Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Trajectory of TFA

I received this email a few days ago from Teach For America. You can view it as a web page here:

If you can't open the link, it promotes a TFA-sponsored event entitled "How Will You Continue To Lead?" subtitled, "Networking, Jobs, Knowledge." Sixteen companies are advertised as attendees, among them is a single solitary entity from the field of public education (Oakland Unified School District) and I'll bet all the money in my pockets OUSD is being represented by an individual (a former regional director?) from the "incubator" program designed to create and open manynewschools in an already under-enrolled district.

But who cares, right? This is another in a long list of such events. Routine. Typical. Except I have never received an invitation to an event entitled: "How Will You Continue To Teach?" I have never been invited to an alumni summit with the focus: "How Will You Continue To Maximize Learning In The Communities We Recruited You To Serve?" I have never been to a panel discussion where representatives from the type of schools and districts (public, under-resourced, under-achieving) TFA places corps members into even came close to equaling the number of representatives from companies and organizations who seek to privatize the public sphere. Never.

I do, however, have the opportunity to receive monthly emails about career opportunities in media, journalism, health, non-profit leadership, grad school, policy school, ed school, etc. I have the opportunity to attend functions that tell me all the great things I should be doing instead of teaching. I can read in alumni bulletins all the wonderful accomplishments made by former corps members once they got out from under the shadow of those pesky under-performing urban schools. I can talk to a full-time TFA employee whose sole purpose is easing a corps member's transition from a teaching "career" into another field and other endeavors, but I cannot have a conversation with a full-time employee about how to continue my development as an educator of high needs, at risk kids. That position does not exist. And I cannot ever hear about successes in teaching and learning, unless they occurred at Lighthouse or Aspire, unless they occurred before the individual started a non-profit, unless they occurred in a corps member's 2nd year, right before they were accepted to Harvard Law. Apparently, those successes do not exist.

Teach For Awhile does an excellent job of supporting the development of teachers in their first two years in the classroom. Some leave or do not effect the change they were recruited to bring about, and this is not a criticism of those individuals; ed school teachers do the same. This is not about the failures and the bitter burn-outs. No, this is about the successful, those who continue to teach -- or would, if only they received the message, at some point, at some time that it was a valued activity. This is about the institutional black-hole those individuals fall into, their lack of role within the organization (beyond sending instructional materials to first-year teachers). This is about the myth that the best way to bring about educational reform is to 1) align yourself with media-friendly small/charter school movements and undermine the school communities you promote yourself as serving and 2) steer talented individuals with some teaching experience out of the classroom and into other fields so they can tangentially affect the lives of today's poor urban and rural youth -- or not affect them at all. This is about TFA doubling down on the old saw that its members will use their law, policy, and grad school degress to benefit the communities in which they once taught. This is about missed opportunities and turning a blind eye.

The educational landscape is not worse off because Teach For America exists. But the potential to enact change is inherently limited by policy approaches that systematically encourage, enable, and directs teachers out of the classroom. It's old hat to point out that TFA teachers leave teaching, leave education, and the massaged statistics TFA offers about people still "impacting" low-income communities do little to make a dent in this reality. This exodus does not, however, occur causelessly, in a vaccuum of intent. Whether in the case of direct recruiting (Can I talk to you about all the wonderful opportunities available in the national office?) the glaring lack of programs and support mechanisms designed to maximize the effectiveness of post-2nd year teachers, or simply the repeated message that continued teaching is just not what you are supposed to be doing anymore, TFA continually tramples on the "movement" it purports to build.


Blogger KC said...

Very interesting perspective. I'm sending this link to some of the TFA vets I work with to see what they have to say.

I'm interested to hear more from you about what is missing. What could TFA be doing to encourage and support continued teaching, and to develop better teachers? Is it a matter of emphasis where current staff could be doing more to encourage teachers? Or is it more structural, requiring a more fundamental realignment of the program?

Looking beyond TFA, what types of support and types of programs do you think would be effective ways to support and retain veteran, career teachers in high-needs schools? "Combat pay" differentials for urban teachers? Targeted professional development? Or even wonkish ideas like budget reforms that would account for the migration of veteran teachers to low-needs schools?

9:21 AM  
Blogger ms. frizzle said...

