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Published in Print: March 16, 2011, as Perspectives on TFA

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Perspectives on TFA

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Education Week asked five leaders in the education sector to give their views on Teach For America’s past, present, and future.

| TEACHING & UNIONS |

Randi Weingarten
Randi Weingarten

The American Federation of Teachers and Teach For America share more than the letters in our initials. We share the goal of ensuring that all children have access to the excellent education they need to succeed in life. Frankly, our organizations have had both successes and struggles in our attempts to move closer to that goal.

Teach For America has attracted thousands of highly educated, idealistic young people to undertake one of the toughest jobs out there in some of the most challenging environments. But even a top-notch college education and a deep desire to make a difference in children’s lives are not always enough to master the complexities and challenges of teaching.

All teachers benefit from adequate preparation for the realities of the classroom, so that they have grounding in curriculum, pedagogy, and classroom management before they are responsible for a class full of children. All teachers, especially new teachers in challenging environments, benefit from support from accomplished colleagues. TFA gets mixed reviews for the preparation and support of its recruits, many of whom (like other new teachers) struggle and leave the profession after a short time in the classroom.

There is no doubt that job patterns are changing—no longer do most people stay with a single employer or profession for their entire careers. In fact, a short stint in the classroom is an implicit feature of the TFA design. But mastery and continuity are still very important in certain professions, teaching chief among them, and research and experience show that teachers are just starting to hit their stride at about the point when most TFA members leave teaching.

TFA and the AFT can complement each other. TFA has been remarkably successful in bringing bright people into the profession who otherwise might not have considered it. It has created online communities that provide teachers much-needed peer support. But teachers can’t do it all, and they can’t do it alone. The AFT works to secure the supports, tools, and conditions teachers need to help their students succeed. We have led efforts to help school districts implement ongoing, high-quality professional development and meaningful evaluations, both of which we know that new teachers, especially, seek as they learn the ropes of this challenging profession.

TFA launched its first recruits into classrooms during an economic recession, and it rings in its 20th anniversary during another period of economic austerity. Regrettably, some school systems have laid off teachers because of fiscal constraints and hired TFA members in their place. Educators are all in this together. One group should not be pitted against another, when our focus must be on the devastating cuts that threaten great harm to a generation of children.

For the benefit of America’s children, I hope we can work together to unite the extraordinary success TFA has had in attracting people to teaching with the AFT’s desire to help them make it a profession.

Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers.


| THE STUDENTS |

Steve Zimmer
Steve Zimmer

In 1992, I applied to Teach For America as a long shot. Someone from TFA called me in April (this was before e-mail) to let me know they had accepted me, but they didn’t know if I’d get a placement. Then, I heard nothing more.

After graduating from college, I went to Michigan to look for a job with a labor union. In June, the United Auto Workers offered me a college-organizer post, and I figured I should call TFA before I accepted. They kept me on hold for more than an hour. When a woman finally came back on the line, she told me someone had meant to call me, but TFA had lost my number. I was assigned to teach English in South Central Los Angeles. I was supposed to be there in three days.

A week later, I stepped off a chartered bus to start student-teaching at Jefferson High School. It was the first day the school was open after the riots over the acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King beating. National Guardsmen still patrolled the streets, and the air was heavy with the smell of a burned community.

I will never forget the students I taught that summer. We read Sandra Cisneros, Malcolm X, and Flannery O’Connor. I was horrible. I had no sense of how to assess my students, how to check for understanding, how to differentiate instruction. The students were remarkable. We struggled together. I struggled to remember how to listen, to drown out the volume of white privilege tempting me that I knew best, that I really knew anything at all. They struggled to get to and from school safely every day. Konisha had a baby boy, and Juan got shot in the arm on a Saturday night. (Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.) We finished Of Mice And Men two days before the end of the summer.

I cried when I found out there wouldn’t be a place for me at Jefferson in the fall. I got thrown into the Los Angeles school district’s teacher hopper and was spit out at Marshall High School. The school needed ESL teachers. I didn’t even know what ESL (English as a second language) was. I started the next day.

During my 17th year of teaching, I was approached by an alum who had become the executive director of TFA in Los Angeles. I had been her mentor when she was a first-year corps member, and she asked me to consider running for the school board. My campaign was an even mix of union folks and TFA alums. Like TFA itself, we thought we could change the world. I was wrong, but I don’t think TFA is.

