The ‘evolution’ of the TFA institute.
You’d expect the 2008 institute, eighteen years after the first institute at USC, to be very different and superior to its 1990 ancestor. As someone who was around since the second institute, and who had the opportunity to participate in fifteen consecutive institutes from 1991 until 2005, I’m in a good position to discuss how the institute model got the way it is, and whether or not it is the result of years of subtle refinement.
Some questions I’ll try to trace the answers to:
Why is the institute only five weeks long?
How did they come up with the collaborative model?
Who staffed the institute before there were any alumni?
Here’s the story: The 1991 institute at USC was six weeks long. So was the 1992 one at CSUN Northridge and the 1993 one at UCLA. Working at these institutes were respected professionals from around the country. My ‘CMA’ was a teacher with twenty years experience. My friend had a ‘CMA’ who had been a principal for ten years. There were some really respected people in education who were the ‘deans.’ One of them, Paul Nash, was about 75 years old and wrote the article about education in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Since these institutes happened in LA, where they have ‘year round’ schools, each CM was assigned to a real school and a cooperating teacher. Depending on the teacher, some CMs, like me, got to teach by myself for the entire seven weeks. I taught three classes of 34 every day. Unfortunately, some CMs only got to watch their cooperating teacher.
Then TFA almost went bankrupt. Maybe it was their high institute payroll. They did a lot of mismanaging of money. For example they flew the entire 1991 corps out to the 1993 institute to ‘graduate.’ I believe that they owed a lot of money to some of these California schools so they had to create a very ‘no-frills’ institute in Houston.
So in 1994 they had to throw together a new, cheaper, model. The first thing they did was cut the institute to five weeks. Then, since Houston did not have year round schools, they created a summer school system. Since there weren’t enough kids to give each CM his or her own class, they made these collaborative groups of four. Some of these classes had less than twenty students in them. Since there were now alumni, they got rid of all the ‘seasoned’ experts and had all the trainers be alumni.
Years passed and people forgot that there was ever a time with a longer institute, with very seasoned trainers, with each CM getting to teach full classes. It just seemed like the way it’s always been – but now you know it wasn’t always that way.
Then, in 2001 they started ‘franchising.’ So there was a New York institute based on the Houston model, and now there are five institutes. Each is based on the Houston model which was based on operating with very rigid constraints with very little money.
But TFA isn’t broke anymore and it’s time to revisit what the major components of the institute are. Why not add another week to the institute? Then instead of having 17 days of student teaching, you’d have 22. That’s about 30% more student teaching. Also, why does practically everyone have to be an alum? Surely there are some experts out there who did not go through TFA that are very worthy of respect. Finally, why not make it a big priority to find a way to give each CM an opportunity to stand in front of a group of 34 students?
America is trusting TFA to produce 3,700 new teachers who will be able to teach 200,000 students this year. TFA owes it to those students to do everything possible to prepare CMs for this challenge.
OK. So now you might be thinking, “Aren’t you the guy who is known for having such a bad first year that you nearly quit / got fired / had a nervous breakdown? How can you say that training was better back then?” Well, the training still had a lot of problems. Maybe having all ‘experts’ isn’t good either since they can’t remember how hard the first year can be. I think that had I gotten to meet some actual alumni they might have been able to scare me a little into not being so overconfident. I’m not saying the old model was perfect. But after 18 years, I think the current model still needs a lot of improvement.