That is an excellent point that they have positions to help us leave teaching but not to help us if we stayed. I am four years out of TFA, working in a public school only about 15 blocks from where I started. Yet within two years of finishing my commitment, I no longer knew anyone in the NYC office. I get the "Teaching" newsletter aimed at alums who've stayed in teaching - they do have conferences and whatnot but as you grow as a teacher, you quickly OUT-grow their offerings, yet it still feels like there's more to learn. I am in desperate need of a science teacher mentor, but there's no one in sight, and TFA is certainly not going to be the source. They feel pretty irrelevant to me at this point in my career, which is weird given that I wouldn't be teaching if it weren't for the program.

4:03 PM  
Blogger posthipchick said...

So let's get something going.
We could do it, easily.

7:52 PM  
Blogger leyla said...

this isn't always about a conspiracy (not saying that you're implying it is), it's also just TFA's gimmick. every organization has a a few darling principles which make it seductive or interesting or special. at the time of TFA's inception, the educational political climate probably did not frown as loudly or as passionately against the 2-year assignment period. the educational politics have outgrown the organization.

the best way to retain good teachers is to

a) pay more
b) change the daily schedule. the conventional school day, with the teacher teaching 5 exhausting hours, is not conducive to the
best teaching methods. these methods being differentiation, centers, small-groups, catered lessons, etc.

a shitty lesson might take 12 minutes to create. a powerful, differentiated lesson might take 2 hours or more (planning, prep work, reflection to tweak it, etc).

teachers should teach 3 periods a day. this would prevent long term burn out. this will never happen in california, i know. but it would also encourage veteran teachers to not just recycle that math lesson from 1986 again. kidding. sort of.(a lot more observing and collaborating could also occur with my new and improved schedule.)

3) make langauge arts and math classes a lot damn smaller in classes with students who are severly behind grade level

do my suggestions suck?

4:56 AM  
Anonymous John said...

I agree with much of what has been said here, and I appreciate the balanced perspective many of you have brought.

I do want to encourage a couple of tendencies I don't see on display in the original post: respect in tone and informed perspective. Negligence of both is what has allowed both the traditionalist bloc and the privatizing bloc to play Hannibal with education reformers and ultimately weaken any political clout true progrerssives have in setting a pragmatic, insistent agenda.

For whatever reason, smart, committed people in education have a tendency to treat very harshly counterparts who share their intelligence and dedication. The fire is often fueled by skewed information and biased presentation of information. It's no wonder the far right sees smart, committed people as a way to tear down institutions and the far left as a way to propogate failure.

Let's not let ourselves be pawns. Well thought-out criticism is one thing, and it's necessary. Mockery is another, and there are more deserving people than those you've chosen to bring in for this treatment. Had you really sought the truth, you'd also discover that the efforts you bemoan for not having been made are in fact being enacted every day. Perhaps their marketing could be better, perhaps they have yet to take shape. But you make assumptions, and the more assumptions we make, the more others see our gaps. The more gaps we present, the more those gaps become filled by well-established interests who more often than your colleagues at Teach For America are the ones deserving of the woodshed.

5:55 AM  
Blogger pseudostoops said...

I think Ms. Frizzle's "tfa feels irrelevant" point says so much.

I've been getting a lot of calls asking me to call/email/go for coffee with applicants to "reassure them that tfa won't take them off their medicine/law career path." It's really deeply engrained in the culture, this expectation that you won't stay.

One thing they could do to support continued teaching is take a longer time horizon view of things when you're still doing your two-year committment. Encourage you to seek out a real mentor. (not just a 2nd year corps member). Reflect on your teaching from the perspective of "when I teach this again, I will do x better." Don't imply that people aren't trying hard enough. Ever. (I can't tell you how many times a pd imply that if I didn't do some recommended, absurdly time-consuming but only marginally helpful thing, I wasn't dedicated enough.) Pushing people to burnout seems like a bad retention strategy.

I could write about this for pages, but won't. One more point, though: the tfa charter school love-fest seems the flip side of the same coin- tfa doesn't want to get involved in the management/policies of the schools in which they place. A pd once called it "biting the hand that feeds you," which is an odd way of saying that they have this sort of tacit agreement with school districts that they won't do anything too revolutionary that might rock the boat. Given that, its hard to see how tfa could truly encourage long-term teaching at schools that are going to need revolutionary change (not just one effective and high-functioning classroom) to make great strides.

5:58 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...


You wrote: "I do want to encourage a couple of tendencies I don't see on display in the original post: respect in tone and informed perspective."

As for your first charge, the last time I wrote about TFA I was called-out for lacking "genorosity of spirit." That may have been accurate then, but it certainly isn't now. I fail to see where I have treated this subject matter with disrespect.