Today, I’m one of seven members of arguably the most powerful unified school board in the nation. My best principals are TFA alums. Alums run our best charter schools. The most influential union leader is a charter corps member. It’s not about Michelle Rhee. It’s about a bunch of folks from across the educational spectrum who will never be on “Oprah.” But these alums are now in positions of influence that can quietly change communities. There’s a lot of noise about TFA’s role in “education reform.” I’m not sure it matters. But all around me are these TFA-ers. And it isn’t that we used to think we could change the world. What matters is that, through TFA, we all met Konisha and Juan. And we believe with every ounce of our hearts and our souls that they can change this world.

Zimmer is a Teach For America alumnus; former teacher in Los Angeles; member of the Los Angeles school board.


| CLASSROOM COMMITMENT |

Jennifer Goldstein
Jennifer Goldstein

While my Teach For America experiences were absolutely transformative, my faith in the TFA approach as a model for broad educational improvement has always been weak. On one hand, it seemed from the beginning that the work TFA was doing was crucial; had I not been in my classroom in Compton, Calif., from 1993 to 1996, my students would have had a string of long-term substitutes. On the other hand, the TFA model was not, in my opinion, the way to staff classrooms with high-quality teachers. Why institutionalize the notion that teaching is something smart people blow through for a few years on their way to other work? By the time I left Compton, I carried the same TFA end-goal (“One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education”), but believed in a different path to get there—one that rested on advancing teaching as a profession in the United States.

As we mark TFA’s 20th anniversary, I am struck by the extent to which the organization has developed over the past two decades. Despite a continued model of a two-year commitment, TFA has—in its own way—transformed itself into a voice for teaching.

• When I joined TFA in 1993, corps members received five weeks’ training over the summer, then you got your teaching assignment, and off you went. The development of TFA corps members’ practice is now built around TFA’s Teaching as Leadership, or TAL, framework, focused on key areas of observable teaching practice. While preparation is still limited to a five-week summer institute and regional inductions, corps members participate in weekend learning communities and receive regular observation and feedback from TFA staff, across their two years. They also must now complete the education coursework required for a teaching credential.

• In 1993, corps members’ first year was essentially written off as a loss; benefits to students were expected in year two. TFA now wants to see high performance in year one, supported by the TAL framework and ongoing coaching.

• In 1993, the idea was to commit two years to teaching, and then go off and be a powerful advocate for educational equity. While educational advocacy is still a big part of TFA, in session after session at TFA’s recent 20th-anniversary summit, high praise was bestowed upon those who have remained in the classroom.

• In 1993, the TFA corps—like most K-12 teachers around the country—was largely white. TFA has, however, focused heavily on diversifying its teaching force, from the understanding that a diverse student body needs a diverse teaching workforce. TFA reports that its 2010 corps was 32 percent people of color, compared with 15 percent of teachers nationally.

That said, I will continue to diverge from TFA on many policy issues. We need a truly mentored entrance to teaching, including residency models and support from demonstrated expert teachers. We need a longer commitment to the classroom, given what we know about the deleterious effects of a revolving door among beginning teachers. If the TFA leadership wants to keep the highest-performing teachers in the classroom as career teachers, its leaders should say this—loudly. Significantly, I would like to see TFA use its political capital to publicly champion teachers’-union reform, rather than be silent on anti-union rhetoric from its friends.

In sum, though, I no longer find myself outside the fold; rather, I have grown proud of my connection to TFA. Some have said we possess the knowledge to improve public education for all students, but lack the will to do so. I hope TFA continues to grow toward a more professional vision of teaching. Whatever one’s stance on the details, though, it has demonstrated the power of will in action.

Goldstein is an associate professor of education policy and leadership, Baruch College School of Public Affairs, City University, New York; TFA alumna.


| POLICY & ADVOCACY |

Michael D. Usdan
Michael D. Usdan

In its relatively brief two-decade-old history, Teach For America has achieved remarkable political and financial traction. It has strong and escalating support from many of the country’s most influential and respected political, media, philanthropic, and private-sector leaders. Despite considerable opposition and skepticism from numerous critics—largely from the ranks of professional educators sharply dismissive of its abbreviated preparation program—TFA is riding the crest of a wave of burgeoning financial support and public approbation.

