A Mosaic In Progress

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 09 2013

Slate Magazine Article

At the end of the school day, I received an e-mail from AK directing me to a Slate Magazine article entitled “Why I Stopped Writing Recommendation Letters for Teach For America.”  I had some immediate reactions and I’ll try to keep it brief.

1) Hopefully my peers in the Delta would agree that education policy and the way schools are run are different in rural areas than in cities like Oakland, Chicago, etc. However, some of the criticisms I see here are being portrayed as if it’s happening on all fronts when, in all actuality, these may only apply to select areas. If you ask any corps member in the Delta why they chose to teach, I doubt anyone would say “to rid communities of veteran teachers.” In fact, veteran teachers are why we are successful.

2) Let’s be honest. There are some things that you just cannot expect until you teach. Institute was helpful but, to be honest, short. I do agree with the author that a “teacher’s aid” or apprenticeship program would be ideal to prepare teachers but is the sustainability of this realistic? I am curious to see what college education programs are like in preparing future teachers in the classroom. I wonder if the hours of education majors teaching is significantly higher than those of corps members heading into their school years. Regardless, there were just scenarios that I did not expect until I was by myself teaching. I hope that there would be support for such a program but I honestly question if all parties involved would invest – schools, non-profits, and prospective teachers alike.

3) Forbes states that 91% of college graduates in the “Millennial” generation will leave before year three. This is a worldwide phenomenon yet it seems unfair to drag the name of an organization through the mud especially of a non-profit that maintains that its mission is to “ensure that all children are provided an opportunity to obtain an excellent education.” Yes, I do believe that Teach For America has a long way to go before that goal is realized but let’s not denounce the efforts of employees, alumni, and current corps members for mistakes in wrestling with a complex challenge.

Wish I could continue but it is getting close to 11 at night and I do want to be prepared for my students … they truly deserve it.

6 Responses

  1. Meghank

    Pat Newton – I think the fact that teachers are leaving after three years has more to do with the work environment teachers are given and less to do with their training. Namely, they are trained to teach interesting, creative lessons, and that is what they sign up for when they start teaching. When they are then told by administration to do near-constant test prep, that does make a teacher think about switching careers. And better training would not change that.

  2. “However, some of the criticisms I see here are being portrayed as if it’s happening on all fronts when, in all actuality, these may only apply to select areas” is a defensive statement I often see, and honestly, I think it’s a terrible defense. For one thing, new CMs can be placed by TFA in any region, regardless of their expressed preferences (I ended up in my third to last). For another thing, TFA is a national organization, full stop. The fact that it’s less objectionable/unobjectionable (depending on whom you listen to) in certain regions doesn’t excuse its behavior in other regions. There are plenty of region-specific alt cert organizations that a person can choose if they feel they’d be an ethical asset to particular region. TFA isn’t one of them. TFA has federal level management and federal level lobbying power.

  3. KatieO

    Unfortunately, the trend in teacher preparation, in large part due to the “competition” of alt cert, fast-track programs like TFA, is to water-down and destroy strong programs to “compete”. TFA also has partnerships with many universities to create more of this low-quality programs. There are no fast-track teaching programs in Finland or in Japan (where I started as an ASSISTANT teacher for many years before coming back to the states to attend a full Masters-level program.) Alt cert does not exist in places dedicated to education. Fast-track, alt certs need to be abolished, in my opinion. And the federal government should be funding grants and scholarships to ensure no teacher shortages ever occur.

    Teachers who put in years devoted to preparation for a career do not want to leave. Unfortunately, teaching in far too many American classrooms has become a near-impossible job. American teachers work under horrible working conditions (which are students’ learning conditions!) of far too large case loads, unsustainable hours, no support, too few resources, inflexible top-down mandates, little autonomy, ridiculous paper-work burdens, disrespect, and unspeakable stress on the job.

