Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 29 2012

#59: A TFA Revision

In previous posts, I have danced around possibilities of what a service-oriented TFA might look like.  My complaints at this point are:

So, rather than be a total Debbie Downer, I’ve thought about what my version of TFA might look like if I transported myself into Wendy Kopp, Malkovich-style, and wrote my senior thesis at Princeton to create  Teach for America.  To avoid any confusion, I will refer to this dream organization as Bizarro TFA.  I would hate for some poor Googler to find this page and believe every word of it.

  • What is Bizarro TFA and what does Bizarro Teach for America do?  It is a service organization dedicated to offering resources and support to low-income neighborhoods seeking to ameliorate the challenges facing children before, during, and after they progress through Pre K-12th grade public education.  Bizarro TFA recruits corps members for three-year commitments as either teaching corps members (veterans and novices) or community corps members.
  • Who are Bizarro TFA corps members?  They are citizens of a city or region seeking the resources to redress the social ills which perpetuate poverty and deny children in low-income neighborhoods pathways to the middle class.  They may be veteran teachers, new teachers, or non-teaching professionals committed to a cause which affects our kids and their education.
  • Does Bizarro TFA create new teachers?  There are some, but that is not our primary focus.  TFA believes the problem facing low-income neighborhoods is not a shortage of dedicated teachers.  Our experience tells us otherwise.  What we have noticed, however, is that many traditionally-certified teachers prefer to work in middle and upper-income neighborhoods.  It is our mission to find talented educators who dedicate their lives to teaching and offer them resources(1) that will empower them to commit to schools in low-income neighborhoods.  Our goal is not just to get teachers to commit temporarily to low-income neighborhood schools; we want more teachers to commit their careers in service of these schools.  We can use our philanthropic largesse to equalize salaries so that teachers have greater incentives to teach in urban and rural school districts, and we can relay the lessons we have learned from our experience working in our neighborhoods to ensure that our teaching corps members are approaching their students and families with the humility our kids need from their teachers.
  • So, Bizarro TFA doesn’t train teachers?  Corps members who are on a new teacher track join their senior year of college.  They go through a one-year Institute on top of their undergraduate coursework and also serve a student teaching commitment before teaching full-time.  During this one-year Institute, corps members also volunteer in the community for service projects related to school improvement.  Our Institutes are run in conjunction with our host universities’ departments of education around the country.  We do provide continuous mentoring for teachers in their first 3 years and ongoing professional development for teachers of all levels of experience.
  • Why would a veteran teacher join Bizarro TFA?  Who better to lead the way for positive change for students than the teachers who have stuck by them for years and years?  Their  experience in our schools and in our neighborhoods gives them a more detailed perspective of what is needed in their specific communities.  And, these teachers could use the resources that TFA has at its disposal to become master teachers, school administrators, department chairs, counselors, social workers, school psychologists, or any position of leadership necessary for a well-functioning school.
  • Does Bizarro TFA partner with charter schools?  No.  Due to the pull of resources away from neighborhood schools that charter schools represent and due to their selectivity of students, we believe the best way forward to eliminating educational inequity is to ensure that each child may succeed in a school where their parents and their teachers have a voice in the direction of their schools.  We believe education is a true public good and a social responsibility that should not be abdicated to private, monied interests and we also believe a school has a moral and legal obligation to serve students with a full range of disabilities and language skills.
  • What do the non-teaching corps members of Bizarro TFA do?  We have had so many talented young people apply to our program with a limited educational background and a limited interest in teaching as a career.  That’s okay.  Not everyone is cut out for this work.  But there is no sense in pouring thousands of dollars per year into developing a teacher who doesn’t want to teach and then repeating the process thousands of times over per year.  But, we recognize that if the educational system is to be truly equitable, the scourge of poverty must be fought from every angle.  So, for those who are working in policy or law, or those who work for non-profits, or whatever, their three-year commitment requires an extensive internship on behalf of their schools and linkage institutes(2).  For example, say you are placed as a community organizer at Sample HS.  You might be in charge of coordinating a college night, establishing work-study programs with local employers, working with public transportation officials to make bus lines run more frequently and to more stops, or partnering with a local non-profit combating teen pregnancy to provide community education.
  • Does Bizarro TFA do a big summer Institute?  No.  Children in summer school do not need to be experimented on by total novices and the necessary skills of teaching cannot possibly be passed down in a single month.  New teachers must either be traditionally-certified before joining TFA or complete the one-year Institute with student teaching and observations.
  • Where do you recruit corps members for Bizarro TFA?   We do continue to recruit at universities, but we have concentrated more of our efforts in our partner districts.  Each application round, we look for teachers with a record of accomplishment and a dedication to social justice.  This record of accomplishment is not limited to test scores and can include notable service projects completed with the school, or starting and sponsoring student organizations.  We need to find teachers who have already made their careers about the lives of their children and equip them with the resources to multiply their efforts.
  • Does Bizarro TFA pursue big-money philanthropic donations?  Sure!  If any obscenely wealthy group of individuals wants to cut us a check, who are we to complain?  They should just be forewarned that we will listen to absolutely nothing they have to say on education just like they would absolutely not listen to a word we would have to say about managing a hedge fund, monopolizing a market for the better part of a decade, or stifling labor movements.  Your donation to Bizarro TFA is your special free-speech way of saying, “I like what your organization is doing for kids; please keep doing that.”  Nothing more.
  • Does Bizarro TFA place new teachers in regions with no shortages?  Nope.
  • Does Bizarro TFA champion its alumni who champion privatization efforts?  When we see these people in the hall, we avoid eye contact and walk very briskly past them.  They are pariahs and they don’t get invited to our parties.
  • Since all of this is true, we are clearly on an alien planet.  How much do you weigh with this altered gravitational pull?  I don’t know, I haven’t checked.  But I can finally dunk on a 10-foot hoop, if that helps any.


