College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Teach For America Fails 21st-Century Test

By John Wilson — July 23, 2012 2 min read
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At a recent institute sponsored by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, I heard a well-known researcher and thought leader give his definition of 21st skills. His definition had three parts: the curriculum and pedagogy of the most prestigious, elite schools of the world, like Eton College; information technology (IT) skills; and, access to these skills and strong teaching by every student.

His definition made me think of the critics of 21st century skills who insist that we have always taught critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. The truth is that we have taught these skills in the most prestigious, elite schools or in our classes for gifted and talented students. We have not taught them to every student nor have we taught them in the context of the technology that is available today. It’s the combination of those skills with technology that makes for 21st century teaching and learning.

Then, he said something shocking. He said that we would never accomplish 21st century learning with the current Teach For America model. He stated that we cannot change the trajectory of student success with a revolving door program that undermines the teaching profession while building a network---or some might say an empire---of “influencers” outside the classroom. Though I haven’t captured his words exactly, I have certainly captured his message.

The essence of this researcher’s speech was that we should recruit the best and brightest from our most prestigious universities, prepare them well, pay them well, and do everything possible to keep them in the profession for at least 15 years. All young people who aspire to be teachers should be assured that they will be given the same respect and prestige as those teachers serving the world’s most elite students.

Experience does matter especially when you are becoming a 21st century teacher. Teaching creativity and critical thinking will be better in your fifth year than your first year. Technology will continue to advance, and the teacher who stays will be the teacher who leverages the maximum academic empowerment from those new tools. We cannot afford constant turnover in our teacher population. Pay matters, respect matters, empowerment matters, and attracting the smartest and most committed to a profession matters.

Teach For America is failing this profession, and they are failing to lift our schools to the level of 21st century learning centers. They can do things differently. They can help assure all children have 21st century skills. They can sacrifice their business model for the greater good. They can keep the best attributes of the TFA program and commit to better preparation and more longevity among their recruits. School districts can insist on this when they enter into contracts with TFA. I, for one, will not be satisfied until they do.

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.