The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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career teachers

Why I Didn’t Choose TFA

The most common question I get when I explain what I am going off to Boston to do is: “Oh, so like Teach for America?” I’m never quite sure how to respond to that, but the immediate association between lateral entry into teaching and Teach for America makes me uncomfortable now. The answer is no, I’m not doing something like TFA, and for very good reasons.

On the surface, Boston Teacher Residency and Teach for America appear to have much in common, and indeed I applied to, and was accepted to, both programs. They both are lateral-entry teacher training programs with a goal of closing the achievement gap across systemic racial and socio-economic divides. They both claim a highly selective admissions process and a rigorous training period for their recruits, and send high-achieving individuals into struggling schools. They both promise that the experience will be a foundation for long term transformational change in education.

So what’s the difference? As a good applicant should, I was continuously researching both of these organizations throughout the application process, in order to make an informed decision. What I discovered under the surface surprised and disturbed me, even some of what I got straight from TFA staff themselves.

Bear in mind, I am a new BTR recruit… I do not in any way speak for the program or anyone else but myself. This is purely based off of my research into the issues and my personal experience with the application processes of these organizations.

Let me go point by point.

They both are lateral-entry teacher training programs with a goal of closing the achievement gap across systemic racial and socio-economic divides.

Not much surface-level difference here. But when it comes to strategy, there is a world of difference. BTR is a partnership with the existing system, taking what already works in public education and distilling the best elements thereof to improve itself. It is locally-focused and has a holistic, long-term investment in the communities it serves. This seems far better aligning with the true problem in teacher staffing, which is not recruitment, but retention[pdf] of qualified individuals.

By contrast, TFA is a large, national non-profit organization, whose members for the most part leave after their two-year commitment. TFA claims a roughly 60% retention rate of corps members “staying in education” after their 2-year stint, though they include those who have gone on to other positions in education besides the classroom, as well as those who have moved out of their initial high-needs assignment. Counting these factors brings the percentage down to about 44%. By the fifth year, slightly less than 15% remain.

As for BTR? Fully 80% of those hired in the program’s ten-year history are still teaching in Boston Public Schools.

They both claim a highly selective admissions process and a rigorous training period for their recruits.

The first part of this statement is unequivocally true. Never in applying to undergraduate programs, graduate schools, or three employers (including NASA) have I experienced such a varied gauntlet as those to which these programs subjected me. Application questions, several essays, content examinations, responses to articles and videos, observation of group interaction and teamwork, multiple interviews, demonstration of the practice… there is no question that both of these programs are highly selective.

But what about the second part of the statement, about rigorous training? BTR offers a 13-month masters in education program, including full licensure in your subject, incorporating a full school year of mentorship in an urban school modeled on a medical residency… and they give it to you at effectively no charge, before you are placed into a classroom as a teacher of record for other people’s children. Following this, they offer ongoing mentoring and support as residents develop and grow as educators. Many of my fellow candidates at the final Selection Day were career-changers or had post-graduate experience in their field of study or in education.

By contrast, TFA compresses your training into a 5-week Institute, in which the most hands-on training you get is small classes of summer students. A masters degree is possible in most assignment regions, but is generally on your own time and dime… in addition to simultaneously teaching full-time, getting credentialed (because you entered the classroom on an emergency or waiver credential), and participating in TFA programming. As far as I could tell, all but two of my fellow candidates at the final interview day were undergraduate fresh-outs.

Now, I have done some challenging things in my life, but I do not in any way feel prepared to teach, let alone teach in a failing urban school, just based on my content knowledge, experience, and idealism. Maybe I’m misjudging the scale of the challenge, but right now I seriously can’t believe that someone would choose to send in such inexperienced young people (intelligent and high-achieving though they may be) into our most challenging schools. Especially when there is an option for more rigorous preparation that doesn’t cost you as much and allows you to focus on learning to teach before you actually enter the field!

