I'm baaaaaaack.

Hoarding All the Glitter Since 2001.

15 July 2012

Reflect before Retooling

This op-ed is making the rounds, and I think it makes some pretty good points.  Teach for America is far too concerned with its application counts and acceptance rates, and despite its mission to support high-needs schools, quotes like this make it seem like the mission is to support recent college graduates while they find themselves:

Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of TFA, addressed this issue last month in an interview with NY1 news: "Our applicant pool fell in half when we asked for a three-year commitment. It doubled if we asked for one year. The reason this plays out is that 22-year-olds think that two years is the rest of their life."

But I feel that the author makes some of the same mistakes in her framing.  Sure, one's teaching practice is undeveloped after two years in the classroom.  The frame here is around one's own practice, though - not around students or the school.  It's about the TFA teacher, not his or her impact on the host school.

And the real problem I have with Teach for America is its whole-school impact.  Schools are not stable when staff is in and out the door.  There is no institutional memory, standard and schoolwide systems, or even much rapport among staff.  Children are failed, because there aren't teachers who've known those kids since Kindergarten with whom to consult if they start having problems in fourth grade.  Families are failed, because building relationships is hard work that happens over years, especially when complicated by institutional roles and ethnolinguistic and class difference.

A five-year commitment would help.  TFA teachers have worse attrition than all teachers, but attrition is high across the board, especially at high-needs schools.  The job is often thankless and difficult, teachers are not particularly well-paid, and the idea that one embarks on a career for life is fading anyway.

More broadly, though, I think TFA has got to start thinking less about its "best and brightest" and more about those they encounter in their two years.  More narrowly, I think there are some things TFA has got to admit can't be done in a two-year commitment: Special Education and Early Childhood Education.  Special Education does have a shortage of teachers; putting minimally-trained young people focused on academic results doesn't ameliorate the bigger problem.  And nothing in TFA's training makes me believe they can handle social-emotional development and learning.  Perhaps that's because I can't forget this letter from a young Corps Member:

As a kindergarten teacher in a Title I school with 99 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, most of my 5-year-old students enter without being able to recognize the letters of their name or count to 10. They are certainly not suffering from overly high expectations but rather the opposite. Testing has shone a spotlight on the fact that for too many low-income children, the expectations have been so low in kindergarten that they leave without the foundational reading skills they need. Peggy Orenstein is correct: assessment in itself is useless. What is useful is its power to define expectations and hold students, parents and teachers accountable. My greatest wish is that one day my students will have the luxury of complaining about their “souped-up childhood learning.”

Not only is it depressingly dismissive of families, it betrays a fundamental lack of interest in what children need outside of academics.  And I've seen the result of all-work-all-the-time Kindergarten: if the children didn't have preschool, they often struggle socially throughout primary because the important work of emotional learning, play, and peer interaction was ignored in favor of drill.  If this is an example of what TFA thinks about Kindergarten, they can't be in ECE.

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