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Teach For America’s ‘dirty little secret’

Teach For America is famous for many things these days, including its five-week summer training institute in which newly selected corps members are “prepared” to take over classrooms with high-needs students. Here is a perhaps surprising look at the five-week institute, how it has changed over the years and what that means to teacher training. It was written by Jack Schneider (@Edu_Historian), an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and the author of Excellence For All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America’s Public Schools.  This essay is adapted from his article “Rhetoric and Practice in Pre-Service Teacher Education: The Case of Teach For America” in the Journal of Education Policy.

By Jack Schneider

Education reformers love Teach For America.  They love it for a number of a reasons, but perhaps chiefly because it seems to prove that traditional teacher training—frivolous and without content, in their eyes—is unnecessary.  Seeing the organization as a radical alternative to college- and university-based programs, reformers frequently point to TFA as proof-of-concept that conventional teacher education is totally superfluous.

But here’s the dirty little secret those reformers either don’t know or don’t want to know: over the past 20 years, TFA has continued to place more and more emphasis on pre-service teacher training.  And today, the organization’s training model looks quite a bit like that of the conventional programs that reformers so disdain.

That isn’t to say that TFA’s summer boot camp merely condenses what rigorous teacher education programs do.  Even filling every moment of the day as they do, there simply isn’t enough time in five weeks to prepare novices for the classroom.  And to make matters more complicated, TFA corps members are often placed in schools where they are least qualified to be.

Still, TFA’s training is far better than it was two decades ago.  And it is better precisely because it has adopted many of the practices typically associated with traditional teacher education.  This should be deeply unsettling to the neoliberal politicians and billionaire philanthropists uncritically infatuated with TFA.  First, because it seems to make the case for a longer TFA summer institute that looks even more like conventional teacher education—further collapsing the divide between TFA and the programs to which it is ostensibly a radical alternative.  And second, this finding should trouble today’s overzealous reform cadre because it seems to make a case for rather than against college- and university-based licensure programs—the very programs reformers are so intent on tearing down.

Once upon a time, of course, TFA’s training model did represent a radical departure from the work done in departments and colleges of education.  The organization’s first summer institute, run by recent college graduates, was by all accounts haphazard and loosely organized.  One participant recalled that organizers “ham-fistedly” threw “a bunch of things together,” including Madeline Hunter’s six-step lesson plan and excerpts from the works of Jonathan Kozol.  The corps member handbook, designed to provide a foundation in education research, was a mere 24 pages long.  Seminars, as Wendy Kopp recalled, often led to “free-for-alls.”  And corps members were formally observed only once during their student teaching experiences.

If TFA wanted to prepare corps members for success, the summer institute would need to go beyond platitudes and team-building exercises to better prepare novices for their two years in the classroom.  As such, Kopp and her leadership team decided that they needed a more structured approach to student teaching with better systems for observation and feedback, a more coherent curriculum, and a means of systematically introducing novices to the profession.  A closer look at college- and university-based teacher education programs, it seemed, had something to offer TFA in its redesign of the summer institute.

Outwardly, however, TFA was beginning to craft a very different sort of message—a message antagonistic to formal teacher education, and in keeping with the entrepreneurial approach to school reform that was coming into favor in the 1990s.  As a result, Wendy Kopp began making the case that recruiting top students from elite colleges and universities was a silver bullet for the woes of urban and rural schools—a common-sense approach to educational reform.  Training corps members was important, certainly; and it was clear that TFA was willing to look to teacher education programs for successful practices.  But given the financial questions facing a fledgling organization, Kopp realized that presenting a compelling image to funders was a priority.  As she would later recall: “We realized the only way out of this mess was to raise money.”  And raising money—to say nothing of appealing to reform-minded policymakers—meant rejecting the teacher education “establishment.”

Nevertheless, the institute continued to look more and more like that so-called establishment.  By the time TFA moved the summer institute from Los Angeles to Houston  in 1994, corps members were being evaluated frequently by veteran teachers and by a new set of actors—corps member advisors—who met with them on a daily basis.  By 1996, TFA had begun training corps members to develop reflection skills, as well as to emphasize the development of collegial relationships among participants—moves that placed TFA in line with the recommendations of leading teacher educators.  And in 1997, the TFA Guidebook—a formal curriculum mirroring that of many college- and university-based programs—made its debut.

In 2002, the Guidebook was replaced with a set of handbooks, designed by Steven Farr and Andrew Mandel.  The new curriculum was a departure from previous incarnations, but it was not a complete overhaul.  Handbooks continued to cover typical traditional teacher education fare like lesson planning, learning theory, and the impact of race and class in education.  Materials on what would later be called “Diversity, Community and Achievement,” for instance, examined socio-cultural issues that teachers may encounter in their placements, and included work by Sonia Nieto, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Lisa Delpit, and Pedro Noguera.  Like the materials on diversity, TFA’s “Learning Theory” booklet mirrored much of the curriculum in teacher education programs—featuring the likes of Jean Piaget, Benjamin Bloom, and Howard Gardner.

