An (aspiring) Educator’s Blog

An educator blogging….novel idea.

“Don’t tase me, bro!” (AKA – the Obligatory Edublogger TFA Post)

with 14 comments

This post is inspired by a debate I’m having with JR Atwood on playthink:

JR Atwood: TFA does not aim, I don’t think, to create lifelong professional educators. What it does aim to do is help provide the human capital necessary to at least make a significant impact in the teacher shortage epidemic and to expose high-achieving college graduates, who might not otherwise understand just how deep the public education system is fractured, to the students and families — the people! — that make-up the dire statistics that fill newspaper editorials, speeches by politicians, and on blogs like yours and mine calling for drastic education reform.

Educatorblog: I’m tired of at-risk children being life and learning experiments for affluent adults.

Rewind to two years ago. I’m sitting in my politics seminar with 11 of my peers. We’re discussing race, poverty, and education reform. We’ve just spent the past few months reading about all of the problems – the poverty, health problems, low performing schools, and violent and/or economically depressed neighborhoods that many students face. The professor suggests that TFA might be the solution to all of our problems – a bunch of elite college students can solve just about any problem. Even if TFAers don’t remain in the profession, they’ve had a valuable learning experience that will influence their leadership.  My peers nod in agreement – my school was considered to be a ‘TFA feeder’. About 15 – 20% of each class applied and many got into the program. TFA posters adorn the dining hall, dorm cork boards, and just about every other blank space.

I wasn’t nodding. I started to talk about the mixed findings that studies in peer reviewed journals have had about the impact of TFA – Kerr and Berliner (2002), the infamous Darling-Hammond (2005) study, the Mathematica evaluation (2004), and many others. I take a bold position against TFA – I say that it should be torn to shreds and its financial remains fed to other programs. My peers jump on me. To them, TFA is common sense – what could go wrong with putting the best college students in the worst classrooms? My arguments about professionalism, opportunity cost, the importance of teacher preparation, school support, and what we now call the “Bold Approach” to education reform, fall on closed ears. Cynics like me and our education heresy were public enemy number 1 – the opponents of “real change”. After 20 minutes of raised voices and finger pointing my professor changed the topic (to the Thernstroms and the Bell Curve – I would encounter finger pointing and raised voices again that afternoon).

It’s two years later and I’ve changed my position: We need to reform TFA.

The major premise of my proposed reforms is that TFA and weak schools share the same problem: the mismanagement of human capital. When TFAers and traditional teachers aren’t given the professional tools that they need to succeed, too much of their passion and intellect goes to waste. The quality of education opportunities provided to at-risk students should be the most important factor in decision-making. I don’t like the argument that the primary purpose of TFA is to expose elite students to problems in education – there are many cost-effective ways of exposing college students and young professionals to the education sector without putting the learning of students at risk. Example: my college gave me a grant to volunteer full-time at an alternative school inside of a juvenile detention center. It was almost like student teaching. I worked 30 – 40 hour weeks. I spent most of my day in the classroom. After class was over, I took an intern position with the administrative side. Over the course of the summer I gained more responsibilities. The classroom teacher was a highly qualified and caring special education instructor – the students’ learning experiences were not sacrificed for mine. This experience and many others inspired me to become a professional educator in a Title I school.

The reforms:

1. TFAers need better preparation. As any educator will tell you, scaffolds are important to learning. Scaffolds coupled with classroom experiences can jumpstart a TFAers learning process. Master teachers, administrators, and researchers should not only teach TFAers in seminars, but critique their work as student-teachers. Currently, the TFA training program is 5 weeks. I propose that TFAers make the transition from student teacher –> co-teacher –> classroom teacher in a period of 4 – 8 months. Classroom experiences must complement academic coursework about best practices, professional development, and serving the needs of learners (English language learners, at-risk students, students in special education, etc). Students could be student teachers by day and take courses in the evening (many schools of education use this model in accelerated MA+credential programs that last for 12 months). The course and clinical work completed are transferable to a traditional MA+credential program. Since this training period is so short and leads to a complete certification and MA, TFAers could still put in 2 – 5 years of service.

2. TFAers need more support. Many of my friends in TFA say that they do not receive professional support from master teachers or administrators. Even after TFAers are full-fledged teachers, they need a network of master teachers and administrators who can help them troubleshoot and develop their teaching philosophy. As a part of the TFA placement contract, administrators must promise to provide networks that include their best master teachers.

TFA could be a true reform leader – the reforms I suggest for TFA could be used in existing teacher prep  and school district induction programs. Penny for your thoughts?

In case you didn’t get the title reference (or if you did get the reference and enjoy watching the video):


14 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. The lore among teachers is that it takes five years to hit your stride. I’d agree with that. Someone ought to study the few TFAers who remain that long (if any do). TFAers in their grooves might actually out-perform certified teachers with the same five years’ experience. The latter begin with the advantage of preparation, but haven’t really learned how to learn, as the fast-track smart kids in TFA presumably have.


