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Posted at 8:43 AM ET, 02/12/2011

Unsolicited advice for Teach for America on its 20th anniversary

By Valerie Strauss

This piece was written by Alexander Russo, a former Democratic Senate aide who writes "This Week In Education" blog. His book about a dramatic school turnaround effort in Los Angeles, "Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors," is coming out next month from Jossey-Bass.

By Alexander Russo
Here are five completely unsolicited ideas for Teach for America's next 20 years, on the occasion of its first two decades:

1) Tell locals to pick one or several struggling schools, stuff them with corps members and alumns over the course of two or three years, and show everyone what you can really do at the the whole school level. Rinse, lather, repeat.

2) Stop expanding to new cities and do more in the cities you’re already in. Create two or three "superlocals" to get involved in reform, short of operating schools but well beyond the current menu of training, placement, and support.

3) Get off the charter school pipe. Charter placements shouldn’t exceed the percentage of kids being taught at charter schools in any given district.

4) Add a preservice residency year. It’s the right thing to do, everybody else (Boston Teacher Residency, Academy for Urban School Leadership, etc.) is doing it, you’ve got the money, and you can obviously afford to lose a few applicants without suffering too much.

5) Take a stand against districts (or newspapers) publishing individual teachers’ value-added scores, which should be used instead for evaluation, training, and support.

Wendy Kopp [TFA's founder] said she was against it in a recent interview but -- on this and so many other issues outside TFA operations -- hasn’t taken a real leadership role on the issue. Now’s the time. There’s only so much money, brand appeal, press, and political capital you can amass before you have to start making full use of it. Push yourselves to make as much change as you push individual corps members.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 12, 2011; 8:43 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Teachers  | Tags:  charter schools, teach for america, teach for america anniversary, teacher evaluation, teachers, tfa anniversary, wendy kopp  
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I heard that Republicans want to stop funding to Teach for America. Will teachers vote Republican if this goes through? I know that many teachers are not impressed with the Teach for America because the teachers don't seem to have the training and don't stick it out. The idea that this program is a silver bullet is offensive to most real teachers.

Many teachers are against NCLB or at least the "punish the schools in high poverty areas" aspect of the law. Has the Obama administration totally blown it with the punitive demonization of urban school systems? Will teachers go Republican?

Posted by: georgia198305 | February 12, 2011 12:14 PM | Report abuse

The author of the article has great ideas.

Posted by: georgia198305 | February 12, 2011 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Val, let's try this as the Word of the Day in Teach For America classrooms around the country. The word is "patronize" and when used as a verb it means to "treat with an apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority." It is a word that describes TFA perfectly.

Teach For America is a profoundly racist organization, a cult actually like the Moonies or Scientologists that lurks around college dorms and student lounges. It recruits white youth with a predisposition for missionary work. As described to them, they will become heroic figures, their prime mission to attack the "achievement gap". They are deployed with a prayer on their lips. I'm sure you've heard it Val but some of your readers may not.

The TFAers Prayer: "Oh Lord, why can't those inner-city dwelling children score as high on test as we did in private and prep schools on our way to the Ivy League? It can't be the effects of poverty and racism, your prophet Wendy Kopp told us those are just excuses. Well we may not succeed but we must try, try to save the children of color. God willing, they will be like us. But Lord, let's get this done in two years, I've got a career in investment banking that can't be put off forever."

Posted by: natturner | February 12, 2011 8:26 PM | Report abuse


So what's your point exactly?

That the problems in low-income schools that TFA seeks to address are myths?

That low-income students can't achieve at high levels?

Take a step inside one of these failing schools and your knee-jerk attitude about TFA will go out the window. You'll see how acute the problems are and that we need big solutions and motivated people to tackle them.

Our kids in low-income schools are being condemned to a life of failure by people like you who say that anyone who tries to make a difference is "patronizing"...or who suggest that low-income students shouldn't be expected to do well.

I'd rather have teachers who come for 2 years and work their rear-ends off than have teacher who are on cruise control for 25 years.

Instead of attacking TFA, what is your solution??? Do tell.

Posted by: holzhaacker | February 12, 2011 11:03 PM | Report abuse


Who are the "real" teachers you speak of??

The ones with a master's degree from an online diploma mill?

The ones who chat/text on their cellphones while their students do worksheets?

The ones who arrive just in time for the first bell and who drive out of the parking lot before the busses do?

I've met plenty of so-called "real" teachers who fit these descriptions, while I've seen many TFA teachers who work long hours, who tutor countless students and make countless parent phone calls.

If real teachers were all truly effective, there should be no need for teachers to feel threatened by TFA.

