Sep 03 2012

Is Teach For America Working? Debate in The New York Times

The current ‘Room For Debate’ on The New York Times website is called ‘Is Teach For America Working?’  There were six debaters.  Two were negative, two were neutral, and two were positive.

I was invited to submit to be one of the debaters, but mine was rejected since I was ‘outranked’ by a 1990 corps member Alex Caputo-Pearl (I was a 1991 corps member and always suffered an insecurity complex as the 1990s could call themselves ‘charter corps’ — which meant something completely different back then) who is also a high ranking member of the Los Angeles teacher’s union.  I don’t mind being ‘bumped’ by him since what he wrote was more comprehensive and generally better than what I wrote.

There was a pretty scathing one called ‘A Glorified Temp Agency’ by Julian Vasquez Heilig.  That one got a lot of comments, particularly in defense of TFA from staffers.

One said:

Sadly, this is devoid of facts. Here are some truths about Teach For America:

-2/3 of everyone who completes the program (alumni) are still in preK-12 education (full-time)
- over 80% of all alumni are still impacting education in their full-time work, even though only 15% come in thinking they want to be educators over the long term
- TFA’s long-term teacher retention is as good if not better than traditionally certified teachers

Teach For America corps members and alumni are incredibly diverse in every way. They are well-trained, and arguably better supported in the classroom and beyond by the Teach For America program.

Nearly 8,000 TFA alum are still in classrooms. 550 are leading schools. 100 are leading school systems. And the students they’re reaching are the leaders of tomorrow – including tomorrow’s leaders of Teach For America.

A glorified temp agency? No, a long-term pipeline for teacher leaders.

I don’t know about these statistics.  80% of alumni are impacting education in their full time work.  But only 89% even finish their two year commitment.  And that 2/3 stat I’ve discussed before.  Very misleading.

Even though I was not one of the debaters, one of my former students was.  The New York Times wanted to include the perspective of adults who were once taught by TFAers.  I put them in touch with a student from my first year — an incredible student named Olga who went on to become a great teacher.  Olga was in 6th grade in 1991 so she is about 35 now.  Looking at the comments that people left, it seems like Olga’s post was in support of TFA though I saw it as somewhat neutral.  Basically she said that her teacher (me) was too nice and the kids took advantage of that.  In that way it wasn’t really my ‘fault’ but the hard truth that kids who have tough home lives are tough to teach.  Part of me likes to hear this since such a great student was absolving me of my failure, but of course my niceness wasn’t the problem.  The problem was that I did not know how to control my classes because I had such poor training.  This does not mean, though — and I think this is what she was getting at — that I would have had a much easier time had I been trained better since teaching middle school there was going to be tough for any first year teacher.  Either way, I have to say that I was more excited to see my former student getting a chance to get a national audience in The New York Times than I would have been to have myself as one of the debaters.

To see TFA getting debated in The New York Times is a pretty big step in the ed reform conversation.  There was the Reuters article a few weeks ago, and the NPR stories that I participated in.  Actually I’ve contributed to all these main stream media pieces.  Getting these concerns out there to a wide audience has really helped gain momentum and I plan to continue getting the word out until I see some changes in the philosophy of TFA.

One Response

  1. Dufrense

    The only way I see “80% still making education their full-time work” holding water is including TFAers who finished their teaching stint and have gone on to join the ranks of the reformers. And if that’s the case, I find the stat disconcerting. In what other profession, regardless of whether they’re among the “best and brightest,” do people ascend to high-level decision-making positions with so little experience in the field?

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