Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 06 2011

#3: Why I’m a part of TFA, pt.2

The purpose of this post is much more practical in nature.  I would like to address the controversy around the growth of TFA and the real and perceived threat to veteran teachers and potential new hires that TFA teachers pose.  The perception and reality in many cases is that TFA teachers are crowding out veterans in many regions.  For me, this is an unteneble situation that does not best serve kids.  There is a much wider body of empirical evidence to suggest that veteran teachers produce better student performance than novices and it makes no sense to me for TFA to go into regions for which there are no shortages of qualified and experienced educators.

That being said, Texas is a state relies heavily upon alternatively certified teachers.  Based on my experience, I believe that there is a very real and palpable need for TFA in the state of Texas because of this.

In an earlier post, I referenced the fact that I worked for an alternative certification program. Texas Teachers was (and presumably still is) the largest ACP in the state of Texas, at its peak the largest teacher certification body in the state, traditional or ACP. They dwarf their competitors because of a somewhat unique-to-its-field business approach, with aggressive marketing on billboards and online ads, and sort of revolving door policy with regard to eligiblity.

If you didn’t know anything about Texas Teachers, you would assume that TFA represents the worst preparation available.  One of my favorite columns around right now is the exchange on Education Week between Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier, Bridging Differences.  On a number of occasions, they have lamented the five-week training course/summer school teaching stint that is Institute, horrified by its brevity and implication that such a short course could possibly prepare you for the rigors of teaching in low-income schools.

Ms. Ravitch and Ms. Meier, if you are reading this: it gets worse.  MUCH worse.

I’m going to pick on Texas Teachers because they are the biggest on the block and because I worked there, but the other private ACPs in the state are only marginally better.  Texas Teachers’ flagrant disregard for recruiting quality candidates and their profit-driven interest in providing the shortest shortcut possible translates to a revolving door of under-prepared, under-experienced, and under-qualified teachers. 

Considering the fact that Texas Teachers is placing well in excess of what TFA does means much worse outcomes for students.  In 2009, Texas Teachers certified in the ballpark of 3000 teachers.  This is a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but in that same year TFA was in Houston, the Rio Grande Valley, and just opening up shop in Dallas, which means I would be surprised if they had more than 500 candidates.  And because Texas Teachers is a profit-driven business, their interest is not in keeping good teachers in the classroom because they and others of their ilk perversely stand to gain much more from high attrition since they will always have a supply of ready-to-hire applicants at their disposal.

First, let’s look at recruitment.  TFA scours the country for top-notch candidates who have exhibited high academic performance and leadership in any number of endeavors.  In short, they are looking for bright, motivated, and resilient teachers who will be able to withstand the pressure of the job.  And they have a notoriously low acceptance rate because of this commitment to high quality candidates.

To contrast, Texas Teachers is looking for anyone with a Bachelor’s degree and anyone willing to pony up $300 for training.  The state mimnimum for GPA is a 2.5, but they’ll make an exception if you can pass one the state’s certification exams.  The interest here is in the quantity of applicants.  It’s a sort of shotgun approach: when I was let go, Texas Teachers had well in excess of 50,000 applicants and hires over the history of the business, and that number has to have climbed in the two years since I’ve been out.  They pack in as many candidates as possible, get them to pass certification exams to become “Highly Qualified” under No Child Left Behind, and blast out a deluge of eligible candidates.  The cream will rise to the top and get hired while the less desirable candidates will wait on the sidelines, out a few hundred bucks.  A relatively small investment in the grand scheme of things for the individual, but a fortune for Texas Teachers in the aggregate.  There is, alas, not a lot of profit to be made in quality control.

Next, we’ll discuss training.  TFA’s training is an intensive five weeks of teaching summer school and sessions grounded in good teaching practices.  Is this too short?  Yes, of course it is.  But it is no doubt rigorous while you are there.  It is a teacher boot camp, which means you eat, breathe, and sleep teaching.