(1) Americorps award, ongoing professional development and mentorships.

(2) To be frank, this is my least developed idea, but the one with the most room to grow.  I feel like there are so many really talented people in TFA who are just not that interested in teaching as a job that could be afforded some opportunity to serve the community in a way that better suits their talents and interests.  Maybe internship is the wrong tack, or maybe that’s an incomplete picture.  Perhaps some measure of job placement in the non-profit world.  I just the get the impression that we are operating with the vestiges of TFA’s original plan which was to address teacher shortages.  We aren’t doing that anymore.  We don’t need so many of these corps members to be teaching.  So why are we trying to fit square pegs into round holes?  Why are we holding corps members accountable for two years as a classroom teacher and then letting loose the reins once the non-teachers have fled the field?  The whole enterprise lacks a sense of deliberateness and most of the investment dollars put into these two-and-done teachers is sunk.

9 Responses

  1. Advocate

    You know, such a thing (minus the non-teacher aspect) already exists. It’s called the Memphis Teacher Residency. http://www.memphistr.org

    1 year residency in the classroom of experienced teacher (along with more “traditional” teacher training in the form of a masters degree) + 3 year commitment to teach in Memphis urban school. 75%+ of graduates teach in public schools; the goal is 100% but placement has been a little tricky as principals (rightly so!) in some schools don’t trust such a program… Yet. State of TN report on teacher training this year reported MTR as most effective teacher training program in the state. I’m quoting these numbers from memory so I could be a little off but something like 68% of MTR teachers statistically positively effected their students vs. 25% of Memphis TFA.

    They also cluster graduates in neighborhoods/feeder patterns for maximum impact (so an elementary-middle-high school in one neighborhood is filled with great teachers, solving the “island” problem common in TFA). And they partner with other organizations in those neighborhoods doing community development, youth ministry, mentoring, housing, job training, and parents-as-teachers early childhood work. True community education.

    • Meg

      I don’t mean to diminish the accomplishments of MTR, and I think the program has some interesting components, but there are some serious flaws in that data. The first flaw is that the sample is 22 teachers, hardly enough to gain accurate data. The only significant positive differences shown for MTR were in MS Math (5 teachers) and Social Studies (9 teachers), none for ELA, and there aren’t even any MS Science teachers with data available. There’s also no difference in any high school subject area.

      TFA Memphis had a significant positive difference in all the areas MTR did, and English I, but a negative difference in Algebra II lowered the number.

