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Media: TFA Coverage Jumps The Shark

86812497 Everyone's got a breaking point and I reached mine this morning listening to this four-minute NPR segment on Teach For America (Teachers Learn On The Job) during which I (and I'm guessing most listeners) learned very very little that we didn't already know.  It attracts elite graduates.  They don't get much training and suck at classroom management for a while.  They don't stay in the classroom.  Enough already.  We get it.  We've practically memorized TFA's stats.  We understand that maybe boomer editors have kids who are considering doing TFA. But if TFA was going to help fix American education, you'd think 20 years would be enough to start making a dent.  Until then, please stop covering it as if it's new or powerful or newsworthy. It's barely worth a blog post.


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It was larry abramason, the laziest ed reporter out there.

I mean he does not background work and only covers stories that are sent to him by his editor -- there is no investigation in Larry's brand of news reporting.

They're probably pleasing their contributors.

Last year's Charlie Rose series on the "crisis" in public education was underwritten by the Broad Foundation. Charlie's guests for this series were some of Eli Broad's favorite pets: Wendy Kopp, Michelle Rhee, and Arne Duncan. There might have been others, but when I figured out what was going on I started boycotting the show. It had previously been one of my favorites.

Oh yeah, and I wrote a letter to charlierose@pbs.org (@ http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/2009/03/challenge-to-charlie-rose.html). They responded: "Your message has been forwarded to Charlie. We appreciate the suggestions and we thank you for watching." Then my point went into PBS's black hole.

Mr. Russo,

I think it's worth nothing that over 50% of our 2007 corps members are still teaching here in the Bay Area. Our teachers are doing amazing things in their classrooms, which is doubly impressive considering these are high-achieving college graduates who previously would have given teaching or education anything more than a "oh, that's noble" commentary.

And when you consider the impact our alumni are having outside of the classroom (founding KIPP, starting ed NPOs, running school districts, etc.) then Teach For America's work to maintain the inexorable pace of education reform is unquantifiable. Not bad considering that we have an impressive, yet rather minuscule 4,000 corps members in classrooms this year. That's a lot of bang for the buck.

Our corps members receive 5 weeks of summer training (during which time they are simultaneously teaching classes even when districts have eliminated summer school due to budgetary concerns), but I invite you to see the impressive support they are provided by our highly skilled program directors throughout the school year. These PDs work with teachers to help them best utilize their districts' professional development opportunities and to supplement these trainings where they may be lacking. It's like having a personal teaching coach.

Under served classrooms need good teachers now, not in 2 years after folks have gone to schools of ed, whose benefits are unclear and not statistically verified nor significant.

Thank you for your time.



thanks for the comment, seth --

i've got no particular argument with what tfa does (though others do).

my beef is what TFA doesn't do (seem to address underlying problems with the current education system).

so much attention, so much energy and money and all the rest...but such a minimal impact.

TFA isn't even *trying* to solve the problem of american education. that's what i find so frustrating.

now if wendy would try to recruit and train teachers at a larger scale, or add a third year to the program so that it worked better, that would be another thing...


Hi Alexander,

Just a couple thoughts I had and wanted to share.

I hear what you're saying about trying to solve the problem of American education. I wholeheartedly agree that our education system is broken. Additionally, I think it's easy for people to fall into the cycle of trying to "help" but not actually providing sustainable tools for students and organizations that prepare them for future success.

While I agree with you on some points, I think it's important to also look at the ultimate goal of working within a broken system to close the achievement gap. We are also dealing with a system that has been broken for a very long time. It's a process to deal with this. You have to try various solutions, see what works, and learn from what doesn't and this takes time.

What TFA does seem to accomplish is this. It's getting people to work towards a common goal and creating a dialogue. The press may not be reporting on what some would like to hear, but it's at least sparking discussion. I'd like to believe that any reform, or structure change, begins with that. I've also talked with people who are corps members and employees of TFA and the dedication I've seen is some of the strongest. I admire TFA for attracting so many people with such drive.


