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