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Posted at 12:15 PM ET, 02/15/2011

Ravitch: The Problem with Teach For America

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by education historian Diane Ravitch on her Bridging Differences blog, which she co-authors with Deborah Meier on the Education Week website. Ravitch and Meier exchange letters about what matters most in education. Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, is the author of the bestselling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” an important critique of the flaws in the modern school reform movement.

Dear Deborah,
This week Teach for America (TFA) celebrates its 20th anniversary. I have sometimes thought that if I were graduating from college now, I would apply to join TFA. It attracts well educated, bright, idealistic young people. Their energy and commitment are impressive.

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.

This is a small number indeed when you consider that our nation has 4 million teachers. And our most compelling problem is attrition. Of those who enter teaching, 50 percent are gone within five years. These are terrible statistics. We need a stable teaching profession, not a revolving door. We need to recruit new teachers who plan to stay in teaching and make a career of it. New teachers should have a solid education and strong preparation for their work. They should have the mentors and support they need to survive the trials of the early years and to improve continuously.

TFA does not solve any of those problems and needs. Yet its spectacular public relations and communications strategy has encouraged policymakers in the federal government, the big foundations, and the major corporations to believe that TFA is "the answer." But it is not. The more it succeeds in promoting itself, the more it sucks the air out of any public discussion about restructuring and improving the profession.

And, wow, what a success TFA is! A few months ago, the U.S. Department of Education awarded it $50 million. A few weeks ago, a group of four foundations gave TFA $100 million. Corporate donors love TFA. Its 20th anniversary celebration last week was sponsored by the nation's biggest foundations and corporations and attracted a star-studded list of guest speakers, from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to charter school leaders to national journalists and urban superintendents. The 15 pages of speakers is truly a line-up of the nation's educational establishment.

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.

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 attach links to and about their letter here and here. For more on this issue, Deborah, I urge you to read Barbara Torre Veltri's "Learning on Other People's Kids: Becoming a Teach for America Teacher"; Veltri has mentored many TFA teachers.

All the "right" people, all the powerful people have fallen in step behind TFA's banner. It is as though they want to see the Peace Corps take the place of the diplomatic corps.

In 2009, a surgeon proposed in The Wall Street Journal that medicine needed something similar to TFA, which he called "Heal for America." After a brief training period, the members of his HFA would be qualified to advise patients about diet, hygiene, and exercise; they would know how to take patients' pulse, temperature, and blood pressure; they would tell them the correct dosages of prescribed medicines.

But, he warned, members of HFA should never be allowed to substitute for physicians, physicians' assistants, or registered nurses. TFA, however, does not share the doctor's understanding of the importance of deep training and experience.

Perhaps unintentionally, TFA's success has stifled any national discussion about how to build a profession of well-educated, well-prepared, experienced educators who view teaching as a career rather than an experience.

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. What do you think?



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By Valerie Strauss  | February 15, 2011; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Diane Ravitch, Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  20th anniversary, arne duncan, diane ravitch, secretary duncan, teach for america, teachers, tfa, tfa anniversary  
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It sounds like they touched up the snake oil with a little lavender to hide the smell. To think all that is wrong with education is teaching and TFA rookies can solve those wrongs is a shell game. It defies logic and practice. I won't say they are bad because they are rookies. I'm just saying those paltry numbers and the timid application is not worthy of the tax dollars nor the attention.

Everyone wants this Superman effort to pull attention away from their lack of effort and advancement.

There are many of us that have a learning condition. Some more severe than others. We simply cannot learn at the same rate for every subject. Parents have always known this, but rarely admitted the differences in children.

"Why can't you be more like John?" Because Jane is not John, she is Jane. Jane has different wiring in her brain, she has a different cell structure, and many other features that most certainly should tell any parent they are different.

"Why can't you be like the other kids?" A question often asked because the parent supposes other children aren't having a problem. I went through high school thinking I was a dud. As it turns out later, I was just an average kid.

Some will never be average. Some will never make Yale. That is life and TFA be damned, they cannot make that difference in the wiring.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 15, 2011 1:04 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 15, 2011 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Why doesn't the Washington Post just eliminate the middle-(wo)man and let Diane Ravitch take over this Blog? Then maybe WaPo could use the money they saved to hire a National Education Reporter.

Posted by: frankb1 | February 15, 2011 2:02 PM | Report abuse

Years past placed my son a DC 'science and math enrichment charter' full o TFA teachers. Frankly they didn't know much. I soon realized that we were dealing with an orthodoxy that says that anyone who has had privileged and is connected to others from a privileged background is entitled to more-no matter what. No matter whether they know how to teach or not, No matter whether they are committed to education over the long haul or not or not -they still get to define the fieled. No matter if they provide students with the similar learning experiences they had that got them to the ivy league or not-just teach to the test you can still walk on water. No matter if a TFA teacher can hold a clear conversation with a parent of a different background form themselves or not cultural competency is not a part of TFA, TFA is its own culture.
I felt like I was looking at an entrenched educational mirage that says see what I am doing for your son. All the while reinforcing the educational inequities that are U.S. cultural practice. No inner city black kids can'd have science till they learn how to read, no we are not going to do technological based learning. The entire systen existed to support the philanthropicc aims of the organization while reinforcing the systmic inquities of our culture-not unlike philanthropies that focused on education in the South during Jim Crow- the goal was never wholesale systemic educational change-Only thier organization's largess.

