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Posted at 1:37 PM ET, 11/18/2010

Education leaders don't have all the answers, apparently

By Valerie Strauss

Here’s what happened when I asked the governor of Maryland today whether he would want one of his children to be in a classroom with a teacher who had five weeks of training, as the Teach for America program gives before sending young people into America’s toughest schools:

Gov. Martin O'Malley didn’t directly answer the question.

This occurred when the newly reelected governor visited Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel.

The powerful trio met with an ESOL science class and a journalism class -- as part of the NEA’s American Education Week -- to encourage young people to consider teaching as a profession. Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jerry Weast was watching from the side, as were other education officials from Maryland.

The students watched a short video (which mentioned Teach for America) created by the Education Department about the importance of increasing the number of minority teachers, and then Duncan, O’Malley and Van Roekel each took turns complimenting each other while speaking about their priorities and the importance of public education and teaching.

If you didn’t know that the NEA president and the education secretary take radically different views on many aspects of education reform, you wouldn’t have been able to tell from listening to them. When Van Roekel said, “Teachers used to be revered, they’ve been beaten down a little bit,” he did not even hint that many of the 3.2 million members of his organization believe that Duncan’s policies have contributed to what they believe is an assault on their profession through policies that, for example, support linking standardized test scores to teacher evaluation and pay, and that hold teachers responsible for a student’s achievement without factoring in other influences on a child.

A number of students (kids in grades 10 to 12) in the journalism class asked some great questions: One was about improving standardized tests; another was whether an emphasis on competition and standardized testing was the best message to send to young people.

The first student question in that class came from Ruth Aitken, who asked, “How will Teach for America reform our education system?”

Smart question. Supporters of Teach for America sometimes portray it as the savior of public education, attracting the smartest college graduates into the program, which gives them five weeks of training and then places them in urban schools -- to teach kids who really need the best-trained, most inspirational teachers -- with a commitment that they will stay for two years. The dropout rate is even higher than the high dropout rate for all teachers, which is 50 percent within five years.

Teach for America’s Web site states that the program is “a critical source of well-trained teachers who are helping break the cycle of educational inequity.”

Education historian Diane Ravitch recently noted in a speech that the claim is bogus, addressing Teach for America officials:

“But I would urge you please, stop claiming that TFA will close the achievement gap. That may be a nice slogan but nobody can teach for two or three years and close the achievement gap. Closing the achievement gap requires a lot more than really smart and dedicated young people with five weeks of training and a lot of enthusiasm. It requires highly skilled career professionals with deep experience who are willing to stick to the profession. ... You send out a false message that your corps of young people is all that it takes, and that’s not true.

So Aitken’s question deserved an answer. But she didn’t really get one.

Duncan fielded the question. He said he “is a fan of Teach for America” and then talked about the importance of having different ways to bring new teachers into the classroom. “TFA is a piece of the answer,” he said.

Van Roekel, in response to a question, said he believes it is vital to “understand and know” that teaching “is a profession,” just like law and medicine. It takes more than just knowing some subject matter, and it takes real training, he said.

Duncan agreed that teaching should be seen as more of a profession, but didn’t explain how that squares with his support for Teach for America and other programs that provide minimal training to people who want to be teachers.

I wanted to ask him about that, but he left before O'Malley and Van Roekel because of a tight schedule.

So I asked O’Malley, and as part of my question, I asked whether he would want a child of his to be in a class with a teacher who was trained for five weeks.

First he questioned “the supposition” of my question, though I’m not sure what he meant. Maybe he doesn’t know the level of training that Teach for America teachers are given before they go into the classroom.

Then he said Maryland has “had some success” in attracting Teach for America teachers and that some had been successful in raising test scores in some schools. Standardized test scores again? He is measuring their success based on standardized test scores, which we know can be manipulated by test prep?

O’Malley is seen as a friend of public education by many people in that world. He received the 2010 America’s Greatest Education Governor Award from the NEA, the country’s largest teachers union.

I don’t know O’Malley, but he is obviously a very smart, thoughtful man, who, I think, knows that some of the reform being pushed by the Obama administration is suspect.

I think a lot of public officials in government and in the world of education know it. I wish more would publicly admit it.

