I'm baaaaaaack.

Hoarding All the Glitter Since 2001.

26 August 2012

Learning the Wrong Lessons

Part of Teach for America's theory of change is that some portion of its alumni will move on to positions that will enable them to take action towards educational equity.  Their experience in the classroom, reasons TFA, will cause them to have the desire to make that change, the leadership skill to rise to a position in which the change can be made, and the experience to make the right kind of change.

You could quibble with all of these, but it's the third that worries me the most.  Whatever these alumni learn is leading them to some very questionable choices about what change is needed.  I'd argue that this is due to the TFA model.

For instance, TFA alumni with power are loudly demanding pay-for-performance schemes and an end to teacher tenure.  Teachers are lazy, they explain, and need to be measured and threatened into adequate performance.

I've heard this from both alumni and CMs in the classroom.  What they don't get is that all the drive and energy they're putting into their classrooms during their two years is necessary groundwork.  The teachers they decry as lazy already put those hours in.  Their handmade games are printed, laminated, and cut.  Their lesson plans need annual adjustment, which is a lot faster than building a unit from scratch.  They spent four hours painstakingly making worksheets on the computer a few years ago, so now all they need to do is hit "print".  Parents and children know them, so they don't need to spend so much time making up discipline plans: veterans have authority in and of themselves (not to mention years of experience that enable working classroom management plans).

So what the CMs assume is that veterans are lazy.  They don't have the understanding or experience to know what they don't know.  And when they take their incorrect understanding to leadership roles, they make teaching harder for everyone.

Similarly, TFA's alumni are big into data and testing and DIBELs and data-driven instruction and all that stuff.  Indeed, data are important.  But the veteran teacher knows the limitations of the tool, and is capable of doing the on-the-ground, informal assessment that should really drive instruction.  I don't need to give regular formal assessments in reading to guide my instruction.  I can tell you - and show observational data to back it up - what my students know and need to learn.  But observational and informal assessment is harder than formal assessment.  You have to do it yourself: decide what you're looking for, how you will know if you've seen it, what you will do if you don't, and so on.  Give a formal, standardized assessment and it will tell you - no pedagogical knowledge needed.

Again, this is where the incomplete understanding of the TFA alumni makes my job harder.  Because they don't really know what teaching reading is, they demand students read nonsense words and be judged upon their ability to do so.  I'd rather teach my kids to read.  Assessments like these waste my time and teach nothing.

I could go on like this for ages, but I think the point is clear.  If you're creating educational leaders who make change, you should want them to push for important changes that will make a positive difference.  TFA alumni aren't pushing for those changes - smaller class sizes, decent classroom conditions and funding, etc.  The changes they imagine are pointless or punitive.  I believe this is due to their brief classroom tenures.  They don't understand what they don't know, but they're willing to punish me and my students for their lack of knowledge.


myurko said...

That argument has been made many times before. I doubt its accuracy for both logical and empirical reasons. First, I don’t see any causal mechanism by which teachers can desperately struggle in the classroom for two years and then leave thinking that poverty, school leadership, and unreasonable expectations for teachers are not part of the problem. Perhaps TFA corps members are drilled into them the importance of data, but so are they the importance of informal assessments (we call it checks for understanding), and given that we have such strict data obligations, it makes many of us skeptical of sloppy data as a totally accurate reflection of our classroom. Second, I think you are using a flawed methodology. You see many advocates of school choice (the usual suspects) and people they hire and support, many happen to be TFA alums, and conclude that TFA alums believe whole heartedly in these reforms. But obviously Michelle Rhee is going to hire TFA alums who agree with her politically, not those that do not. You do not see or hear from the TFA alums who are teaching, who are lawyers representing unions, who are pushing for more equal tax policies, etc. I certainly think it is an interesting question, and would like to see some empirical evidence put forth by TFA (a simple survey would do) to see what TFA alums are actually doing around education. I would put money that they, on the whole, are doing a lot of good.