As for your second charge, how is my perspective uninformed? I am a former TFA corps member, a current alumni, a current teacher, with two eyes and a brain. I don't need to have interned at the national office to understand and/or critique the policies and approaches of the organization.

You also implied that I made unwarranted assumptions, mocked, did not seek the truth, etc. Can you support those assertions?

As for TFA being part of a progressive vs. conservative right battle in the educational sphere, I don't think anything could be further from the truth. While it is true that the individuals who compose the rank and file of TFA, from corps members through staff and director level are more often than not possessed of progressive tendencies, the institutional bend of the organization is hardly progressive. TFA carries so much political clout as a direct result of appealing to elements of the political left (attention paid to diversity, attempting to level a playing field, empowerment for the poor) while simultaneously appealing to elements of the political right (bolstering the myth of boot-strapping, dilluting the power of culture-based policy, supporting the privatization of schools). In any event, this hardly matters, because to fail to critique or bring into the light issues that need to be addressed in the name of solidarity, is far more dangerous, ultimately, than the presentation of a less than unified front.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Caroline said...

I agree with tmao -- as an outsider with little knowledge of TFA, I think John's blast is unjustified.

I have to note again TFA's link to the ugly underside of the far-right charter world -- Wendy Kopp is married to Richard Barth, who just left Edison Schools to head KIPP. I have NO idea what that means, but as a longtime Edison Schools critic
(see )
that information struck me as a little creepy.

10:24 AM  
Anonymous John said...

Look, I'm not interested in making a "charge" or a "blast." All I'm saying is that those committed to the lives of bettering children are so rare in this country that they don't deserve to be mocked. You say you didn't mock anyone, but in your original post you called the target of your critique "Teach For Awhile." I'd call that mockery. True or not in its implication, it's belittling and derisive, and that's different from critique.

Your perspective is well-informed, I'm sure. But I wasn't talking about your perspective; I was talking about your post. And your post has inaccurate information, especially regarding Teach For America's efforts to sustain the careers of teachers. That's all I'm saying. There are now staff who, from what I understand, do this exclusively. An informed post would have noted this.

And I didn't comment on Teach For America's place in the political spectrum. I commented on how derisive language and sharp tones polarize progressives in our industry and on how that weakens the ability of progressives to develop a political base. Solidarity can be a good thing, you know. Which isn't to say that we should marginalize critics or obfuscate truth. But it is to say that the world would be a better place if the people who cared about kids had solidarity, and each of us will only be effective if in our hearts we wish for that day, rather than reveling in the pulpit allowed by the isolated, unaccountable niche we've chosen to occupy. We should be sad, not proud, of how divided we are on this issue.

10:11 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

John, you wrote: "And your post has inaccurate information, especially regarding Teach For America's efforts to sustain the careers of teachers. That's all I'm saying. There are now staff who, from what I understand, do this exclusively. An informed post would have noted this."

I have taught beyond my TFA commitment for two years. I have experienced no effort, nor am I aware of a single attempt on the part of TFA to sustain my career, nor that of the two corps members (out of what 35+?) still teaching in their "placement schools" in my school District Nothing. I do not believe "oh that's so great" counts.

If there are staff working exclusively on this issue, their efforts have been more than ineffectual. While my lack of acknowledgement of their existence therefore may be technical innacurate, it more than underscores the problem.

12:48 AM  
Anonymous John said...

I just looked on the organization's web site, and there's a post right now for a job that creates opportunities for alumni to continue teaching and supports alumni who have.

And the most fundamental problem, about this and all else, is not ineffectiveness. Many of us, I'm sure you included, have challenges that still have the best of us.

The truly fundamental problem is those who have decided to make their agendas about the failures of others rather than about vision. This has been the downfall of education unions in the eyes of the public, and we're starting now to see its most precipitous impact on the progressive American left. Because there is none, and that's a very bad thing.

This doesn't mean we should stop critiquing. But it means we shouldn't critique recklessly. I don't know you or what you do, and I don't know much about Teach For America really. But I know I don't trust what you say. And if you care about making change, if you care not be disregarded -- like every other pundit, scholar, observer, and journalist in education -- communicating trust by basing statements on investigation beyond your own experience and by giving people working for kids the benefit of the doubt, would be a good place to start, though I'd concede that in that venture you'd find few models.

3:42 AM  
Blogger Elle said...