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 18, 2010; 1:37 PM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, Teachers  | Tags:  arne duncan, dropout rates, education secretary arne duncan, education secretary duncan, gov. martin o'malley, gov. o'malley, jerry weast, martin o'malley, mcpa, montgomery blair high school, montgomery county public schools, national education association, nea, standardized tests, teach for america, teachers, teaching profession  
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"I don’t know O’Malley, but he is obviously a very smart, thoughtful man, who, I think, knows that some of the reform being pushed by the Obama administration is suspect."

I do know O'Malley and I disagree. He is not a smart, thoughtful man, but a hack who will do anything to get ahead politically. As mayor, his first move was to hire a police chief (Ed Norris) from the most corrupt police department in American and then ignore him while he embezzled pension money for personal use. His public career has been one where almost all of his policy and personnel choices have been bad, but he keeps getting elected to higher office. His unscripted statements never give any indication of a mind at work. I doubt he has done his homework on education, but he will try to follow the political winds. Right now, that's with Duncan and the plutocracy's takeover of public education.

Posted by: mcstowy | November 18, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Good reporting, Valerie!

O'Malley was talking through his hat when he said "some TFA teachers had some success..." what could less committal and less traceable than that?

Duncan was also talking through his hat. "I'm a big fan of ___" is a favorite line of his, or at least a favorite line for journalists to report. He’s quoted as being a big fan of Fenty and Rhee back in September, after the primary.

It sounds good, but it’s pretty noncommittal. It’s not like saying “I agree with them” or “I support them.” It’s just saying “I like them.”

Posted by: efavorite | November 18, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

"fan" references, above:

Posted by: efavorite | November 18, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse


In one of Valerie's recent columns, the writer - probably Diane Ravitch - compared Teach for America to doing a stint in the Peace Corps. I think that is the best analogy made so far.

I always thought the Peace Corps was a great program; I knew several people who went into it, and they worked very hard for people half way around the world. It opened their eyes to experiences they never could have had otherwise, and some of them learned a new language and went on to transfer what they had learned to a new field.

BUT - IT ONLY LASTED TWO YEARS, if that. Some quit before the two years because of the difficulty of the conditions. The Peace Corps did not make their workers professionals of anything, nor did they claim to.

Children and adolescents need continuity, among other things; in the settings of impoverished schools where many students have already lost one or both parents, to divorce, violence and/or drugs and cannot rely on the stability of their neighborhood, the last thing needed is teachers who constantly rotate their way out of the school.

The best suggestion I've read for TFA-type teachers trained in 5-week sessions is to be teacher assistants to experienced teachers - and - my suggestion - perhaps earn some extra credits while attending seminars during the year which is what good teaching programs often require during student teaching.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 18, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

My son had TFA teachers for a couple of years in a row at a charter in DC. My assessment is that they are not ready for the challenges and children know it an tend to rule the classroom because of it.. TFAers struggle tremendously to develop classroom management skills and conduct a cogent lesson. Some are confused. One TFaer though she could make friends swith the kid by letting them play in her hair, another one though a good way to break up a fight was to tear up the boys' paper airplanes-Not good, but life gets pretty desperate when you are young, ill informed and thrown into a situation where you are reaching for straws.
I will never again place my child with someone, no matter how well meaning who has neither the training nor the experience to adequately face the challenges before them. So I now ask whether his teachers have teaching credential and how many years of experience each has in teaching the subject they teach. They are all now fully certified , have advanced degrees in the subject teach and between 2-7 years in the classroom. I can not begin to tell you how sane life has become.

Posted by: rastajan | November 18, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse

I don't think it should be forgotten that in better economic times, teachers freshly minted from traditional teaching programs were not heading to teach in title one urban schools. In fact, there were so many students in struggling schools who had a new substitute teacher every other month because teaching positions couldn't be filled. This is why the Teach for America and other like programs began. A 5 week training program certainly doesn't create "an instant teacher"! But at the time, someone who was dedicated and wanted to be there was perceived as more beneficial than s revolving door of substitutes there just for paychecks. I do think it is unfortunate if TFA participants treat their experience like a stepping stone to "bigger and better places"! I agree with one blogger who mentioned a residency style learning experience under these programs. But, I do think that a degree should accompany this as well as a serious comittment. In other words, if you take the degree be prepared to be teaching for a minimum of 5 years so as to get a solid and realistic understanding of the profession. This way, it would attract people who are serious about being teachers. If a TFA is determined not to be a good teacher (unsatisfactory ratings), let them leave but require them to pay for the graduate courses they have taken free with this grant. There are MD Teaching Fellows in my school and they have been there for 4 years now. I must say that they are superb teachers and go the extra mile.

