Thursday, July 1, 2010

Seriously Scary

It recently came to my attention (see here and here) that TFA has been seeking $50 million from the Fiscal Year 2011 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations bill, which should be close to being passed.  This would double the funding they received in the FY 2010 bill.  What's particularly scary about TFA's move to get this increase in funds is the rationale they use to argue for it.

Letters (here and here) sent around congress this spring claim that "a growing body of independent research....has conclusively shown that Teach For America corps members have a positive impact on student achievement."

Are you kidding me?!?!  Conclusively???  Independent???

Even scarier: "Teach For America is prepared to undertake significant growth over the next several years and has the potential to double in size by 2016, but this can only be accomplished with a significant increase in federal support."

Is that really what we want?  More money for incompetent, temporary teachers (and don't take incompetent as an insult - no teacher in their first few years of teaching can really be considered competent)?

I recently had a pretty in-depth conversation with a teacher I worked with at CHEC who's in TFA.  He told me he thought his five-week experience at the institute in Philadelphia prepared him pretty well for the classroom but that he didn't feel like he really got very many helpful teaching strategies from it.  He told me, for the most part, they just put him in summer school classrooms and let him go at it, and then talked to him about what he could change.  Five weeks later he was teaching in DCPS where he, like so many other teachers at the school, was treated absolutely horribly (an administrator actually pulled him out of an assembly in front of the students to yell at him in the hallway).  Because he doesn't plan on sticking with teaching and will be going to medical school in a few years, he will stay at CHEC despite the toxic environment.  I asked him what he thought about TFA's impact on education as a whole.  He told me that the best thing it did for him was show him that he wants to work with kids when he becomes a doctor.  I told him I worry that's the problem with TFA, that it does great things for its corps members but the students being experimented on end up receiving sub-par educations.  He kind of just nodded and said, "I know what you mean..."

So hey Congress!  How about instead of funding band-aid solutions that cure some of the symptoms of educational inequity, let's fund some programs that get at some of the root causes.  Oh right, you're all just a bunch of politicians....nevermind then.


  1. RE: I agree with you that the praise for Teach for America is unjustified in many ways. On one hand, TFA does draw attention to low-income schools and gives a positive spin to teaching in them (which I don't think existed a strongly prior to TFA). However, as a former teacher, I second your idea that new teachers (however smart and committed) just don't have the teaching chops of more experienced teachers. One of the only teacher quality characteristics that seems to stand up in studies is that finding that teachers improve greatly over their first 3-5 years of teaching. So that even if TFA corps members have the potential to be great teachers three years down the road, they usually don't stay that long (and who can blame them - the teaching environments they're in are generally really difficult and stressful). Good post.

  2. Sorry for the typos. My comments should read: "existed as strongly" (line 3) and "is the finding that teachers improve"(line 6).

  3. Agree w RE and Atty DC points re TFA, for the most part. Though, it would be helpful to see some empirical proof that it takes 5 years or there abouts to be an effective teacher. What gnaws at me is what about the long-experienced teachers who are ineffective? Along with the very good ones we have in DCPS, we also have, by consistent observations from teachers, parents, and many sources, a cohort or two who are waiting for retirement, are burned out in place, who have given up working with difficult kids, or whose skills were frozen 15-20 years ago for various reasons. They cost a lot more, too, but that is ok, sort of. What is not ok, though, is to pick a likely or easy target like TFA newbies (some of whom are effective) and ignore the relative old-timers who are ineffective, too. They seem to be protected, by inertia, bureaucratic intransigence, by buddies, by the union, or for other, unacceptable reasons. Shouldn't the system be trying to "weed" ineffective teachers who have failed at remedial opportunities or who are unlikely to improve with more remedial work than they have already have? That is part of the tough work of administrators or a supt. (It also happens to be one of the Rhee objectives that appeals to many experienced educators, as well as overseers.) Make sense to readers??

  4. Anonymous @ 10:55. I agree with your point. I also don't think TFA is the answer. But by far the worst teachers I have seen are some of the "waiting for retirement" ones who make a lot of comments about how it's impossible to teach the children because of how terrible their parents are. TFA makes an easy scapegoat.

