February 19, 2014 by juicefong
The answer is no, I wasn’t online Monday night for the #ResistTFA Twitter chat. Over the weekend I got intractably addicted to House of Cards, and so I was hung up watching four straight episodes of great entertainment. I’m sure you can understand my priorities.
The debate about Teach For America rages on like a Sochi winter heatwave, but it doesn’t keep me up at night. Here is my take on the chatter.
Standard disclaimer: Yes, I work for Teach For America. However, no one in the organization tells me what to write nor edits anything here in my blog. None of my blogging or social media presence is a part of my job responsibilities.
First, let’s start with some quick math: Recent government data says there are about 3.7 million schoolteachers in the United States. In a recent year, about 8% of all teachers left the profession entirely. Holding teaching positions constant, that means we must find 296,000 new teachers each year. For the 2013-14 school year, Teach For America brought in just about 6,000 new teachers, filling just about 2% of those positions. This doesn’t even include the 281,000 roles left vacant each year by teachers who leave their positions and move to another school. So no matter your view on Teach For America teachers, they are a relatively small part of our nation’s education system, despite seeming like a hot topic in the little bubble we live in. Let’s have some perspective.
Now, a breakdown of four core arguments from TFA critics.
• TFA teachers are no good because they are only trained for five weeks. Three problems with this argument:
1) Look at the research on teacher effectiveness, which I always argue is mixed but shows TFA teachers on par with their peers. The most recent and widest-ever study by Mathematica showed that TFA math teachers produce an additional 2.6 months of learning in a given school year compared to peers in the same school from other teacher preparation programs. The jury may be out, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that TFA teachers are indeed effective.
2) Critics like to square up on the superficial argument that our training is short, while ignoring what additional benefit TFA provides in other factors that contribute to teacher efficacy. Of course teacher training is important, but the full continuum of teacher efficacy also includes selection, mindsets and ongoing professional development. Teach For America puts a heavy emphasis on its research-driven selection process that looks to identify mindsets and skills shown to be effective in the classroom, which is why it is difficult to get into the program. Selection matters, and by no means is TFA’s selection model the only effective method. Anyone who has been in the classroom knows you must always improve your craft, which is why the organization makes such a heavy investment in supporting its teachers. Ongoing professional development matters.
To say any teacher is excellent—or conversely, is vastly ineffective—based solely on the quality of their preparation is flawed. You can have two teachers from the same exact preparation program, one who excels, and one who flounders. Plain and simple: other factors are involved, though critics of TFA myopically focus on just the training. Teach For America’s approach is to employ a demanding selection process, invest heavily in ongoing support, and provide an intense and rigorous, albeit short training program. There is room for improvement at TFA along all parts of the continuum, but if you’re looking at outputs, see #1—our teachers perform similarly to their peers. You can always identify a portion of TFA teachers who aren’t adequately prepared for their teaching experience—and that’s on us. But until I see a teacher preparation program where all of their novice teachers are excelling in the hardest-to-staff classrooms, the “underprepared” argument just doesn’t have much punch. All of us in the business of selecting, training and supporting teachers can do a better job—that is the conversation we should be having.
3) I have a hard time stomaching the “TFA teachers are no good” argument because I actually visit a lot of our teachers around the country. Sure, some of them struggle, not unlike the rest of novice teachers. But the vast majority of TFA teachers I have seen are a real asset to their schools and communities, doing the hard work of teaching day in and day out, getting their kids excited to learn about the world they live in, which is why so many principals come back to us the next year asking for more of our teachers. Critics would see that if they bothered to visit. So go ahead, pat yourself on the back for trashing our teachers 140 characters at a time. I challenge you to visit a bunch of their classrooms, look them in the eye and say the same things.
• TFA teachers are a bunch of Ivy League elitists and cultural tourists. Out of 6,000 incoming corps members this year, 256 graduated from an Ivy League school—that’s 4%—and we actively recruit at 400 colleges and universities. (As for those Ivy Leaguers, we should be welcoming them into education, shouldn’t we?) In addition, a full 39% of the incoming cohort identify as people of color (compared to 17% nationally), and a separate but overlapping 39% received Pell Grants in college. A total of 55% of our incoming teachers fall into at least one those categories and 27% of our new teachers were the first in their family to attend college. A while back, the organization made a push to make our teacher corps more and more diverse. We have improved and will continue.
