Teach for America, which places thousands of freshly minted college graduates in teaching jobs in some of the toughest schools in the country, is rethinking its training program in light of complaints from its own members that they need more preparation for the classroom.
The organization announced last week that it will launch a pilot program to offer TFA recruits a year of classes in educational theory and pedagogy, along with hands-on classroom experience, while they are still in college and before they begin teaching full-time.
Since its founding in 1990, TFA has provided its recruits five weeks of training in the summer before they begin teaching, a model that has been attacked as insufficient by both outside critics and TFA members.
Matt Kramer, who joined Elisa Villaneuva Beard in taking the helm of TFA last year from founder Wendy Kopp, said he and Beard decided to test a new training approach after a nationwide “listening tour” where they met with TFA members, school officials and community leaders.
“We heard there was lots of opportunity to get better,” Kramer said. “People told us ‘this is incredibly hard, and I need more support.’”
In recent years, former TFA corps members have been increasingly speaking up about problems with the program. A Web site “Students Resisting TFA” launched last year, and while TFA is active in many states, there has been some pushback. In May, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed an item in a bill that would have given $1.5 million to Teach for America over two years, saying he didn’t think the state should give tax dollars to an organization with assets of more than $350 million.
Olivia Blanchard, a 2011 TFA recruit who quit halfway through her stint in an Atlanta public school, faulted the organization’s training model. In an essay published in the Atlantic last year, Blanchard detailed problems with TFA’s model.
“Regardless of your position on TFA as a concept, I think most people can agree that the current training model is fundamentally inadequate, which is both harmful to students and insulting to ‘traditionally’ trained teachers,” Blanchard wrote in an e-mail from Oxford University, where she is earning a master’s degree.
Details are still being worked out, but TFA intends to offer the pilot program to about 500 college juniors who have applied early to TFA and been accepted into the program, he said. Most corps members apply in their senior year in college.
The college juniors accepted to begin teaching in the 2015-2016 school year will be offered the opportunity to take education classes in their senior year, and to practice skills in actual classrooms, Kramer said. TFA has not decided whether those courses would be taken online or through a participating university near the student, he said.
“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,” Kramer told a TFA gathering last week in Nashville.
Linda Darling Hammond, an expert on teacher education at Stanford University, said TFA’s pilot program sounds like “an inch forward” in the right direction. A better approach would be a year devoted to coursework about teaching and learning paired with student teaching under the tutelage of a master educator, she said. That’s a format followed by Stanford, Columbia and other universities as part of graduate programs in education.
Kramer said TFA will also encourage corps members to stick with teaching beyond their two-year commitment, answering another frequent criticism — that too many TFA educators leave the classroom before they’ve mastered the skills and create churn that destabilizes schools.
The changes at TFA come at a time when applications are below projections, and the organization says it is unlikely to meet its target of 6,300 new corps members for the next school year.
To date, TFA has received about 50,000 applications for the 2014-2015 school year, a 12 percent drop compared with last year’s applicant pool of 57,000, Kramer said. He attributes the drop to an improving economy coupled with the bitter political divisions around public education.
“The conversation in education right now is really poisonous, and that is tragic,” Kramer said. “People are sending a message to college seniors that the world would be better off if they went to make money in private sector somehow than go down the Rio Grande Valley to teach kids who really need great teaching,” he said.
This school year, there are 11,000 TFA members teaching in 3,200 schools, the organization said.