Unless… unless the goal isn’t to recruit, retain, and grow long-term educators…

They both send high-achieving individuals into struggling schools.

Again, on the surface-level, absolutely true. But considering what I have gone over already, particularly about preparation, what am I to conclude about the nature of the program and the intentions of its applicants? What does each program incentivize?

I think it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that TFA appears to incentivize the entry of those in a hurry or those in it to check off a box. The core problem in our public schools is retaining high-quality teachers in high-needs areas. If you are in this for the short term, you are probably going to do more harm than good for your students by becoming a teacher. By all means, get involved through volunteering, advocacy, fundraising, or mentoring… but don’t use the futures of your students as collateral for your own idealistic goals.  If you are not in this for the short-term (but still don’t want to go through the traditional schools of education), why go with a program like TFA when so many residency programs with more rigor and preparation exist?

I found myself asking the question, whose interests are best served by the approach of each of these programs, the students or the recruits? The nation absolutely needs every talented, intelligent, passionate, and creative person it can muster to the cause of improving our education system. But if an additional year of preparation and a long-term view of that on which you are about to embark deter you, then I would suggest that you are getting into teaching for the wrong reasons.

They both promise that the experience will be a foundation for long term transformational change in education.

In light of the previous discussion, there isn’t much left to add here. I’ll just leave you with a link to a great article in Rethinking Schools, Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America.

In the end, it really wasn’t much of a question… the reasoning, given what I have discovered and more importantly what I value, pointed to one clear choice, and I took it. Boston, here I come.



Arne On Teacher Salaries and Standardized Tests

Below is my comment on an article posted to the Ed.gov blog entitled “Arne on Teacher Salaries and Standardized Tests“. There was much in the comment stream about how muchc teachers should make, comparisons to other professions, and the value of an education degree.

As a professional engineer in the process of (voluntarily) transforming into a K-12 educator, I hope I can add a hybrid perspective.

As a aerospace research engineer (federal), I started at $43,500 and advanced to roughly $80,000 in five years. This is not because of some arbitrary euro-centric preference, it is because of simple supply and demand. At the level of STEM understanding required to ensure our national security, economic vigor, modern infrastructure, and quality of life, there are simply not enough young people moving into the ranks to replace those retiring. Engineers, not defined by their degree but by those who can think creatively, rigorously analyze a system, and synthesize new innovations, are in very short supply; the demand for such people in our modern world is very high. I do not think I could say the same about literature. No disrespect intended, as I love literature and fully see its value in society, but the simple fact is that the skillset is not required in as large quantities right now.

I am aware that switching to a career education will probably mean a pay cut of 50-60%. This concerns me, but is not stopping me – I am, alas, a stubborn idealist. But for the general case, consider those who are similarly prepared as I am. Should those well-trained as engineers and scientists have to choose between a world of creative application of their talents, probable advancement, and job security, versus a world of low-pay, advancement and security based solely on tenure, and declining respect and creative freedom? If not, how can we structure education such that this comparison is more favorable? Because that is the comparison being made by graduates versus other professions.

Teaching *is* a profession, and a important one – indeed, the *most* important one, since it feeds all of the others. But it is also a unique one – unlike medicine, law, or engineering, proficiency in the subject matter and theory of practice are not enough to be effective. What gets missed in that analogy is that, while a surgeon with more training and experience will probably perform a better surgery, a teacher with more training and experience will not necessarily prompt better learning. I think we all have personal experiences to attest to that. What is unique about this profession is this: That children learn from people they love. They learn when the material is engaging and relevant. They learn when they can apply their own initiative and correlate it to success. Some of that can be taught, some if it can’t.

There is no way that an education major with a credential in math or science can bring as much content knowledge to the table as I can. Does that make me a better potential teacher? Not necessarily. Not by a long shot.