Posted by: rastajan | February 15, 2011 2:03 PM | Report abuse

Is the main thesis of this article that TFA is too small of a program? Well, make it bigger. I'm sorry but the current conventional "training" program for new teachers -- which allows low qualified students to get watered-down education degrees from third tier colleges that are long on hooey and short on substance --just isn't working.

One of my children is a top graduate of a highly regarded liberal arts college who is doing wonders in an inner city classroom through TFA while at the same time getting a master's degree in education (which, some of you might not realize, is required for all TFA participants). Another child is an undergraduate student at a top college who has decided to go into teaching and as such is taking the required education classes as an undergrad.

Both students are pulling their hair out with boredom and frustration over how silly, mindless, and utterly unchallenging their education classes are. Their "education" classes are far and away the softest part of their program; a monkey could pass the classes. How can anyone seriously argue that the status quo is the way to go?

Posted by: postreader38 | February 15, 2011 2:28 PM | Report abuse

TFA is successfully fueling the feeding frenzy at the trough of power, prestige, and money.

As one speaker (Williamson) stated at a Washington DC conference in 2005 (see below, includes link), "Constraints on entrepeneurs include the democratic nature of the public education system..." So, certainly, such entrepeneurs will seek (blaze) the path of least resistance - infiltrate all of the stations that Diane Ravitch notes in the last paragraph above.

Educational Entrepreneurship: Why It Matters, What Risks It Poses, and How to Make the Most of It

Posted by: shadwell1 | February 15, 2011 2:28 PM | Report abuse

The problem with Diane Ravitch is that she thinks comparing the level of knowledge required to practice modern medicine with that required to practice modern education is a good rhetorical technique.

The ability to teach others is embedded in many other professions. It is not an exclusive speciality of teachers. I have many employees running successful training courses without the benefits of any Ed. degree, and others with a Ed. D. I'd choose a smart person over a meaningless degree any day.

That said- the amount of structured practice is key. Unfortunately, this gets turned by teachers' unions into a claim about the superiority of seniority. However, seniority doesn't let me distinguish between someone with 20 years of improvement and someone doing the same year of experience over and over again 20 times without improving. I would agree with looking at the Japanese approach, where teachers spend hours poring over the best ways to explain finding a common denominator, but I think the average American ego is too large to accept that someone else has found the best way to teach something.

Anyway, we're not giving up.

Posted by: staticvars | February 15, 2011 3:05 PM | Report abuse

i just got back from the TFA summit and posted my thoughts here --

the gist is that the TFA model isn't strong enough to make the changes it aspires to create, and that the organization and its supporters seem to lack a certain sense of perspective and humility about the size of the problems and their contribution to the solutions.


Posted by: alexanderrusso | February 15, 2011 3:40 PM | Report abuse

A byproduct of TFA's overstatement of itself and of the combative nature of the current education reform movement is overlooking actual programs and educational activities. In the State of the Union, Obama said that he wanted the winner of the Science Fair revered. News organizations don't cover the Science Fair, National History Day contests, or other educational programs. Instead, they are content on covering battles between unions, superintendents, non-profits, and reform "experts." Here's a challenge to ed reformers and education media: Cover something that students achieve while leaving out the image of teachers, reformers, or non-profits "saving children." Focus on things that are being taught in schools and the successes in content mastery.

Find ways to empower the education profession by focusing on teachers that are working to instill content mastery in students. Don't continue to give us surface battles by those whose impact is minimal.

Posted by: HistTeach1 | February 15, 2011 3:44 PM | Report abuse

It should be noted that a good number of TFA Corp members arrive on the scene with Education degrees, and have had experience in the classroom. In any case it takes certain traits, such as empathy, enthusiasm, and focus to be a successful teacher. You don't need a degree in Education to possess those. Many Corp members do not come from backgrounds of privilege, or are Ivy Leaguers. TFA is just one of a number of innovative solutions to the problem.

Posted by: Duff3 | February 15, 2011 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Soon after my sons graduated from "first-tier" colleges, I suggested they consider teaching. Both sons broke into raucous laughter, slapping one another on the backs. When I asked for an explanation, my older son simply said, "Mom, come on."

I was supposed to know that K-12 teaching is not for the privileged with Ivy League backgrounds, at least in the United States. This is especially true of men.

This of course, encapsulates the problem we have with teachers in our country. We can't attract or retain them. It's a well-known fact that over 50% quit during their first five years and many of these are among the most talented. This situation is not true in Germany, Japan or Finland where teachers of children are highly regarded. These countries have no trouble attracting and retaining qualified people to their classrooms.

Without meaning to, Teach for America glorifies and even advances the idea that teaching children (as contrasted with teaching adults) is not a real job but a temporary experience on par with the Peace Corps. This demeans the people who prepared fully for this very difficult job. It discourages those who would like to make a career of teaching because they get the message that it's not a real job for the academically talented. One of my younger son's friends entered Harvard wanting to be a high school teacher like his dad, but he was repeatedly told "you're too bright for that" and finally changed his major. Some people would say "Well, you don't need a Harvard degree to teach first grade." Only a non-teacher would say that because closing the academic gap for disadvantaged children is a challenge that so far has eluded some of our brightest people. President Obama himself could go into a first-grade DC classroom and have a terrible time keeping order while teaching twenty at-risk children how to read and write.

