This took Teach For America 24 years to figure out?

TFA founder Wendy Kopp (The Washington Post)
TFA founder Wendy Kopp (The Washington Post)

This took Teach For America 24 years to figure out?

The nonprofit organization — which was founded in 1990 and is famous for recruiting young people, giving them five weeks of summer training and then placing them in high-needs schools in low-income communities — has decided that just maybe some of its recruits need more than five weeks to get ready to work in a classroom for a two-year commitment.

Critics of TFA — including an increasing number of former TFA corps members — have long said that five weeks of summer training doesn’t even come close to preparing anyone for teaching any students, much less children with greater needs than others who don’t live in poverty. TFA has insisted that its five-week course is enough, though it wants corps members to earn a master’s degree in education while they are teaching. (Doesn’t that make you wonder why they don’t want corps members to earn a master’s degree before they get into a classroom?)

But now there’s something new in TFA world. Matt Kramer, co-CEO of Teach For America, appeared at a March 4 meeting of TFAers  in Nashville along with co-CEO Elisa VillanuevaBeard and said the following, according to a transcript on TFA’s Web site:

In the days ahead, Elisa and I will reach out to some of the nearly 2,000 college juniors who have already applied for the 2015 corps, inviting them to take part in a year-long preparation program during their senior year. With this extra pre-service year, we’ll give them more time to absorb the foundational knowledge all teachers need, more space to reflect on the role they are about to step into, and more time to directly practice the skills they’ll need as educators – skills like delivering a lesson or managing a classroom. Different paths into the classroom are right for different people, and we believe this approach will meet the needs of many future corps members.

My colleague Lyndsey Layton wrote in this story that Kramer, who with Beard is taking over duties of running the organization from its founder, Wendy Kopp, took a nationwide “listening tour” and heard from many TFAers that they needed more support. He said:

“We heard there was lots of opportunity to get better. People told us ‘this is incredibly hard, and I need more support.’”

This isn’t the first TFA pilot program that tweaks its training of recruits; it recently also allowed a few local TFA organizations to have more autonomy in developing summer training programs to fit local education needs. Now the organization is trying a year-long experiment in supporting training.

Does this mean TFA is on the way to changing its basic model of five-week training sessions? Is TFA finally, fundamentally, questioning itself?

It’s not likely.

For one thing, ask yourself how many juniors will want to spend their senior year in college getting ready for TFA? Kramer said that the juniors who are now slated to start teaching in the fall of 2015 will be given the chance to take education classes in their senior year of college — either online or at a participating school near where they are enrolled — and work in classrooms with teachers. If TFA were serious about expanding its training, it would give all of its recruits a year of real training, with time in a classroom with a master teacher, after they get out of college.

For another thing, this change is being announced at a time, Layton reported, when applications for 2014-15 are 12 percent fewer than last year, and the organization concedes “that it is unlikely to meet its target of 6,300 new corps members for the next school year.” It seems fair to wonder whether the training experiment is being introduced to help ease some of the criticism of the organization that may have led to a decline in applications.

Another reason to question how much internal searching the organization is really doing lies in the March 4 speech to TFAers given by Beard. She hit a lot of the same notes that have long characterized TFA’s philosophy and made statements that are only likely to further antagonize critics who content that TFAers often set up strawmen to knock down in order to defend the way they do business. For example, Beard’s speech was titled  “We Won’t Back Down,” an apparent reference to the 2012 movie “Won’t Back Down,” which was supported by uber reformer Michelle Rhee and was as much about bashing veteran teachers and their unions than anything else.

Beard said:

When folks tell you that kids of color can’t reach the same levels as white kids — do not back down.  When folks try to tell you that kids in low-income communities can’t reach the same performance as affluent kids — do not back down.

This is a standard line that many school reformers have used to attack critics who oppose the way corporate-inspired school reform is being implemented. I don’t know what “folks” she is talking about, but I’ve never heard anybody say that kids of color can’t reach the same academic levels as whites.

A January 2014 study of Teach For America called “A Return to the Evidence,” published by the National Center for Education Policy at the University of Colorado Boulder and written by Vasquez Heilig of the University of Texas and Su Jin Jez, California State University, Sacramento, concludes:

Despite a series of non-peer-reviewed studies funded by TFA and other organizations that purport to show benefits of TFA teachers, peer-reviewed research on their impact continues to produce a mixed picture. The peer-reviewed research suggests that results are affected by the experience and certification level of the TFA teachers as well as by the group of teachers with whom those TFA teachers are compared. The question’s specifics strongly determine the answer.

The practical question faced by most districts is whether TFA teachers do as well as or better than fully credentialed non-TFA teachers with whom those school districts aim to staff their schools. On this question, the predominance of peer-reviewed studies have indicated that, on average, the students of novice TFA teachers perform less well in reading and mathematics assessments than those of fully credentialed beginning teachers. But the differences are small, and the TFA teachers do better if compared with other less – trained and inexperienced teachers. Again, the comparison group matters greatly.

The lack of a practically significant impact should indicate to policymakers that TFA is likely not providing a meaningful reduction in disparities in educational outcomes, notwithstanding its explosive growth and popularity in the media. The program is best understood as a weak Band-Aid that sometimes provides some benefits but that is recurrently and systematically ripped away and replaced.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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