Setting the Standard in Education

Posts Tagged ‘Teach for America’

The Lasting Effect of Teach For America

In Uncategorized on July 18, 2010 at 6:45 pm

It seems I should go away more often. I had the two busiest days of traffic this week while I was travelling to New York for some interviews. Hopefully it keeps up. I’m still in New York, but the interviews are over, so I finally have some time to rest.

In the intervening days, there have been a number of articles about Teach For America. While the arguments aren’t new, I don’t believe I’ve covered the topic, so I thought I’d give my two cents. Fair warning: I’m a Teach For America alumnus, so obviously I’m a little biased. I will attempt to be as even-handed as possible. Hopefully I can dispel some common ideas about the program as well.

One articles in particular has garnered a lot of attention, mostly because it’s from a major publication. The article, from The New York Times last Sunday focuses on the difficulty of getting into the program. It seems to be everyone’s favorite line about TFA that it draws so many Ivy League graduates. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen glowing praise over the fact that less than a quarter of those from those schools get in. I also can’t think of how many times I’ve read someone calling Teach For America a bunch of white elitists who think they’re going to have no problems when they get into the classroom. With 12% of students from Ivy League schools applying, many of the proponents and detractors seem to think that those are the overwhelming majority of applicants to the program. Wrong. Corps members (CMs) come from an extremely wide variety of institutions. In the school where I worked, there were TFA corps members and alums from Brigham Young, Miami, USC, Michigan, MIT, Baylor, Western Washington, Randolph-Macon, Denison, Scripps, and yes, there was one from Penn… who was Hispanic. While all of us were intelligent hard-working people (yes, I’m patting myself on the back), we were by no means “elites,” unless that means people who did well in school.

When I hear people calling the organization a bunch of white, female missionaries, I have to laugh. Yes, Teach For America is 70% white and 68% female. However, the teaching profession itself is worse. Women make up 80% of all teachers and 90% of teachers are white. The NEA reported in 2006 that 40% of schools in the US have no minority teachers. In fact, TFA puts a huge focus on diversity. They strive to educate all of their corps members to understand how to navigate with those from different backgrounds from themselves. The biggest expectation CMs are supposed to come out with is that they should not expect any one thing when they enter the classroom. TFA also makes it a mission to recruit a high number of teachers with similar backgrounds to those they will be teaching. They are constantly reevaluating their strategies and practices, adapting their corps to match the populations being served.

Of course, the other big criticism of Teach For America is the short length that teachers stay in the classroom. Most of the data I’ve seen on this is hazy. For example, the New York Times article cites one study that said that half of CMs in New York left their schools after their two year commitment and 85% had left after four years. That doesn’t mean they left teaching. In contrast, TFA claims that 63% of alumni are in education. About half of those are K-12 teachers. Another 19% work in schools or districts and 17% in education non-profits. I’m sure I was probably counted as working in “higher education” this past year, since I worked with college students, although I don’t know if I’d personally count it as working in education. With only about 30% of alumni still teaching in K-12 schools, it would seem that most alumni are “abandoning” teaching. This ignores a few nuances, though. First of all, only half of teachers stay in the profession for five years and the numbers are much worse in low-performing schools, into which TFA teachers are generally placed. For thirty percent of alumni in TFA’s 20 years to still be in the classroom, it sounds as though they last just about as long as other teachers in comparable situations. While the turnover rate is higher than what one might want, it’s not the travesty so many make it out to be.

It's at least better to have the one step, right?

Teach For America also touts a dual purpose. While putting highly qualified teachers into the classroom is part of closing the achievement gap, just as important is creating an alumni base that advocates for changes to the system. With so many working in an education-related field, Teach For America has started to produce a powerful and growing force in education reform. Hundreds of TFA alumni have been put into places of power from Michelle Rhee, DCPS’s superintendent, to Jonathan Fish, who was just elected to be a judge in Orange County’s Superior Court. And unlike what Rachel Tompkins thinks, TFA teachers are not “just passing through” the rural areas they teach in. The most recent issue of One Day highlighted the efforts of TFA alumni in the Mississippi Delta. Alumni are now working as teachers, principals, and education advocates across the Delta. Some are even starting KIPP schools in the area.