By this point, of course, TFA had everything to gain by differentiating its training model from that of colleges and universities.  The reform tides were squarely in TFA’s favor, and they might have dumped any aspects of the curriculum resembling traditional ed school fare.  Surprisingly, however, TFA did the opposite.  Rather than dropping such materials, leaders at the organization worked to align them with the new curriculum framework—a signal that TFA’s leadership believed in their importance, even if many of TFA’s boosters took a different stance.

As the summer institute was quietly looking more and more like teacher education programs at departments and colleges of education, corps members continued to respond more positively to it.  In 2003, 57 percent of corps members responded that they felt the Summer Institute had prepared them “as well as possible to be successful in [their] first year teaching responsibilities”—a five point increase from the year before.  And in 2004 and 2005, 73 and 71 percent of corps members, respectively, responded in the affirmative to that statement.  Such self-reports, certainly, are not perfect measures of programmatic quality.  Yet corps member satisfaction certainly meant something to leaders at TFA—a further sign that, whatever the outward rhetoric, more robust pre-service preparation was important to the organization.

Today, much of TFA’s pre-service preparation program is surprisingly conventional.  TFA emphasizes the socio-cultural context of schooling, educational psychology, and more theoretical aspects of pedagogy—hardly radical departures from the work done in licensure programs.  And over the years, TFA has implemented many of the improvements advocated by reform-minded teacher educators: peer networks, mentoring structures, reflection cycles, data systems, and an internally aligned curriculum.  Perhaps most surprising is the fact that several leaders at TFA, speaking off the record, indicated that they believe the summer training institute should be longer than the current length of five weeks.  That, however, is impossible given the outward image that TFA presents to the reform community—a community antagonistic to anything resembling conventional teacher education.

Certainly, there is much that college- and university-based programs can do to improve.  At many schools, novices talk more about their feelings than about their lesson plans; and it is still the case that practice teaching is often wholly separate from coursework on topics like educational psychology.  But there is also much that is essential about pre-service training.  And the fact that TFA has mimicked many of the practices of leading teacher preparation programs, despite strong incentives to totally reject anything resembling traditional teacher education, is quite telling.

It is worth noting that there are a number of aspects of the TFA training model unique to the organization.  Much of what they do reflects an entrepreneurial ethos—emphasizing leadership, goal-setting, and management strategy.  The “Teaching As Leadership” framework, for instance, is an interesting blend of traditional teacher education curricula and more corporate-inspired leadership training materials.  The organization’s emphasis on data provides another example.  Such emphases are not common in college- and university-based programs, and have proven popular with funders in the business community.

But these points of departure are the sole focus of TFA and its boosters.  And we hear very little about the many similarities between the summer institute and traditional teacher education programs.  This, of course, is effective PR.  It has helped TFA’s leadership grow the organization beyond all initial expectations, and it has won for them a prominent place in conversations about reforming teacher training.  But effective or not, it is a deeply problematic kind of discourse—one that leads people to overestimate the degree to which TFA is a radical innovator and causes them to undervalue the work done in conventional teacher education programs.  Characteristic in this regard was a 2010 feature in the Economist, which called TFA “a political statement in and of itself, especially with regard to teacher training.”  And in the same spirit, a columnist in the Atlanta Journal Constitution recently asked “why we don’t disband the colleges of education and let Teach for America take over.”  Such over simplifications of the issue only magnify the divide between TFA’s image and the work that it actually does.

This divide between rhetoric and practice may seem an issue of no great consequence.  Yet it is hardly a matter of minor significance that, instead of seeing TFA’s work as a case for the importance of pre-service teacher preparation—or at least a case for lengthening TFA’s brief five week training program—many influential funders and policymakers have seen TFA’s work as doing precisely the opposite.  Over the past quarter century, TFA has implicitly made a powerful case for why traditional forms of teacher preparation are hardly the congested, whimsical, and incoherent caricatures they are often portrayed as.  And internal concern at TFA about the brevity of the summer institute seems to implicitly undermine the argument that college- and university-based programs are bloated and overwrought.  But such implicit arguments have had little influence on policy talk because they are largely invisible, at least when compared with an aggressively-promoted image that fits so well with what many funders and policymakers wish to hear.

As the story of TFA’s practices suggests, the real conversation inspired by the organization’s training model should be about how various programs—‘alternative’ and otherwise—can learn from each other.  Teach For America has certainly learned a great deal from scholars in teacher education and from exemplary pre-service teacher preparation programs.  And leaders in college- and university-based teacher education might learn something, as well, from TFA’s practices.  That, however, is not the conversation taking place.  We are not talking about a longer TFA summer institute.  Nor are we talking about college- and university-based programs that rigorously use data or more tightly link coursework with practice teaching.  Instead, we have a war of words—and in this case, a war in which the words are almost entirely divorced from the realities of practice.  They are words without meaning.  They are sound and fury, signifying nothing.