What Virginians should know about Teach For America

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Va.). (Brendan Smialowski - GETTY IMAGES)
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell  (Brendan Smialowski – GETTY IMAGES)

It was only a matter of time before the Republican governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, would welcome Teach For America program into his state — and now he has made it an education priority.

The push to bring in TFA is one in a series of initiatives McDonnell just announced that come in part from the playbook of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a national leader in corporate-based education reform. They include a so-called “accountability system” that envisions giving each school an letter grade — A through F –  each year based entirely or largely on standardized test scores. (The system was pioneered In Florida, where, incidentally, state education officials miscalculated the grades for hundreds of schools last year, one in a series of scandals involving the state’s standardized testing system. But I digress.)

More than a decade into the era of high-stakes standardized testing, there is overwhelming evidence that student test scores should not be used for high-stakes purposes, and that they only measure a narrow band of learning. Reformers persist anyway.

They also have kept up a love affair with Teach For America, a nonprofit organization that trains young college graduates for five weeks in a summer academy and then places them in high-needs classrooms in rural and urban schools. The federal government has bestowed tens of millions of dollars on it, as have private foundations; it had $351 million dollars in net assets or fund balances in 2010, according to the latest available 990 tax form on Guidestar.com.

(TFA pays its founder and leader, Wendy Kopp, nearly $400,000 annually, as reported to the IRS on its 2010 tax form. That may sound like a lot, but it’s a bargain considering the nearly half a million dollars earned by Deborah Kenny, founder and chief executive of a handful of charter schools called the Harlem Village Academies, as reported on the 2009-10 tax form on the Guidestar webpage. You’ve gotta love some of the salaries in the school reform world. But I digress again.)

Virginians should understand what they are getting when the governor brings in Teach For America, a move that would apparently require a change in state law that would permit TFA corps members to be considered certified to teach.

The organization was created two decades ago by Kopp as an effort to develop leaders who would advocate for public education in the influential jobs they were expected to get. They were expected to get influential jobs because Kopp started out accepting only Ivy League students as corps members, who would agree to teach in high-needs schools for two years before moving on with their careers. It was never supposed to be a teacher preparation or development program. The TFA’s Web site says:

Filling high-need classrooms with passionate, high-achieving individuals who will do whatever it takes to help their students succeed is a critical piece of our approach—but it’s not enough to close the achievement gap. Success relies on the work corps members do as alumni after their two-year commitment, from within the field of education and other sectors, to continue to expand opportunities for all students.

 

The organization eventually started accepting students from universities outside the Ivy League as it grew, with both Republican and Democratic support. It is now as hard to become accepted into Teach For America as it is to get into an Ivy League school — and it is seen by many as as splendid career builder. (Said one young TFAer in this New York Times story: “T.F.A. is a really strong name. It seems as if going to work for McKinsey or something like that; they hold the same value.”

The organization offers research saying that its teachers often get better test scores out of their students than other teachers, but independent researchers show less flattering results. There is also some question as to the actual percentage of TFA members who stay in the classroom beyond their two-year commitment but independent researchers say it is a small percentage..

Why does that matter? After all, 50 percent of non-TFA teachers are said to leave the profession within five years (which is still far less than TFA).  It matters because TFA places its recruits in schools with a majority of high-needs students, the very children who need experienced teachers who are committed to staying and creating a supportive community. Five weeks of training does not a teacher make. Certainly there are a small number of TFA recruits who are brilliant teachers, but outliers are hardly a basis for good policy.

TFA says that it places students in schools that sometimes have a hard time finding experienced teachers, and that may be true in some cases. Still, one wouldn’t go to a badly trained doctor because there weren’t other doctors available; you’d find a different solution.

Critics fault TFA for other things as well, including that it perpetuates a mindset among reformers that teachers themselves are the most important element in a student’s education, which research has shown to be false. Outside school influences are far more important, and reformers who think that they can scale up miracle teachers if they just find the right formula are deluding themselves.

This is not to suggest that teachers don’t matter, or that bad teachers — and there are many — should not be removed from the classroom after fair and speedy evaluation. And it is does not mean that all reform efforts are useless in the absence of major social reform. But it does mean that real reform involves both out-of-school and in-school influences. And it is somewhat daft to accept the notion that an ever-revolving corps of smart young people trained to be teachers for five weeks is a systemic solution to the problems that plague public education.

So, Virginians, do some more research to make sure you know what you are getting.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · January 4, 2013