costs by firing more expensive career teachers and replacing them with TFA teachers. The savings from not having to pay future retirement benefits was enormous.

This is why those who favor TFA want to also remove tenure so that future retirements payments can be reduced by replacing more career teachers with TFA teachers.

If one reviews the Washington D.C. school system while Ms. Rhee, the photo child for TFA, was in charge, one would see that no new programs were introduced to improve the conditions in Washington D.C. No new policies were undertaken to deal with violence in schools or disruptions in classrooms.

National tests indicate also that there was no significant change in Washington D.C. scores while Ms. Rhee was in control of the school system.

TFA is just another absurdity like so much of our educational policies. The premise of TFA is supposedly to improve public education by replacing career teachers that have certification with individuals with no background or experience in either teaching or education.

The reality is that anyone with common sense would view this has absurd if the same logic was used in any other profession or field. Time to recognize the absurdity of TFA.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 13, 2011 7:48 PM | Report abuse

"Steve's" comment is quite a biased view of schools that is definitely in line with what is being preached by the TFA. So 70% of teachers at his school were lazy, dull-witted drones who rely on photocopied sheets and movies? I worked in a title one school in NYC and the teachers worked excessively hard and were constantly having to do endless and mindless work that impacted the actual time they had to really teach their students. This work was monitored and enforced by a rather dull-witted principal and vice principal who blindly followed the Bloomberg/Klein -directives! The principal and assistant principal were not the brightest bulbs and towed the DOE party line to ensure the school would be given a passing grade. THE TEACHERS worked hard though. The TFA teachers there worked hard too (one was a pretty good teacher and the other was average). But who knew what kind of teachers they would have become in the long-term ... they were only there for 2 years. And no, they were not going into education policy or careers that would promote education! One went into the business world in NYC and was quite proud of herself for getting into the finance world. Another TFA moved back to her home region in DC and was thinking of getting another masters but wanted to get out of education. Most of the teachers I worked with that were not TFA's are still there and working hard as ever. I know this as I am friendly with a teacher there and she has been working in education for over 20 years. SHE IS NOT SITTING ON HER DERRIERE ALL DAY HANDING OUT PHOTOCOPIED SHEETS AND HAVING THE CHILDREN WATCH MOVIES! I don't speak for all schools. The four title one schools I know well in my current state (as I have worked at them) have very hard working teachers! I can think of some who would benefit from better training but they are not the majority.

Posted by: teachermd | February 13, 2011 8:09 PM | Report abuse

"I have seen my share of veteran teachers that sit at their desk and watch movies all day after passing out worksheets."
Nothing like the anecdotal attack from someone that can not provide any evidence.

I am surprised there is no mention of the extraordinary results made by TFA teachers such as Ms. Rhee.

"With the terrible pay..."

Someone really needs to tell Steve that starting salaries for teachers are quite good and is not terrible or low pay.

"TFA teachers are recruited from amongst the best and brightest..."

I seem to recall "best and brightest" from the past.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 13, 2011 8:39 PM | Report abuse

To provide some support to what bsallamack said about poor conditions in schools,
read the blog posting and notice the reactions of the students she's teaching to her disclosure of what type of school she'll be working in:

e end of this same class, I had a very interesting conversation with my students, and I’d welcome your thoughts on its meaning. I mentioned to them that I was nervous about having to teach 30 kids as opposed to five, and they all agreed that it was definitely harder to teach that many people because there are so many to keep track of and pay attention to. They asked me what kind of school I was teaching in, and when I asked for clarification, they said “well, we go to public schools that have special programs… are you in a nice school like that?” I said no, that they should imagine that I’m teaching in the DC equivalent of William Penn, and they just went “whoa…” with looks of genuine apprehension on their faces. Apparently they don’t see quite as much bad stuff at their schools because of the programs they’re in. However, the most interesting question came next: “are you teaching Black kids?” (Keep in mind all my students this summer are also Black.) I said yes, and then these two girls REALLY started to look nervous. I am still not sure if they reacted thus because I am white or because they have internalized the stereotype that Black kids tend to misbehave more… I’ve mentioned this conversation to many people now, and none of us has been able to figure out their true meaning. I will try to get further information from them in the coming week.

Posted by: edlharris | February 13, 2011 9:20 PM | Report abuse

This part was a better quote in my opinion (wouldn't $600 be enough for the au-pair suite at Valerie's place in the Palisades?):

"The other major frustration has been in regards to our housing situation. We were told, by multiple people on multiple occasions, during our induction in DC that it’s easy to find housing in DC and that you can pay as little as $600/month for rent. This is a LIE! Housing is neither cheap nor easy to find, especially in the city. I’ve literally spent hours each day for the past two weeks looking for housing online and getting increasingly angry at the lack of affordable or safe options and the refusal of some people to return my emails or phone calls. I had to drive down to DC twice (once last Saturday, once yesterday) to find housing, and some people still haven’t found any. I lucked out yesterday and found a great apartment in Alexandria, but even that’s not 100% ideal – my commute sounds like it will be hellish. I have the best deal of anyone I know of, and even then I’m paying about $900 total a month. I don’t know why they couldn’t give us a more realistic picture of the housing search! They needed to tell us that housing was expensive and that we should start seriously searching in June rather than in July."

Posted by: frankb1 | February 13, 2011 10:36 PM | Report abuse

I can't tell for sure, but I think they put that poor TFA girl from William & Mary into Johnson MS. Which was not a very nice thing to do.