Teach for America was founded at a time when fully qualified teachers could not be found for urban schools. We still have a need for this in the areas of math and science. The organization might want to go back to its original goal, instead of competing with fully qualified teachers.

Teaching at-risk children is arguably one of the most difficult jobs anyone can have. We need our best minds to help us find ways of offering an equal opportunity for all children to receive a high-quality education. Teach for America could help us recruit and RETAIN talented and FULLY QUALIFIED people for a vitally important, and totally fulfilling, profession.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 15, 2011 4:39 PM | Report abuse

I'm a TFA alum and was present at this weekend's summit - for a very substantial response to this piece, please check out my blog:

Posted by: eduescritora | February 15, 2011 5:03 PM | Report abuse

TFA ain't perfect, but it is worthwhile. Ravitch's strong envy of its following is palpable.

Ravitch has the teachers behind her because she provides her well couched assertions of all the reasons why they should not be held accountable, or even responsible, for what they do in the classroom. This single concept fuels the decline in our historical respect for public school teachers more than anything else.

Virtually all stripes of people blocking, impeding, dissing, throwing rocks at the many well intentioned efforts to pull our schools out of steep decline take aim at TFA. That is one of TFA's highest honors and is a sign of having a positive impact.

Teachers need to embrace TFA. And remember, TFA can't be the problem, in DC or anywhere else, because its proportion of teachers is miniscule.

Posted by: axolotl | February 15, 2011 5:14 PM | Report abuse

The most prominent Teach for America leaders and their cronies have willfully adopted a top-down, business-model approach to "reforming" public education.

They deliberately misinform, they distort the truth, and they flat-out lie.

Perhaps the most egregious recent examples are (1) the piece that Kevin Huffman wrote in the Post titled "A Rosa Parks Moment for Education" in which he deliberately misled readers and compared a woman convicted of a welfare scam with Rosa Parks, the civil rights hero; and (2) the statements that Michelle Rhee has made in the wake of the published data showing she lied about her performance as a teacher.

TFA opposed Linda Darling-Hammond because her research revealed the truth about TFA: TFA teachers are not very effective. They lack training and experience.

And of those TFA alum who remain in education as administrators? They too have very limited experience in the classroom, and limited knowledge about pedagogy, but they think they are experts...and they follow the script...they too push the business-model approach to "reform."

But that is part of the goal...get vouchers and privatize more schools. .

Posted by: DrDemocracy | February 15, 2011 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Linda/Retired/Teacher: you always have insightful comments and your comment in today's blog is no exception. I would like to add one additional perspective to what you say here: "The organization might want to go back to its original goal, instead of competing with fully qualified teachers".

I think the TFA program has been willingly "hijacked" by the "education reformers"... corporate style education reformers. They are being given a lot of financial support from "ed reformer" businesses which fully enable their program to continue. Ed reformers are using the TFA program as one more tool enabling them to meet their main agenda - to erode the public school institution and make way for privatized education.

Posted by: teachermd | February 15, 2011 6:31 PM | Report abuse

This is a little off the subject, but I'll tell my story anyway:

Many years ago a little eight year old boy went up to the teacher and said, "My head hurts." The boy looked OK to the teacher and the nurse had complained about so many kids coming to the office so the teacher said, "Put your head down for a few minutes." The boy put his head down and died. He had been hit in the head at recess but didn't report it at the time.

This event, a schoolteacher's nighmare, occurred in the district where I live. The story was told over and over again to warn teachers to report every complaint about the head to the nurse. "After all," we were told, "you are responsible for each child in your care."

This was the scariest part of teaching for me. I was always afraid a child would be seriously injured while in my care. It almost happened to me in 1990 when a boy jumped off a swing and landed on a piece of glass and cut an artery. I rushed him to the office as the blood flowed freely out of his small body. Fortunately I had been trained to do the right thing and so the boy recovered. At the end of the year, he came up to me and said, "Teacher, thank you for saving my life."

I was always glad I had one million dollars in insurance.

Of course, I had to answer to the parents for many things, but mostly for the academic progress of their children. Even the least educated noticed when Johnny or Juanita wasn't learning to read.

The dictionary defines "accountability" as having to answer for one's actions, akin to responsibility. Who is more accountable than a schoolteacher?

To those of you who say teachers need to be more "accountable" what do you mean?

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 15, 2011 6:33 PM | Report abuse

Ravitch: The Problem with Teach For America

TFA teachers do not belong in the public school systems since they can not be trusted with children.

I recently heard evidence that a TFA teacher put tape on the mouths of children to keep them quiet. That teacher, with out any reprimand, was simply allowed to continue to teach in the school.

I believe she was a TFA teacher named Ms. Rhee.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 15, 2011 7:56 PM | Report abuse

Linda TRT -- accountability for teachers = having a considerable amount of your evaluation based on what you accomplish in the classroom--delivering education to young minds. There is massive disagreement on how to measure this, as you well know, but it needs to be measured and linked with a teacher's pay, promotions, prof. dev, and work assignments. Accountability could also lead to professional discipline or termination. Measurements also need to recognize the other sources of education, e.g., parents, and life outside school.