Teaching is a noble calling because it is the *only* one which directly professionalizes the intersection of people and ideas. This goes above and beyond subject matter competency. We should be reaching out to those in all fields who have these qualities, and incentivizing their consideration of teaching as a profession. Make it *the* selective pathway, an honor; that beyond their excellence in science, math, literature, history, theatre, engineering, or language, they also exhibit the much more in-demand talent than any of these of being able to connect their ideas with people. And then pay them commensurate to the field from which you plucked them.

Can performance in this quality be measured by standardized testing? Not in isolation no, and such a proposition is yet another dangerous deterrent to those in more open fields. But rote subject matter competency *is* important, when combined with the assurance that the student has developed the creative and analytical capacity to apply it. Know the equation – but also write a paragraph on why these quantities are related in this way. Know the scientific principle – but also explain to me what we know about the universe as a result. Know the name of the artistic movement – but also tell the world around you what we as a society failed to learn from it.

Does that require more time and resources? Definitely. But I think it is what is required for an increasingly knowledge-based world, one increasingly dependent on technologies, systems, and social structures which did not exist when the present education system was created. So that also means change, which in turn means both pain and opportunity. But if we fail in this, the whole nation fails. Education is too central a pillar to a strong republic; no such republic can hope to stand long with this pillar strained or broken.



The TFA Conundrum

Well, I had my TFA phone interview on Saturday morning, and I thought it went very well indeed. The interviewer, herself a TFA teacher in New Orleans, seemed friendly, engaged, and very interested in me. I had ready responses with detailed examples to all questions, and the feeling was very much relaxed and conversational.

To be honest, I’m second-guessing TFA quite a bit. On the one hand, there is a lot of great press and commentary out there on the organization. On the other… some fairly virulent criticism. The TeachForUs independent blogging network has provided both types of accounts; on the whole it is a confusing blend of the inspirational and insidious.

As I indicated in an earlier post, I do not harbor much concern for the anti-TFA sentiments that are really directed at individual motives and behaviors of TFA corps members themselves. For example, deciding to stay in teaching as a “service project” for only two years before leaving, or declining to pursue further training and education. These are decisions that anyone entering teaching could make, TFA or not. In fact, from what I read anyway , the retention rate for any teacher in an urban or low-SES school is pretty atrocious, TFA or no. Does TFA encourage a revolving door by only putting a 2-year minimum on recruits? Maybe. But I bet that a lot of people end up staying in teaching that never would have considered it as a career otherwise too. How long I stay in teaching and what my motives are for entering it are up to me, not TFA, so I find that criticism personally irrelevant.

What *is* concerning for me, however, is that I might end up being associated with an organization that is tied to much less substantiated, but far more worrisome, tactics. Gary Rubenstein, the (in)famous ex-TFA TFA critic, has written extensively on his blog about such tactics, and lately posted his most scathing yet . For example, expanding into districts that are laying off teachers? If TFA purports to send teachers with only five weeks of training into schools, they had better be filling slots that could not otherwise be filled by any qualified candidate. Are districts, under ever-tighter budgetary and political pressure, laying off experienced, unionized teachers in favor of politically backed, inexperienced, cheap fresh-outs? For the specific case of STEM subjects, I really doubt this is the case, so perhaps this doesn’t really apply to me either. But again, do I want to be associated with an organization that might/would do that?

Another big picture concern: the “Education Reform” movement. I am vehemently opposed to privitization of the public school system, just as vehemently as I have been opposed to the contracting out of RDT&E (Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation) at NASA. Without tangenting too far into all the ways that private money has our federal and state governments by the cojones, I will simply say that TFA appears to be firmly on the side of those who would use wildly inaccurate quantitative metrics to force in private charter control (or vouchers or what have you) of a public system, shortchanging students and laying off those damn lazy unionized teachers along the way. Not sure I like that either… While I’ve definitely had some lazy and/or ineffective teachers, blaming an already strained profession for systemic racial and socio-economic divides is scapegoating at best, and harmful at a long-term genocidal level at worst .

