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What "Relentless Pursuit" Reveals About TFA

Hidden inside Donna Foote's book about four first-year teachers assigned to teach high school in South Central LA is a scathing critique of the teacher training and support program that makes up the first "prong" of Wendy Kopp's two-pronged Teach For America effort. Having read the book, I can't imagine any parent encouraging their kid to do this -- not the teaching part, but TFA.

30teach6001 While the three subjects I interviewed a few weeks ago still admire the program and say it's made lots of changes since 2006, few readers of the book will come away with a tremendous amount of confidence in the organization.  These four teachers seem to have survived in spite of TFA, not with its assistance.  The organization micromanages them instead of supporting or encouraging them, implements an obviously unhelpful scripted mentoring system that is -- along with many other things -- "quietly shelved" before the next year, and pressures teachers to conform to a cockamamie accountability system based on irregular, self-reported, unverified achievement data. Talk about juking the numbers.

In all, TFA comes off not much better than the dysfunctional school and ineffective school district in which the teachers are working. It belatedly tries to re-brand itself as a school reform effort, but still won't call districts and schools out for hindering improvements.  It focuses on growth and numbers, not quality.  And it seems manipulative and technocratic-- "cold and distant," as one teacher describes it.  Is this really the best we can do?  Is this really the best TFA can do?


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I'd be interested to read the book, but I don't know I'd say I felt micromanaged when I was a corps member (same year as these teachers, I think, different city). After all, TFA isn't your employer - what exactly can they do? I buy the technocratic line, though - it was easy to feel that there was only one bottom line, and that was getting your kids to make significant gains.

Most of us who were successful by our second year (yes, none of us were terribly good our first year, and no, no one left the classroom for Goldman Sachs or whatever corporate bogeyman you like) did so by recognizing what TFA was good at (setting a goal, putting us in touch with lots of smart people we could learn from, providing a path in to teaching, and giving us some materials/ideas that were effective, surely some other things I'm forgetting) and finding ways to supplement its deficiencies. If TFA's sin is imperfection... oh well? The people who really had an awful time (and again most of us figured it out) felt like TFA should have held their hand and solved all their problems, or only applied because they needed the validation of getting accepted (most of those were weeded out at institute, thankfully). Once you figured out that while it's a great organization in many ways, it's limited, you were probably okay.

Thanks for posting on the book – the critical comments in it are valid and are ones that folks at all levels of the organization are working to address. As noted, the 2006 teacher training system was replaced when another, superior version was developed. This happens when a self-critical, ever-evolving organization seeks to improve. Not upgrading a system – as is the case in some, more traditional teacher training programs – is surely a dereliction of duty to student learning. Teach For America’s model, which focuses on student achievement, is always going to be constantly evolving; that’s, in part, why it’s so great.

When I look at the teacher training model, the most compelling piece is that it is directly linked to student achievement data. Data detailing 1) how the applicant measures up on the admission rubric, 2) how he is trained at Institute, and 3) how he is supported while in the classroom, can be regressed against how his students achieve on a year-over-year basis. With nearly 4,000 points of reference, Teach For America seems poised to become a very valuable laboratory for perfecting how we train teachers.

I predict that as soon as traditional colleges of education see the results of Teach For America’s internal studies, they will begin to rely on the organization to give them the proven best practices for training teachers to positively affect student achievement.

hi, yoav --

i've got nothing against improvement. but, fifteen years in, you'd expect an organization to be better at developing and rolling out new initiatives.

from what little i understand, you develop them, pilot them, retool them based on the pilot, and then implement them systemwide.

instead, foote's book shows at least two systems - co-investigation and the substantial improvement system -- that seem to have been overdeveloped and then rolled out in a rush.

maybe things have changed dramatically since 06, but what TFA seems to do best in the book is to recruit, screen, and place corps members -- both in classrooms and then, two years later, in biz and law schools.

teacher training, support, and retention? not so much. but i'd be happy to be wrong, or to find out how things have changed.