A "real" teacher isn't defined by a piece of paper or where they got their training.

Real teaching is defined by the impact had on student lives and student learning. Period.

Posted by: holzhaacker | February 12, 2011 11:12 PM | Report abuse

I guess the term "real" teachers is unfair, because it implies that the TFA people are not included in that group. I don't have anything against TFA, except I do feel that it is unfair to drop them in such difficult situations without much training and perhaps without mentors as well? Or do they have experienced teachers who are mentors?

I think there are many good, hardworking experienced teachers. My own child is in a classroom with a teacher of 28 years and my child is learning a lot and that teacher is the best one either of my kids has had.

New teachers, including TFA people do work hard also. I am sure most of them are very talented. I do feel they need adequate training and a lot of support once they are in a school,especially if the school is culturally different from the school culture they experienced as kids.

I don't dislike TFA, I just don't think it can solve everything. I actually did what TFA does, although I wasn't Ivy League, I am pretty smart and I started off in a hard to staff position at a Title 1 school. I worked 14 hour days and weekends. My students did well. I know I needed help from more experienced teachers. I did have a bit of an attitude that I knew everything. Later, about year 5, I could see why more experienced teachers did things differently. In particular, I learned to listen to students and to fine tune my style to each different class.

There is no one way to teach and no one reform will solve all the teaching problems.

Posted by: georgia198305 | February 13, 2011 1:54 AM | Report abuse

I'm not a teacher. I worry about the implications of TFA. My fear is that ambitious politicians, like the governor of my state, Mitch Daniels, would use TFA as a "wedge" (well, I was trying to be nice but truthfully the word is "scabs") in order to break the teachers unions. He has already attacked the teachers unmercifully, along with all public sector employees, and has made it known that he has no use for union members of any stripe. While many TFA members no doubt sincerely believe they are doing what they do for all the right reasons, my view is that they are setting themselves up as potential low-wage replacements should Mitch and his minions undertake a purge of teachers within Indiana. Our governor, an erstwhile 2012 Presidential candidate, has undertook to rewrite the collective bargaining laws, wants to use taxpayer money for vouchers and charter schools, and seems intent on gutting the public school system as we know it. I'm sure it has occurred to him that if he can cause mayhem with the teachers, the public employees will be next, and an assault on all members of unions cannot be far behind. Of course, MItch is not the only governor vilifying teachers in an attempt to cut spending and increase their political bonafides among conservatives, but he is the most prominent. TFA members could well fit into his agenda, along with conservative politicians attempts at union-busting in many states and cities. I would hope that anyone considering TFA would also consider the implications that their short-term, rather quixotic decisions could have for true professionals that have spent the better part of their lives in the classrooms.

Posted by: rtinindiana | February 13, 2011 2:43 AM | Report abuse

@holzhacker- Where have you been the past 20 years? TFA has not done *anything* to rectify the problem of teacher quality in poorer schools. TFA teachers stay for far too little time and then leave. Often, they leave the classroom and schools altogether for careers in finance, law etc.. That's great for the TFA teacher, but what does it accomplish for poor kids?

TFA has had a great run as a hustle, taking funds from taxpayers while not meeting its core mission. This has been going on for 20 years. When will we stop letting our local pols drain our resources paying for the training of novice teachers? I paid my own way, including a masters in special ed. We need to stop treating teaching as a resume filler and only bring in those that actually want to teach. At least there's a start.

Then, we need to address why so many teachers (TFA and others) leave inner city schools in droves. Here's a hint: school climate & work conditions. We would go a long way toward keeping a stable, competent teaching force in our poor schools if we could ensure that they, like their suburban peers, could actually focus on instruction instead of crowd control. I would add that teachers at these schools should have rigorous training in specialized reading and math programs that will actually help bring children years below grade level up to par.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | February 13, 2011 7:45 AM | Report abuse

As someone who attended the 20th Anniversary Summit I can speak on some of these concerns/fears.

1) Do not confuse TFA's desire to improve their teachers to the point where every study and survey shows they are on par or performing at levels better than traditional teachers as arrogance. This is merely the work of an organization whose singular focus is improving the lives of children. There are going to be alternative ways to become a teacher in this country, why not ensure that they are highly effective. We should all want that.

2) The racist claim is patently false. Once again, this is an organization that recruits from a broad swath of America (most TFAers are not Ivy League.... I came from a state school and so did most of my friends. The press just likes emphasizing those from Harvard/Yale). Additionally, TFA acknowledges, which is hard to argue, that there is a problem in education and it must go to where that problem is. It does not see its teachers as THE solution, but rather one small part of a movement.