Posted by: frankb1 | February 13, 2011 11:45 PM | Report abuse

She went to Central High School in Capital Heights, MD.

Here she is in November:

I’m certain that the reason they did so horribly is that many of them didn’t do their homework the week before (which means that even before this test, about half of my students’ grades were D’s or F’s from all those zeros) and they didn’t study over the weekend. One student said to me without the slightest bit of shame or remorse “well to be honest Ms. Wergin, once I leave school on Friday, I don’t think about it again until Monday.” (And this is an IB student!) It’s very frustrating for me because I’m working myself to the point of exhaustion, and it doesn’t make an ounce of difference unless my students put in the time. They can’t understand me when I speak in Spanish to them (or understand the written Spanish they see) because they’ve forgotten practically everything we learned before. It’s 12 weeks into the school year (the equivalent of three quarters, since my class is double time), and I still have students who are asking me how to say “they” or “are” – concepts we went over weeks and weeks ago, and which I’ve retaught several times since! It may be partially my fault if they don’t remember vocabulary, but it’s not my fault at this point if they don’t understand the basic concepts of conjugation. I’m not going to teach it a fifth time just because people aren’t bothering to put in the time to commit those fundamental concepts to long-term memory.

Posted by: edlharris | February 14, 2011 12:50 AM | Report abuse

Wow...Central High hosts a kindergarten through twelfth grade French Immersion magnet program. How bizarre.

Posted by: frankb1 | February 14, 2011 1:22 AM | Report abuse

A easy and wonderful way to save money is by using "Printapons". Printapons are online coupons that are dispersed based on your city. Each coupon saves at least 50% off the regular price of an item in your city.

Posted by: stellachess | February 14, 2011 5:00 AM | Report abuse

"I have seen my share of veteran teachers that sit at their desk and watch movies all day after passing out worksheets."
Nothing like the anecdotal attack from someone that can not provide any evidence.
I am surprised there is no mention of the extraordinary results made by TFA teachers such as Ms. Rhee.
"TFA teachers are recruited from amongst the best and brightest..."
I seem to recall "best and brightest" from the past.
Posted by: bsallamack | February 13, 2011 8:39 PM | Report abuse

You are absolutely correct, bsallamack. "best and brightest" is a term used, in many cases, to practice discrimination.

Posted by: lacy41 | February 14, 2011 8:56 AM | Report abuse

If you read through a few of the postings from the lday, beachflute, as well as accounts from others, you'll see that TFA has a built-in burnout.
So, they way they operate is not going to last more than a couple years.
TFA has made it easier as well. When Kevin Huffman and Michelle Rhee went through, they served 3 years before heading off to grad school.
Now, like Ms. beachflute, they do 2 years.
She indirectly addressed this in her blog:

I have to say one thing that I found frustrating about orientation. We had an hour-long session about the importance of taking care of yourself (clearly a key thing to discuss) during which we talked about how your work and your students will suffer if you’re not on top of your game all the time. I can certainly relate to that; there were many times in college when I should have stayed up longer to study or to work on a paper but instead I decided it was better for me and that assignment if I went to bed and started again tomorrow. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the TFA office’s concern for all of us, but I do wonder how much of it is based on concern for us as people who should be maintaining a life outside of teaching or for us purely as the vehicles of bridging the achievement gap. I think a lot of us came out of that session thinking that this was TFA’s way of going on record as saying they don’t want us to kill ourselves in the process of reaching our goals when really the impression I have always gotten is that no matter what, your students come first, and that it doesn’t matter what else you have going on in your life, your students should always be foremost in your mind. I could be wrong about this, but it’s just the impression I get – and I can tell where I’ve been a little brainwashed by TFA in other ways, so I’m trying not to trust everything they say just to make sure I’m retaining my own thoughts and opinions about the various issues we discuss.

On quite a number of posts, she talks about being tired.

Posted by: edlharris | February 14, 2011 10:56 AM | Report abuse

edharris wrote: (from beachflute)I think a lot of us came out of that session thinking that this was TFA’s way of going on record as saying they don’t want us to kill ourselves in the process of reaching our goals when really the impression I have always gotten is that no matter what, your students come first, and that it doesn’t matter what else you have going on in your life, your students should always be foremost in your mind.
And there you have it. This is why there is such animosity toward "older" teachers. We have families and sometimes we have to put them first. Many of us cannot stay at school until 7 or 8 pm because we may have kids of our own to take care of. I think the corporate reformers would rather take young teachers with no family commitments and burn them out only to continually repeat that process. They get more hours out of them--even though the rest of us are working 10+ hours a week overtime--plus they never move up the pay scale. What a bargain for a corporation seeking to profit from public education!

Posted by: musiclady | February 14, 2011 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Musiclady is "right on'. The new teachers figure out soon enough that they cannot keep up the crazy pace and 80 hour work-weeks and have a life. So they leave in droves - the largest of all reasons in maintaining staffing. Teaching is no way to build a life because you're always exhausted and your work is never enough.

The flip side is "beachflute"'s post. NOBODY in any position of informational or political authority will admit the first problem of any student in school is to simply DO THE WORK! Anybody can lead kids to information and learning but you can't "make them " do it. Sounds like it's totally parental responsibility and life-style here. But the politicians and know-nothings only want to blame-game teachers and their unions.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | February 14, 2011 1:49 PM | Report abuse

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