Posted by: teachermd | November 18, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

Thank you - PLmichaels...

Both the Peace corps analogy and the suggestion that TFA provide teacher assistants were my ideas. Glad you liked them!

Valerie did an article a while back that generated a very interesting discussion with TFA alums. You can read it here:

Posted by: efavorite | November 18, 2010 6:57 PM | Report abuse

to PLmichaels... thanks for the information. I will look it up. I actually had worked at a school at one point that had two TFA teachers. Although they were new teachers, they were good. But... both left after they had completed their second year. One went into business. I don't know what the other one did. I would be interested to hear what they have to say. I think there is a difference between alternative programs that take students right after completing college and programs that take older individuals who have an established career but want to make a change.

Posted by: teachermd | November 18, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

Duncan and Obama are pressuring O'Malley to support Nancy Grasmick's regulations which include attaching 50% of student growth to teacher and administrator evaluations.

Duncan's appointment has had a very negative impact on the Obama Adminstration. Too bad Obama is supportive of the debasement of teachers and public education.

This is DEFINITELY not the change I believe in.

Posted by: lacy41 | November 18, 2010 8:12 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Valarie for another insightful day of education issues.

O'Malley is unfortunately no friend of public education. We attended a "youth forum" with our two school-aged daughters back after his first election. An amazing and spontaneous conversation erupted during the forum; high school students articulated their own personal and many pervasive negative impacts of NCLB.

O'Malley responded with (feigned) enormous attention and amazement. He asked questions and rephrased the numerous statements. Kids were jumping out of their seats with story after story of how their teachers could no longer teach, how the NCLB policies had reduced their classrooms to test mills, how their AP experiences were destroyed.

Then teachers dared to speak out. It was a very unusual event in a then extremely paranoid county as the benefactors of a new ambitious superintendent with a major political ego (Eric J. Smith.)

Then parents spoke out, rounding out the emotional but quite obviously spontaneous eruption of truths that were never before discussed. We actually came to the event to try to talk with the Governor but we were absolutely unique in that we composed letters to make our voices heard about the damage and devastation from NCLB in our childrens classrooms. We had no idea that the students themselves would actually risk telling the truth. But they did. And they were from all accross the state of MD.

Well, O'Malled PROMISED that he was absolutely shaken by what he heard and that he would definitely get names and find out more and be a part of stopping the destructive forces of a NCLB school system.

We actually got to meet him, gave him our letters and looked very much forward to hearing something. But, we were fooled. We never did. Any he never spoke again about what happened.

And the press did not report it. And O'Malley was just like any other politician; he was acting.

What a shame. What a sad lesson for the people who believed that he must have cared--even a tiny bit that day.

The sad thing is: he did understand, very well, what was happening since NCLB....he just didn't see taking on a role against the loaded and politicized machine that is NCLB; it would be political suicide--at best a political attempt at suicide--and O'Malley is no Paul Wellstone; he does not have the nerve or the integrity to put his reputation on the line for what he KNOWS is wrong about NCLB and what is right, for us and for the future of American Public Education.

His own kids are exempt from the nasty odorless, colorless toxins of NCLB and RTTT. And for that, I am quite sure, he is endlessly thankful.

Posted by: realannie | November 18, 2010 9:00 PM | Report abuse

Page 11 of the newly released NAEP 12th grade study states:
“Racial/ethnic gaps persist
Score gaps in reading persisted between White students and their Black and Hispanic peers (figure 5). Neither the 27-point score gap in 2009 between White and Black students, nor the 22-point gap between White and Hispanic students was signifi¬cantly different from the score gaps in previous assessment years.”

Since “Teach for America” concentrates in low income majority Black/Hispanic areas, this suggests that TFA is doing nothing to affect the achievement gap.