Texas Teachers’ training on the other hand amounts to a single week of large lecture hall sessions led by a single instructor.  There are at minimum 250 candidates in attendance at high school audiroiums or hotel conference rooms, with some sessions in Houston or Dallas reaching sizes of 500 or more.  The sessions are light on content and heavy of fluff and padding, and with no clinial experience required (only 15 hours of in-person observations are required), you can ostensibly be hired on as a teacher without ever having led one (i.e. me).  There are online modules as well, but these suffer from the same superficialities as the in-person sessions.

Finally, I’d like to look at the impact that the respecive organizations are looking to have.  Teach for America, for its flaws as a national organization, is genuinely committed to ending educational inequities and has alumni in a variety of fields affecting the education of our kids.  It is no different from any organization that is interested in growth, and for that reason they have some strange bedfellows (the subject of another post, I assure you).  But it is ultimately a non-profit organized towards a mission of ending educational inequity.

Texas Teachers is a business run by a family that is the beneficiary of lax state standards for which they have lobbied heavily in Austin.  They are big-time donors to Governor Rick Perry. They are much more interested in dismantling the teacher certification process than providing a service to schools. In other words, they saw an opportunity to cash in on teacher shortages and have done so with gusto.

Without TFA, Texas schools will have to staff many of their high-needs areas with teacher candidates with even less training, less screening for quality, and not even a two-year commitment (many are lucky to stick around past Year 1).  At the very least, TFA represents a lesser of two evils.

6 Responses

  1. The same legal conditions and political that allow TFA to operate allow organizations like Texas Teachers to operate. A lot of the people who bemoan TFA’s expansion primarily focus on the problems with the performance and longevity of its newbie teachers…basically, they’re honed in on TFA’s impact on the classrooms and schools where TFAers are actually placed. But in my opinion the real danger of TFA is systematic, that their lobbying and their PR helps open doors (and/or keep doors open) that do serious long-term harm to the public education system. I am not saying it’s TFA’s fault that Texas Teachers exists, but TFA’s pushing to legitimize, and its putting a shiny public face on, this kind of whirlwind no-oversight teacher training and placement, helps propagate conditions where these subpar programming is allowed to exist, and devalues and deprofessionalizes the teaching field as a whole, to the detriment of the students in low-income schools.

    I’m not saying this is TFA’s fault, just that at the legislative and public opinion level, they’re contributing to the overall problem.

    Similar issue with the formation of charter schools, but that’s a whole essay unto itself…

  2. mches

    I can certainly see that, and I had not personally considered that angle. All told, I’d still rather have TFA teachers than the alternatives that exist as they are right now in Texas and I would hazard a guess that the legal framework for ACPs in this state were minimally influenced by TFA directly. That being said, as TFA grows here, it may serve to legitimize quickie-certification elsewhere in the country (see, it works in Texas! etc.) and that could be a net loss for education as a whole.

    Thanks for your comment!

    • I definitely think the “lesser of two evils” argument is legitimate. But I would argue that it has already led to increased quickie-certification elsewhere…TFA has lobbied for this fairly heavily in various states.

      When I did TFA, in our region they actually farmed the CMs out to a program similar to Texas Teachers to complete our alt cert requirements post-institute. The program we were require to do was a joke, honestly. But that was back in the dark ages – I’m not sure whether TFA is still using these programs, or if they’re now relying on more reputable educator training facilities and/or doing things in-house.

      • mches

        I think we are mostly in agreement.

        Just for edification, the certification program most San Antonio corps members use is a far cry more demanding than either TT or the program I used (though I will say my field supervisor last year was instrumental in making me a better teacher).

  3. Wess

    This is SUCH a valuable perspective to read. I’m sure Laura’s told you this a million times, but I’m going to go ahead and say it again: you’re SO good for SA TFA!

    Thank you for living through your first year with Texas Teachers, and thank you for sharing this!

    • mches

      Oh, to clarify, I did not personally go through Texas Teachers for my own certification, though I did go through a competing private ACP.

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