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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 03/ 9/2011

Teach for America alum: Where TFA falls short

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by Kristoffer Kohl, a former Teach For America corps member. He recently worked with a team of accomplished teachers from around the country to produce “Transforming School Conditions: Building Bridges to the Education System that Students and Teachers Deserve,” a detailed report with recommendations on what is needed to bring about effective and sustainable school reform.

Teach for America is an organization that recruits top college graduates, gives them five weeks of training and then sends them into high-poverty schools as teachers for a commitment of two years. I have written before about problems I see in sending young people with little training into classrooms where needy students deserve the very best teachers. I've also published a piece by historian Diane Ravitch about problems with Teach for America. Kohl, not surprisingly, takes a different tact in this piece.

By Kristoffer Kohl
With alumni from Teach For America gathering in Washington, D.C., recently for their 20th anniversary summit, it is worth considering how the organization is meeting and falling short of the demands of an evolving profession.

Beginning in the early 1990s, TFA sought to help overcome vast socio-economic disparities to bring quality education to classrooms around the country. While TFA should be lauded for its efforts in neglected communities, its mission should be updated to accommodate the demands of the modern classroom and economy.

In the book "Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools--Now and in the Future," the authors, who include Barnett Barry, remind us that teachers must possess five essential skills to meet the demands of 21st century learners:

*Teach the Googled learner, who has grown up on virtual reality games and can find the answer to just about anything will a few taps of the finger.

*Prepare students to compete for jobs in a global marketplace where communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creative problem solving are the “new basics”.

*Help students monitor their own learning using sophisticated tools to assess whether they meet high academic standards and fine-tune instruction when they don’t.

*Work with an increasingly diverse student body.

*Connect teaching to the needs of communities as economic conditions create family and societal instability, pushing schools to integrate health and social services with academic learning.

TFA has much to celebrate, but it also has much to improve if it is to contribute to shrinking a stubborn achievement gap that will only grow wider as high unemployment persists. The organization will exacerbate the achievement gap if it does not re-evaluate how it prepares and supports teachers in light of the realities listed above.

Area of strength: working in diverse communities

One of Teach For America’s areas of expertise is working with diverse communities to overcome language barriers and promote success in the classroom. In addition to its stated goal of recruiting a more diverse group of college graduates, TFA’s support mechanisms provide a wealth of knowledge and resources regarding the engagement of English language learners that would benefit districts, teacher education programs, and charter schools. From my days as a corps member, I recall learning how regular conferences with language learners and their parents demonstrated how hard work was translating to progress. Recognizing the fruits of their labor, parents and students redoubled their efforts.

The mission of closing the nation’s achievement gap is not going to be met by an organization that places less than 2% of new teachers, so TFA should be sharing its data, resources, expertise, and methods with whoever demonstrates interest. Schools of education, district recruitment officers, and professional development groups would be interested to learn how TFA is able to establish instructional proficiency in individuals lacking a background in pedagogy.

Such consultation could generate revenue that would go a long way toward establishing the organization as an enduring institution that doesn’t have to rely on government grants and charitable contributions.

Given the organization’s presence in 39 (soon to be 60) of the country’s most impoverished communities, TFA is accustomed to investing students, families, and other stakeholders in the hard work required to achieve. Again, these practices should be shared with the broader community of educators on a more formal basis. TFA could establish a virtual academy at a nominal cost for new and veteran teachers interested in learning from its methods.

TFA’s theory of change assumes that alumni will move in to positions of leadership in various fields following their time in the classroom. While there are numerous examples of TFA alumni influencing the levers of change in education, the organization should place greater emphasis on what corps members do if they choose to leave the classroom.

Alumni working outside of education should be better organized to contribute their new skill sets to local schools in the form of legal advice, medical care, civic engagement, student mentoring, college counseling, and after-school programming. Even better, combine all of the above into TFA \-sponsored community clinics that provide a robust array of services similar to those of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Rather than abandoning those that stay in the classroom beyond their two-year commitment, TFA should invest additional support in these teachers to ensure they become instructional experts that are capable of sharing their expertise with other professionals.