Huge amounts of money go into supporting a program for already successful college grads that does nothing for the poor minority students it’s supposed to help.

Posted by: efavorite | November 19, 2010 6:59 AM | Report abuse

@teachermd: "I don't think it should be forgotten that in better economic times, teachers freshly minted from traditional teaching programs were not heading to teach in title one urban schools."

Because teacher pay is so lousy...and always has been. Has nothing to do with "economic times." That's why most people don't go into think otherwise is naiive. Even in good times, localities would rather spend money on "things" than salaries.

So...WHO IS speaking up for teachers? Other than Diane Ravitch, so far, no one. The NEA and AFT are doing what?

“Teachers used to be revered, they’ve been beaten down a little bit,” says Van Roekel. "A little bit"? That's an understatement. Somebody needs to "man-up" or "put their big girl panties on," and speak up for us. This is why I quit the NEA...all do. This is hardball.

The NEA talks about organizing, spends lots of member's dues on training for organizing, pays for organizer's, but obviously they can't organize their own way out of a paper bag.

It takes more than spending money on elections to get things done and become a player.

Posted by: ilcn | November 19, 2010 9:07 AM | Report abuse

Since Secretary Duncan is such a big fan of TFA, I know that he'll sign on to my proposal for "Doctors for America", by which bright young things can sign up for a crash course in medicine so that they can burnish their resumes and applications for graduate school by demonstrating that they can perform surgery and treat patients, whose lives will be immeasurably improved simply by the zeal and enthusiasm these enthusiastic amateurs will bring to medecine.

Preposterous, isn't it? We'd never dream of allowing a person with only five weeks of "training" anywhere near our health. Yet somehow we think that a program that basically allows dilettante college students to play with poor childrens' lives for two years is an acceptable use of money and time.

Posted by: sanderling5 | November 19, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

I've had plenty of experience with TFA - at their 5 week institute, mentoring their newbie teachers, and enduring them as my kids' teachers. The majority of TFAers do NOT strike me as people who want to enter the teaching profession. There are some wonderful exceptions, of course. But for TFA to claim they are a "critical source of well-trained teachers" is crazy. For the US Sec'y of Educ to be a "fan of TFA" is an embarrassment at best. (When he talks about educ things, it's generally embarrassing, I admit.)

Posted by: dcparent | November 19, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

@teachermd: "I don't think it should be forgotten that in better economic times, teachers freshly minted from traditional teaching programs were not heading to teach in title one urban schools."

Maybe so, and maybe TFA was a nice idea at it's inception - smart young grads for 2 years are probably better than a constant turnover of subs.

But TFA is NOT a source of well trained teachers and expanding it won't improve urban education. It hasn't so far - the achievement gap is stagnant nationally and widening in DC where many TFA's have been hired in the past few years.

Maybe our most problematic students need experienced, dedicated teachers. Let's try attracting them and see what happens. Worth a try, don't you think?

Posted by: efavorite | November 19, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

"Maybe our most problematic students need experienced, dedicated teachers. Let's try attracting them and see what happens. Worth a try, don't you think?"

I do, very much!!!

Who in their right mind would put up with the bs in public education and in the classroom since NCLB and RTTT?

The only "teachers" I know who are hanging in for a few more years are trying desperately to get out.

Who will be left will be people who like reading scripts and using scantrons. It is fast becoming a job for uncaring, unthinking, and the easily "trained" or coerced and controlled.

Posted by: realannie | November 19, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

as part of the NEA’s American Education Week -- to encourage young people to consider teaching as a profession...about the importance of increasing the number of minority teachers, and then Duncan...

Okay, Okay - so this is the same Arne Duncan who fired 5,000 or 6,000 mostly minority school teachers in Chicago. What happened, has he run out of minorities to fire, and he needs new ones to replace them?

Posted by: jlp19 | November 19, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

Oh, I forgot - because of RTTT requirements, schools with low test scores (conveniently located in the poorer economic areas of the country) will now have 1/2 their teachers fired. Since those teachers are largely minorities, Duncan wants new minority teachers to replace those that will be fired under RTTT.

Posted by: educationlover54 | November 21, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

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