3) A majority of the summit this weekend was focused on education policy and how to take what TFA teachers learn in the classroom and create radical change. The education system is broken for about 50 million american students. You cannot deny this if you have ever walked into a Title 1 school. TFA has two missions 1) create great teachers and 2) create positive education change in this country. The second part of that mission is just as important as the first.

4) One last thing. People need to get their facts straight. 52% of TFA teachers stay in the classroom past their 2 year commitment. 63% stay in education in some form (being an administration etc etc). Lets stop spreading these lies.

Posted by: UMICHDEM | February 13, 2011 10:26 AM | Report abuse

I have one more bit of unsolicited advice. Place the TFA teachers in affluent schools and give the teachers they replace for two years a hefty stipend to fill a position in a high-needs school. I could actually live with TFA if that was the model. I do wonder though, how many affluent parents will be comfortable having their kids taught be newbies with no training and no long-term commitment to education.

Posted by: marybcoach | February 13, 2011 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Here is more unsolicited advice for TFA: Learn to accept and improve from feedback. Be aware of the perception that people living in low income communities have of you. Stop pitting experienced teachers or unions against your TFA teachers. Focus more on what TFA does for the students and communities where you teach instead of how this benefits your career through resume enhancement. Realize that you are NOT missionaries parachuting in to a foreign Third World country where you will stay for two years to experience "diversity" or to live as a minority aroundblack or brown people. Mostly try not to assume that because of your "elite" status, your connections, your attendance at a top college, or your test score results, you can "coast" for the rest of your lives.

Posted by: dcsmartie | February 13, 2011 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Not all Title 1 schools are "broken".
There are many title 1 schools that run quite well and the students are learning.

I agree with dcsmartie, it is the perception that matters and TFA supporters make the error of constantly putting down Title 1 schools and their teachers at least in the press. This just adds to the perception of racism (I doubt they really ARE racist, ).

In my opinion, TFA should work with the schools they are going into, not going in with a preconceived notion that they are better.

That is what comes across. Maybe it is just based on envy, I paid for my classes and you didn't have to pay for yours. At any rate TFA should do their members a favor and stop making it sound that Title 1 schools are all broken. They're not. Some are and as in any bad school a few excellent teachers won't solve the problem. The school needs to be run well, have a good curriculum, good parent-teacher communication, and good teachers.

Posted by: georgia198305 | February 13, 2011 1:08 PM | Report abuse

I'm black and grew up in Congress Heights until my family moved on up to the east side - Suitland. My parents scrimped and saved to send me to local Catholic schools so that I wouldn't have to attend Ballou (where they met) or Suitland. I joined Teach for America for three reasons: first, to try my hand at improving a public school, because parents shouldn't have to go without like mine did to pay tuition because their hard-earned tax dollars fund failing schools; second, I wanted a chance to give students from neighborhoods like mine a private school education at a public school price; and third, I saw the critical teacher shortage in New Orleans after Katrina and felt compelled to go there and take action. And I was effective: during my term, my school's percentage of students passing the social studies Graduate Exit Exam went from 49% to 65%. I don't share that because I'm arrogant, but because I'm proud of my students' accomplishments.
I'll admit that I'm not in the classroom as a teacher anymore, but in addition to tutoring and mentoring my former students, I help operate a New Orleans education nonprofit's college readiness program in local high schools - while I earn a PhD in African-American history. When I finish, I'm coming right back home to Congress Heights and running for a seat on the school board, so that kids like me don't have to count on charters and private schools to learn how to read.
Where I come from, that's not called elitist; that's called giving back.

Posted by: jollyolympian | February 13, 2011 1:09 PM | Report abuse

And to be honest, the reason I stopped teaching wasn't because of the kids. I love lesson planning, I love teaching kids how their world got the way it is (that's all social studies is) and I love my students and their families more than myself. I left teaching because it was exceptionally difficult to be part of a system - Louisiana's Recovery School District - that is such a complete and total failure to children. I felt as though no matter how hard my co-workers and I fought against the system for our kids, we couldn't win. It's emotionally draining, so I sought out other ways I could help my students that didn't make me feel like an accomplice, in a structure that is not only sustainable over the long-term, but designed to have my babies' best interests at heart.
P.S. No Ivy League here either. Western Maryland College, son!

