Nov 22 2011

How I’d Fix TFA

Two posts ago, I wrote my most widely read post of all time (nearly 12,000 hits) about how upset I am with the current ‘direction’ TFA is headed in. In case you are wondering, I do not ever get contacted by anyone in TFA to beg me to stop. I really don’t think they see my posts as a threat or as any kind of motivation to make changes that would make me not feel the need to make such posts. Maybe there are people in the TFA national office reading these posts, I don’t know.

But I don’t want to seem like someone who just likes to complain without having any of my own ideas about how things can be improved. As an out-of-the-box thinker, I know exactly how I could easily turn TFA into an organization that I’d once again be proud of. (And then I could start wearing my T-shirts again.)

The fact is that the vast majority of people who apply to TFA are not just people looking to pad their resumes, but good people who really care and want to do something to ‘give back’ to the society that has provided them with such opportunities. They are not any different than I was when I applied, about 21 years ago. TFA does have an army of smart, energetic people. That they choose to misuse this energy does not mean that there is not a way to use it properly.

In this post, I’ll explain how TFA can be fixed.

One issue I’ve had with TFA is that the teachers are not trained well and therefore don’t give the kids they try to serve a qualified teacher. Teaching is very hard. Being a new teacher is almost impossible. It is a job where you really need an assistant to grade papers for you, to call parents for you, and to help kids one-on-one.

So here’s my plan: TFA becomes a three year program with the first year composed of training, student teaching, substitute teaching, and being paired up as an assistant to a corps member who is in her second year of the program, which is her first (of two) years of teaching. So TFA would become a three year program. One year of training, subbing, and assisting, and two years of teaching. In the second year, these first year teachers would have the benefit of getting assistance from the new first years.

The TFA institute would become obsolete. TFA would partner with universities in their regions and the new corps members would live on campus and be enrolled in a special year-long training program. I haven’t worked out all the details, but this first year would not be easy. You want to get in ‘shape’ to be an effective first year teacher? You need to work for it. As an assistant to a second year, you will be grading papers, calling parents, perhaps even subbing for that teacher when she is sick. You will tutor kids after school. If necessary, you will cook dinner for the teacher you assist. First year teaching is a two-person job and you will be the behind the scenes person who does a lot of the dirty work so that the second year corps member can succeed. You will also be subbing throughout your city. Perhaps you have to sub twice a week. Do that for a year and you will have no trouble facing your actual classes in your second year.

I ask people who are new teachers right now: How would you like to have an ivy league personal assistant that you can order around? Who could grade your papers so you can plan lessons? How much more effective and less stressed could you be? And how comfortable would you have been on your first day if you subbed one hundred times before you had your first day with your own classes?

And, of course, the kids would benefit from this too.

After the second year, you might not be so burned out since you didn’t have the trauma that current corps members had in their first year. Perhaps TFA could entice you to do two more years. Maybe they can give some of the $70,000 that they would have used to train and support a new person to you and keep you in the classroom. These changes still wouldn’t ‘fix’ education, but at least they wouldn’t be doing the sort of damage TFA now is.

This will never happen because TFA is so attached to the two-year commitment thing, while this would require three. They claim that they did a study and that a three year commitment would scare away many of their top applicants — perhaps even people who would have voluntarily stayed for a third year after completing their second.

It’s hard to say. Back in 1991, two years sounded like a lot to me. But don’t the TFA reformers like to say that we have to stop doing what is good for the adults and start doing what is good for the kids? My three year plan would be better for the kids and for the corps members, I’m sure.

I have other things that I’d want to change too, like not placing corps members in regions where teachers are being laid off, and also trying to develop leaders who understand the difference between ed reform P.R. and reality, but I’ll save those for another day.

Anyway, that’s my idea. What do you think of it?

32 Responses

  1. Vincent

    Who would pay for the 2nd teacher in each classroom? I don’t think the school districts would be up for it.

    • Sam

      Exactly. The major problem here is the funding issue.

    • They are increasingly up to partner with universities on year-long residencies, though. That’s not terribly different from the suggestion here.

  2. Sam

    I love this idea for the most part, but I don’t think the first year should be as essentially a servant to the 1st year teacher and to the district. I think it should be devoted to learning. Perhaps the student could work with a more experienced teacher, rather than a 2nd year corps member (who, under this plan, would be a 1st year teacher).

    Or maybe even the 1st year could help the 2nd year during the fall semester, as the 2nd year gets his/her feet off the ground and attempts to establish a classroom culture/classroom management, and then do a regular “student teaching” semester with an experienced teacher during the spring. The more I think about this option, the more I love it.

    I can imagine that TFA would run into a funding issue with this plan, since 1st year corps members would no longer be paid as a teacher by the district, and since they would need to take graduate education classes, etc etc. But I think this would be much more effective.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      TFA would pay for the tuition to the college and also a stipend for food. First years would make some money when subbing too. They wouldn’t be full time assistants, but might be there volunteering from time to time, but mainly helping out in other ways. TFA has raised a half a billion dollars in the past ten years, remember. The institutes are very expensive, and they would not be needed anymore.