I guess what it comes down to is the basic question: Is it ok to use a possibly less-than-ethical organization as a means to an end of doing greater good individually? Or does any association with an ethically questionable (not conclusively bad, just questionable) organization negate/taint any good that may come of it?

These questions and others led me to diversify my options. I am proceeding with the TFA application – I should hear in a week if I advanced to the final day-long interview session that takes place at the end of the month. I will be notified of the final admissions decision and placement school/subject on January 17th.

However, in addition, I am also applying to the early admissions track for the Boston Teacher Residency . BTR places admitted members into a year-long, intensive Masters program at UMass Boston, combining urban teacher preparation with four days a week of student teaching. Upon completion of the Masters, residents are placed in the Boston Public Schools, and receive a full waiver of the tuition of their training upon completion of three years of service.  BTR is also clearly committed to community development and long-term teacher retention for what seems like truely transformative change. Making the November 15th deadline means a possible Selection Day interview invite in mid December, an interview in early January, and a final notification of acceptance on January 20th.

I guess I’ll have to figure this out by then. I have a feeling though, that like other significant forks in the road in my past, one path is just going to seem intuitively right, and I’m going to just take it and be too busy kicking ass at whatever challenges lie around the corner to ever look back. I just don’t know which it will be yet.



A Counter-Counter Perspective

TIME Magazine’s “School of Thought” columnist Andrew J. Rotherham wrote an article some months ago entitled Teach for America: 5 Myths That Persist 20 Years On, which provides a list of rebuttals to some of the most common criticisms of TFA.

On the whole the article can probably be taken at face-value, but there are a few sentences that raised my skeptic flags. The major one was:

My nonprofit firm, for instance, is full of them [TFA alumni] — one of my partners helped launch TFA — and remarkably that doesn’t make us unusual among our peer organizations.

Hmm… not necessarily damning, mind you, but an interesting connection that does dilute my sense of “credible neutrality”. The other flags are for what appear to be at least minor cases of facts out of context. For example, when discussing early in the article why these myths must indeed be myths, Rotherham concludes the paragraph with:

Another solid indicator? The marketplace. Superintendents and principals, who are on the hook for results, can’t get enough TFA teachers.

Well, ok, true. But two things to consider:

  1. Superintendents and principals are also on the hook for budgets, and TFA teachers are indisputably cheaper. Given the numbers-driven frenzy induced by Bush’s NCLB and the intense political pressure to deliver (hyperbolically) double the results with half the budget… I frankly would not be surprised if it were true that experienced teachers were getting laid off to make room for bright-eyed recent graduates.
  2. Given the the fact that they are on the hook the for results without the support needed to deliver it (also NCLB), I am also frankly not surprised that an organization like TFA, which boasts fantastic values of the right numbers, would seem appealing.

Rotherham responds to the “revolving door” criticism:

Fifty-two percent of its alumni remain in teaching after their two-year commitment, and 67% still work fulltime in education in one way or another.

The study I found on this subject, linked from TFA’s research page gives a statistic of 61% of alumni remaining in teaching profession longer than their 2-year commitment, which is actually a good deal better than what Rotherham quotes (probably having to do with the 1 year disparity between their respective publication dates). The flip side of that, from the same study is only 10% of respondents stayed in the profession longer than 6 years, which is around the minimum range for what I would consider to be actually treating teaching as a career.

Other than these quibbles (the last of which is admittedly fairly petty), Rotherham’s qualitative defense of TFA is on the mark I think. It does stand to reason that having leaders in all aspects and levels of society that have gone through the gauntlet of what our public education system is like in the poorest pockets of the country are probably going to factor in their experience when making decisions.

The big takeaway for me from the process of dissecting this article? Realizing that in the final sense, statistics don’t actually mean jack shit. Regardless of whether 10% or 90% of TFA alumni stay in the profession long-term, the statistic has no bearing on what I can choose to do with the program if I take that path. So ultimately, perhaps the majority of this post is, in the long-term, really irrelevant. Sorry about that. At least it’s somewhat interesting to think about, right?




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