Federal Opinion

NEA Stance on Teach For America Continues to Raise Questions

By Anthony Cody — January 05, 2012 3 min read
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The decision by Dennis Van Roekel to co-author a column with Teach For America director Wendy Kopp continues to generate negative reaction among educators, the latest being the decision by Nancy Carlsson-Paige and her son Matt Damon to reject the union’s Friend of Education award. The response by the union has been defensive. Van Roekel’s statement said,

I believe NEA should talk to those who support public education, even if we don't agree on everything, and work together to serve students. Wendy Kopp and I agree that students will benefit from stronger recruiting and teacher preparation. NEA isn't going to quit fighting for students and our members, or for stronger teacher preparation. In fact, better teacher preparation is part of our 3-point plan on Leading the Profession that was released last month.

I have no desire to prevent Mr. Van Roekel from talking with anyone he likes, even if they do NOT support public education. Talk away.

I do, however, wonder about the substance of his agreement with Ms Kopp regarding teacher recruitment and preparation. Specifically, does Mr. Van Roekel agree that it is a good idea to recruit people who have no desire or intention to become teachers for a two year commitment? Research has revealed that 57% of the people who enter Teach For America do not intend to become teachers, and lo and behold, three years after they start, 75% of them are gone. [Be aware that TFA fudges these numbers by tracking the number who remain “in education,” which includes the many TFAers who become staff members or work in other parts of the non-profit and for-profit educational landscape.]

I wonder how it is possible to fight vigorously for a minimum one-year residency program and simultaneously praise someone whose recruitment model features a five week summer training course, and targets people who do not even wish to become teachers?

Regarding teacher preparation, I have an even greater concern. Valerie Strauss connects Mr. Van Roekel with Wendy Kopp at an event hosted by Arne Duncan last October. Secretary Duncan made it clear how he believes teacher preparation ought to be improved. He said:

We seek to create more accountability in teacher preparation programs, better prepare teachers for the classroom, boost student learning, and foster systems of continuous improvement. Unlike today's teacher preparation system, we want to reward good programs, improve the middle, and transform or eliminate consistently low-performing programs.

Duncan explains how this works:

Both Louisiana and Tennessee now have statewide systems that track the academic growth of a teacher's students by the preparation program where the teacher trained.
For the first time, teacher preparation programs in Louisiana and Tennessee are able to identify which of their initiatives are producing effective teachers and which need to be strengthened or overhauled.
It turns that there is a big difference between a strong preparation program and a weak one. Just as teachers are not interchangeable widgets, neither are the programs that prepare them. In fact, the variation between programs is stunning.
After controlling for student differences, the most effective preparation programs in Tennessee produce graduates who are two to three times more likely to be in the top quintile of teachers in a subject area. The least effective preparation programs produce teachers who are two to three times more likely to be in the bottom quintile.

How are these finely tuned quantitative judgments possible? By the use of the most detailed systems that track student test score data. What is the effect of rewarding and punishing teacher preparation programs based on test scores alone? Obviously this is one more pressure point, one more set of stakes that can be raised to get teachers and those who prepare them for the profession to attend to these scores first, last and always.

And what was the first of the “3 Ways to Improve the USA’s Teachers” that Van Roekel and Kopp agreed upon?

Use data to improve teacher preparation. In Louisiana, a state aggressively tackling the question of teacher quality, studies have found significant differences in student outcomes based on where their teachers trained.

The simple fact that different teacher preparation programs have different performance levels on their tests does not mean these are valid indicators of teacher quality.

Then we get the “multiple measures” sop:

“States such as California and Maryland are evaluating programs based on multiple measures, including student, principal and alumni surveys.”

If these multiple measures are anything like the ones described by Melinda Gates at the Education Nation Teacher Town Hall, they are validated only insofar as they correlate back to high student performance on tests -- and thus we have still have a test-centered system, with a bit of window dressing. If we are to stand for the interests of our students, we must take a strong stand against the unrelenting pressure to increase test scores.

Forgive my cynicism here, but we have been caught in this whirlpool for the past decade and more. We will not get out of it without some very steady hands at the helm, and some clear principles by which to navigate. My concerns about Dennis Van Roekel’s position here are not reflexive or “knee-jerk.” They go to the heart of what we believe, and how we take a clear public stand for our principles.

(see my first post on this issue from two weeks ago: NEA President Sends Mixed Messages about Teacher Preparation.)

What do you think? Do (or should) NEA and Wendy Kopp have solid common ground here? Is this a real concern for teachers - or are some of us over-reacting?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.