If we give in to those who say we can't measure this, or it will take a decade and complete consensus of all stakeholders over time to determine how, it won't work. And that is unacceptable.

That is why we call teachers "professionals" and why we have paid managers, executives, and political officials overseeing the schools. They work and speak for us. And the good ones know to put children's interests above all others.

Posted by: axolotl | February 15, 2011 8:05 PM | Report abuse

I really wish we would stop this nonsense.

Poor children are viewed as inferior and that is why it is seen as okay to send unqualified teachers from TFA to these schools.

TFA teachers would never be even considered for work as teachers in a middle class public schools.

The reality is that now there are two standards for teachers in the United States.

Qualified career teachers for the middle class public schools, while unqualified TFA teachers for the inferior poverty public schools.

And please no more of the "well educated, bright, idealistic young people" nonsense since there have been enough reported cases of where these unqualified teachers should never have been allowed as teachers in class rooms.

In the past when there had been a shortage of qualified teachers, programs had been set up for teacher interns to train with qualified teachers.

Even in the 1800's it was expected that a teacher has teaching qualifications.

The use of TFA teachers in poverty public schools is simply a result of poor children viewed as inferior.

The reality may be that the government has used a magic wand to classify TFA teachers as well qualified teachers for the inferior public schools, but these unqualified teachers will never be accepted or allowed in middle class public schools.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 15, 2011 8:28 PM | Report abuse


Good news! Teachers already have quite a bit of accountability and then some!!! Try being a teacher and you'll understand exactly what I mean.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 15, 2011 8:33 PM | Report abuse

Ax, you make some good points, such as "TFA ain't perfect, but it is worthwhile." And I think I remember you and I agreeing on 'education schools' - complete waste of time, imo. And I do mean "complete" But there's just no way to use tests to evaluate teachers. Use anything else you want. I'll admit, there are some ignorant people teaching. But I cannot control what occurred the previous 10 years of my student's life - period. Don't put a kid in my hs chemistry class who needs a calculator to determine what "5 x 20" is and then tell me it's my fault he failed a test.

Posted by: peonteacher | February 15, 2011 9:04 PM | Report abuse

Time for teachers to stop patting themselves on the back.

Time for teachers through out the country to demand that their unions start organizing the parents to fight back against the policies of government that are in response to the malcontent teacher bashers and the poverty public schools that have had problems for decades.

Time for the teacher unions to start telling parents in the middle class the problems of having national policy in public education solely based on the poverty public schools and malcontent teacher bashers.

Even the teachers in middle class public schools must now be aware of the dangers of politicians exploiting the malcontent teacher bashers while pretending that the problem in the poverty public schools is the teachers and not the children that have great difficulty in learning.

Is teaching going to be career with certified teachers or just a take anyone off the street job that proclaim the take off the street as highly qualified?

Middle class parents will quickly understand the dangers to their children were teachers are forced to teach on the lowest common denominator. Middle class parents should be told of the billions that are going into standardized tests that have already been shown to be worthless since they are watered as was admitted last year by New York State. Middle class parents should not be forced to pay for this expensive meaningless testing with the heavy property taxes that they pay for a superior public education system, and not one geared to the lowest common denominator of watered down standardized testing.

Time for the teachers to demand money and support from their union to inform parents of the danger of the attack on teachers.

Role for Teachers Is Seen in Solving Schools’ Crises

Published: February 15, 2011
Charles Taylor Kerchner, a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University who studies labor union history, said, “This is the harshest time for teachers’ unions that I’ve seen since the advent of legislatively sanctioned collective bargaining half a century ago.”

Posted by: bsallamack | February 15, 2011 11:02 PM | Report abuse

Hate to intrude on this ever so polite debate about Teach For America, one of the best funded enemies of public education on the political landscape today. Rest assured though, the debate won't remain polite much longer.

The Business Roundtable's vision of a USA without public schools has reached the stage of massive teacher layoffs, the destruction of teacher's unions, stripping teachers of the right to bargain collectively, and as the governor of Wisconsin has promised, the use of the National Guard to quell teacher resistance.

These days, which will soon be remembered as the good old days, should be used by the privileged boys and girls of TFA to say goodbye to their students and explain why they will disappear when their schools are set upon. The young people dabbling in teaching as a hobby should do a "Word of the Day" exercise in their classrooms. The word is "patronize" and when used as a verb it means to "treat with an apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority." The TFAers can use themselves as an object lesson.

The deeply patronizing Teach For America is a profoundly racist organization, a cult actually, like the Moonies. They lurk around college dorms and student lounges, recruiting white youth with a predisposition for zealotry and missionary work. The TFA cult offers them heroic status in a mission to fight the "achievement gap". They are deployed with a prayer on their lips.

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. We must try to save the children of color. God willing, in time, they will be almost 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 15, 2011 11:44 PM | Report abuse

Every one is an expert on how to teach 2nd grade because they went through 2nd grade as students.

These arrogant economists, business owners, and lawyers couldn't last one week as a K-12 teacher.

