An Insider Takes On TFA's Classroom Effectiveness
Plucked from obscurity by a mention in last September's New York Times Magazine article about TFA, UCLA doctoral student Megan Hopkins is no stranger to the highly-touted program. She was a 2002 corps member in Phoenix.
Her critique of the organization is in the latest Kappan. Now, Hopkins tells us what it’s really like to go up against the TFA machine -- without tenure.
Click below for the full interview and a better pic than the one I used before.
What did TFA ever do to deserve this kind of treatment from you?
MH: Like many urban teachers, it was difficult for me to maintain the motivation to teach under the demands of the profession, and I was not provided adequate support to do so.
Is your assessment based on the old TFA or the current TFA?
MH: My assessment of TFA is based on several factors, the foremost of which is my own experience with the organization as a 2002 Phoenix corps member. I also sustain a relationship with the organization, where I continue to learn about how they’re improving and changing.
So you hate everything about TFA, right? That’s the bottom line?
MH: Not at all. What I like about Teach For America is their desire to constantly improve the model. I don’t believe, however, that these supports are enough to contribute to systemic change.
Why is TFA seemingly so focused on recruitment and now leadership, but not classroom impact?
MH: TFA believes that by generating a “force of leaders” – to use Wendy Kopp’s words – it can address larger issues that inherently affect urban education, namely those related to inequality and the challenges of poverty.
So they’re for reducing inequality and poverty, but you’re for the status quo?
MH: Of course not. Reform at these levels is necessary to address educational inequity. Yet reform at the classroom level is also necessary. If an organization is placing teachers in classrooms, teacher quality should be a primary concern.
What about the reduced mentoring loads that TFA talks about for PDs -- doesn't that count?
MH: Whether the reduced mentoring number actually allows for more targeted support remains to be seen. Another issue is the experience and expertise of PDs, many of who enter PD positions after just two years of teaching.
MH: Before I sent the original memo out to a journal, I sent it to Wendy for her feedback. I received a response similar to the one published in PDK. She also said she’d be in touch next time she’s in Los Angeles so we could meet in person. I’m still waiting for that to happen.
What did you think of the response? Did they really listen and consider what you wrote?
MH: TFA has considered elements of what I proposed and ultimately decided to structure their organization differently based on its unique vision for change. I imagine this is also why TFA does not often engage in conversations with other entities focusing on teacher education, and why they would not seriously consider my ideas.
What about the decrease in the diversity, size, and quality of the corps that Kopp suggests would result from improvements like a three-year commitment or reduced "residency" salaries?
MH: Currently, 28% of TFA corps members identify as people of color. But 53% of entrants to Boston’s teacher residency program are candidates of color, and 59% of the middle and high school entrants have math and science backgrounds. Also, any decrease in applicants might be supplemented by individuals who are dedicated to becoming teachers – and who want solid preparation before entering the classroom on their own.
Has the organization made any other key changes that you applaud?
MH: Of course. TFA has made tremendous efforts to build relationships with districts and universities in the areas it serves. The partnerships outlined by Deans Koerner, Lynch, and Martin in PDK are part of that effort, and they are certainly working toward improving the effectiveness of TFA teachers. This effort can and should be more collective, however, rather than an “eclectic” approach to addressing teacher quality.
What were your best and worst moments as a corps member, and did you make it through the entire two years or “cut and run” on the poor children of Phoenix?
MH: You can’t really beat watching a child learn to read – and learn to love reading – and knowing that you had something to do with it. Getting to these moments took time, of course, and I admit I contemplated throwing in the towel many times during my first year. Nonetheless, the positive moments were why I made it through the two years, and even stayed for a third. I often wish I’d stayed longer.