    TFA needs to stop conflating teacher preparation with absolutely appalling working conditions. We could fix teacher retention problems by simply funding schools adequately and committing to a happy, healthy, well-trained teacher workforce. Terrible working conditions now coupled with full-out attacks on teachers and the burdens of wrong-headed “accountability” are driving teachers from the classroom. That is a very different phenomenon from the TFAer who has deferred grad school or a job at Goldman Sachs for 2-3 years to do TFA or did TFA when unsure what “real” career path to take. Add to that, teachers being unfairly pushed out of the classroom-being laid off like in cities like Chicago–to make room for TFA and charter expansion and you have a very different picture than you all are trying to paint. This is a complex problem which TFA makes worse.

  4. Being an education major and TFA corps member myself, I’d somewhat disagree with KatieO’s point that education majors receive much more teaching preparation than TFA. I completed a secondary education program, specializing in social studies, at a large public university and found the teacher preparation to be non-existent. The program’s focus was more on the content rather than helping teacher’s on their instructional practices. During my student teaching semester, I was observed a total of two times during the entire semester and offered no meaningful feedback of my performance. My point is that a lot of TFA opponents make assumptions that education programs at universities more adequately prepare teachers than TFA, which I argue is a flimsy assumption.

    On the contrary, I know that the elementary education program fit KatieO’s description perfectly. Elementary school student teachers were given hours and hours of teaching experience and had courses revolve around best teaching practices. Essentially, I think we need to discuss making major overhauls and reform in the college education programs to ensure that all programs offer the extensive training that KaiteO detailed as being the standard for college education. programs. Clearly, it is not the standard for many schools as most new teachers, TFA or non-TFA, leave the profession after three years. It is unfair to throw TFA under the bus when college education programs have a lot of flaws training new teachers.

  5. KatieO

    Education majors spend 100s of hours observing in multiple settings/subject matters often in many differnt schools/grade levels, moving up to 100s more hours practicing small group instruction, assessments, short whole group lessons before embarking on many months of student teaching. They are required to take course on teaching students with special needs, learning about IEPs, and working with ELLs. Compare that experience with TFA’s 16-20 hours of summer school instruction in one classroom and one grade-level, with almost no chance to observe master teachers. I’m sorry, but there is no comparison.

    TFA has raised over $1 billion dollars over 5 years. They could easily change their program to fund extra classroom aide positions for struggling schools thereby supporting the teaching already happening. But the big question is would the Walton Foundation or Wall St elites still back TFA when it wasn’t serving the function of displacing veteran teachers and stocking charter schools in so many places? And, outside a handful of regions like the Delta, TFA serves little other function than to support privatization and deprofessionalization of teaching efforts in schools. Most regions don’t need what TFA offers.

  6. Yoorzi

    Thank you for posting this article. I agree that a five week crash course team teaching a small classroom is not a true replication of the challenges we face leading our own classrooms, but I completely disagree with Michna’s opinion that education majors are better off. She takes a position similar to the one that argues only Political Science majors can make the best lawyers or Math majors will make the best math teachers. The fact that you have gained the knowledge required to be an “expert” on a subject does not make you a master at articulating or disseminating said information. I also agree that she fails to state a regional bias in her piece and generalizes her personal experience as a blanket statement of TFA.

    “The simple fact is that students who apply to TFA are not trained to be teachers. So by refusing to write TFA letters of recommendation, we’re merely telling our students that we can’t recommend them for a job they’re not qualified for.” By refusing to write a letter of recommendation, you are telling this person they are not qualified to attempt and endure a new and challenging experience. The majority of entering TFA Corps Members are recent college graduates. She is correct that teaching will be the first career/profession many step into, but I believe this applies to many other professions and fast-paced working environments. No one is immediately qualified for a job they have never had. Isn’t that the purpose of a letter of recommendation? You are allowing someone who doesn’t know the person you are recommending that “Hey, this person hasn’t done this job, but they have the qualities to learn quickly, persist, and be a valuable asset in the future.” Just a few thoughts

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