E. Rat said...

I am a TFA alumni who is still teaching. My contact with TFA and its CMs and alumni is accordingly pretty significant. So while you are welcome to find my argument incorrect, deficient, and so on, you need to check your premises.

Also? TFA's "checks for understanding" are a type of informal assessment. I'm not sure why formal data would be less "sloppy", given the huge issues with standardized tests, DIBELs, Reading Lions, and so on, but certainly if you are not familiar with the wide and varied methods of informal observation assessment it would probably seem inadequate.

E. Rat said...

Also, the data requirements for TFA CMs are shoddy. Even the regions that use internal assessments for non-tested grades have enormous data problems. And then there are all the regions where CMs self-report based on self-selected and self-collected data.

Collecting vast quantities of data doesn't mean you have good data.

myurko said...

I don't think you've understood my points, sorry if I was unclear:

1. the "you" in "You do not see or hear from the TFA alums who are teaching, who are lawyers representing unions" is general (more of a collective we). Obviously I have no idea who you happen to see, but I do know it's anecdotal and not a representative sample. Hence my desire for a survey.

2. I am agreeing with you that CFU's are informal assessments (that are very important) AND that TFA's data collection is shoddy. THAT's why I think corps members are especially understanding of the limits of data in describing teacher effectiveness. Once again, I think you are failing to grasp with the logical leg of your argument: what mechanism do you see by which most TFA alums come out with such a bad understanding of the problems teachers face? You also have not given me any legitimate empirical evidence that TFA alumni are generally implementing these kinds of reforms rather than the kinds you would embrace.

E. Rat said...

So I'm not really required to provide evidence you think is legitimate: I'd note you can't really come up with any, either, and TFA's reliance on notoriously bad data and its own public relation choices pretty firmly support my conception of the organization.

Moreover, the limited understanding of pedagogy that TFA's commitment requires - and that you betray here - is suggestive of an organization that doesn't know what they don't know.

But hey, if TFA puts an alumni active in CORE on One Day I'll be the first to cheer. But somehow union activity tends to strike them as problematic for Americorps requirements while whatever Students First does isn't.

myurko said...

Please explain how you can possibly come to the (quite arrogant) cOnclusion that I lack a firm Pedagogical understanding from a series of comments

E. Rat said...

Well, I could start with how you equate informal assessment with checking for understanding. Then I'd probably note that you seem to have a limited background in reading theory and pedagogy. I'm sure I could find more to say, but I don't actually have to justify myself here: it's my sandbox.

myurko said...

I don't think you get how this blog thing works. You're actually always allowed to make badly thought out claims and then resort to ad-hominem attacks when someone tries to politely engage you, regardless of what platform you're on. The thing is, people tend to not do it on their own blog, because it's embarrassing.

E. Rat said...

Sorry, we don't share the same conception of "polite engagement". And there's nothing particularly interesting or well-thought about your defense of Teach for America. We disagree.

For the record, I think ad-hominem claims are a dodge. Context matters. That said, noting both that your knowledge of pedagogy is limited based on your own comments isn't ad-hominem.

Nor is there anything particularly shocking, embarrassing or worrisome to me in telling you that I think you're being silly. Clearly I don't agree with your conception of my argument. So your unsolicited advice comes off as dismissive and rude, not well-considered. And the point remains: I'm entitled to my opinion and my own arguments on my own blog, and I am not required to respond to endless and pointless questions there.

Cameron said...

I don't disagree with your points about prominent TFA alums who promote pay for performance. I know that paying me more wouldn't have helped me be a better teacher.
However, I want to provide a little bit of proof(albeit, anecdotal) that TFA alums can go out and move beyond what they learned from the organization and contribute to education. When I consider what I learned from TFA I think of my kids and my school and the system and very little about data and accountability. My professional goal is to help math teachers because I now understand just how hard their job is on a personal level and how much it matters to students. Here is a my blog, in for anyone who wants to see how one TFA alum(Vegas 2008) is turning out.