This post was written by Kristoffer Kohl, a former Teach For America corps member. He recently worked with a team of accomplished teachers from around the country to produce “Transforming School Conditions: Building Bridges to the Education System that Students and Teachers Deserve,” a detailed report with recommendations on what is needed to bring about effective and sustainable school reform.

Teach for America is an organization that recruits top college graduates, gives them five weeks of training and then sends them into high-poverty schools as teachers for a commitment of two years. I have written before about problems I see in sending young people with little training into classrooms where needy students deserve the very best teachers. I’ve also published a piece by historian Diane Ravitch about problems with Teach for America. Kohl, not surprisingly, takes a different tact in this piece.

By Kristoffer Kohl

With alumni from Teach For America gathering in Washington, D.C., recently for their 20th anniversary summit, it is worth considering how the organization is meeting and falling short of the demands of an evolving profession.

Beginning in the early 1990s, TFA sought to help overcome vast socio-economic disparities to bring quality education to classrooms around the country. While TFA should be lauded for its efforts in neglected communities, its mission should be updated to accommodate the demands of the modern classroom and economy.

In the book “Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools--Now and in the Future,” the authors, who include Barnett Berry, remind us that teachers must possess five essential skills to meet the demands of 21st century learners:

*Teach the Googled learner, who has grown up on virtual reality games and can find the answer to just about anything will a few taps of the finger.

*Prepare students to compete for jobs in a global marketplace where communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creative problem solving are the “new basics”.

*Help students monitor their own learning using sophisticated tools to assess whether they meet high academic standards and fine-tune instruction when they don’t.

*Work with an increasingly diverse student body.

*Connect teaching to the needs of communities as economic conditions create family and societal instability, pushing schools to integrate health and social services with academic learning.

TFA has much to celebrate, but it also has much to improve if it is to contribute to shrinking a stubborn achievement gap that will only grow wider as high unemployment persists. The organization will exacerbate the achievement gap if it does not re-evaluate how it prepares and supports teachers in light of the realities listed above.

Area of strength: working in diverse communities

One of Teach For America’s areas of expertise is working with diverse communities to overcome language barriers and promote success in the classroom. In addition to its stated goal of recruiting a more diverse group of college graduates, TFA’s support mechanisms provide a wealth of knowledge and resources regarding the engagement of English language learners that would benefit districts, teacher education programs, and charter schools. From my days as a corps member, I recall learning how regular conferences with language learners and their parents demonstrated how hard work was translating to progress. Recognizing the fruits of their labor, parents and students redoubled their efforts.

The mission of closing the nation’s achievement gap is not going to be met by an organization that places less than 2% of new teachers, so TFA should be sharing its data, resources, expertise, and methods with whoever demonstrates interest. Schools of education, district recruitment officers, and professional development groups would be interested to learn how TFA is able to establish instructional proficiency in individuals lacking a background in pedagogy.

Such consultation could generate revenue that would go a long way toward establishing the organization as an enduring institution that doesn’t have to rely on government grants and charitable contributions.

Given the organization’s presence in 39 (soon to be 60) of the country’s most impoverished communities, TFA is accustomed to investing students, families, and other stakeholders in the hard work required to achieve. Again, these practices should be shared with the broader community of educators on a more formal basis. TFA could establish a virtual academy at a nominal cost for new and veteran teachers interested in learning from its methods.

TFA’s theory of change assumes that alumni will move in to positions of leadership in various fields following their time in the classroom. While there are numerous examples of TFA alumni influencing the levers of change in education, the organization should place greater emphasis on what corps members do if they choose to leave the classroom.

Alumni working outside of education should be better organized to contribute their new skill sets to local schools in the form of legal advice, medical care, civic engagement, student mentoring, college counseling, and after-school programming. Even better, combine all of the above into TFA-sponsored community clinics that provide a robust array of services similar to those of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Rather than abandoning those that stay in the classroom beyond their two-year commitment, TFA should invest additional support in these teachers to ensure they become instructional experts that are capable of sharing their expertise with other professionals.

Area for improvement: defining student achievement

With its emphasis on gains that can be measured on traditional paper and pencil assessments, Teach For America is reinforcing 20th century modes of teaching, thinking, and learning.

While alumni may have their hands in some of the most innovative schools in the country, the everyday corps member is not pushing their students to collaborate, design, and create because the organization remains stuck in antiquated definitions of student achievement that can be measured by multiple choice tests. Requiring teachers to strive for 1.5 grade-levels of growth in reading comprehension, fluency, or math skills on high stakes tests neglects the intangible assets that cannot be so easily measured, such as initiative, curiosity, and imagination.

The focus on ’easy’ data that quantify student progress neglects the softer variables that are increasingly in demand in the knowledge economy. The traditional, misguided refrain is that students must master the basics before they can engage with higher modes of thinking, but this position serves only to reinforce reliance on the “old basics” when it comes to measuring student achievement. Instead of preparing students for an environment that requires them to think, question, analyze, and adapt to new information, TFA is holding corps members accountable to what can be easily tested.

A more fitting focus for TFA would be on performance assessments that demonstrate higher cognitive demands. The organization should be pioneering measures of student progress that cannot be measured by traditional testing regimes by leveraging its considerable resources and human capital (thousands of the nation’s best and brightest) to create exemplars of 21st century learning activities. It should demonstrate how academic content can be used as a vehicle for students to develop the communication, problem solving, and critical thinking skills that will be in demand when they enter the workforce.

If TFA continues to ignore the evolving nature of teaching in its development and support of recruits, then it will be in danger of contributing to the achievement gap by inadequately preparing students in some of our most challenging schools for the marketplace.

Hopefully such concerns were considered at the recent conference, somewhere in between John Legend’s performance and President Obama’s pre-recorded remarks.


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