    While I don't support all of Rhee's initiatives, I do think IMPACT is a huge step in the right direction. My main qualm with it is the overemphasis on test scores if you are in Group 1, but I really like the Teaching and Learning Framework. I think it will help identify those who maybe should be moving out of teaching, whether they are 55 or 25. I realize it can be misused at a place like CHEC, but I at least think the MEs have been pretty fair.

  5. IMPACT is laughable, if you are really an educational reformer there is no way you can possibly support this drivel. Is it better than what we recently had, sure but that does not mean it is good. Also, have you really educated yourself about what happened in DCPS through the years and in all our inner cities, you think this was all accidental and coincidental? Have you seen what is going on in the real world in terms of innovative ways of teaching, DCPS is not where it is at. Sad as it is in any profession you always have employees who need to move on, a school is no different than any other organization so we need to stop making it so. Administrators keep making up excuses as to why they were not able to fire ineffective teachers, but they just weren't prepared to do the leg/paper work and there were few people lining up to take their place. And lets be honest here, the TFA foundation supporters and others were not doing a damn thing either, not quite sure when they got the fever but it wasnt' always there, in fact white flight was happening in all our inner cities in the late 80's. The union was not to blame for this although it is true that it is totally ineffective. All TFA is doing is creating a whole stream of business for more elite college students, if you look at this it is masterful. Have you seen the businesses offering and supporting ex-TFA's, as the assumption is that if they can survive a stint in an inner-city school they will be able to survive anything that is thrown at them in the boardroom. Even if you support TFA, how can you support the control that a few corporations now have on our public schools. Foundations that have not been historically supportive to the very students that we serve. This whole TFA thing is more than seriously scary, it is all about money, power, and control.

  6. I too would probably take a TFAer over some of the waiting-for-retirement teachers I've seen. What scares me is that TFA is clearly making a concerted effort to hype their product as something that it's not. And this is relatively new. There was a time when TFA acknowledged its shortcomings. Now it's saying that TFA teachers are not only just as good, but better than any other teachers, regardless of experience. And because of that TFA wants to continue to expand, possibly doubling its size in six years. Really? Why do they need to expand? They're already in the places their ostensibly needed, and Teaching Fellow programs are providing the places they're not with just as many incompetent less temporary teachers.

    On IMPACT: I don't think it's an evaluation system that's particularly more useful than any other. I do think an excellent teacher could appropriately rated below a two with its rubric. And I think it's all about how administrators choose to carry it out. I'd prefer to see schools get away from top-down evaluations, especially in the District, where so many administrators are not experts in effective pedagogy. A better system would involve a more collaborative effort on behalf of teachers and administrators to address challenges and possible solutions. IMPACT just makes it easier to fire teachers by claiming the rubric allowed them to be 'objectively' rated. This is a significant problem in DCPS where there is a constant stream of naive, inexperienced teachers ready and willing to take the place of teachers who leave or are fired. If the District were somehow held accountable for the way it treated teachers or parents or communities, and it actually showed an interest helping teachers improve as they gained experience, I wouldn't be opposed to all employees working on an at-will basis.

    I like the idea of administrators being able to get rid of whoever they want without the legal hassle that union laws impose. However, the District and its edudrones have made it pretty clear that they're not interested in helping teachers get better and providing them with honest support that respects the challenges they face (probably because most of the people working in central office and administrative positions DON'T understand the challenges teachers face). They're about firing anything that's experienced. It's almost as if they're acting to wipe out anything that contains institutional knowledge. That's the best I can make of it, anyway, when I look at the people Rhee is most directly responsible for firing, the principals (or the way my school's administration acted toward teachers, so that anyone with three years of experience was a 'veteran'). Principals are let go left and right after only a year, with no 'data' being offered for their termination, and no input being gathered from the community. If anyone else can offer a better explanation as to why this is happening, I'd love to hear it.

