A few weeks ago I did my first ever radio interview. I have to admit that I was a bit nervous. Writing a blog is a lot easier since you can stop and think about what you want to write, but you just can’t do that on the radio. Some of the editing I wasn’t that crazy about. Some sentences were cut short where I clarified what I meant, and other questions and answers were cut completely, but my answers to later questions related to what was already said.
Overall, though, I’m pretty happy with the way the interview came out. You can read the transcript and get a link to the audio here.
The main points I made were that TFA exaggerates their success and this leads to problems as politicians believe that these young miracle workers prove that the lazy veteran teachers are the cause of the achievement gap. Also, TFA tacitly supports certain alumni ‘leaders’ who promote ‘reform’ consisting of shutting down schools and firing teachers which, I believe, do much more harm than good.
One thing to note is that, unlike most critics of TFA, I did NOT take the angle that the untrained TFA teachers are so bad that they are harming the kids they teach. In that way, I’m not your typical TFA critic. I’ve contended many times that I think that it is possible to get teachers to be somewhat competent in five weeks so they can teach in places with teacher shortages. Also, I should add here, that secondary teachers have the least potential to cause ‘harm’ since they only see the students for one period a day, while elementary teachers really need quality training, and not having taught elementary, I can’t say that it is possible to make a competent elementary teacher in five weeks. Also, when I hear about TFA teachers placed in special education classes and in pre-K classes, I get pretty worried since it takes a lot of specialized training to teach in those placements.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t think TFAers do ‘harm’ in their first year. All first year teachers struggle, even ones out of ‘traditional’ teacher training programs. We have to have first year teachers, though, or where would more experienced teachers come from? The real question is whether the average number of ‘good’ years for a TFA corps member (probably a little less than 2 years, on average, since many teach for 3 years and some even have good first years) is enough to balance out that one bad year, and how that compares to the number of ‘good’ years (much more than 2) that a traditionally certified teacher will have. But I think that the “TFAers, on average, do harm” argument is hard to prove, even though it seems obvious.
I chose not to use that argument since I don’t think this is what has made TFA ‘dangerous.’ I’m much more worried about the out-of-control alumni accountability zealots that TFA proudly highlights.
The TFA response, which you can read or hear here, was by Heather Harding, who leads the research component of TFA. I know Heather, and have spoken to her on the phone before, and she has provided me with accurate information for some blog posts over the years.
I did not appreciate one of the first things she said to try to discredit me. She said “I also think the perspective that Gary has is about a decade old.” This is TFA trick that they have been doing for a while. Any time you criticize them, they say that the criticism used to be accurate but things have changed and they fixed those problems. But my criticism is not a decade old. Ten years ago, actually, I was not complaining about the institute only allowing TFA trainees to teach a few kids for a few hours over the summer. This is a recent problem due to rapid expansion. And surely, ten years ago, I wasn’t complaining that TFA alumni turned ‘reformers’ were advancing dangerous policies since ten years ago there weren’t any high profile alumni in charge of any districts. So that “decade old” comment was a cheap shot.
She mentions the principal survey that 85% of principals are satisfied with their TFAers. This stat, though, is misleading. I once wrote a whole post about it here, but from what I understand the principal rates the TFAers on a scale from 1 to 5, and 3 counts as positive. So if a principal has 5 first years and 5 second years and two of the first years quit, they will still probably give a 3 on this metric. I believe they are supposed to just consider their first years, but have heard that principals could easily think that their second years (who are generally pretty good) should be factored in.
I also was upset to see Teach For America’s characterization of the ‘debate.’ On the day of the segments this was their Tweet:
Now, I like to think of myself as more than just ‘critics of #teachforamerica’. I’m an alum who has been active in the organization for 21 years. I have worked as a trainer and a recruiter. I have volunteered at institutes, helped thousands of TFAers have better first years. I’ve also been invited over the years to give various keynote speeches and speak on different panel discussions, as recently as a few years ago. Yes, I think that TFA can improve and have found myself as the main ‘insider’ who takes the time and energy to say what I think will help it achieve the mission it was conceived for. This was not just a debate between a critic and TFA, but between two old-time TFA alumni who disagree about the success of of the program and the direction it is going in. Harding isn’t the only one who is ‘our own.’
I suppose I could dissect what I said and what she said in a lot more detail, but I think that if you listen to both parts, I hope you’ll think that I made good points and that most of them weren’t really answered by Harding. I actually wrote her an email after the interview, trying to continue the ‘debate’ a little. On her second email back to me, she ended with ‘have a nice summer.’ Considering that this was about two weeks before summer even started, this was a pretty blatant ‘hint’ that I’ve burned one more bridge to my TFA contacts.
All the comments on both segments of the NPR page were in my favor, but I’d be interested in what everyone thinks. I’ve been invited to be on a local NPR in Minnesota, live, with TFA on at the same time. I think that’s on July 16th, but I’ll update when I have more details. I think that radio interviews definitely take practice and I’ll be that much more comfortable for that one, I hope.