Sunday, February 7, 2010

TFA for Doctors?

Now that I don't have a job, I've pretty much been doing whatever I want, which is pretty awesome. I've been working out more, traveling with friends, and doing some research for a GWU professor on education policy (which has been a really enlightening experience).

I'm currently in New Orleans with an old friend of mine for the Super Bowl. I've never been to New Orleans before and was pretty excited about coming to see it. I've discovered that, for the most part, it's not a place I'd ever be interested in living. It definitely has a flair/zest/flavor that I've not seen in any other city, but the neighborhoods and infrastructure is just an absolute disaster. However, the food has been incredible. My friend is Vietnamese and his family is going all out with the family feasts. I've never had such good pho in my life.

Many of my friend's cousins are in middle and high schools in the NO area, but all private. They all say that nobody in their right mind would put their kids in a public school here, so I'm interested in finding out more about them. We're going to be here until Tuesday or Wednesday, so hopefully I'll find an opportunity to visit one of the public schools and find out what they're really like.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a comparison I've been thinking about for a while concerning TFA, and that is this:

Many TFA supporters claim (and by supporters, I mostly mean people working for TFA and the heads of districts that rely on their labor to constitute significant portions of their teaching force) that research tells us that master's degrees and experience don't necessarily translate into higher student achievement (as measured by standardized test scores). I personally think that this argument appeals primarily to people who have never been in the classroom (or at least to those who haven't been in for more than a few years), and I think it begs the following question:

If brand new teachers with no classroom experience are good for our children who most desperately need quality education, then why don't we have brand new medical students performing our most complicated operations? And how many of us would feel comfortable with someone who's never been in an operation room doing a complicated medical procedure on us?

In my mind, this analogy should totally put to bed the claim that TFA is a solution to the problems facing our inner-city students. The only way I suspect one could refute the conclusion suggested by this analogy is by arguing that the analogy itself is not legitimate. They (those that believe TFA is a valid solution to inner-city education problems) might argue that this analogy is not legitimate in one of two ways:

1) The teaching profession is not nearly as technical nor as detailed as the medical profession, and therefore not as much training is required in order to be excellent at it


2) The consequences of making mistakes in inner-city classrooms are not nearly as disastrous as making mistakes in a life or death operation room.

I would take issues with both of these claims.

The teaching profession is incredibly detailed and requires SIGNIFICANT training in order to be excellent at it. It really doesn't take much longer than a few months in an inner-city classroom to realize this.


The consequences of the mistakes of an amateur in an inner-city classroom are possibly more disastrous than those made in an operation room, ESPECIALLY if students are exposed to these amateurs year after year. Students in such situations are likely SIGNIFICANTLY less prone to be career or college ready by the time they leave public schooling. The effects of this on society at large are pretty significant - just take a look at the unemployment rate of 18-25 year-olds in inner-city environments across the country.

Would any pro-TFA people like to take issue with my arguments here? I'm genuinely interested in your responses.


  1. Also consider this, new/learning/unexperianced doctors rarely would perform a procedure alone. They wouldnt just show up day one and be told "ok, your on your own, good luck!" Granted, most of my knowledge of the medical profession has come from watching Greys Anatomy and other like hospital dramas. However, they start as an intern, then resident, then attedning and so on. It takes alot of practice and experiance to be able to perform a solo surgery. Correct me if im wrong but there is a more experianced dr standing there in the O.R. with them able to jump in if things get out of hand.

    Not the same for teaching. Thrown in there with noone, and not really enough practice or experiance. Usually in over crowded classrooms with alot of ELL and SPED students who need more indiviualized instruction. WHat does a new, or a TFA, teacher do when they need someone to step in? Espeically if they work in a school in which the admin is NOT supportive and return disruptive students back to the classroom? And they only meet with a mentor once a week? Also, consider the quation, much like the school you worked at... in which teachers are expected to be perfect on the first try, where experimenting and learning from mistakes result in the admin berating you instead of standing beside you in the learning process.

    So i guess i agree, this can be pretty detremental to students especially year after year. Teachers, like dr's, have a great responsibility and should be held accountable. AND the medical profession gets paid alot more! But i guess its less likely for a teacher to be sued for "mal-practice" in they teach the wrong concept as it would be for a dr to mess up a procedure.

    I've heard someone say "Great teachers are born, not made". Same for Dr's?

