Federal Opinion

Loving and Hating Teach For America

By John Wilson — January 18, 2012 3 min read
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There has certainly been a lot of traffic about Teach For America (TFA) in the cyberworld lately. It all started with the audacious nerve of Dennis Van Roekel, President of the National Education Association, and Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach for America, daring to appear together with Secretary Duncan to support his new blueprint for teacher preparation. Then of all things, they penned together a commentary for USA Today. As a result, many of my fellow bloggers have launched a storm of criticism. I respectfully ask them to “cool their jets” on that and to look more carefully at the possibilities raised by this new open dialogue of TFA and NEA.

It has become chic among the media to have leaders with polarizing views to support a shared vision or write a commentary about common interests, hence, the Kopp-Van Roekel piece. I have listened to these two leaders and read carefully their essay in USA Today. I have come to this conclusion: no NEA or TFA internal policies were changed. What I found was that NEA and TFA both share a vision that teacher education must improve if the US is to become a world leader in student achievement. The three strategies espoused by NEA and TFA to achieve that vision are focused and practical---recruitment of new talent, continuous professional development, and better use of data. I would add that teacher educators need support, respect, and better public policy if the vision of Kopp and Van Roekel is to become a reality and also that teacher educators need to be included in the conversations about improved teacher preparation.

I am glad that TFA recognized that “great teachers are made, not born.” I think that is significant. Would TFA be willing to work itself out of business? If our teacher education system were comparable to that of Finland or Singapore, there would certainly be no need for TFA. Would teacher educators accept the things we love about TFA and incorporate them into their system? If so, that would curb some criticisms of the current teacher preparation programs in our country.

Allow me to share my love-hate comments on TFA:

I love that TFA recruits smart young people who have the passion, energy, and desire to teach our most challenging students.

I hate that TFA exploits smart young people with the misleading idea that they are really prepared to be effective for the tough teaching placements they are given.

I love that TFA assesses their recruits for a disposition to be successful with children and teaching.

I hate that TFA has a business plan that encourages short-term teaching in order to grow civic leaders at the expense of the teaching profession.

I love that TFA recruits make great teachers after they complete their teacher preparation program.

I hate that TFA exploits high poverty students and their parents with unprepared teachers for two or three years.

I love that Wendy Kopp is such a brilliant business leader who can raise vast amounts of dollars from those who want to support public schools.

I hate that her business plan requires the school systems to pay salaries, benefits, and a fee while TFA uses government and philanthropic funds for marketing, overhead for its over 600 employees, and limited professional and financial support for its recruits.

Here is how TFA can be helpful to the teaching profession. TFA should bifurcate their program. One track should be for those recruits who want to make teaching a career. Those recruits should be given a tuition free masters degree program with a world class teacher education program before they are made a teacher of record. Some have referred to this as a “West Point” for teachers.

The second track would be for those who want to do public service in the public schools. These recruits should commit to two years and serve as teaching assistants, lab assistants, tutors, after-school program coordinators, and parent liaisons. We need more education support professionals. The federal government should pay their salaries and benefits. This would allow TFA to accept more young people who want to support the public schools, and the work would be just as powerful for their portfolios.

Here is how our current teacher preparation program can be helpful to the teaching profession. Learn from the good work TFA has done and be open to improvement.

NEA and TFA have done us a favor by starting the conversation. Let’s join that conversation, not suppress it.

The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.