This brief essay is not an attempt to reargue the pros and cons of what even its strongest critics must admit is an increasingly visible and newsworthy education innovation. Rather, my purpose is to offer some perspective on the potential long-range political influence of many TFA members—a topic that generally has gone undocumented in newspaper debates and the plethora of recent articles and books on TFA.

It’s by now well known that TFA has attracted large numbers of graduates from elite, highly selective, and very costly private institutions; these are college graduates who historically have not been attracted to teaching in large numbers. Indeed, it has been reported that 11 percent of Ivy League graduates applied to TFA in 2010. When the economy was strong and the job market less uncertain, many of these young people might have gone to law, business, or medical schools, or sought lucrative jobs on Wall Street or elsewhere in the private sector.

TFA undeniably has served as an appealing and impressively selective mechanism for attracting unprecedented numbers of outstanding students to teaching. Like aspirants in any field, these young people have different motivations. Many, if not most, are truly idealistic and want to help disadvantaged students in the nation’s lowest-achieving schools, while others may see TFA as an unusual opportunity to experience socioeconomic environments to which they have had little or no exposure. Some TFA participants (like so many more traditionally prepared teachers) may view teaching as a stopgap experience prior to attending graduate school or beginning a family.

Beyond that, many affluent families whose progeny are TFA-ers also become its political and economic backers and broaden its support base in important financial and civic circles. The limousines reportedly surrounding the Waldorf Astoria at a recent TFA fundraising function in New York City reflect this. Many TFA participants stay in the classroom; others remain in education in policy or administrative positions. Indeed, TFA graduates increasingly can be found in leadership positions in foundations and think tanks, as well as in school systems and federal and state agencies.

It is important to emphasize that even those TFA graduates who leave education will have experienced the classroom realities and complexities of teaching the nation’s increasingly diverse and vulnerable youngsters. As a result, they are infinitely more likely to be sensitive to equity issues and to support, both financially and politically, efforts to improve the life chances of growing numbers of needy schoolchildren in a demographically diverse and economically polarized society.

Usdan is a senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership, Washington.


| RURAL SCHOOLS |

Michael L. Cormack Jr.
Michael L. Cormack Jr.

I can still recall my introduction to Teach For America more than a decade ago. On Boston College’s campus, the student recruiters were out in force extolling the benefits of giving back to our country and committing two years to teach in low-income inner-city and rural schools. They called education inequality the civil rights issue of our generation and said we could help to ensure that every child received a high-quality education. Clearly, they were speaking my language, and I knew what I would do next.

Back then, though, I imagined an altruistic two years of fighting in the educational trenches followed by a quick exit to law school and a career in policy or government. Instead, I landed in the middle of the rural Mississippi Delta (my 10th choice among the TFA regions) and fell in love with teaching, my students, and a fellow corps member; together we decided to make the Delta our home.

My story is not unique among the TFA alumni ranks. In fact, more than 60 percent of alumni remain in education in some capacity, whether as classroom teachers, administrators, or leaders of educational nonprofits. And I’m a proud member of a growing number of 650 alumni serving as principals or heads of school systems.

In a rural region like ours, it can be challenging to find “highly qualified” educators who meet the credentialing standards set by our state. Teach For America not only helps meet this need, but our student-achievement data also support the fact that our corps members and alumni are among our most effective teachers. For example, last year, two second-year corps members founded our school’s prekindergarten program, which provides an early start to 3- and 4-year-old students in our county. The program has been wildly successful on nationally normed assessments measuring kindergarten readiness.

Our corps members are also leaders outside the classroom who often take responsibility for sponsoring after-school clubs, sports teams, and field trips to national landmarks and colleges. Our art teacher is now planning a trip with students to Paris. In an area still marked by de facto racial segregation and where many students have never ventured to the banks of the Mississippi River, the work of our corps members exposes them to a world filled with diversity and opportunities through education.

My school, Quitman County Elementary School, employs six current TFA corps members and three TFA alumni as classroom teachers. In partnership with our veteran staffers, our corps members set big goals and work relentlessly and purposefully to ensure that our students achieve at grade level and above. Although I never imagined working in education, or in a rural community, through the opportunities provided by Teach For America, I am able to ensure that children from low-income communities have access to a high-quality education and get set on a path to college.

Cormack is principal of Quitman County Elementary School, Miss.; TFA alumnus.

Vol. 30, Issue 24, Pages 24-27

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