    18 June 2008 at 8:50 am

  2. All of the studies control for time spent in the classroom – they find that the more time a teacher spends in the classroom (in years), the better they are (whether traditionally certified, TFAers, NYTF, emergency credentialed, etc). One of the studies had interesting results – they found that even after years of service, there were still negative consequences of having TFAers in the classroom.


    18 June 2008 at 9:21 am

  3. Very well-written and thought-provoking reflection. I’ve enjoyed this dialogue and you raise some important points while also clarifying the data that I originally cited, though I still stand by my defense of, and advocate for the expansion of, TFA. — jra

    J.R. Atwood

    18 June 2008 at 10:21 am

  4. Hello. You asked me to read your post. I think you make some really good points about reforming TFA, but I think it needs to go much further.
    First of all the commitment needs to be longer. We all know that the first two years of a teacher’s career are an extreme learning curve.
    I agree with the above statement of being sick of inner city children being used as training for teachers. It’s extremely harmful to children who have deficits before they even start school.
    In addition, the nature of the short commitment can attract individuals who look at the teaching experience as a way to make connections and TFA has many of those. Check out this video:

    It explains a lot.
    My main concern with Teach for America is that it is being used by private interests for their own agenda.
    Teachers who teach for two years are a dream to certain interests- they collect low salaries, have no time to become interested in union matters, and will never collect a pension.
    This, in my opinion, is the real reason that large corporations who don’t seem to care about the health or welfare of inner city children are suddenly interested in donating to Teach for America.


    18 June 2008 at 2:04 pm

  5. I agree – the commitment should be at least 5 years. That’s the commitment I’m facing for institutional, federal, and state programs that repay my teacher ed debt in return for teaching in Title I schools.

    The problem that I see in most discussions about teachers and ed reform is that we are trying to lower the cost of instruction while advocating for teachers with more human capital (experience, training, professional development, etc). For teachers to be as competent as everyone wants them to be, their wages and professional opportunities should rise to reflect the high opportunity costs they face (well-qualified teachers could be I-bankers, consultants, lawyers, academics, etc). Our short-cuts make it so that many people who would be great teachers aren’t attracted to the profession (lack of incentives).


    18 June 2008 at 2:31 pm

  6. JR – are you saying that you don’t want to reform TFA?


    18 June 2008 at 2:42 pm

  7. One of the impacts of the TFA and in NYC the Teaching Fellows has been the whitening of the teaching staff. For many years we had what was known as a career ladder program where paraprofessionals were given time off to attend college. Many of them became teachers. A lot of them were from neighborhoods surrounding the schools and this brought in a more diverse racial mix. With drastic cuts in paras that program has not been feeding as many people into the schools. Another aspect was that some of them had trouble passing the teacher exam. There are a bunch of factors here, including the fact that many were educated – or miseducated in the very same type of schools they were now teaching in. 5 years ago about 1000 of them lost their jobs. There is a lawsuit still active claiming bias on the exams.

    It seems simple to some people. They didn’t pass the exam, too bad, even if there’s a negative social result. It is more complex. I saw great teacher who could not pass. I also saw some who should have been let go. I can say the same with all groups coming in. This was the ultimate high stakes test – fail and you can’t work. And some people would panic and became helpless at the exam. As I said, complex.

    In essence, in NYC, we have seen short-term TFA’s replace people of color, neighborhood people with an understanding of the kids and with years of experience in the schools as paras. Also career people. But without the academic background.

    Some say this was intentional. Get rid of career ladder people who do not fit the profile of the Peace corps teacher who will never rise to a high salary or a pension. Imagine if everyone leaves after 2 years. What a deal!

    What about the kids? Does anyone believe the support of the business community for TFA is about kids?


    18 June 2008 at 8:58 pm

  8. Norm – This is an interesting angle. I have a problem when people imply that teachers who aren’t from Ivy League institutions aren’t as qualified to teach as would-be teachers who are. I think that there are many characteristics that go into good teaching and people from all walks of life (SES, education background, etc) can find their stride if they are given training and experience (with scaffolds). I am for programs that create professional tracks for paras and other members of the education community (especially ones that aim for diversity).

    I’ve taken a few teaching exams already. The CBEST was so easy that I thought to myself “if a person doesn’t pass this, they lack basic skills”. On the other hand, I could see where people who do not test well can have problems with the RICA, single subject CSETs, and the multiple subject CSET. I’m not sure about what to do with the testing paradigm for teachers – we should honor the fact that many bright minds and hard workers are not great test takers, but on the other hand, tests should be one of many tools that we use to judge knowledge.


