Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

Kopp Out

By Eduwonkette — May 28, 2008 3 min read

Last week, Robert Pondiscio put forth an ingenious proposal to leverage the service of recent college grads who teach for two years through Teach for America:

Instead of throwing TFAers into the worst teaching situations in the cities you serve, place them in some of the best, highest-performing schools….Place them in that high-functioning school for two years as pinch-hitters for some of our best, most experienced teachers, and send those master teachers to the same schools to which you’re sending TFA corps members now. We can call it the Teach For America Fellowship, and throw in a nice extra chunk of change to incentivize those master teachers.

Kopp rejected the idea. Here’s her argument, and my thoughts on each point:

1) It is a rare person who has what it takes to excel as a teacher in a low-income community, and it’s not at all a given that teachers who do well in more privileged communities will do well in urban and rural areas.

Sure. But is there any reason to believe that the most talented experienced teachers who are willing to teach in a high-needs school for two years will do worse than recent college grads with no teaching experience?

2) The individuals who come to Teach For America are coming because they want to work with the nation’s most disadvantaged children (and it is unlikely that most of them would decide to channel their energy toward teaching in more privileged contexts).

This is an empirical question. Many recent college grads understand that they would be doing a greater service to disadvantaged kids by putting an exceptional experienced teacher in that classroom – certainly many of my undergrads who’ve considered TFA have thought about this issue. Those who want to teach for more than two years might value learning to teach in a supportive environment. And let’s be honest – many TFA applicants gravitate towards TFA simply because it is selective. Finally, Robert’s proposal need not supplant TFA’s current recruitment efforts; this fellowship could operate as a stand alone program.

3) The recent Urban Institute study that looked at the impact of high school teachers in the state of North Carolina over a six-year period provides evidence that our strategy has a positive impact for kids.

We have discussed the generalizability of this study at length on this blog (see Teach for America Study Wrap Up and In Which We Make Sweeping Generalizations from a Sample of 69 Teach for America Teachers in North Carolina). Beyond those caveats, this study provides little insight into the likely effects of Robert’s proposal.

Why not? The Urban Institute study does not examine the distribution of teacher effects for experienced teachers – i.e. how effective are the top 10% of experienced teachers? Instead, it focuses on the average effects of TFA teachers versus experienced non-TFA teachers. Average effects are not helpful in evaluating the potential effectiveness of a program that would select the most exceptional experienced teachers.

4) Our strategy of channeling the energy of the nation’s future leaders into urban and rural schools is important for the long-term effort to ensure educational excellence and equity…Their initial teaching experience in under-resourced communities is foundational to their lifelong commitment to effecting the systemic changes necessary to ensure educational opportunity for all.

If Kopp’s point 2 is correct – TFA applicants are dedicated to improving the lives of the most disadvantaged children – this commitment pre-dates, though perhaps is bolstered by, their TFA teaching experience. And as many other bloggers have suggested, the TFA commitment could be lengthened to three years – two years in a low-needs school, and one in a high-needs school.

Robert, you should run with this idea - whether it is supported by TFA or another organization. Worst case scenario - we would gather useful data on a number of important teacher quality questions. Best case scenario - this “classroom swap” helps staff the toughest schools with the best experienced teachers, and disadvantaged kids benefit immensely.

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