The Very Spring and Root

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

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retention

Statement from the 2011-12 ED Teaching Ambassador Fellows

Aside  Comment

A great article in EdWeek just popped up on my Twitter feed: Teachers Want to Lead Their Profession’s Transformation.

Educators want to take on this work. As highly skilled specialists, we are not afraid of owning our profession. We are not afraid of being held accountable for results when we are given the responsibility and flexibility to craft our profession. We are confident that the president understands what it will take to transform teaching to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and we are eager to join with our colleagues across the country in moving the profession forward.

Includes some response and commentary from the 2011-12 U.S. Department of Education teaching ambassador fellows with regards to the education segments in President Obama’s State of the Union speech.



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.



Gary’s TFA – It May Already Be Out There

Gary Rubinstein has followed up his previous condemning critique of TFA with a plan for how he would fix it. He calls for greater rigor in new teacher preparation and an emphasis on long-term teaching.  Here is my response in the comment thread:

Thanks to your posts over the last few months, I have been also applying to alternatives to TFA, while continuing with the TFA application path as well.

I’ve found some incredible programs, many of which are doing what you think needs to be done, though on a smaller scale than TFA (and hence without the massive PR, so its harder to hear about them). But if you look, you will find…

Top of my list is the Boston Teacher Residency (http://www.bostonteacherresidency.org). A one-year immersive masters in education program is followed by a three-year commitment to Boston Public Schools. The masters program includes four days a week of student teacher during the school year, and two summers on either end of full-time coursework at UMass. If I get accepted to this, I will definitely go over TFA.

There’s an alliance of such programs at http://www.utrunited.org/. I’ve found most of the others fall somewhere in between TFA and BTR on the preparatory rigor scale, but there are so many alternative options. If you are interested in TFA for the right reasons, as I think I am, then take a look at these other programs too… maybe TFA will be right for you, maybe not. But its not the only structured alternative cert pathway out there, especially for career-changing professionals. As these residency models gain more exposure, TFA will have competition for the national stage in education reform teaching entry programs, and that may be all that is required to prompt change.

on November 23, 2011 at 4:57 pm

I think Gary is right on to be concerned about these issues, and so should anyone not solely interested in short-term, band-aid solutions. The problem cannot be improved by throwing untrained idealists into classrooms who put in a couple of years to say they did their time in the trenches, and then wash their hands of it.



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.



New Data on TFA

Education Week recently posted the results of a study by Phi Delta Kappan on Teach for America and the nebulous debate over teacher retention. The article pretty much speaks for itself, so I’m not going to rehash anything here. Some surprising findings for both sides of the raging argument.

The one paragraph I’d just like to quote, however, reemphasizes why I just don’t care about the debate one way or the other:

These findings show that Teach For America teachers are far from being exclusively short-term in their intentions or actions. Some appear to use the program as a path to an extended career in teaching. They may choose TFA as a way to bypass longer preparation programs, licensing requirements, or the bureaucratic obstacles associated with landing a teaching job, especially in a large, urban district. They also may have wanted the status and camaraderie that come with becoming TFA corps members. Whatever their reasons, it seems clear that a considerable proportion of those in the sample expected to make a longer-term commitment to teaching from the start.

(Emphasis mine.)




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