Thanks Alex for a provocative post. The bottom line is that novices need preparation and time to learn from expert teachers before they begin teaching independently. TFA has improved its training - but it is insufficient for the task at hand and overemphasizes the Peace Corps model at the expense of ensuring that our nation's most vulnerable students are served by a well-qualified and stable faculty. Barnett Berry

Yeah it was a great post and you really have a great gig in studying that phenomenon.

I'm reminded by a Quick and the Ed post about excessive mentoring. (also in contrast, the TQTAE had an awfully tin ear not recognizing that they had stumbled on a broader issue of human nature.)

Often, young teachers want a "color by numbers" guide to teaching. Many want a specific checklist, and get frustrated when their mentors can't provide easy answers.

The answer is not to put up a sign that says "If you color within the lines, you need not apply," or "if you can't color within the lines, apply elsewhere." We need all types of personalities in our schools. After all, we have children with all types of personalities.

But neither should we tell young teachers that they can do it all, that there are no trade-offs, and by the righteous power of their perseverance they can transform all kids.

I don't know enough to criticize TFA, but I'd predict that the better answer would be to increase competition in teacher training. I'd love to see a Core Knowledge Teachers for America. Think about the wonderful work done by the National Parks in communicating with the public and think what a National Parks Service for America could do. How about an NPR Teacher Corp for Red America? just kidding.

But seriously, what if we trained teachers with NPR.org as their curriculum. There would be no queston about their vitality and their willingness to self-assess and adjust. And the Bake Sales would be much more interesting.

Which leads to a recycling of the old question, what if we adequately funded a Marsall Plan for Teachers, and the standardized testers had to hold a telethon?

TFA is fire.
in my view, every person who comes out of college should go into sales or into teaching for two years. This has nothing to do with the school system or the product sold; this is for the person to just get him/herself straight. After absorbing the US educational system for 16 years, it is good to get some of what one learns onto a page and then out into the world--a lesson plan or a sales pitch-- as deep expressions from within.

From these expressions, if we listen to ourselves and watch ourselves and listen and watch the responses we get, we begin to see who we are. So, whether selling IBM s or teaching grammar, the grad learns to handle a topic, talk about it, sell its worth and then reflect on how to do it better the next morning.
This is of course different from joining the military right out of high school or college and going across the world to jump out of perfectly good airplanes and kiil people. That is a chance to reflect too, but at a bigger cost.
Teaching is all about learning. After 16 years of school, I finally learned what a grammar book was when i had to teach it five times a day to five classes of sophomores in inner city Chicago, 40 big and little guys per class; 200 graded papers a week. I learned a lot. When I write my book; I will tell you all; no peeking.
So, TFA sees some of its two year recruits go into other parts of the world of work. So what? Did any teacher training program realize 100% or even 50%?
Maybe TFA needs some more senior experienced people on its staff. Maybe teaching is more than enthusiasm; maybe teacher training can improve in other ways. Maybe, Maybe, Maybe... unclike the monday morning quarterbacks, the TFA jumped into the ring; in addition to all else, they have brought attention to the fact that all US citizens need to consider turning their attention to the inner cities and the educational needs of our kids today.
These TFA grads,even those who leave, will vote more sensibly on educational bonds and referendums in the future, may return to teaching at later time, and may look more carefully at and work more carefully with the work of their own children's teachers years down the road. Meanwhile, they have given the senior teachers who may be more laid back or possibly even cynical someone to sneer at for a moment, someone to admire over time, someone to share with "what works" from their own portfolio or point of view. They have given also two years to the country's biggest service organization to children outside of the families--our public schools. They have brought enthusiastic fire and some big gobs of love and a great deal of intellectual and emotional energy into the schools.
Hey, we can all use that--every institution in the US.
Teaching is the greatest occupation on the face of the earth. Give TFA the credit for bringing that joy to our top graduates of our top univeristies and colleges; and Give TFA credit for bringing these kids into contact with our litle ones and helping many little fires to start and to grow.
Bob Keeley, Chicago teacher

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