    18 June 2008 at 9:45 pm

  9. There are many brilliant people who could not afford an Ivy League education. As an educator who has been in the position of providing coaching and mentoring to new teachers, I find intelligent people from various educational settings.
    I’ve met some great teachers from Ivy Leagues, and some not so great ones as well. Teaching is so much more than a pedigree.
    Unfortunately, the average person hears “Ivy League” and assumes highly qualified.
    Trust me when I tell you, this isn’t the case at all. I sit in many, many classrooms and can attest to this.
    However, the corporate interests who back TFA use the appeal of the Ivy League to sell their spiel.
    It’s a win-win for them, really.
    TFA members get something- for some of them, it really is a path into the education field. For others, it’s a stepping stone to make the right connections. For many, it’s a steady job in a topsy turvy economic time.
    There are very few strong unions left in the United States. Most corporations despise organized labor for obvious reasons-they can’t control the wages or hours worked.
    The Teachers Union is one of the last remaining.
    The propaganda that vilifies the teachers union disguises itself as having an interest in children, yet those individuals who vilify unions in the name of children are the same who refuse to provide children with adequate healthcare or quality of life.
    It is hypocrisy at its best and they have found their “tool” through Teach for America.


    19 June 2008 at 12:13 am

  10. You’re quite on-point with your analysis. Many of the qualms that you enumerate are verbatim reasons why my Mom (career teacher, now Staff Developer in NY) dissuaded me from applying to TFA my senior year in college. Of course, after two years of working in a lab, I followed my heart to the classroom of a DC charter school, but I nonetheless agree with your premises. I think that DCPS could certainly benefit from an insightful teacher like yourself, but you should also be thinking of policy work with the vision that you possess.

    However, I think that there is something to be said from an empirical perspective. Although “there are many cost-effective ways of exposing college students and young professionals to the education sector without putting the learning of students at risk,” I don’t think that what I encounter on a daily basis could be summarized on a daily basis. My experiences, relationships with students, and personal growth will be etched into my mind forever. Furthermore, I feel that this experience will inform whatever I attempt in the future.

    I agree that people should not be experimenting on the most disadvantaged students, that is, “trying it out,” “finding themselves”, etc., but there is no replacement for the experience. I’m still undecided on TFA, but I feel that a scaffolded approach like the one that you propose to ease the transition might be beneficial. The question is whether there are enough master teachers in the areas that need this infusion of new teachers to sustain such an initiative. While I’m against putting “warm bodies in the classroom,” there is something to be said for those individuals who take their experiences (TFA, Teaching Fellows, career-changers, or other) seriously.


    19 June 2008 at 9:04 pm

  11. Avoicein – you make claims that we should investigate.

    Philosphunk – There is a lot that can be said from an empirical perspective – but that doesn’t have to be a full-on teaching job. I know many people (myself included) who became interested in education – both teaching and policymaking – based on experiences where they were not fully-fledged teachers. I think that this should be the first step before anyone even contemplates entering the field. TFAers (teaching fellows, career changers, etc) who know that they do not want to be teachers forever should balance their desires with the needs of students. I think that 5 – 10 years of teaching provides enough benefits to students to justify “teaching for the experience”. Since it is good when leaders and policymakers have experience in the classroom, we should make sure that they teach long enough to make our investment in their human capital worth it.


    20 June 2008 at 2:18 am

  12. That is a solid point. I know that my career-change was precipitated and informed by the education-related activities in which I participated while I was still a lab rat. Working with teens in varios manners (tutoring, mentoring, coaching, etc) over a two year period certainly gave me enough of a taste to be willing to take the plunge. And I also don’t see an “expiration date” on this career, as many TFAers, and the like do. I agree with your fundamental premise that 5 years provides enough benefits to students to justify their social experiment. My question is how to do you make that appealing to more people, since there is such a shortage. Although the federal government offers loan repayment to teachers who teach in underserved areas for a minimum of 5 years, do you think that is enticing enough to increase the number of teachers in the field?

    I’ve been throwing around a bunch of ideas in my head for some time, but I wonder whether a more radical approach would be feasible. It would be analogous to the military academies, where students go to school for free (or a highly reduced price) and then owe the government qua school system at least 5 years of teaching in return. This would be a corps in all the ways that TFA is not.


    20 June 2008 at 6:50 am

  13. Yeah – I like your corps idea (kind of like ROTC – which you can do at many participating schools or a well-respected education academy). I think that recruitment should also try to target different populations – especially paraprofessionals and other members of the school community who have experience but are not certified; career changers; and students who have graduated from an education-related BA program. We also need to think of ways to support existing teachers – especially those who need support and training to meet the needs of students in special education and English language learners.


    20 June 2008 at 7:58 am

  14. […] presents ?Don?t tase me, bro!? (AKA – the Obligatory Edublogger TFA Post) posted at An (aspiring) Educator’s Blog, saying, “An educator critiques the social […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: