Valerie vs. Jay on Teach for America, KIPP, etc.
My friend and incomparable colleague Jay Mathews came up with the idea for us to have a little debate. He was, he said, "irked" by something I wrote in a column about Teach for America.
Here is how Jay introduced the debate on his great Class Struggle blog:
My colleague Valerie Strauss, czarina of the irresistible The Answer Sheet blog on washingtonpost.com, and I rarely get to see each other. She works in the big newsroom on 15th St. NW in Washington. For many years I was across the Potomac in the Post’s Alexandria bureau. Now I work in a spare bedroom of my house in Bethesda, with the two family cats walking over my keyboard.
But we do have interesting arguments, and occasionally share them with readers. Here is one she started by saying something in her column, which runs regularly in the Post’s Monday Metro section, that irked me:
Mathews: You nicely exposed Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s incomplete knowledge of Teach For America in your recent column on The Answer Sheet blog. You summed up the program very well: "It attracts some of the smartest college graduates, gives them five weeks of training and then places them in schools in low-income communities--to teach children who really need the best-trained, most inspirational teachers--with a commitment that they stay for two years."
You are right to question their initial classroom weaknesses, having only had five weeks training. But here is my question. The Knowledge Is Power Program, which has provided just that kind of inspirational teaching through its network of 99 charter schools, with unprecented success in raising achievement, would not exist if Teach For America had not persuaded its co-founders, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, to try teaching. We both know many other great teachers who came up through TFA. Don’t you think our education system would be worse off without them?
Strauss: My short answer to your question is not so much.
Teach for America and KIPP are the darlings of the philanthropic world, as well as the U.S. Department of Education, which just awarded each of them $50 million.
But they both represent small-scale thinking. It’s taken KIPP 16 years to open 99 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia for a little more than 26,000 kids. Some studies show that some of these schools have had a very high attrition rate. There are more than 49 million students in K-12 public schools. I’m delighted for KIPP kids, but they are a tiny fraction of the whole.
TFA has, it is true, helped make teaching sexy again among a certain young set, and I’m sure it produces some teachers who turn out to be terrific. But I don’t know what important question it answers. Our nation has more than 3 million teachers; we need to replace 300,000 who leave every year. TFA sent 4,500 teachers with little training into some of the nation’s neediest schools this past fall. Regular teacher attrition is about 50 percent after five years; the percentage is higher for TFA teachers after just a few years. How does that solve the need to improve the profession?
No high performing nation in the world depends on a revolving pool of inexperienced teachers to fix its education system. Why should we?
Mathews: Because we haven’t come up with anything better yet, and we don’t have the funds now to try something like the systems in Finland, Singapore and Korea. Here in the world we inhabit, how would you come up with the teachers that TFA provides? I realize studies have shown them doing only as well on average as new teachers coming out of education schools, but a new study of Tennessee teachers shows the TFA cohort doing much better than the ed school bunch.
More importantly, you haven’t answered my question yet. With what would you substitute the power of TFA to lure some of our smartest and most energetic new college grads into teaching, and unleash their creative energy for the good of our students, as happened with the KIPP founders? Remember, the TFA numbers don’t give you the entire sweep of such programs. There are many local TFA-like teacher placement organizations in our bigger cities.
Strauss: I thought I did answer your question, but I’ll try again. Do we need more funds to improve our system? We need to redirect the billions of dollars now being wasted on phony accountability systems, data systems that don’t tell us much and new generations of high-stakes standardized tests. And we need money to help get kids out of poverty.
I don’t think that people with great SAT scores who go to Ivy League and Ivy League-plus schools are necessarily any better fit to be teachers than students who don’t. That reeks of elitism. Aren’t you the one who wrote the great book Harvard Schmarvard?
Teaching is not a science, even if Michelle Rhee says it is; it is an art, and it requires a lot of learning. Because many traditional educational programs are wanting doesn’t mean that teachers don’t need serious solid training. It means our programs need to be improved. The idea that TFA/similar programs are any better at producing them than the traditional route seems, at best, unproven.
Can you get a great teacher by plopping anybody -- from Teach for America, or similar programs -- into a classroom after five or so weeks of training? Sure, but outliers don’t make good policy. I won’t mention how insulting it is to professional teachers with traditional training.
Look, Jay, there’s no guarantee anybody will be a great teacher. The key is to get rid of the lousy teachers -- and yes, there are way too many -- and help the teachers we do have to improve while attracting people with real commitments to teaching. That means beyond just the two years required by TFA.
Mathews: I forgive you trying to spread that myth that KIPP schools have poor student retention rates. Nationally they are doing about as well as regular schools in their neighborhoods, and some KIPP schools are doing better. Your ideas about how to improve schools, and thus teachers, are excellent. But I don't know if you can count on the diversion of the billions of dollars you say we are spending on accountability systems. Test-driven accountability is here to stay. Politicians who try to campaign against it are swiftly undercut by opponents who say, "What? You don't want to make our schools accountable for all the money we spend on them?"
Start a program that lures more bright and energetic teacher prospects (the vast majority of such people do not attend the Ivy League) into a training program that suits you better than TFA, and I will applaud. But let's not dump on a program that is doing some good. Fixing schools is going to need many varied approaches from people with different ideas, like you and me and our blogs. Happy holidays.
Strauss: I can’t be the only person who is not willing to accept test-driven accountability as it is today. The tests don’t provide real accountability. That's unacceptable to me. As for a new program to lure more bright and energetic teacher prospects, well, I don’t think we need new ones. We need to deal with the ones we’ve already got; let’s get rid of the bad ones, improve the average ones and laud and learn from the great ones. Thanks for dreaming up this debate, Jay. Let’s do it again soon. And with that, I will wish you, my friend, and the most knowledgeable education reporter in the world, happy holidays and the best new year.
Follow my blog every day by bookmarking washingtonpost.com/answersheet. And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at washingtonpost.com/higher-ed Bookmark it!
| December 10, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories: Teachers | Tags: education programs, education schools, jay mathews, kipp, mathews strauss debate, teach for america, teach for america debate, teacher education, teachers, valerie strauss
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