Why the new TFA book could widen the achievement gap.
I was excited to get my hands on the new TFA book ‘Teaching as leadership.’ For the past 19 years, I’ve been involved with TFA on many levels as a CM in 1991-1993, then eventually as an institute staff member in 1996. I’ve been a keynote speaker at several TFA events and have presented my workshop on classroom management for 10 summers between 1996 and 2006. My relationship with TFA has had its ups and downs. In the past year or so, we’ve been on quite good terms. I felt that they’ve finally come around with regard to training the CMs more practically. Up until around 2006, they were doing a poor job of being realistic with the CMs. Things were sugar coated and as a result, CMs were blindsided when they faced the reality of their own classrooms. Then TFA got their act together, in a large part due to people like Jeff Wetzler, and improved the training. Things were no longer as sugar coated and as a result people were better prepared and the attrition rate reflected this.
TFA was finally ready to share what they learned after collecting data for decades which can help thousands of new teachers, in addition to the new CMs who each will receive one of these books. A few pages into the book, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. TFA had blown it.
Over the next few weeks, I will do a detailed critique of the chapters, one at a time. This, I hope, will serve as a reader’s guide for new CMs who are eating up the book and its oversimplified messages and, more importantly, for the other new teachers who won’t have the same opportunity to challenge some of the ideas with the TFA trainers over the summer. These blogs will give the new CMs something to debate as they learn to think critically about all the different advice they will get before they start teaching – even stuff from the new bible (and feel free to criticize what I say on this blog with your comments – I can take it.)
I truly think that TFA could have written a useful teacher training manual. They have the knowledge of what works in the classroom and also of what doesn’t work. The reason they created such a bad book is because they were obviously conflicted among their different sub-goals of the major goal of ‘closing the achievement gap.’ One goal is to train effective teachers. Another goal is to portray a clean image immune to criticism. In creating this book, they had to choose which one of those goals was more of a priority.
It isn’t possible to serve both goals simultaneously. What would make a good training book would make a bad PR opportunity since a good training book has to warn new teachers about some of the mistakes that new teachers make. Revealing that they know what these common mistakes are would also reveal that some of their corps members must have committed some of these sins, which could open TFA to criticism. What would make a good PR opportunity would make a bad training book since a good PR opportunity presents only the positive rosy side of the story. A new teacher reading such a book will be mislead into thinking that becoming an effective teacher is fairly easy as long as the steps, which are presented without any mention of how they might backfire if followed too blindly.
Imagine two guides to climbing Mt. Everest: One that is produced by an expert climber whose only goal is to prevent the reader from getting injured while attempting to climb it. The other book is produced by the Nepal tourism center. The one produced by the tourism center would contain many beautiful images with stories and testimonials from people who had successful experiences climbing Everest. There would be no mention of how many people died or were injured while failing. The one produced by the expert climber who has no vested interest in preserving the image of the mountain would be much more genuine. It would contain best practices along with examples of how when these best practices are executed improperly, they can result in some dangerous and painful experiences. OK, enough with the analogy, you get the idea …
TFA, in trying to serve two goals at the same time: share effective teaching strategies and bolster the image of TFA has created a book that will send unsuspecting new teachers into danger without any warnings about what things might happen when everything doesn’t go according to the perfect script they’ve promised. This is fine if they tell the reader right up front that this is their intention. They could have said, “We’re focusing on success stories, BUT these are somewhat atypical. Still we want to learn what we can from these successes.” Someone reading this book, for example, does not know that 10% of TFA corps members quit before finishing their commitment.
What upset me most about this book is what they deliberately omitted. They left out the counterpoints – things that would make people really think about how to apply the principles and what sorts of complications are associated with them. Right now, I’m only up to page 51. Stay tuned ….