      • Sam

        That’s true. I hadn’t thought of how much money would be saved if Institute was cut.

        Also, what would you think of TFA members having to do a minimum number of observation hours before they even graduate from college? Most graduate schools of education require students to do a minimum number of observation hours (usually at least 100) over the course of their graduate program.

        I know a complaint will be that CM’s don’t have the time. Well, a lot of graduate school students work full-time (and not necessarily at a school) while attending school full-time, and we all figure out how to do it.

        In order to ensure that the CM’s complete their hours, they could have teachers sign off on forms and they could write up reports on their observations. They would have specific things to look for – questions asked, strategies used, classroom rules, management techniques, etc. The students would have to turn this in by the beginning of Institute or they would be booted from the program. Just a thought.

        • Sam

          To clarify – this idea is not in conjunction with your’s, Gary. It is a suggestion for a less effective, but more doable idea that wouldn’t require TFA to change its entire structure.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      My comment was to Vincent, not Sam.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Sam, Good idea on the first semester thing. Help the new teacher get off to a good start.

  3. COOL!
    I really like the 2nd year teacher servant thing. It’d be viewed as a sort of “team teacher” situation, where they’re both working their assess off for student success. I often find myself thinking about how teaching is really just too much for one person to do well.
    Plus, I really like that the trainees would be paired with a first year teacher, rather than a 2nd year teacher–there’s no sugar-coating the experience when you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with a newbie yourself.

  4. Given that TFA is heavily subsidized by private foundations, there is plenty of money to cover your 3 year program. I teach teachers at UAHnuntsville, and I have been saying for years that the first year of our program should be 3 full days in classrooms with 2 days of instruction, ideally at the school site so students become members of the school community and are fixed faces when they begin their full time assignments….great post!

  5. Michael Fiorillo

    Your suggestions are fine as far as they go, but they ignore TFA’s destructiveness as a vehicle for privatizing public education. This occurs through a self-reinforcing process whereby some – the Michelle Rhees and John Whites, among the most prominent – are identified, financed and groomed to become overseers of privatization (look to New Orleans as the ultimate, Shock and Awe model) and union busting in urban districts. Having assumed positions of power, often in districts where democratic governance of the schools has been destroyed, they then accelerate the closing of public schools, the opening of charters and the hiring of still more TFA missionaries.

    As you say, the overwhelming majority of TFA recruits are coming in for the right, if naive and uninformed, reasons. Many of them also have a lack of self-awareness about the class assumptions that they bring with them. That their idealism is manipulated, and their class blinders maintained, by what is essentially an over-hyped educational Ponzi scheme is unforgivable, and is reason enough for the organization to be euthanized.

  6. A

    Have you heard of Blue Engine? http://www.blueengine.org/

    Schools still manage to pay for teaching assistants even with a limited budget.

  7. Cal

    I don’t like the servant idea, and I definitely don’t think that giving a first year teacher a “servant” makes sense.

    I do like the idea of three years. In California, at least, I see a lot of TFAers go through one year of BTSA in their second year and then quit. So they have a preliminary credential but not their clear, which renders their work useless unless they stay for the second year.

  8. Jessica

    Your idea sounds similar to the Urban Teacher Residency. I think the UTR is a better model, in part because it has first year teachers working with experienced teachers and not just 2nd year corps members. Check it out. It seems like you would find it interesting.

  9. Nalin

    Thanks to your posts over the last few months, I have been also applying to alternatives to TFA, while continuing with the TFA application path as well.

    I’ve found some incredible programs, many of which are doing what you think needs to be done, though on a smaller scale than TFA (and hence without the massive PR, so its harder to hear about them). But if you look, you will find…

    Top of my list is the Boston Teacher Residency (http://www.bostonteacherresidency.org). A one-year immersive masters in education program is followed by a three-year commitment to Boston Public Schools. The masters program includes four days a week of student teacher during the school year, and two summers on either end of full-time coursework at UMass. If I get accepted to this, I will definitely go over TFA.

    There’s an alliance of such programs at http://www.utrunited.org/. I’ve found most of the others fall somewhere in between TFA and BTR on the preparatory rigor scale, but there are so many alternative options. If you are interested in TFA for the right reasons, as I think I am, then take a look at these other programs too… maybe TFA will be right for you, maybe not. But its not the only structured alternative cert pathway out there, especially for career-changing professionals. As these residency models gain more exposure, TFA will have competition for the national stage in education reform teaching entry programs, and that may be all that is required to prompt change.

    • It will be interesting to see what happens with the residencies. They’re quite varied, and some of them may be great programs but have funding sources that worry me – they may become education reform under a different guise.