  2. A mentor, what is that? They only feedback I have received is from the Master Educator. Agree with all that is written so far. As far as I can tell the counter argument by TFA, is that the veteran teachers in DCPS were not doing their jobs so needed to be saved by TFA. Their enthusiasm and hard-work of the TFA's more than makes up for their lack of experience. This is an apples and pears argument but used all the time. The principals or 825 should have fired the teachers that weren't doing their jobs, supported the ones that needed help, and should have been working with the area colleges/universities that have established teacher training programs to bring qualified teachers into DCPS all along. Instead of blaming the administration somehow it has shifted to blame the teachers, and support TFA all the way to the bank. I am a new teacher, not under TFA, but am frankly shocked (horrified) at the way all new teachers are just thrown into the classrooms. Even McDonald's does not let you work the cash register the first day!!! Why are our African-American children treated so shabbily; the experiments need to stop?

  3. Good writers are born, not made, too. But first someone has to teach them the mechanics of writing, then the grammar, then they have to practice and practice and even then the first article they write is not likely to be the best they can do.

    Same goes for musicians. Without talent, you don't have a chance, but you still have to learn your instrument, etc, etc.

    Also, please show me the research that says advanced education for teachers doesn't matter. I hear about it, but have never seen a specific reference for it. It's like an urban legend.

    Is it one study? who did it? how long ago? What were their methods? How did they reach their conclusions?

  4. Case in point:

    While in graduate school, my friend was low on funds and in need of a dentist. She went to the graduate school on dentistry for an appointment and had her wisdom teeth (all four) removed by dentistry students. Though I warned her not to, she argued that these "dentists" were a)cheaper and b) dentists in training. Doesn't this argument sound familiar?

    A few days later, she was laid up in bed with four dry sockets and other complications.

  5. Even so, those student dentists were being closely monitored by real dentists and your friend probably had to sign a release statement saying she realized she was not being treated by a professional.

    The students were also not being paid regular Dentist salaries or with public funds and in fact were themselves paying for the privilege of practicing on poor people.

    I wonder how many young grads would sign up for TFA under those conditons.

  6. TeachingSerendipity, thanks for the explanation. Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding of your post is that getting teachers into high-need classrooms is not the end, in and of itself, of TFA, but rather a means to the end of developing leaders in education. I have a few questions, then, if that is the premise:

    1)What *evidence* is there (Michelle Rhee's claims notwithstanding) that students fare better under TFA teachers than traditionally prepared teachers?

    2)Is there any *evidence* that spending 2 years in a classroom makes one a *qualified* educational leader (again, reference caveat re: Rhee, whose qualifications are debatable)?

    3) What are TFA grads now in leadership positions doing to raise achievement for our neediest kids that people from other backgrounds cannot/are not doing?

    Since even you admit that the quality of TFA teachers can be "debatable," and that in fact having TFA teachers in the classroom at all is merely a means to an end, I'm trying to clarify how successful TFA has been at achieving that end- putting *qualified* educational leaders in place, and whether the ends justify the means (knowingly putting our least qualified teachers in charge of teaching our neediest kids).

    For the record, I'm not against TFA; we have quite a few very good TFA teachers in my school. However, I've long felt that urban schools would be better served by getting their acts together and using their resources to attract the best teachers out from the suburbs to teach the neediest kids, and letting new teachers hone their skills on less-challenging students, so that they can then gain experience and skills to teach in urban districts.

    It's been said that in education, we eat our young, which is no good for teachers or for students. To use RE's example, can you imagine giving an intern neurosurgery as his/her first operation? With NO guidance, no one else in the room? Never. They start off with simpler things like appendectomies, and even then under heavy supervision. TFA seems to be endorsing putting similarly unprepared professionals in high-risk situations that we'd never tolerate in any other field. My questions stem from an attempt to understand why this is acceptable (and even lauded, in the case of TFA) in the field of education, what the tangible benefits of this approach are, and whether there are better alternatives that could train teachers, put the most qualified teachers in the neediest classrooms, and produce solid educational leaders.

  7. Excellent questions, Anon - I hope they are addressed. There need to be answers beyond "We are the best and the brightest - trust us!"

  8. I am an experienced teacher (12 years) in the DC suburbs, at a school where 96% of graduates go on to four-year colleges. I read a great series in the Washington Post about DC schools several years ago (just tried to find it online and couldn't) that made me realize that my job bears NO RELATION to the job of many-- most?-- public school teachers in the district. I spend less than 10% of my classroom time on discipline (including loaning pencils to students who have forgotten them). Humor has worked to diffuse perhaps 99% of all disciplinary/classroom management issues I have had. At another suburban school, where I taught for 8 years, the administration's M.O. could best be described as benign neglect (as long as there were no complaints from parents or students, I could pretty much do what I wanted, including curriculum-wise). At my current school, the administration actually seeks to support what is happening in my classroom. I can make unlimited photocopies, without providing my own paper. I have a computer and access to a printer. Everything is organized to help me teach, including students' and administrators' attitudes. All that, plus I earn more than I would teaching in DC. When I was younger and more passionate, I might have been able to make it teaching in DC. But nothing as a suburban teacher has prepared me for some of what you describe, including being belittled by my bosses. I have become accustomed to having the best expected from me-- and to having people (parents, students, other teachers, administrators) assume that I am doing my job. How could DC Schools create that culture-- a culture of assuming the best, instead of trying to "catch" people at their worst?

