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Thompson: Questions For And About TFA

image from scholasticadministrator.typepad.comFollowing up on Alexander Russo’s American Enterprise Institute paper Left Out of No Child Left Behind,Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet recently posted an extended passage from Jack Schneider’s Excellence for All.

Reading Schneider and Russo, I wonder about the patience of some of the most powerful economic and political movers and shakers on the planet.  How long will they continue to invest tens of billions of dollars in a reform movement that has achieved so little?  

And as for TFA itself, I question whether TFA should really ally itself more closely with reformers, given reform's weak results and TFA alumni's breadth of views and experiences? I would argue that the wonks need TFA more than TFA needs them. 

While Russo and Schneider focus on two different aspects of TFA's political history, they provide similar reviews of its limits in scaling up efforts to improve teacher quality. Reading the two in conjunction with each other gives the fullest understanding of Teach for America’s political history and its future options.  

Both authors note the problem with hiring teachers for only two years.  Both note that TFA has undergone some substantial changes, even as it has attempted to keep a clear, unchanging identity. Schneider attributes much of TFA's marketing success to hitting the emotional chords that appeal to graduates of elite schools. Russo, however, indicates that when the battle shifted to legislative infighting, TFA leaders felt obliged to push back against some of the desires of their natural allies.  

I have long assumed that TFA’s rebranding in the 2000s grew out of its mixed results in the classroom. Schneider and Russo provide reminders that economic and political transitions are always more complicated than that.

Schneider describes the rise of "TFA’s antibureaucratic, promarket approach" to reform as an attractive option for the 1990s when even Democrats were engaged in a backlash against big government. He describes how TFA was framed "from its inception, as a big-tent reform movement."  TFA’s message appealed to corporate funders such as Union Carbide, Morgan Stanley, and the Mobil Corporation.

Then, things began to change.  Schneider emphasizes the role of Melissa Golden, the organization’s “brand czar.” Under her leadership, the organization was recast as "a burgeoning army of teacher leaders who, transformed by their teaching experience, would force systemic change to ensure educational equity."

Russo also emphasizes changes begun in 2001, but his paper focuses specifically on adjustments prompted by No Child Left Behind.  Before it had to get involved in the details of lawmaking due to NCLB, TFA  did not have full-fledged lobbying presence in D.C. 

I am most interested in Russo's account of the pressure placed on TFA to take a stand on specific legislative issues. Russo reports that "TFA’s decision to let others defend the annual testing and accountability provisions in NCLB and the overall funding levels for federal education programs created resentment and isolation from other groups, advocates, and offices."  Russo also claims that there would be "future costs to staying out" of those disputes. 

I'm not so sure.  Perhaps TFA should align itself instead with practitioners, sharing its nuts and bolts experiences within schools with the rest of us who are working inside schools, as opposed to corporate boardrooms and legislative backrooms, to implement practical solutions.     

But that seems unlikely.  Russo points out that TFA has contributed little of substance to a discussion regarding alternative systems of teacher preparation.  So, perhaps TFA should instead get back to its "big tent" roots and help hammer out better systems for recruiting talent and training teachers in the future. -JT(@drjohnthompson) 

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TFA is more successful at recruiting talent than it is at training teachers (I helped train TFA teachers for four years, and supervised and coached many of them as a department chair and then instructional coach). It filled a real need in its early years, since getting teachers into a school like Locke High proved so difficult; and the talent of its teachers compares favourably with that coming out of most schools of education; but its plan for 5-6 weeks of training prior to putting young teachers into our nation's most difficult classrooms is tragically ironic, since the harder it strives to achieve its ultimate goal (educational equity), the farther that goal recedes from realization, largely because its strategy, while appealing wonderfully to the vanity of soon-to-be elite (and now, not-so-elite) university graduates intent on improving the world at a very impressionable time of life, has been insulting to teaching as a profession from its very conception.

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