Posted by: dcsmartie | February 16, 2011 12:15 AM | Report abuse

Dear Diane:

Thank you for your analysis; however, your premise falters. You criticize TFA for perpetuating a revolving door for teachers and instead argue for your own silver bullet solution: well-educated, well-trained teachers that remain in the profession.

What is failed to be taken into account in your argument is that the current state of our schools does not foster an environment that allows well-educated, well-trained, young teachers to be able to enter and remain the profession. In order for great teachers to stay, there needs to be great schools with great principals. The best teachers go to the best schools for a reason. If your aim is to close the achievement gap with the best teachers, then we must radically change our lowest performing schools with the best principals first. If you create great schools everywhere, teachers will stay.

Additionally, you also fall into your own criticism of a "silver bullet" solution. You seem to suggest that if only teachers stayed in the classroom, our educational woes would be solved. This is untrue. So many problems, inefficiencies, and structural problems exist - that in order to truly reform schools where students perform at high levels - we will need people in power who have experience in low-income, urban and rural classrooms - to work for that structural change.

This just simply makes sense. So criticizing TFA for:

1.) creating leaders who may hold power in the halls of Washington or Wallstreet or Mainstreet

2.) not staying in the classroom when the average teacher doesn't stay in the classroom either

3.) You do not provide any real solutions to education's complex problems

is misguided and indeed, utterly false.

Your lack of perspective reveals how a narrow scope of thinking.

Posted by: spesDC | February 16, 2011 12:30 AM | Report abuse

I really dislike how everyone operates on such extremes here.

First of all, I am a TFA alum. And I don't like Michelle Rhee. So please, don't equate what she did with what thousands of other people do, because they are not the same and not all TFA teachers agree with her. I personally think that a much greater effort needs to go into supporting teachers and helping them improve, and firing should be reserved for teachers who show no signs of a desire to improve, which should be extremely RARE.

My question to most of you is whether you're anti-TFA out of principle, or because you've actually been in the classrooms. I spent time while teaching trying to learn from ALL of my colleagues, and observed others teaching frequently. And at the school where I worked, TFA teachers would be in the top 2 if I had children at those schools. Why? 1. Effort. They work their tails off. 2. Knowledge. Our TFA teachers actually majored in their subject, compared to a few algebra teachers who majored in history, or science teachers who majored in math. I'll take a secondary science or math teacher any day who majored in his or her subject over someone who is stuck elsewhere to fill a quota. 3. I actually knew teachers who took MULTIPLE tries to pass the praxis I. Which is just sad.

To bsallamack (who I think I've responded to, and agreed with on other points before), maybe TFA teachers wouldn't be placed in middle class schools, but last I checked you don't actually have to be certified to teach in a private school. In fact, I've known of private schools (in this case, schools where the white parents send their kids so they don't have to go to school with the black kids taught by TFAers) where teachers have even less training and/or qualification and/or support than TFA.

And finally, I AM TIRED of hearing the "privileged Ivy League" argument. I am neither. I grew up poor, in a low-performing, high poverty PUBLIC school that did NOT have TFA and ended up taking basic algebra from guys who majored in computer science and then taught because they didn't know what else to do with their lives. Oh yes, they were "certified", but it took until senior year of college before I actually learned what to do with square roots because we spent more time talking about our weekends and decorating the school for the basketball game than learning. Compared to that, I WISH I had been taught by a TFA teacher.

My suggestion? Let's take what works from the TFA model (i.e. a constant drive to improve, self-reflection, diversity training, etc) and USE THAT in our traditional ed programs. Support NEW teachers so that they WANT to stay in teaching. Pay teachers more, and raise the standards of admissions to ed programs instead of scraping the bottom of the barrel. And then maybe you won't need to fill spots with TFA.

Posted by: md1408 | February 16, 2011 12:51 AM | Report abuse

One final point, and then I'll shut up. Do you really honestly think that no TFA teacher can be a really good teacher? Do you really honestly think that all traditional ed teachers are going to be really good teachers?

If you answered yes to either of those questions, you're living in a dream world. This system is broken. The schools, the communities, the whole gosh darn country. These problems are ridiculously massive, and if you think that any ONE thing is going to fix it you're insane. Demonizing TFA? How about getting MAD about the fact that POOR KIDS are sent to CRAPPY, dysfunctional schools? Maybe when we look at the REAL problems of racism and classism in America, instead of beating up one of the FEW organizations that actually acknowledges the true problem, then we can take steps to fix it.

Posted by: md1408 | February 16, 2011 1:10 AM | Report abuse

I don't want to interrupt the back and forth, but why does TFA cost so much? They place 8,000 teachers a year into public schools and they were just given another $150 million? And aren't the 8,000 teachers who do get placed paid by their school systems? TFA sounds like a really, really expensive hiring hall. And doesn't DCPS pay a fee to TFA for each recruit? Why not skip the middle man and save money?