Area for improvement: defining student achievement

With its emphasis on gains that can be measured on traditional paper and pencil assessments, Teach For America is reinforcing 20th century modes of teaching, thinking, and learning.

While alumni may have their hands in some of the most innovative schools in the country, the everyday corps member is not pushing their students to collaborate, design, and create because the organization remains stuck in antiquated definitions of student achievement that can be measured by multiple choice tests. Requiring teachers to strive for 1.5 grade-levels of growth in reading comprehension, fluency, or math skills on high stakes tests neglects the intangible assets that cannot be so easily measured, such as initiative, curiosity, and imagination.

The focus on ’easy’ data that quantify student progress neglects the softer variables that are increasingly in demand in the knowledge economy. The traditional, misguided refrain is that students must master the basics before they can engage with higher modes of thinking, but this position serves only to reinforce reliance on the “old basics” when it comes to measuring student achievement. Instead of preparing students for an environment that requires them to think, question, analyze, and adapt to new information, TFA is holding corps members accountable to what can be easily tested.

A more fitting focus for TFA would be on performance assessments that demonstrate higher cognitive demands. The organization should be pioneering measures of student progress that cannot be measured by traditional testing regimes by leveraging its considerable resources and human capital (thousands of the nation’s best and brightest) to create exemplars of 21st century learning activities. It should demonstrate how academic content can be used as a vehicle for students to develop the communication, problem solving, and critical thinking skills that will be in demand when they enter the workforce.

If TFA continues to ignore the evolving nature of teaching in its development and support of recruits, then it will be in danger of contributing to the achievement gap by inadequately preparing students in some of our most challenging schools for the marketplace.

Hopefully such concerns were considered at the recent conference, somewhere in between John Legend’s performance and President Obama’s pre-recorded remarks.

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By Valerie Strauss  | March 9, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  21st century classrooms, teach for america, teachers  
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Comments

"Teach the Googled learner, who has grown up on virtual reality games and can find the answer to just about anything will a few taps of the finger."
If you can't read, or are not a strong visual/auditory processor, Googling something is not a solution. Sifting through the avalanche of data 'Googling' provides requires some 'old' basics: persistence and patience.

"*Prepare students to compete for jobs in a global marketplace where communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creative problem solving are the “new basics”.
These skills are not new; name a championship sports team at any level that doesn't employ these skills to succeed. Name a team of engineers trying to eek out 1-2% more efficiency from a turbine blade design that doesn't employ these skills to meet a performance/schedule/cost goal.

"*Connect teaching to the needs of communities as economic conditions create family and societal instability, pushing schools to integrate health and social services with academic learning."
Assuming Mr. Khol has only been an educator, did he reach out to the local businesses in his school's community to find out what they wanted from graduates, or may even reached out to places like Boeing, McDonald's, or local construction firms to find out the same? Asking schools to do more costs more; where's that money coming from?

"The traditional, misguided refrain is that students must master the basics before they can engage with higher modes of thinking,"
So I can play cello in the Los Angeles Symphony without mastering the scales and chords on the instrument? I can fly a Gulfstream G550 without first having flown a Cessna 152? Could Mr. Kohl have written this essay without mastering the fundamentals of sentence structure & grammar? This philosophy has been one of the most insidious and detrimental foisted upon urban students in the past 20-30 years. Bloom's Taxonomy is indeed a hierarchy; if you do not have a store of knowledge and skills from which to draw you CANNOT evaluate, analyze or create new ideas/knowledge.
I agree that our assessments must be more cognitively demanding, but our urban students will never succeed under those expectations since they aren't achieving under the current flawed ones. I get students now with worse arithmetic skills than I did 8 years ago; 'just using a calculator' isn't the solution if you have no concept of what those buttons are doing.