      I have to say that I think they’ve been enormously successful in my area. My district and its partners are placing the residents in high-needs schools, as opposed to the lower-need schools that attract most shorter student teacher placements. The residents come out prepared for the schools at which they’re most likely to teach. It makes a difference.

  10. anna

    this is already in place – it’s the urban teacher residency program that places first year teachers with qualified mentors during their first year, and there’s a 5 year commitment. i believe it was created to address the shortcomings of tfa, which you’ve outlined above.

  11. I agree that a three-year program that involves more of a student-teaching/residency component would prepare TFA teachers far more effectively for the classroom. This was one solution our panel suggested when I spoke with a group on TFA and how it should change at a national education conference in Washington DC this summer. As it is, it’s completely a sink or swim program. Fewer Corps members would get eaten alive and quit with a three-year set-up and it would also encourage applicants who are actually concerned about education and want to be life-long educators.

    However, TFA will never expand to a three-year commitment because they would lose a ton of top applicants who just want to just do their two years in TFA, get the program on their resume, get their subsidized Master’s Degree/Certification and then move on. Many Corps members in the region I used to be TFA in (before quitting) were furious when they found out that in our (new) region we would be required to teach three years before we earned a Teaching Certification and many of those same Corps members were also pissed off when there wasn’t an immediately available fully subsidized Master’s program available in our region (it was gradually implemented as the year went on, but will also require a three-year commitment to finish, so very few Corps members signed up for it).

    Certainly, not every Corps member only joins for these ‘TFA perks’, but it’s a huge factor for a lot of people in TFA. Changing that would make the program far less ‘attractive’ and therefore hurt TFA’s (already bogus) numbers even further.

    Hit me up on my blog at ‘recoveringfromTFA.wordpress.com’ (email me for an invitation) if you would like to chat about TFA more. I had a horrific experience and quit a few months into my first year.

  12. Laura

    It would be a disservice for the newbie to be paired with a novice teacher. A year of drudgery and exposure to inexperienced teaching is not likely to increase the resilience or effectiveness of TFA teachers. You are certainly correct, though, in pointing out that TFAers need more a lot more schooling before they teach. You are way wrong to imagine that they will benefit from being exposed to another TFAer. And guess what — your 2nd year TFAer will find that delegating work is work in itself, and this also takes knowledge and experience to do effectively.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      This ‘servant’ component is not the primary part of the 1 year training. It would serve the purpose of teaching humility to the newbie, kind of like in a fraternity, and it could help out the first year teacher. There would be other components: observing veteran teachers, student teaching, substitute teaching. Still a work in progress, I thought it up in a few minutes, yet it is better than anything TFA has come up with.

      • ex-tfa, future teacher

        I am subbing now and I have learned so much by observing how different rooms are set up, how rules are implemented, how problem behaviors are dealt with. I am in a preschool with multiple teachers per room, so I am able to see the staff of the room using their system. I think this is a wonderful component to a new TFA. Teaching can be so isolating, you might never see how another teacher teaches and manages. New corps members would learn and reflect on what works and what doesn’t in classes they observe through subbing and student teaching to gain a foundation before being set free to try it on their own.

  13. Love it. We’re actually working on a proposal to move from a two-year program to a four-year program where all of our teachers would complete a Specialist’s Degree and Board Certification.

    Ben Guest
    Program Manager
    Mississippi Teacher Corps

  14. 3 years is not nearly enough. Most teachers don’t reach even near their peak until at least 7 yrs in. Why encourage more inexperienced teachers & more turnover instead of recruiting — and trying to retain — a truly effective teaching corps, esp. in our high-needs urban school districts?

    • Nalin

      Why assume that people will only stay the required minimum? Even setting a minimum of 7 or 15 or 50 doesn’t address the root issue.

      By filtering for the right motivations in those entering the profession and assuring that they are adequately prepared for it, *any* set minimum becomes arbitrary and irrelevant.

  15. Laura

    Reading all these posts makes me think, put it all together and what do you get? Teacher education. The TFA shortcut is not the way to go. Teachers need mentoring/field work, otherwise known as student teaching, and coursework in methods and curricula. And I also want to agree with a previous poster, that the program in general tends to harm the public school system by creating a revolving door of temporary teachers who never reach full potential, which at a minimum takes 5 years, and undermines teachers unions by creating cheaper, less effective labor. Not so good for public school kids.

    • Jessi

      There is already a revolving door in high needs districts. Unfortunately it is usually of substitutes with no training at all in education. Also, being a mentor teacher for area colleges and a TFA alum, I can assure you the expectations I had during my teacher prep and the evaluation I had was much more thorough than the 12 experiences I have had from three different area colleges in student teaching.

  16. Kathleen

    This is also similar to Match Corps in Boston, where, rather than being thrown into the classroom as head teacher your first year, you tutor, substitute, and receive significant teacher training.
    http://www.matchschool.org/matchcorps/howitworks.htm

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

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