Posted by: bhorn1 | February 16, 2011 1:26 AM | Report abuse

This blog is becoming as vitriolic as the Redskins Insider blog.
I have several colleagues who are TFA'ers, many of whom are young enough to have been students of mine (a scary notion for another blog post!). At lunch today we talked about how their generation just doesn't stay in a job like my generation or my parents, and when you hire TFA'ers you must be prepared for that. In Aerospace Engineering while folks may stay in the career field for decades, few stay at one company for the same amount of time, so what TFA'ers are doing isn't unprecedented. I think any enterprise needs to retain about 25-30% of it's workforce for 10 years or more to establish a culture that defines it, and that are willing to pass that on to succeeding generations of personnel.
One reason TFA may be so good at marketing themselves is the schools from which so many come. If they're coming from 'top-tier' colleges then their network is their top-tier alumni and classmates. Our current crop of TFA'ers are Trojans(USC), Bruins(UCLA) and Blue Devils(Duke); these folk are part of a very influential group of people, those being the Alumni of their respective schools.
The issue again of retaining quality teachers for a long time is leadership: Superintendents, school boards, principals, elected officials. While so many folks in public education are at least indifferent to market forces, if not openly hostile, there must be incentives for people to teach in the most challenging work environments, and we'd be foolish to think that pay isn't a significant factor. Longshoremen, deep-water oil rig workers, air combat pilots and professional athletes make more money than most folks for a reason: high risk, high reward. If a community decides truly that public education is worth it, then they'd vote to raise their taxes to pay their teachers to be the best compensated so as to keep the best. One reason teachers 'burn out' is you bust your tail day after day, and once a month or bi-weekly you get that check and say, "I did all that for this?" After enough years of this of course many folks burn out.
People often say, and I'm one of them, that you shouldn't get into teaching for the pay. But if as all other professions compensation retains the best/retains folks a long time, the same should be done for teachers. Putting some numbers on it, If I translate my monthly salary to an hourly rate, and I'm paid for the hours I expend beyond the school day, that's about a 50% increase in pay, which I feel makes teachers competitive with other professions.
The better question is whether my taxpayers are willing to foot that bill.

Posted by: pdexiii | February 16, 2011 1:39 AM | Report abuse

The focus of the education reform debate is almost always myopic. The focus is always on the teachers (and the teachers' interactions with the children). Children don't *only* learn at school and in classrooms. Schools are at the center of the education mega-system, but they are not the only part. The education mega-system is a triad that consists of School-Home-Community. Our children are learning in each of these places as they weave fluidly through each.

So what about the role of the Home? The role of the Community? The adage that "it takes a village to raise a child" is not simply an adage - it's a fact. Even if a parent or the community is not explicitly teaching algebra equations or verb declensions they are instilling values, beliefs, attitudes and habits. Some parents and communities may in fact be explicitly teaching content. But they are also always instilling intangibles.

Teacher cannot and do not do the job of educating alone. They are at the heart of the educational mega-system, but they are not the whole mega-system.

To have a fruitful conversation about education reform it must be more holistic. Our vision must be bigger. We must support parent participation. We must encourage local business and other community members to impress themselves on the schools. We must encourage an innovative attitude towards reforming a system that was first imagined during the Enlightenment Era and came of age during the Industrial Revolution. Our system is antiquated and ill-suited for 21st century global society.

Dr. Chris Drew, Ph.D.
CEO Pocket Literacy Coach

Posted by: DrDrew1 | February 16, 2011 3:38 AM | Report abuse

to md1408:

First I'd just like to point out that there are a lot of TFA members that were placed in subjects OTHER than the one they applied for. They can be unqualified for those positions.

"One final point, and then I'll shut up. Do you really honestly think that no TFA teacher can be a really good teacher? Do you really honestly think that all traditional ed teachers are going to be really good teachers?"
I think that some TFA staff members can be good teachers, and not all traditional ed teachers will be good. However, studies show that with more preparedness/certification, the more effective the teacher will be.…/Stanford-teacher_certification_report.pdf

"Support NEW teachers so that they WANT to stay in teaching. Pay teachers more, and raise the standards of admissions to ed programs instead of scraping the bottom of the barrel. And then maybe you won't need to fill spots with TFA."

THIS is what I agree with.

THIS I don't agree with.
"instead of beating up one of the FEW organizations that actually acknowledges the true problem, then we can take steps to fix it."

Wendy Kopp doesn't actually acknowledge that the problem is poverty and she is pretty ignorant to the actual problems in Education. (In her Charlie Rose interview she states that it's only the teachers and administration's faults.. NOT homelife or poverty). Also, see the study below.…/Stanford-teacher_certification_report.pdf

"I told her what kid of preparation and mentoring supports would be required to ensure that these recruits would be able to serve the children well. Kopp was sure that she would be able to do in a few weeks what it was that universities took much longer to do (though she had never examined a teacher preparation program) and that providing mentors would be the problem of participating districts -- not TFA. If the candidates didn't succeed, she explained to me, it would not really be a problem because most of them would not stay in teaching anyway. And that would have an important experience on their future lives. She never mentioned the children's lives. The absence of concern for children is coupled with an apparent disdain for the effort it takes to become knowledgeable about how to teach children well."

This shows Kopp is willing to put her own TFA agenda ABOVE the needs for the children.

I would also like to add that teaching is more than just knowing content. To be an educator, content from all subjects needs to be learned (for example I'm studying science education, but I've still had to take 5 history classes), child development/psychology classes, bilingual and inclusion classes, classes designated to show students how to teach for specific subjects and creating lesson plans, involving communities and families, intro teaching/classroom management etc. If you pair all those core preparation classes WITH enthusiasm, then you can have a great teacher.

