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The names and players change, but many of the same education themes we’re debating today – teacher evaluations, teacher tenure, school discipline – are reruns of issues that have existed since the early years of public education in America.
Either you’re a reformer who want to see schools fail and rebuilt as private corporations, or you’re a shill for teachers unions and a defender of the lackluster status quo. Pick a side, friend; there’s no in-between.
The problem is once an idea or reform gets placed at one end of the reformer-teachers union spectrum, its potential benefits are obscured by attacks.
Take Teach for America, which I wrote about earlier this week. In San Diego, the program is successfully pulling in a diverse group of recruits willing to teach in high-need areas, and supporting new teachers once they’re in the classroom.
Like clockwork, the comments section to that story quickly flooded with criticisms of Teach for America.
“Talk about your boosterism!” wrote Doug Porter of the San Diego Free Press. There’s data that casts doubt the organization’s effectiveness, he wrote. There was the story about the teacher who quit TFA, because she felt ill-equipped to deal with the behavioral problems she faced in her Atlanta classroom.
Certainly those stories paint a concerning picture of the organization. But take a look of those claims one by one, and they look a little less black and white.
That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate concerns with TFA – some of which its officials have recognized – but many of the problems the organization is blamed for are actually a limitation of the education system, not TFA itself.
And fairly or otherwise, some of the residual skepticism is aimed at TFA’s local chapter, even though they’re new in San Diego.
Here’s a quick list I put together of the most common gripes directed at Teach for America, ranked by the most legitimate claims to those that are disingenuous and dumb.
TFA corps members only stick around for two years.
It’s true that many TFA corps members leave the classroom after their two-year service commitments. Nationally, about 60 percent of TFA corps members stay on for a third year, and the numbers drop after that.
But that stat overlooks the fact that teaching, in general, is a high-turnover profession. And national research shows it’s worse when we look at teachers who work in urban schools – only about half of those teachers last past their fifth year.
Studies have shown that student learning is negatively impacted by turnover. TFA is rolling out two pilot programs to address the trends – one in which its members are given a year of pre-service training before they’re assigned to schools, and another that encourages members to stay in the classroom for up to five years.
The point is, by focusing solely on TFA as an agent for the quick-churn model, we’re wasting an opportunity to talk about the kinds of supports that keep teachers in the profession for the long haul.
TFA corps members are just padding their resumes on their way to Wall Street.
This is a pretty popular criticism, some of which TFA has helped perpetuate.
In its early years, TFA founder Wendy Kopp pitched the organization to idealistic Ivy Leaguers as a way to give back, if only for two years before they headed onto a long-term career – whether it was in education or another field.
And just a couple years ago, TFA launched a partnership with Goldman Sachs, where corps members were guaranteed jobs with the investment bank after their two-year commitments.
Those connections typically don’t sit well with the more liberal-leaning members of the teaching force.
The underlying argument is that TFA members aren’t truly committed to the profession.
Last year, San Diego Unified and the teachers union put together a Teacher Pipeline Task Force to figure out how the district can deepen its teacher pool.
One union rep and member of that team, Jonathon Mello, threw shade at TFA this month when he told the school board the kind of teachers the district should seek: “Task force members viewed the classroom … not as a stop on the way to Wall Street, but a place in which to build long-term community of diverse, highly qualified, culturally competent educators working together in quality neighborhood schools.”
The clear subtext: Those TFA newbies are in it for themselves – and they’ll be gone soon.
But this neglects the fact that nationally, about two-thirds TFA’s 37,000 alumni remain in education, even if they leave the classroom. This could include administration, or working for an education think tank that conducts research and makes policy recommendations.
They don’t know how to respond to misbehaving students.
For the teacher who famously quit TFA, a big part of her argument was that she felt unprepared to deal with the sort of behavioral challenges she saw in her first year in an Atlanta public school classroom.
Education writer Dana Goldstein describes TFA corps members’ responses to misbehavior that looked scripted and flat.
These critiques are probably true.
Yet there’s little consensus about the best way to handle students who act out. Last month, NPR broadcast a fantastic story about how educators are handling misbehavior. The gist: Teachers are basically winging it.
Districts across the nation are coming to terms that they’re disproportionately suspending black and Latino students. San Diego Unified is starting to shift away from the zero-tolerance, punishment-focused policies of the past, but time will tell whether its new approach will impact the numbers.
In short, responding to misbehavior is a real concern – but not just for TFA.
TFA corps members are no more effective than traditional teachers.
The general consensus is that TFA corps members perform about the same as all other teachers when it comes to raising student test scores, and only slightly better when it comes to math – one subject area where a teacher’s educational background has been shown to translate most to student learning.
Critics often point to the former to say: Look, for all the fanfare, TFA corps members don’t help students any more than traditionally trained teachers. But, as The Daily Beast noted, this completely misses the point.
That’s all a sideshow to the real message from the research: How are TFA teachers even coming close to performing as well as their traditionally trained peers? As critics are always pointing out, these are (mostly) 22-year-old kids with five weeks of formal preparation for stepping into some of the toughest classrooms in the U.S. That they do about as well as their traditionally trained peers isn’t so much a TFA success story as a national scandal for our traditional teacher prep programs, which prepare 80 percent of American teachers.
TFA gets its money from corporate philanthropists.
TFA, along with charter schools, catches a lot of flak about where it gets its money. The thinking is that if money comes from a corporation, the organization must have a corporate agenda.
TFA has received millions from the Walton Family Foundation, the family that owns Walmart, the Washington Post points out.
The Post also mentions the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation as key players in the education reform movement, both of which have donated to TFA.
Nevermind that both the Gates and Broad foundations have given plenty to actual school districts, including San Diego Unified. In fact, Kearny High School, which is broken into four small high schools that connect students to careers, adheres to a model established with Gates’ support.
And San Diego Unified was certainly coveting the $150,000 in scholarship money it won from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation in 2013. The prize is awarded to urban school districts that narrow the achievement gap. Last year, the district was a finalist for the award, and wasn’t shy about trumpeting it.
So the message is that corporate money has a corrupting influence, unless of course we can have some of it.