  9. thank you, suburban teacher

    To answer your question, I don't think Rhee has any intention of trying to create the kind of culture you describe until she first fires or drives out a lot of the current teachers. Even then, she's made it clear that she has no interest in making adults "comfortable" with the assumption that if adults are comfortable, then children aren't learning as well. Strange but true

  10. WaPo has a big article on TFA today http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/11/AR2010021103024.html

    Check out the comments, too - they are pretty anti-TFA. I haven't seen any pro-TFA comments here either? Where are the pro TFA people?

    Maybe they are well aware of the program's limitations and don't want to reveal them because they want the program to continue --for their own beneift, not the kids.

  11. I have made the same comparison between the medical profession and our own. Teachers are doctors. We face, daily, 25 patients whose conditions we have to diagnose, plan a course of action for the strengthening of their minds and hearts, weed out the destructive strains (or at least find a better use for these strains) and guide them to a better place academically as well as emotionally. People who denigrate what we do, dismissing what we do by assuming that anyone can do it with very little training but lots of enthusiasm is ludicrous. I am a Teaching Fellow, not much better trained than a TFA, but I went in with many more years experience in the world than your average TFA. I made damn sure I got help when I needed it and didn't think I was the smartest teacher in the school. I am in a better place as a professional now but if Teaching Fellows and TFA want to really make their programs beneficial both to the incoming teacher and the students they serve, they would turn their programs into internships JUST like the medical profession and have those teachers working with experienced teachers in the classroom - just as Michelle Rhee did when she was at Harlem Park Elementary in Baltimore.

  12. I agree with alot that you have said in this article. I am an aspiring educator and want to work in a high-needs school. I have also been accepted into a teaching fellows program. Unlike the majority of my cohort, however, I do have over eight years of experience educating children in urban schools. I wasn't a traditional teacher, so I still qualified for the program. I'm doing it because I know exactly what I am getting myself into and have already established a network that can help me. I know that the kids need me and deserve someone who loves them enough to stay and make sure that they get the education that they deserve. At the end of the day, teachers, principals, chancellors all have degrees and options. The children are the ones left behind and getting the short end of the stick from people who claim to care about them. The benefit for me joining the program is that I get a subsidized master's out of it and much more money to do the same thing that I was doing already anyway.

    With that said, TFA and residency programs in general don't seem to prepare residents well enough for the job; I'd dare say that everyone knows this on some level at this point. The programs, unfortunately are not going away. Part of the problem, in my opinion, is what the programs seem to deem "outstanding candidates". Graduating from and Ivy League school and wanton idealism are not enough of a framework to prepare someone to work in an environment with at-risk youth. I literally had to make an effort to keep my mouth from opening in shock as I listened to the people that I interviewed with talk about building huts in Costa Rica as their ONLY experience with low-income children and families. The recruiters were applauding them as if it had any relevance to working with kids from South East D.C., Baltimore, Philly, NYC or any ghetto, USA. One girl said that she has seen the problems of urban schools in movies and feels compelled to help. They are honest about plans in the future to go to law school, start non-profits and get into med-school. This is a two to three year "peace-corp" mission and resume builder, if you will. I was sad and hurt because that isn't, in my view, what the districts or students need. The residents aren't the problem though, and I think it is really unfair to blame them. It's the programs and school districts that hire them, pat them on the back for doing a two year community service project and look for more to repeat the cycle year after year. Add in the toxic leadership, lack of resources and lack of support and we are left with an accident waiting to happen. Fortunately for the residents by that time they'll be long gone from the high needs school they pretended to be passionate about serving. Unfortunately for the teachers who really did want to make a difference and the kids in these schools, they'll be left to pick up the peices and welcome a fresh new batch of residents.

  13. TFA is just a merit badge for most of these people, something to enhance their resumes so they can get into a top law school / med school / business school. on their way to becoming Masters of the Universe (i.e., lawyers, doctors, politicians, MBAs).

    That's why they don't stick around for very long. They are not encouraged to take the long view about teaching.