  7. efavorite at 11:43: there is negligible evidence that there is a corporate conspiracy to take over public education in the United States. However, there is sky-high dissatisfaction--governance, parents of the school kids and people who pay income taxes (only about 35% DC adult citizens) with the way public schools, at least in most big cities, have been managed traditionally. This includes no-fire conditions for teachers.
    Foundation interest should be welcome, and the people and families that fund these hardly have any interest in running schools; actually, no interest, for sure. And the companies, including the ones with small contracts in the District, are basically losing money right now. And they won't make any from the disaster that is DC schools, I would think. And as for Kaplan, which keeps coming up but not in your email, running schools is not what they do. Probably best to focus on the real causes of the perenially bad schools in the District. Look to improving teachers, learning methodologies, and supplementing the educ. that at ridiculously high cost the DC public Schools try to Offer.

  8. Anon at 730: efavorite did not post a comment on this post - you must be referring to the previous post.

    Additionally, there is plenty of evidence that corporate-minded individuals have taken an interest in directing public education in the way they see fit, which will likely be damaging to the institution as a whole. Kaplan shares their ideology, which is why the WaPo should not be trusted in reporting on education.

    Why do DC schools fair poorly? They're charged with educating all students. And the students in DC come from some of the most challenged backgrounds in the country. Want to improve the education? Yea - improve the teaching by supporting teachers so they don't have to be apathetic about a job they know nobody else cares about. But also acknowledge that this is not only the schools' responsibility. The government can't do everything.

    Anon at 730, it's almost as if you haven't been paying attention to the discussion at all.

  9. Sorry, RE. Must hav subliminally recognized her writing style + thinking. "Corporate-minded" is, pardon expression, weasel-worded. (Is the antonym government or public-sector minded. When it comes to schools, which has worse rep?) Could you pls name couple, eg, Broad and Gates (wicked foundations) and Microsoft/IBM/Washington Post (rapacious, for-profit institutions).

    As for Post, reason not to trust it is its increasingly pervasive incompetence in both news and editorial reporting/analysis. WP would be incapable of exploit. some self-serving bias, e.g., remember the for-pay dinner at publisher's house idea last year?

    While mortals cannot yet definitively answer your questions about why DC schools are the way they are, is it because of wicked foundations and rapacious companies? Nope. As a recent teacher, u know causes better than most. You've written about them, including teacher quality and, more recently, some of the Rhee initiatives. Frankly, the motivations of a foundations, e.g., helping (many have good intentions), and for-profit firms, might at least as plausible bets than the current mayoral and council governance, the ineffective subset of DC teachers (not a small group, as you know), the incredibly screwed up union. Why not try something new? We can't afford to not try something that might work, and the traditional stakeholders and school operators in DC have failed woefully. As a longtime resident, and one of 35 percent who actually pay taxes, and someone rooting strongly for DC reinvigoration, I must say we have incented teachers enough financially now. Other things need to be delivered, like professional development. As for the TFA crowd, I agree w many criticisms but still get the impression that many are worth risking the downsides. I don't mind the turnover, compared with classrooms populated by educators waiting for retirement, or with poor language skills or who seem to look down on the kids, for example.

  10. Sometimes, I'm glad I'm not TFA, because I'd be scared for you to read my blog!! But I totally get what you're saying. Throwing money at problems is a quick fix and what schools need is an inside-out reconstruction and a lot of good people to do that. I wish TFA would become more geared towards producing life-long educators rather than people looking for a two year rest stop, not that teaching is easier as TFA.

    By the way, did you decide on NYC? That would really be awesome!

  11. Hello, I just tuned in - and I don't do "anon." My moniker is anonymous enough.

    Interesting conversation, as usual.

    RE - I hope you sent this to the legislators who will be asked to assess and fund this measure.

    As to "why not try something new?" Fine - but let's not pull it out of a hat and decide it's good because it's new and some influential people want to do it.

  12. People should check out the links on the right of RE blog, enlightening, educational, and sometimes just plain fun reading.

    Your posts are getting better and better.

