Jun 22 2012

Reflections on my NPR interview and TFA’s response

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.

8 Responses

  1. I’ve also met and talked to Heather Harding, and what I take away from her response is that TFA is getting less and less reflective as the years go on. Despite their “continuous improvement” cycle, they seem more defensive than ever. It’s the same (problematic) research, the same single explanation for the opportunity gap (lousy teaching), etc. I get the sense that “continuous improvement” means tinkering around both the edges (the structural details of the Institutes) and the framing (“big goals” or “essentials” or whatever the current language is), but no consideration of the program as a whole or the reasons why some children are failed by our education system.

  2. Katie

    I’m curious about your response to one of the points that surfaced in the interview:

    Because one of the chief criticisms leveled at TFA corps members is that many of them do not stay in the struggling schools that were their initial placements, how do you respond to the point that you work in a highly successful school with a relatively affluent student body? Can you really criticize TFA’s failures to keep their teachers in underserved urban schools even as you found yourself unable/unwilling to devote the necessary time and energy to continue teaching in an underserved school?

    • sellario

      Initial placements? I thought they didn’t stay AT ALL?

      • Katie

        Where does this popular belief come that absolutely no corps members remain in the teaching profession? It’s true that the numbers aren’t good, but they’re not all that different from other teachers in the schools we serve.

        The stats that are usually thrown out there are that over 50% of corps members remain to teach in low-income schools for a third year. The attrition rate for corps members (beyond the two-year commitment) is remarkably similar to traditionally trained teachers’ who teach in low-income urban schools.

        • sellario

          Wait, would that be 50% of the CMs that completed their 2nd year went on to do a 3rd year? OR, is it 50% of ALL CMs go on to complete a 3rd year. I doubt it’s the second and, if it is not, what you said was misleading.

          What I’ve seen is that ~50% of new teachers quit after 5 years. That’s not the same as, say, 50% of TFA people who complete a 2nd year go on to do a 3rd.

  3. TFAtx

    I’m curious about your logic. So one criticism of TFA is that its teachers do not remain at their initial placement schools in the long term. As far as I know, Gary R. did continue teaching in Houston (though I do not know if he was at the same school) for two years beyond his corps commitment. And even if he was one of those teachers who did not remain, that would seem to confirm the criticism rather than cast any doubt on it. Teacher retention and attrition is an objective problem with the program – CMs do leave — regardless of who calls attention to it and where they work.

  4. One of the aspects of being a principal I’ve found most challenging is being misunderstood. Almost everything I say is public and on stage, is picked apart and relayed in bits, and at times portrayed as having nefarious undertones that I never intended.

    You’re in a similar situation by taking the stand you are taking, so I sympathize. In this particular case, the media is serving as a media-tor, which further restricts your ability to control your message.

    Now that I’ve gotten over myself a bit, I have more fun with it and try working on how I’m heard as opposed to what I say. I’m not in the spotlight, however, so I appreciate observing how you deal with it all.

  5. Dear Gary,

    I stumbled across this blog as I was doing market research for my forthcoming book, and I realized: I think you were my literacy trainer at Institute back in 2000. I will never forget one thing you said to us during a session: You told us never to say, “This is an ADD child.” Instead, you suggested we say, “This child has been labeled with ADD.” You told us that the phrasing changed the way we thought of the kid and his or her disabilities. I really appreciated the suggestion and noticed how profoundly it could change the way I thought of disability. Now that I have my own child with many special needs labels, I appreciate the suggestion all the more.

    My memoir, Teaching in the Terrordome: Two Years in West Baltimore with Teach For America, is coming out from University of Missouri Press in a few weeks. I wonder if you might like a copy for review purposes. As you know, Teach For America usually tells the tales of sheer success, of the teacher who raises test scores two and three grade-levels in one year. And critics argue that most TFA teachers don’t achieve those kinds of significant gains, and that the program can’t possible have sweeping influence because the majority of TFA teachers leave their schools after two or three years. Teaching in the Terrordome offers a more nuanced reality of the TFA experience—messier than the stories TFA touts, but far more relevant than dismissive critics suggest. You might enjoy it. If you’re interested, I can see about the publisher sending you a review copy. You can reach me at [email protected].

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

Region
Houston
Grade
High School
Subject
Math

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