• TFA teachers contribute to high teacher turnover rates. I have the least beef with this argument because I’d like to see more of our teachers stay, and stay for the long haul, because I know they can be a tremendous asset to their schools. The facts: 60% of TFA teachers stay to teach a third year or beyond and fully 1/3 of TFA alumni are still in the classroom. Altogether, 79% of our alumni have a job that impacts education and 63% of all alumni still serve directly in education—take a look at this Forbes list of “30 under 30 in education,” which includes 9 of our alumni. But we still celebrate those who have gone on in pursuit of leadership in other fields, knowing they will be champions for kids and public education. These include the 4% of our alumni in business, another 4% in law, 3% in government and 5% in health, including several of my friends who went on to be pediatricians after their teaching experience. A full 83% of our alumni still work in a profession that impacts low-income communities. What other teacher preparation program can say that? Never mind that 40% of undergraduate education majors never even step into the classroom.
Still, critics are right. Our schools would benefit from TFA teachers staying longer than two or three years (so they’ll have to let go of the “TFA teachers suck” argument, eh?). Stability helps schools. But the truth is that high teacher turnover in low-income communities is hardly novel to Teach For America—this has been going on long before TFA began. But TFA should contribute to the solution, not the problem. What can we do systemically to retain great teachers in our hardest-to-staff schools? That is the question we should be asking. Teach For America is campaigning hard to honor its longtime teachers and encourage others to stay, but there is more to be done.
• TFA is trying to undermine public education—in particular, sending underprepared, high-mobility teachers (see above) to weaken public schools and therefore cause a private takeover by charter schools.
Where to begin? Teach For America is agnostic about working with traditional district schools and public charter schools—it works with both. As I’ve written before, charter schools are public schools and provide quality school options at no cost to families all across America. They come in all shapes and sizes and allow for a broader selection of public schools for parents eager for another choice. Some have tried to claim that charters are a conspiracy to privatize education. In reality, charter operators I know—and I serve on the board of one—are focused on providing a great education for their children using public money, accountable to public entities. In many communities across the country, the presence of many high quality charter schools, if anything, has strengthened the public education options for parents.
As for Teach For America’s part, this conspiracy claim is unfounded. First, it is always the organization’s intention to deliver great teachers it believes will make a real difference in children’s lives—I can tell you from being on the inside for nearly four years that the organization is obsessed over this. Every time a teacher does not meet that bar, it is a failure on the organization, and I can tell you that our people beat themselves up over these shortcomings.
In my time working at TFA I’ve been given incredible access to the organization’s leaders, from its CEOs to executive directors of its 48 regions and even to board members. If there is some conspiracy to tear down public education, I have somehow failed to sniff it out amidst hundreds of conversations I’ve had with the organization’s leadership. Outsiders can conjecture all they want. I know that Teach For America is an important part of the wide effort to strengthen our public schools.
So, what’s really going on here? Are we having an intelligent debate about the future of our education system? Are we looking around the table and asking each other what needs to change in order for us to deliver an excellent education to every child in America? Are we looking at the facts and finding moments to praise good work and offering to help where better work is needed, like good educators do?
Or are we engaging in nasty, vitriolic politics? Are we spending more time tearing educators down than building them up? Are we building walls and militias and drawing lines in the sand instead of working together? Are we expending a disproportionate degree of energy focusing on a small fraction of the education system?
There are a lot of “No, no, no!” and “Conspiracy, conspiracy, conspiracy!” people who have gotten involved in the #ResistTFA Twitter chat. They’re angry, they probably do care about kids and education, but their actions are often unbecoming of what good educators should be demonstrating—they employ noise, rhetoric and vitriol instead of bringing level-headed solutions to the table.
Frankly, I’m more interested in having intelligent, thoughtful and critical conversations with people who see the entire education system for what it is, or even in this case, the entirety of Teach For America for what it is. Absolutely—Teach For America has issues to resolve. The organization and its teachers are also doing a ton of great work to bring a quality public education to so many children across the country. There’s no denying it.
There’s a lot to fix in just about every corner of the education system, Teach For America being no exception. Let’s take a good look around the table, a good look in the mirror, and get busy working on all of that.
You can find me on the Twitter, @jgfong.