Don't you think it's a bit disingenuous to say that TFA isn't getting at the underlying factors? Our alumni are starting charter schools (KIPP), populating the ranks of charters (Achievement First, KIPP, Aspire, etc.), running for school boards, running school districts, starting education NPOs and the list goes on...

If solving our country's deep-rooted educational woes is only comprised of putting teachers in classrooms, then yes, we are a small drop in the bucket. But TFA is not only a teaching solution, clearly this is not the case w/ only 4,000 teachers a year going into classrooms.

However, that would be a simplistic, short purview of ed reform. We also need reformers outside of schools. Those who are forever changed by their experiences in the classroom and will carry on outside of school walls to affect the changes they've seen are needed.

It's a two-pronged approach, both portions of which are indispensable.

Wow, what a bitter post. Isn't it Thanksgiving week?

my main problem here is with the press coverage rather than the program.

that being said, the non-classroom accomplishments of TFA alums seem like an after-the-fact justification, and haven't yet reached the point that they really justify the main thrust of the program or the media accolades that it's gotten for so long now.

why not take all that talent and interest and make TFA into a movement that's ten times larger? why not recruit for career teachers rather than short-timers? why not leverage serious changes in the districts with which it works rather than playing nice and going along?


The media is too easy a target and despite your best efforts, you can't seem to shake your overly simplistic criticism of TFA that it hasn't grown enough in the last 20 years. You miss the point of TFA. It is not to alleviate the teacher shortage, but rather to cultivate a culture of respect for the challenges of public education. Wendy Kopp believes that once you've worked in the schools where TFA places teachers, anything you decide to do will be positively impacted by that experience.

What about the kids who have to put up with an inexperienced teacher in the meantime? Now, there's a question! Rather than focus on the mainstream media, perhaps you can figure out how we answer that one. The question has never been about making TFA larger... The question really is shouldn't we be ashamed as a society that purportedly values education but doesn't have our best trained, most committed souls vying for the chance to shape the future of a nation?

By the way, I was one of the first folks to enter the classroom through TFA back in 1990. I have worked in education ever since. I even worked as a recruiter for TFA in the early 1990s when there were 8 of us covering the entire country. TFA now has over 120 people trying to convince people that working in schools that certified teachers run from. I'm not sure how you define impact, but in my book, that's pretty good!

i have much respect to everyone in education -- this isn't about criticizing anyone personally or professionally.

and no doubt that TFA and its corps members have done much good.

it's just that the organization has been oversold (by the organization or the media or both) as some sort of transformative endeavor, which it just hasn't turned out to be. 120 recruiters is impressive growth, but still nothing compared to the size of the problem we have.

and, even if you add post-classroom accomplishments to the mix, which TFA now likes to do, i just don't see the organization on that kind of a steep trajectory. (i'm not sure that TFA deserves credit for accomplishments that participants might well have taken on anyway.)

so my assessment is: good, yes, of course. great? no.

People seem to be forgetting that millions of federal funds are going to be handed over to TFA under Duncan's plans. That's just wrong, given the legitimate concerns Alexander raises. 20 years wasted, and how many millions of dollars that could be going to more effective strategies. The media is part of the problem, hyping these programs and not being honest about their shortcomings, while failing to look at what really works.

John, what're the odds your career would've involved education had you not joined TFA?

Anecdotally speaking, if not for TFA and teaching 7th grade English for 2 years, my chances of working in the Ed sector are between zero and nil.

I can't wait for us to train doctors, lawyers and engineers with a 5 week program. Just let me know which bridges they work on so I can swim.


Good question and one I've thought about from time to time. There are so many reasons that the choice makes perfect sense now given my skills, personality and worldview but none of that was evident prior to my coming into contact with TFA.

My mother was a schoolteacher and I frequently spent time in her classroom when I had a day off from school. That seemed normal but now I realize it wasn't. School was always a comfortable place that made sense to me even when I made poor choices or didn't align my priorities with those of the teachers.

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