WOW! I stubbled upon this by accident. As a first year corps member teaching in Baltimore, I have my own opinions about TFA, and they have definitely changed since I started teaching. I can understand both sides of the organization. However, maybe TFA does not promote corps members staying in teaching for an extensive period of time past the two year commitment for a reason. The average corps member lasts in an urban school system for 2-5 years. And then burn out catches you. Not all, but most. I've seen many alumni make it past the two years, and then closer to 5 they call it quits b/c they are burnt out and aren't providing the same or type of education to the childeren that they want to. And I respect them for knowing when it is time to go. Because I have also seen alumni stay too long.

Also, we all know TFA does not recruit great teachers. They recruit great leaders. If they market themselves as just a teacher training program and not as a stepping stone towards a great career, then I don't believe the same caliber of people would apply.

You don't have to like TFA. I don't always agree with their methods...however I do have a great deal of respect for an organization that has come so far and continues to grow with a good mission at heart.

Nobody's perfect.

11:27 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

"I don't know you or what you do, and I don't know much about Teach For America really. But I know I don't trust what you say."

The confluence of these statements tells me there's not much more to say on the matter.

11:35 AM  
Blogger leyla said...

"as just a teacher training program and not as a stepping stone towards a great career"

fyi elle, this is exactly one of the things that people find so offensive (morally-speaking) about TFA. how convenient that those 30 or 40 or 200 kids in the ghetto were able to be "your" stepping stone to "bigger and better things."

it's a type of exploitation. but maybe we needn't be unnecessarily puritanical about this: maybe there isn't anything wrong mutual benefit.

also - on the bigger and better notion: dominant society isn't particularly impressed or appreciative of teachers. the last thing we need is people within the TFA community to propogate this "bigger and better" notion-- which only serves to denigrate career educators.

4:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate that so many people think spending two to five years teaching before leaving for another role in life is a mark of failure.

Giving a few good years to teaching stands by itself as a testament to one's idealism. But it hardly follows that one is therefore bound to serve an entire career in a thankless job for less pay than one might earn in another field.

Transitions are a great part of one's worklife.

Meanwhile, there's a sense of self-importance and self-righteousness that surfaces in the criticism of those who leave teaching after a few years. It's irrational to think everyone passing through TFA will maintain the "vision" for a lifetime. And that loss of faith is no problem. There's always another idealist in line to take a shot at teaching poor or problematic students.

Much like enlisting in the military, a 2-t0-5-year teaching stint is an experience many have had and will never forget. But they've moved on to other endeavors.

It's not a problem.

6:32 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


Not a mark of failure, just a mark of running in place. I believe that the single most important variable in the student success equation is teacher quality. I believe that the achievement gap is actually a teaching gap. And while TFA continually improves its support mechanisms and training practices, you cannot replicate or replace the improvement brought about by experience. The mandate put upon teachers in the schools TFA places teachers is "significant gains," multiple years of academic achievement in a single school year. I bet more 2nd year teachers reach this goal than 1st. I bet more 3rd year teachers reach this goal than 2nd. I bet more 10th year teachers reach this goal than 5th, and so on, and so on. Sixty percent of TFA's corps members teach a third year, in near OPPOSITION to TFA's policies. The longer they stay, the more students benefit. Why wouldn't you work toward that goal?

"It's irrational to think everyone passing through TFA will maintain the "vision" for a lifetime. And that loss of faith is no problem. There's always another idealist in line to take a shot at teaching poor or problematic students."

I do not believe it is idealistic to work for educational equity, or at least not in the tilt-at-windmills connotation you've given it. And while there may well be another warm body to push into the breech, I think we can do better than that. I think we should at least try. That's what this post was about, the not trying.

"It's not a problem."

It is, though. Not for the individual student whose teacher left -- I don't think a 9th grader is hurt by his 7th grade teacher leaving the profession -- but maybe for the kid who will be taught by a 1st-year teacher instead of a 3rd or 4th or 10th. And also for the schools and districts. Schools benefit when staff and administration are a constant thing. That continuity allows for progress, prevents people from reinventing the wheel every two years. When huge percentages of staff are constantly in the TFA spin cycle -- in my district we're talking about 30% of staff at some schools -- that continuity is extremely hard to build.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Jimbo said...

To Everyone,

I've been teaching for 8 Years, and grew up in a family of teachers in PHX where I was in tune to the culture from a very young age. I've traveled and I now teach in Vienna, Austria.

And I have this one thing to say: Everything you can imagine has taken place with TFA and its members, but the net effect of TFA has been it's major role in the sea change that is moving education. And for that, I'm thankful for TFA and what it has done.

7:37 AM  

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