Having been 'in the marketplace' prior teaching, what students need now is no different than what they've always needed; Mr. Kohl's call for 'new basics' sounds as dangerous as our dreaded calls for 'new math' 40+ years ago.

Posted by: pdexiii | March 9, 2011 8:33 AM | Report abuse

"*Teach the Googled learner, who has grown up on virtual reality games and can find the answer to just about anything will a few taps of the finger."

The idea of the "Googled learner" is a fallacy for many students in many schools. For every student out there who knows more about technology than their teachers, there are several others who are pretty much technologically illiterate or even resistant to using to technology. Technology skills are like pretty much everything else in our society today, highly stratified and inequitable. Using Facebook, playing first-person shooter games, and Googling "stuff" doesn't mean you're technologically literate. When asked what their source is, many students respond, "Google." Google isn't a source people. And don't give me information from Yahoo answers or eCheat. It's not the students' fault. They haven't been taught.

Posted by: stevendphoto | March 9, 2011 8:49 AM | Report abuse

My overriding question as always is, how are TFA teachers or any teachers prepared in their training to capture the attention of troubled students? Nothing gets learned until that happens and I see very little discussion of it here or anywhere else. If TFA has some kind of magical formula for teaching people this skill in five weeks then yes, they should share it. I am deeply skeptical.

Posted by: mcnyc | March 9, 2011 8:50 AM | Report abuse

My overriding question as always is, how are TFA teachers or any teachers prepared in their training to capture the attention of troubled students?

Amen to that! I heard schools had begun to address that when NCLB was passed. As a result of NCLB schools stopped addressing this issue. They turned their money and their attention to standardized tests instead.

All those people who criticize public school teachers don't take this into account.

Charters and private schools can remove emotionally troubled children - public schools can't.

Posted by: jlp19 | March 9, 2011 9:11 AM | Report abuse

@jlp19:
My experience is charter schools don't remove 'emotionally troubled' children. What they do is hold ALL students up to expectations, and those that make no effort to abide by them must find another school. The real tragedy with all schools is we tolerate behavior in children that's unacceptable in civil society because of money; even public schools need 'butts in the seats' to maintain funding. I have faith in students that they will meet the expectations we set for them if ALL ADULTS hold them to it.
If public schools held students accountable indeed there would be schools for those students who can't conduct themselves civilly. In time, though, students will realize that 'those schools don't mess around,' and they will rise to the expectation. For those students with identified disabilities we could more closely focus our energy and resources on those students who truly need it versus those who simply seek to get away with what they think they can.

Posted by: pdexiii | March 9, 2011 10:49 AM | Report abuse

To me it sounds like a TFA grad's scheme for making $$ off the educational system --
First scare everyone into thinking totally new skills are needed for 21st century learning, then convince people that because they are TFA and therefore smarter than everyone else, they have the answers!

Then show their ignorance by proposing ideas, which, as pdx3iii rightly points out, sounds as silly and dangerous as some of the "innovations" of the past --that, of course, the TFA grads know anything about.

This guy might be a total con man, or completely naive. Not a good sign, either way.

Posted by: efavorite | March 9, 2011 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Was this TFA promo for "balance?" In a shrinking economy, providing untrained, culturally insensitive, scripted interns to act as corporate missionaries to our poorest students, and to do it for fees that divert money from real education funding, is a crime.

Instead of the corporate-funded education fads like "small schools," TFA, KIPP, RTTT, etc., why not learn from what works in large PUBLIC schools? Richmond, VA whent from one of the worst school systems in Virginia in 2000 to one of the best using curricular changes based on research and teacher recommendations, and implemented by Dr. Deborah Jewell-Sherman, a Superintendent with over 30 years in education and a Doctorate. Or Brockton, MA high school, where a 4000-student high school in a poor city was transformed from failing to a 98% graduation rate, and 78% college matriculation rate through curricular changes lead by (Unionized) teachers. Perhaps people with education and experience in education know something that the TFA interns and their "TFA’s theory of change" mythology miss: a long-term commitment to childrena nd education.

Posted by: mcstowy | March 9, 2011 11:51 AM | Report abuse

"My experience charter schools don't remove 'emotionally troubled' children. What they do is hold ALL students up to expectations, and those that make no effort to abide by them must find another school."

But there's the rub. A public school cannot tell a child he/she must find another school--at least not in my city. I'm not criticizing charters, necessarily, I'm saying good teachers have to know how to deal with all kinds of student behavior. I see very little discussion of those particular skills, which, if you don't have them, you don't really have your students and not much gets learned.

Posted by: mcnyc | March 9, 2011 5:08 PM | Report abuse

pdexiii wrote:

Bloom's Taxonomy is indeed a hierarchy; if you do not have a store of knowledge and skills from which to draw you CANNOT evaluate, analyze or create new ideas/knowledge.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I read the full book Parts I and II. The first part is the Cognitive part. In the intro he says you don't need to start at the lowest level. It is just a model, but not to be strictly adhered to.

But you make some good points. I think what you're saying is with the learning of mathematics the students aren't memorizing the algorithmic part, that is the recipe part for the basics. A teacher likened it to driving a car. You don't need to understand its inner workings completely to drive it, but you do need the algorithms.

The second problem is as the students move higher, the cognitive or thinking part is more necessary and needs to be done much more slowly once the algorithmic parts for the basics are mastered. Otherwise, you get algorithmic nonsense at the higher levels, especially with lower level students.

Finally, I think we need to go back to tracking, but keeping a rich curriculum for the lower level students at their level.

I think these are the modern problems we face with mathematics teaching today.


Posted by: Playitagainsam | March 9, 2011 9:16 PM | Report abuse

Although I think TFA teachers do a lot of good, Kohl's post expresses the usual TFA presumption that TFA is the font of all wisdom in education, and that it has nothing to learn from anyone with experience in public education. The stated goal of having people spend two years in the classroom and then moving into positions in which they can influence "the levers of change in education" shows the organization's disregard for the experience of classroom teachers.

The first TFA person I ever encountered was back in 1990. I remember an arrogant young man who had been practice teaching for a few days pontificating to everyone in the teachers' lunch room about how to manage and discipline children. If he had bothered to ask questions and listen, he would have found that he was in a school with an unusually accomplished group of teachers who were known for collaboration. It was a favored assignment for student teachers. But he was too full of himself to imagine that he could learn anything from a group of career teachers.

I used to think that that person's attitude had nothing to do with TFA, but it seems that the organization cultivates contempt for career teachers.

Posted by: aed3 | March 9, 2011 9:51 PM | Report abuse

Just as bad as the 'educrats' who pontifcate from their little university offices about how to teach. "Higher order thinking" is impossible, as someone pointed out (too amused and irritated at the same time to go back and look), without knowing the basics. States instituted standardized tests, not because they felt higher order thinking wasn't being taught, but because the basics weren't being taught. Of course, the basic standard as devolved over the years.

She'll make a great principal.

Posted by: peonteacher | March 9, 2011 9:56 PM | Report abuse

Should we pay close attention to what a recent college graduate believes about the structure of work and industry, especially one who has been teaching children since graduation?
Or should we suspect that he wishes to have and deploy the skills which, in the software industry used to be known as the construction of "vaporware", deals, lists of desiderata, promises, and confidences? In short, everything BUT the functioning code. Cronyism among and for our best young 'uns!!!

Sheesh, there are young fundamentalists from selected universities and especially law schools who are similarly convinced their loyalty to one another is admirable, and that well-placed predecessors will hoist them up over the gunwales, not as pirates but as saviours' apprentices, to save the ship of state and barge of commerce.

Posted by: incredulous | March 10, 2011 4:50 PM | Report abuse

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