Posted by: jollyolympian | February 13, 2011 1:22 PM | Report abuse

@jollyolympian: I mean no disrespect by this. I don't think low income communities or the entire country for that matter need more Ph.D.s in African American history who run nonprofits and sit on school boards. I thought the whole sense of urgency in the press in increasing spending on education was to "produce" more STEM subjects graduates for complex careers in biotechnology, computers, engineering, etc. Your chosen career path reinforces what many suspect to be true of TFA, charter schools, and education nonprofits. You are taking taxpayer or donor money and furthering your own careers without gains to the taxpayers. TFA knows how to train college grads to form nonprofits. That should be there stated mission. And how many TFA people have taken trips to Israel paid for by Jewish donors? What does that have to do with educating children in low income communities?

Posted by: dcsmartie | February 13, 2011 1:44 PM | Report abuse

@jollyolympian: All committed teachers try to give their students a private school education at a public school price. In my 35 years, I can honestly say that is a fact for the majority of teachers I've worked with. However, our hands are often tied by increased demands for more standardized testing and a move toward more scripted curriculum. Those are not things that private schools do. Perhaps making changes in those two areas alone would enable us to provide an education more like that of the private schools.

Posted by: musiclady | February 13, 2011 2:14 PM | Report abuse

@jollyolympian- The bottom line is that you're not teaching anymore, right? Your students need you as their teacher. Anyone can get on a school board. If you loved teaching and are good at it, you should be teaching as a *career.* We all deal with the downsides to bureaucracy. Don't blame RSD for why you jumped ship.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | February 13, 2011 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Louisiana's Recovery School District? Isn't this the one Duncan was praising?

@Nikki1231 I usually agree with you. But not this time. Why should this person stay in a "bad" system? What will ever improve the system if teachers just keep putting up with all the nonsense in these school systems?

I know, the kids. But at some point one has to have a life. Even saints get burned out in these bad systems.

I do blame the school systems, the school boards, the Congress for passing more and more laws mandating idiotic uses of teachers time and not getting their act together on important issues.

Posted by: georgia198305 | February 13, 2011 5:21 PM | Report abuse

Some people can handle the "downsides of bureaucracy". I can't. Some places have much worse bureaucracy than others and some school populations or subject areas feel the brunt of all the poor management decisions.

No one should stay in a career they don't want to stay in if they have other options.

Posted by: georgia198305 | February 13, 2011 5:24 PM | Report abuse

@dcsmartie: I actually wanted to be a teacher for the rest of my life; it's what I went to school planning to do. So the only career goal TFA furthered was putting me in a classroom (that otherwise would have had NO teacher, because of the post-storm dearth). Only seeing the flaws in the system made me want to set policy and run for public office. And quite frankly, I don't see how a Ph.D. in engineering would better serve my community than civic engagement.
@musiclady: You're absolutely right that all COMMITTED teachers want to give their students the best education possible. But the fact of the matter is that low-income schools, like the ones in the neighborhoods where I live and taught, often get the least-committed and least-effective teachers. It's why education gap exists.
@nikki1231: Maybe I should still be in a classroom. And it's a real possibility that I'll come home and go back to teaching at Ballou or Anacostia. But the fact still remains that my students don't only need a voice like mine in the classroom every day. The movement to end educational inequity doesn't stop in classrooms. It needs voices in every level of government.

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

Here's my advice for TFA:

If I remember correctly, the original goal of TFA was to place talented young teachers in urban schools that could not hire enough qualified teachers. In those days many classrooms were staffed by substitutes throughout the year. However, we are still suffering the effects of the recession and so there is a surplus of teachers, except in science and math. So perhaps TFA can fill these positions and stay true to the original purpose of the organization

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 13, 2011 8:53 PM | Report abuse

Just have to comment on the widespread belief that schools that serve middle class and privileged students never use scripted curriculums. Wrong! Parts of their curricula are highly scripted (although usually not called that). Some of the scripting is actually done by the children's parents, before they ever get to school. The type of question-response conversation that middle class parents do with their kids has a very tight internal structure (in addition to being personalized for each kid). Phonics instruction is highly scripted/structured. Learning the times tables is very structured, whether done in class or as homework. And here's an important point: if the children are doing their memorizing at home, you won't see it in the classroom, but it is still happening. I could go on: effective foreign language instruction; learning the periodic table of elements; learning spelling words; you get the point.

Posted by: jane100000 | February 14, 2011 7:41 PM | Report abuse

great comments -- much appreciated.
i'm less concerned about individual TFA corps members than about the overall model and its (in)effect on school improvement writ large.

i was at the conference, too, and wrote this post about my impressions of what TFA is and what it thinks it is. but again, please, this is not a personal or individual attack on TFA teachers, but rather blathering from 30,000 feet about the overall issue of the org's accomplishments

Posted by: alexanderrusso | February 15, 2011 3:45 PM | Report abuse

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