Don’t forget as well that Teach For America has proven that its first and second year teachers consistently outperform teachers with more experience than them. The Wall Street Journal ran an article last Saturday that pointed out an Urban Insitute study’s finding that

On average, high school students taught by TFA corps members performed significantly better on state-required end-of-course exams, especially in math and science, than peers taught by far more experienced instructors. The TFA teachers’ effect on student achievement in core classroom subjects was nearly three times the effect of teachers with three or more years of experience.

Another study cited in the article found that middle school math teachers from TFA accounted for an extra half of a year of improvement in their students. One of the reasons is that Teach For America has revolutionized the way their teachers are hired. While traditional methods have two different organizations training and then being responsible for the results of their teachers, TFA does both.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe Teach For America is perfect. In their drive to get kids to learn basic skills like reading and math, they often overlook teaching students things like character and critical thinking. These tend to be skills those students aren’t getting in their poorly performing schools and some may argue they are a critical component of giving students 21st century skills (I would). Focusing on basic skills while students at schools in the suburbs and in private schools get projects that work their problem-solving skills marginalizes them. It continues a cycle of separating the classes. The wealthy stay wealthy while the poor aren’t equipped to pull themselves out of poverty. CEOs have skills that are not taught in a math book or a literature textbook. However, when it comes to improving classrooms in the long-run, Teach For America is doing a better job than any other program out there. It has put prestige into teaching that there simply has not been in this country since arguably the formation of the United States. It has pushed more individuals to look at the classroom and how it can be improved than there has ever been. The teaching corps that TFA creates might just be a bandaid, but the coming transformation of education will be a lasting impression made by a program that emphasizes doing something For America, rather than oneself.


Can Ed Schools Keep Up?

In Uncategorized on May 15, 2010 at 1:04 am

I have had quite the busy week. I’ve been preparing to go to Israel on Sunday night to lead a group of college students on a tour with Taglit-Birthright: Israel. What does that mean for you? Well, the most obvious impact is that I will not be able to blog quite so often. I will attempt to get a few in, but from May 17-27, I will be out of commission for the most-part. For the two weeks following, I will be in Israel still, but should have regular internet access, so I am hoping to be able to continue on a regular basis. No guarantees until June 10, though.

Anyway, I promised on Tuesday that I’d write about an article from Monday’s LA Times that talks about how schools of education need to adapt in order to catch up to the alternative certification pathways that have recently been taking root. Better late then never, right? In the article, Jonathan Zimmerman, a faculty member at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development does something that few in “traditional” programs have done: admitted that the crop of students that ed schools get stinks. I read an article in The Economist a couple of years ago (Aren’t subscribed to The Economist? You can find a bootleg version of the article here.) that pointed out one of the big differences between countries that are successful in educating their students and those that aren’t. Future teachers in countries like South Korea, Singapore, and Finland are the top students and are given difficult requirements to become teachers. For example, Finland requires all teachers to have a Master’s before teaching.The US on the other hand recruits a large proportion of its teachers from the bottom third of graduates.

Before they became teachers... Image thanks to

Zimmerman says that right now, schools of education are in a do or die scenario. They must either keep up with alternative certification programs or they are done for. Zimmerman brings up examples of legislation that are pushing this particular envelope, such as the New York Board of Regents’ unanimous decision to allow alternative certifiers the ability to grant Master’s degrees. If other states follow suit, it will force colleges to rethink how their programs work. Alternative pathways are becoming more and more popular. This past year, Teach For America had over 46,000 applicants. Not only that, but it draws top students. Over 12% of Ivy League  seniors applied to TFA this past year. It will no doubt be the biggest employer at some of the best schools in the country as it was last year. Remember how we said the best countries have the best students teaching? Teach For America fits with that model.