      I’m not sure where you got those percentages about teachers positively affecting their students because there’s nothing of the sort in that report, but even so 68% of 22 is 15. 15 effective teachers is wonderful, but not going to make a big difference.

      While the island problem may be common nationally with TFA, that is not the case in Memphis, where 95% of CMs teach with other CMs or alums, and the program is known for the feeder patterns they set up in Frayser, Orange Mound, Westwood/Whitehaven, & South Memphis.

      I’m not saying that there aren’t many ways for TFA Memphis to improve, just that MTR is not quite the silver bullet you’re making it out to be.

      • I don’t know about MTR specifically, but residency programs sound promising. Check out http://www.utrunited.org/ and http://www.theveryspringandroot.com/blog/2012/02/why-i-didnt-choose-tfa/

      • Advocate

        I think in my enthusiasm to read Didymath’s (in my opinion) great ideas for how to improve TFA, I probably gave off a tone that I didn’t mean to in my first comment…

        First of all I totally agree with you Meg that the data is not the best. Although I don’t think I would use the word “flawed,” the sample size is definitely small. I will be interested to see how that data changes in upcoming years… hopefully as MTR reflects on and improves its training the data will continue to be positive.

        I also am not a TFA-hater. I know many GREAT TFA teachers, and I think the program has great value in that it has added to the “prestige” of teaching, especially among young people. TFA is a coveted thing, so teaching, especially in high-needs areas, is seen as noble and worthwhile, rather than something for those who can’t do anything else. In fact, I think MTR and other alternative training programs couldn’t even exist without the precedent of TFA- it has made districts & principals comfortable with the idea of alternative licensure programs I think.

        With that being said, I think (and I know I didn’t communicate this well in my first comment) that TFA and MTR and every other program that has the same goal- to rectify the injustice of today’s education system- should be working together and learning from one another to improve all of our practices. A significant part of the MTR training materials, from what I know, are based either directly on TFA info (some book that maybe they read at institute?) or on the practices of charters & other schools founded by TFA alum. I also know that at least in one school in Memphis, a huge portion of the staff (like maybe 75%+) is either TFA or MTR and that the two groups got together socially before school started in order to start the year off in a spirit of camaraderie and collaboration.

        I think the most exciting thing Didymath wrote about- and I think MTR is trying to do this- is that idea of partnering with other organizations to make true change. Maybe TFA does this too- I know another blogger on this site writes about City Year and how they work alongside schools. But I think after 20 years of TFA and other committed, talented teachers working without seeing much systemic change, we all have to realize that maybe education isn’t the ONLY answer to poverty. Obviously we all believe that all children deserve a fantastic education, and that education is proven to have effects on students’ life outcomes, but I think we also need to recognize the importance of other problems in the communities where these teachers work and try to work together with non-education groups & programs to help change entire communities.

        So all of that to say… I think TFA has done an amazing thing in truly opening the nationwide dialogue on education reform, and in laying tons of groundwork in many, many districts- including Memphis. That’s why I even read blogs on this site, because I like what TFA does. But I think Didymath is on to something that maybe it’s time for a new model… and I think the residency model (which is also happening in Denver, Boston, Philly, Richmond, and several other cities- I just live in Memphis and so know more about MTR) seems to make more sense if we want to a) train effective teachers and b) keep these teachers around a little longer.

        Sorry that was incredibly long… I just really didn’t want you to come away from my comment with a bad taste thinking that I was claiming a silver bullet, or that TFA is terrible and shouldn’t exist. On the contrary, I really want all of these people who care about kids to learn from each other and push each other to be better teachers.

  2. Oh, this is great. I hope some of the higher-ups in TFA see it.

  3. Cosmictinkerer

    Great ideas! Since, at bottom, poverty is not just a social issue but an economic matter, I would suggest fleshing out (2) to include working with “linkage institutions” on jobs programs, because the parents of these children, who often do work but are paid minimum wage, need jobs that pay LIVABLE wages.

  4. Very intriguing ideas for improving TFA. I hope you’ll make some effort beyond this blog to make them happen. Unlike some of the TFA celebrity leaders, based on your recent posts I see real leadership potential in you.

    I’ve posted a brief mention of this on my http://reconsideringtfa.wordpress.com site.

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