Posted by: am1023 | February 16, 2011 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Linda TRT -- the fact that u had to ask for a def. of accountability is scary. Yes, I know you have seemed to be a bit unclear about it before. (Note: I have always been impressed by your description of your career. You may not have been clear on accountability, but you sound like the soul of responsibility, so accountability may never have been anything to think about, or fear.)

But now, you equate it with job difficulty, e.g., enduring before a room full of difficult kids.

I am not absolutely sure you actually get it.
(And please don't expect a parent or any other stakeholder to believe they can't be an informed and correct observer of public school teaching today unless they have been one. Six million people do what you did, and the "my shoes" claim is always BS.)

The point of accountability is: a teacher's professional future is determined by performance, given all reasonable factors. These would not include that the kids are poor and have inattentive parents (and therefore the teacher should expect nothing to change); that is unacceptable.

We want teachers to take how the Children are when they arrive, and achieve a reasonable delta. Some measurable, reasonable improvement during every time period.Not too little, not too much. Again, I'm not going to get into the devilish, critical details of measuring that change with enough--not perfect--rigor.

But as a stakeholder, I would not tolerate taking even a year to revise Impact to make it stronger. We need accountability measures now. A sub-set of teachers here--the ones with something to hide--want Impact changes or replacement to take....forever. Our good teachers don't take such a ridiculous, anti-Children position.

Posted by: axolotl | February 16, 2011 11:24 AM | Report abuse

First of all, I don't think you can take one interview with Wendy Kopp and sum up everything she believes. Last I checked, the founding principle was for all children to receive an excellent education. The idea was that minority and poor children were not receiving a quality education. So how is that not acknowledging the problem?

Secondly, I agree 100% that the more training, the more effective you can be, but the sad reality is that too many traditional teacher ed programs are NOT providing their teachers with a good education. They don't support teachers during their first few years, they don't supply teachers with the resources and skills they need to achieve results in high-need schools, and quite frankly some of them pass people who shouldn't be passed.

A couple of examples: I had multiple friends who were education majors in college. Our ed program was decent, but incredibly idealistic. Those same friends (5) spent their college careers saying they wanted to work with underprivileged kids. 4 of them started at such schools their first year. Of those four, 3 transferred to "better" schools after their first year, and 1 quit teaching altogether.

Secondly, I worked with quite a few teachers who HAD gone through the proper training. One coworker, in particular, was working on her masters through a local ed department. She actually ASKED me to do some of her homework, and when I didn't do it, she instead had NINTH GRADERS do it for her. And she now has a masters in education. What does that say for our traditional programs? (And I'm not saying they're all bad, but many teachers in low-performing schools are often the products of poor ed programs)

My point is this: In an ideal world, TFA wouldn't be here. And you have to acknowledge, even if you dislike TFA, that it has gotten education some much-needed attention. However, it is silly of people to be using TFA as a scapegoat, like it is CAUSING the problems. Too many people are railing against TFA alone, and ignoring the 1500 injustices that are occurring.

And, I would challenge you to visit a school with TFA and visit some classrooms, both traditional ed and TFA. I'm all for data, but I also like to see things for myself, and I challenge you to do the same.

Posted by: md1408 | February 16, 2011 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Dear md1408
I have done your challenge and unwisely placed my son in a school that was primarily TFA. He entered 1st reading at a 2.5 level and left 4th reading at about 5.5 which means that the TFA teachers made about 3/4 year progress instead of 1 full year. Data shows that this is a trend for TFA.. Why should the country continue to invest in a bunch of light weights for such a heavy weight task? 5 weeks of training is not enought to learn the real rigors of teaching elementry reading. Thanks god my son started out ahead of the game. Another student who was in the ssame school had an IEP in first grade made little to no progress under the TFA educators and now is in a differentent school reading at a 3rd level in 7th grade. Please explain to me how that happened if TFA is such a great solution?
While TFA's stats are not so abysmal in math as you note in an earlier post, I found my son's TFA teacher loath to even work with parent like mysself who wanted to use the backbone of math to exploere science concepts, do science fair and expand the inquiry based learning in the school. Why-because 'those other kid' (code for poorer black and brown kid) couldn't pass the reading test yet. We'll if the TFA/NLNS principal had been aware of his research he would have known that inquiry based learning in science and mathematics leads to higher levels of critical thinking and helps children become stronger readers. We left the school that year!

Posted by: rastajan | February 16, 2011 3:03 PM | Report abuse

to md1408:

I've read well more than one interview about Wendy Kopp (who has never taken an education course in her entire life) and I've come to the conclusion so far that she is very ignorant about the root problems. The legislation Kopp supports is also counterproductive to education reform (privatization and charters).

I don't think TFA is the cause of the problems in education, but I also don't think they are the solution in closing the achievement gap. I think that TFA should only be in schools where there is a high-need of staff. Teaching needs to be turned back into a profession and should be pretty rigorous.

Also, my education program requires 20 hrs for the first intro teaching course, 60 hours for the second, a semester of pre-student teaching (4 mornings per week), and a full semester of student teaching before graduation. This is on top of jobs/volunteering the students might already have. Universities I think are trying to add on more experience hours so that their students will be more qualified before entering the classroom. And I agree there are some bad teachers and a lot of students that shouldn't be in the education program, but I also know a lot of bright students with a passion for teaching that will be able to make a difference.