So what does Zimmerman suggest? First of all, he thinks the night classes currently offered to Teach For America and other alternative pathway students need to be revamped. Having experienced them myself, I couldn’t agree more. They are often just a big waste of time. What use are theoretical classes when you are a first year teacher struggling to keep 12 year olds from throwing books at each other? This doesn’t seem particularly extraordinary. This past year, Arizona State allowed Teach For America program directors to teach classes themselves, rather than relying on ASU faculty. TFA didn’t even have to wait for legislation to be passed allowing them to grant Master’s degrees – they simply partnered with the school to have more control.

However, changing the classes is small peas compared to Zimmerman’s other idea. His major concept is to start a year early. Have organizations such as TFA recruit college juniors, rather than seniors. Then, the schools of education provide classes during the students’ senior years and have them act as full-fledged student teachers during the entire summer. While intriguing, I doubt that this is particularly practical. First of all, the reason that these students get picked by Teach For America is that they are in rigorous programs already. These students can’t just give up their senior years of college to take education classes. They’re probably already double- or triple-majoring as it is. I know I certainly would not have been able to fit any extra classes into my year. Future Teach For America candidates are too busy not only with classes, but extra-curricular involvements as well. It’s not worth it for a Harvard senior to give up his or her time from their crammed schedules. Even if they might theoretically have the time, students are not ready by the beginning of their junior years to decide what they want to do after college. As it is, the first round of Teach For America selections happens in October and November of senior year, requiring them to make decisions much before many of their peers.

I think Zimmerman is missing the boat with this idea. Rather than taking classes on top of or instead of senior-year classes, training needs to be pushed a semester or a year out.  Ed schools shouldn’t just keep their normal programs and have ways for alternative certifications to pick parts of their programs that they like; they should skim the fat. They need to change their entire courses of study. One model that seems to be taking root and I am hoping will spread is the residency program. You are probably familiar with doctor’s residencies. They go to school for a few years and then spend a few years with partial responsibility, working their way up to a full position. This is the way it needs to be. Some alternative certifiers are already playing with similar models. A friend of mine joined Math for America, a program that requires five years, rather than Teach For America’s two. The first year is just your Master’s classes, which include student teaching.  Then, fellows teach for another four years as part of the program. I don’t see Teach For America switching to a five-year program any time soon, but adding that additional year, similar to Zimmerman’s idea but after college, would be a much more practical solution.

Better yet, partnerships with school districts should allow for a true extended residency. Even so-called residency programs try to cram in their programs into a smaller time-period. The Urban Teacher Residency is one example. Again, they have one year of classes and apprentice teaching. Here is what I would like to see: a first year of classes and student teaching. Perhaps Monday through Wednesday could be classes and Thursday and Friday would be days to come for student teaching. You don’t have your own classroom, so it’s not a genuine experience, but it’s enough to get your feet wet. After a semester or two of that, you get your own classes. However – and this is the important part – you still do not take on a full load. The biggest problem with being a first-year teacher is that it takes much longer to do everything. You have to write new lesson plans and figure out how you are going to grade essays. You are constantly learning new things and having to change your tactics and find what you are comfortable with. It is simply nonsensical for a first-year teacher to have five classes with 150 students like any that starts out in high school. Why not have three or four classes to begin with and add onto that load once a teacher has proven they can handle it? Even in elementary schools, teachers could switch off and only teach part of the day.

Allowing teachers to transition into teaching, rather than taking on a full load at once has a few benefits. Obviously, it allows the teacher more time to get their work done. But it also, gives them time to analyze their teaching. First-year teachers could be given mentors who sit with them every day or at least a few times a week and help them problem-solve. Another added benefit is that newer teachers would thus be teaching fewer classes and, in addition to being better for those students they would have, they’d be  negatively affecting fewer students if they did not have strong skills. A residency such as this could also create a logical salary scale: beginning teachers teach fewer classes and get paid less, intermediate teachers would have a full load and be paid more, and veteran teachers would take on mentoring as well, increasing their pay accordingly.

I have way more to say on this topic, but I think I will continue it at another time, since this entry is already getting to be pretty long. I will say one more thing, though. Education schools need to learn to keep up, but the various parties (schools and legislators included) need to work together on these problems, rather than trying to do their own thing and hope that others conform to them.