Monday, August 15, 2011

I thought I knew TFA but...

Teach for America (TFA) sounded like a good idea the first time I heard about it.  Get the best and brightest into hard-to-staff classrooms and hope their experiences stick and then "the best" will make a career out of helping our neediest children.

It is appealing in the same way the selfless programs of the "Peace Corps" and "Americorps" from the Kennedy era of asking what can we do for our country appealed to my sense of humanity.

But in practice TFA has left much to be desired.  After extensive reading, it's clear the revolving door of TFA recruits damages students in urban areas, destroys the community of a school, and has a 'wolf in sheep's clothing' agenda to change education policy by quickly moving TFA recruits into positions of power (a la Michelle Rhee, the highest profile TFA recruit to date.)

But after attending the TFA workshop "Why Teach For America (TFA) Must Change: Properly Training New Teachers for the Rigors of Teaching" at the SOS Conference on Friday, July 29, I believe that some of what TFA does should be called educational malpractice at best and criminal at worst.

The leaders of the panel were David Green of Fordham University, currently a mentor to TFA recruits in the Bronx; Dr. Barbara Torre Veltri of the College of Ed at Northern Arizona University and author of Learning on Other People's Kids: Becoming a Teach For America Teacher; Janet Grossback Mayer, a Bronx teacher who has taught for an amazing 51 years in the Bronx; Lawrence Mayer, an award winning Biology teacher and New York City principal; and two former TFA recruits John Bilby and John Williamson (in 2010).

Both of the recruits "failed" in TFA, leaving long before their two-year expected stint was up.  Both felt inadequately prepared for the classrooms they entered.  John Williamson, for instance, was trained to teach secondary mathematics but was moved into three different elementary grade level classes in three different schools in his first two months on the job.


In addition to that, Williamson indicated that he was required to meet regularly in the evenings with a donor, who was purportedly mentoring him.  The advice offered by the high-powered businessman had little validity for the work in the urban classroom, but apparently made the donor feel good about his donation.  Williamson found the required meetings a drain on the time needed to prepare for students. By his own admission he was just one page ahead of the students in his class.

Both recruits indicated that the five-week training in the summer was much like boot camp. Absences, even for legitimate illness (Williamson came down with strep throat) were strongly discouraged.

All TFA's were expected to stick to scripted lessons to prepare students for testing as well as scripts for maintaining control in the classroom.  They were to move ahead to polynomials even if the kids couldn't subtract negative numbers.

A favorite classroom management tool "I'm going to count backwards from four and I want you quiet when I get to one" was laughably inadequate with students who are street-smart, having to negotiate bus schedules, gang territory and other hazards just to get to school.

Mentors who worked with TFAers offered engaging alternatives for classroom management that the novices embraced. But when mentors returned to the classroom, the recruits were back to the scripts because "that is what the TFA management wants."

And about that management.  The five-week summer training sessions are often run by other TFAs with as much as, wait for it, an entire year of experience before they begin to train the next group.


But beyond that, TFA seems to also be involved in activities I would call criminal.  Among them:

  • Placing minimally trained young adults with inadequate training in with special needs populations.  (One young woman was beaten severely when left by herself with high-needs students.)
  • Brokering contracts with districts to guarantee that 20% of their workforce will be filled by TFA recruits, even if it means firing experienced teachers to do so.***(See Barbara Torre Veltri's clarification on this point in the Comments.)
  • Getting a waiver from the Dept. of Ed. for the highly qualified stipulation.  Then, when that was challenged in court, slipping in legislation during the budget cuts this spring that changed the law so TFA recruits can continue to wear the highly qualified label.
  • Moving recruits around at will.  Training them for one subject or grade level, then arbitrarily moving the teacher into another area (as was Williamson's experience.) 
As I listened to the litany, I was outraged.  It seemed clear that TFA was interested solely in their own image and did not care a whit for the students subjected to the program. (There was evidence in their own literature about "hitting numbers" that had little to do with instruction.  One of the numbers they are proud of is the number still in Ed.  Unfortunately, the part of education they are in is shaping policy.  Not good.)

All without being held accountable?

The second grade that Williamson took over before December had already had numerous adults at the head of the class before him and was, unsurprisingly, in chaos.  What has happened to those kids?

Many of the panelists argued that TFA needed to be reformed.  But when the floor was opened to discussion, the young man at right (Sorry for pic quality. Snapped with iphone.) made a passionate argument that "TFA is the devil"  and "I say burn it down."

He was a student in New Orleans when the city was hit by Katrina.  Many of his teachers, some who had Ph.Ds according to the young man, were replaced by TFA recruits.

He argued they failed to connect to the inner city minority students and that resulted in confusion among the student body.  The impromptu speaker had earned the nickname of "Grandpa" because he had filled in where the other adults had failed.  He repeated several times that "New Orleans is dying and nobody cares."

Not even those who advertise that they do care.