Unfortunately, I don't know of any that are planning on working in a low income school like I am. (I've volunteered a year in Detroit Public Schools, currently work at 2, and am planning on doing both of my student teaching semesters there).

Posted by: am1023 | February 16, 2011 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Wendy Kopp, Founder and CEO, Teach For America

February 12th 2010 TFA 20th Anniversary Summit:

Watch the full speech here:

Posted by: frankb1 | February 16, 2011 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Rastajan: I'm incredibly sorry about your son, and the fact that this happened is indicative of an incredibly broke system. As for TFA, I never said that it was a solution (read my earlier post). I'm simply saying that in the types of schools where I worked, TFA teachers were better than most. Now, I'll admit that I'm not familiar with all school districts, but in the districts I was familiar with, we were placed as absolute last resorts. It was either us or completely NON-certified teachers (i.e people who didn't even have bachelors degrees). At the middle schools in my district, a third of the staff were non-certified, not TFA. I taught high school in a district that rarely placed TFA in elementary, and I saw the same trends: 9th grade students who were RARELY on grade level in reading and were mostly commonly on a 4th-6th grade level. By the time these kids got to TFA teachers, they were already 3, 4, and 5 years behind.
As for training, I would have LOVED to have had more training on how to handle the complex problems that I was faced with. I would have loved to have learned how to handle students with a vast array of emotional and psychological disturbances, how to better differentiate in classrooms with 33+ students. Sadly, however, my non-TFA coworkers would have loved to have received that training, too. They were no better equipped to handle it than I was. I agree that we don't receive enough, but I don't think most career teachers get enough support either.

And I absolutely agree with you that there needs to be more inquiry-based learning in math and science. I taught science, and begged (and I mean BEGGED) for equipment, for lab privileges, for textbooks, for COPIES so my students could take things home to study. Daily. It bothers me that you assume all TFA people are self-serving. I didn't do TFA because I needed the credentials, or didn't know what I wanted to do, or because I wanted to feel better about myself. I did it because I grew up poor, in a terrible school system, and wanted to give my passion for knowledge and learning to people similar to myself.

am1023: We agree!

I'm really glad that your program has given you so much experience and training. I wish more people who receive this superb training (you clearly being an exception) would go into the high need schools, and that the rest of the ed programs would get on board and do what your school is doing.

As for Wendy, luckily she doesn't design the training, and quite frankly her views on charters/privatization and mine are opposite. I actually wish ALL private schools would close (extreme, yes) so that ALL parents care about public ed.

Overall, I certainly tend to think of TFA as more of a "band-aid" type deal, where ideally we wouldn't NEED to place TFA teachers because all schools would be great and teaching would be a profession that more people want to go into and stay in. Unfortunately now, that is not the reality.

Posted by: md1408 | February 16, 2011 7:00 PM | Report abuse

Also, I realized I came across as too negative against my former coworkers. The vast majority of them were good, caring people who wanted to do the right thing, but either didn't always know how (i.e. needed more training/support), or were so beat down by years of working in a dysfunctional, often toxic work environment that they had given up trying. The few managing to get their students where they needed to be were working 11 hours a day at school each day, then going home and working more, often to the detriment of their own families and health. You can only sustain the sort of effort it takes to succeed in a school like that for so long. At least TFA teachers weren't burned out yet.

And now I've just made a completely circular argument. Teach in high need schools, but if you want to succeed, give up your family and health.

I vote we close all schools and start from scratch.

Posted by: md1408 | February 16, 2011 7:24 PM | Report abuse


I looked up accountability because you seemed confused about it so I looked it up to make certain of that before I answered you. Of course, I was right. It means to be answerable (liable) for your actions. In education the teacher must also be accountable for the progress of her students. Many can't cut it and that's part of the reason so many teachers don't make it past their fifth year. There is more accountability (and responsibility) in K-12 education than in almost any other profession.

Teachers answer to parents, administrators, students and the community. So far as I know, they are the only group of workers who can be dismissed for "moral turpitude." A teacher at my school had an affair with the PTA president, a married woman. When the principal failed in her effort to fire him (overturned by the courts) the superintendent had his credential pulled by the state on the basis of "moral turpitude." The teacher decided not to fight it and retired.

Perhaps you don't know the broader meaning of "accountability" because NO ONE is more accountable than a schoolteacher.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 16, 2011 7:40 PM | Report abuse

to md1408:

Haha, I guess we do agree then. And I do get what you're saying about some TFA staff being better than teachers. A science teacher I worked under last summer was a wonderful woman, and there would be some days the children would have interactive lessons, but then there would be days that the students would sit around and do nothing (which should never happen).

I do understand though that it's fairly easy for teachers in low income schools to get burnt out quickly, especially when there are about 35 students in each class, an extreme lack of resources, they're evaluated based on state test scores and they deal with many parents who do not care.

Teachers face so many barriers and yet politicians/economists say that students failing is the teacher's faults. Once we can get past that and give educators a voice in education reform, then we will be able to make a great change.

Posted by: am1023 | February 16, 2011 10:09 PM | Report abuse

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