    Happy summer

  13. TFA salaries 2007
    Wendy Kopp $268,585
    Matthew Kramer $274,050
    Em Rossy $204,775
    Kevin Hoffman $229,643
    Aimee a Davis $179,500
    Elisa V Beard $182,637
    Gillian Smith $200,325
    Jeffrey Wetzler $203,925
    Elissa Clapp $189,219
    Aylon S Samouha $182,861
    Andrew D Kopplin $164,037
    Jemina R Bernard $162,325

    Total $2,441,882

    2007 Expenses
    That year TFA trained 2,892 corp members who began teaching
    Roughly $43067 per teacher

  14. TFA IRS Form 990 for FY08 is here:

    That is the source for the salaries.
    In that year, the organization received about $24 million from the government.

    They do not have a more recent 990.

  15. Anon at 959: I have to agree with efavorite here. Let's not just pull new stuff out of a hat. Let's try some things that work instead of buying the TFA propaganda. If we don't mind the turnover, then we're never really going to give these kids a great education. While a TFAer may be better than a completely apathetic, waiting-for-retirement type, it's still an incompetent teacher.

    edlharris: Thanks for this info! I'll put it in a seperate post.

  16. Well, we don't exactly have several years to wait for teachers--or any others who think they know how--to put a new approach together.

    The kind of flavoring of "wait, let's stop and do it right" (that is, 100 right and tested, etc.) is that it takes forever, literally.

    The plaint you heard is simply a slightly disguised anti-reform strategem. Clever, but easy to bust. Buusstted!!!

    "Let's wait and study for years and then, er, try something scientifically" is only meant to slow change down to a halt and to cut off any chance of eliminating the ineffective teachers we still have, in droves. You saw them yourself, I believe. And they are apparent every day, or so it seems, in the wild rants and really bad grammar and spelling, on TWT.

    And we ain't gonna get any solutions from Gray, or the auspices (new or old) of the WTU or the vaunted schools of education. Who is going to do it? The ghost writers--very close to us in these spaces--who put together the plan for Vincente Gray? Nope, they don't have the horsepower. Who you gonna call?

  17. we don't have to wait several years - recent research and common sense can tell us now that a lot of things that have been tried recently do not work, making it illogical to continue them (as in RttT and expanding the role of TFA)

    I think of medical research that showed a popular knee operation didn't work. the results were announced publicly and doctors were discouraged from doing the procedure.

  18. Right - it would be great if we could try 'new' things that don't have the potential to create vastly more inequitable schooling for our country's school children - AND if we could make our policy based on the recommendations of people who actually have experience working in education. So we can eliminate things like merit pay based on student test scores (which provides excellent teachers with perverse incentives to stay away from our most challenged environments) and TFA. And instead, we could make serious investments to improve the quality of teacher preperation programs and administrator preperation and certification.

    But in the end, how well any particular school does will depend a whole lot more on how committed and capable the people who work there than pretty much any other factor.

  19. I think there have been some excellent points made on both sides of this argument, but I also think there is a crucial issue that is not being mentioned. Both sides have agreed it is incredibly difficult to be an effective first year teacher, and that teachers tend to improve with experience (at least until the almost-retired, I don't care stage).

    The key here is providing the teachers who are effective, TFA or not, incentive to stay and teach in these schools. The high-need districts are difficult to teach in no matter who you are and what preparation/training you've had. I've taught in DC for 5 years, and I've seen several excellent teachers leave. 5 were TFA and went to teach in other districts, and the rest were traditionally trained. Regardless, they all left for other opportunities where they were better supported, better paid, and had access to more resources.

    There have been studies for and against TFA, and as far as I have read, none of them have been entirely objective. This underlines a deeper issue in education as a whole. There are very few ways to objectively measure a teacher's performance. Several posts have already mentioned the flaws of test-based performance review, and several others have pointed out the personal issues that can come with top-down evaluation.

    TFA is by no means a solution to the problems in education, but it can help in certain areas. I believe the issue we should be focusing on is ways to objectively measure the effectiveness of teachers, and then reward the "best and brightest" so they do not leave the students and areas that need them most. Please keep the discussion going...