Assessment Opinion

Does Teach For America Deliver Systemic Education Reform?

By Anthony Cody — February 10, 2011 3 min read
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Yesterday I shared a conversation between an ex-Teach For America intern and his mentor. The focus of their discussion was on the need for far more effective forms of mentoring than is offered by TFA - but they indicated this problem is not unique to that program. David Greene described an alternative vision, built around the capacity of experienced teachers to serve as mentors to up and coming novices. That is music to my ears, because I have spent the last several years building a mentoring program on this premise.

Several commenters have come to the defense of TFA, including one named Steve, who wrote:

Is TFA the answer to all problems with the education system in our country? Absolutely not. I understand criticisms of the program as promoting short-term, rather than career teaching, and failing to prepare teachers adequately. What critics do not understand is that TFA teachers are recruited from amongst the best and brightest and placed in schools where other good teachers won't go. Most come in with a dead set determination to succeed, and a will to work extremely hard.
With the terrible pay and conditions in these schools, there are not enough 20 year career saints to go around. I have seen my share of veteran teachers that sit at their desk and watch movies all day after passing out worksheets. Would I rather have a top notch veteran teaching my kids than a TFA corp member? Yes! But given what I saw at my urban school, I would take a brand new TFA teacher over at least 70% of the "veteran" teachers there.
The system needs change, but until vast improvements are made, TFA will remain relevant and necessary.

Steve makes a very good point. Teach For America did not create the shortage of science teachers in my District. Teach For America is not responsible for the low pay and poor conditions that drive turnover and make it hard to find credentialed teachers. So Teach For America is a stop-gap. A temporary measure, that gives us some people to teach our students when we have few alternatives. I understand this well, having worked in Oakland for the past 24 years.

Here are my problems with Teach For America.

One. The organization has fallen into the trap of believing that test scores are a valid indicator of effectiveness. This leads to a widespread emphasis on test preparation, so that the organization can justify its worth. The TFA coaches I have encountered focus almost exclusively on test data when meeting with their interns, and put great pressure on them to achieve 80% mastery on all their tests. TFA did not invent this destructive game, but they have become adept at playing by these rules. Last year when examining student work with a mentee I saw that all the work looked like a test - nothing but short answer and multiple choice questions. She explained that her students were doing poorly on her weekly tests, so her TFA coach had advised her to make all of her classwork the same format as her tests. The test scores rose, but I do not think the students were learning the material in meaningful ways.

Two. The organization explicitly recruits people for a two-year commitment. In my experience, most interns are just beginning to become effective in their second year. In Oakland, after three years, 75% of our interns are gone. This problem is not limited to Teach For America, but the fact that they make the two-year commitment an explicit part of their design disturbs me. I believe the thing our high needs schools need most is dedicated and stable teachers, willing to invest for the long run. They need teachers to develop a deep understanding of the cultures of our students, and a relationship to the communities in which we work. Teach For America is not responsible for the high turnover at these schools, but by recruiting people for a two-year stint, they are not helping to fix this either.

What do we need to do instead? I recently described the TeamScience mentoring program I help lead in Oakland, which has made a dent in the turnover rate. As David Greene suggested, every beginning teacher ought to begin gradually, under the expert guidance of a master teacher. There ought to be time to observe, to consult and reflect with that mentor, so the invisible machinery of a great classroom can be understood.

We need to recognize that these sorts of mentoring and induction programs are absolutely necessary to have success in our high needs schools. Stability is necessary. Therefore decent pay and working conditions are necessary. Bringing in a program that plugs some of the gaps created by the absence of these things, as Teach For America does, should not be confused with systemic reform for our schools - even if they get good test scores. And I am concerned that some people may not understand that.

What do you think? Is Teach For America helping to improve our education system?

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