Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 30 2013

#64: “Feeling Unprepared To Teach?” Maybe it’s because you only spent a few hours in summer school classrooms before you started teaching.

I got an e-mail from TFA linking to a blog post on Teacherpop(1) entitled “Feel Unprepared To Teach? You’re Not Alone.”  Based on the headline, I thought that this pertained to my interests. The author, citing the Gates and Walton-funded National Council on Teacher Quality’s State Teacher Policy Yearbook report for 2012, begins by showing the summary of the report’s findings on a national level.  The NCTQ measured five categories as means of grading states and the nation as a whole:

  1. Delivering well-prepared teachers to the classroom – D
  2. Identifying effective teachers – D+
  3. Retaining effective teachers – C-
  4. Exiting ineffective teachers (author’s emphasis added) – D+
  5. Expanding the pool of teachers – C-

If you bother reading beyond the report card summary, you will find in the national and state reports in-depth only on the first category: “Delivering well-prepared teachers to the classroom.” In citing the mediocre grades of this report, the author is hoping to prove that it does not matter what preparation route you go through, that both traditional and alternate routes have their warts so there is no use fretting over the merits or faults of one pathway or the other.  However, a deeper investigation of the NCTQ report raises more questions for me than it settles. First, let’s examine what this report says.

The NCTQ has a checklist of priorities it looks for as it makes its grades in this category:

  1. Raise admission standards - The NCTQ wants states to require teaching candidates to pass a basic math, writing, and reading test as a means for admission into teacher preparation programs and they want that test to be standardized and “normed to the general college-bound population.”
  2. Align teacher preparation with Common Core State Standards - Their three criterion in this category deal with elementary teachers. Namely, they seek for all elementary teacher coursework and subject-testing to be aligned with Common Core, all teachers should pass a rigorous assessment on reading instruction, and that elementary teachers be provided content on math instruction specifically for elementary.
  3. Improve clinical preparation - Cooperating teachers must demonstrate effectiveness as measured by “student learning.”(2)  The NCTQ also would like all teachers to complete at least 10 weeks of full-time student teaching. Interesting idea, that.
  4. Raise licensing standards - This subcategory seeks the elimination of the K-8 Generalist credential and the requirement for subject-matter testing for all middle and high school subject areas.
  5. Don’t lower the bar for special education teachers - In other words, you need subject-specific testing on top of a special education credential.
  6. Hold teacher preparation programs accountable - In short, collect data on student standardized test scores, tie them to the preparation programs, set a minimum standard, and grade the programs accordingly.

Of these six subcategories, four are at least someway related to the tests that teachers take to gain certification. The other two have criterion tied to student performance on standardized tests. The one thing I liked from this is the demand that there be a minimum of 10 weeks of full-time student teaching. Other than that, the NCTQ is preoccupied with the myths that traditionally-certified teachers are often a bunch of dummies that need to be weeded out and that we can only measure a teacher’s effectiveness by student standardized test scores.

So, we have a report fraught with problematic assumptions about what a teacher preparation ought to prioritize (testing and more testing) being used to defend TFA’s woefully inadequate teacher preparation requirements:

“All across the country, TFA corps members experience a backlash from policy makers and other educators who insist that Teach for America’s alternative path to the classroom is the main pipeline pushing horribly unprepared teachers into schools. But it actually turns out that underpreparing teachers is a national problem, including most traditional undergraduate and graduate education programs.”

This false equivocation provides fleeting comfort for the underprepared and overwhelmed corps member. But this misses the overarching complaint with TFA. Not only are teachers coming through TFA underprepared, but they are recruited and cultivated with the explicit purpose of doing something else in a few years thus ensuring a cycle of undertrained novices in perpetuity and thus denying low-income students the opportunity to have experienced educators dedicated to teaching as a career and not as a stepping stone to some other preferred career path.

In a pique of self-pity, the author continues:

But corps members are still experiencing harsh words from colleagues, administration, and the media insisting that TFA teachers aren’t as qualified to work in schoolsaren’t trained to work in high-needs communities…the list goes on. It’s an issue that many of us have grappled with at some point. I had more than my share of tense encounters that kept me awake at night and tied my stomach up in knots. I knew I was putting in the late-night hours, jumping through the same administrative and state-mandated hoops that my colleagues were, and sacrificing my weekend freedom to construct innovative lessons for my students. But instead of feeling supported and encouraged in my work, I was flooded with continuous self-doubt. And in the eyes of my critics, I would forever be a second-rate teacher because of the way I’d gotten my teaching certificate, regardless of the quality of my work.

Note to new corps members: if you are not prepared to face an avalanche of criticism for being — for all intents and purposes — scab labor, then you need to find something else to do. The reason you will be considered a second-rate teacher is not just the path your chose for certification, but because you will probably not be a very good teacher until you’ve done this job for a few years. And fair or not, when you join Teach for America, the assumption is you will not stick around long enough to gain the experience needed to be a good teacher. You’re guilty until proven innocent in many people’s eyes. If you’re secure enough to deal with that and are committed to becoming that experienced teacher anyway, you should be okay! Mostly.

To be clear, I think traditional preparation programs ought to do more to prepare teaching candidates for the practical realities of the classroom, particularly in low-income schools. Nor is this an attempt to categorically declare one brand of first-year teachers superior to the other. There is no substitute for being a lead teacher in terms of experience. However, traditional certification programs have the most rigorous pre-service clinical experience requirements compared to alternate route programs, particularly in Texas where pre-service experience is virtually not required at all for alternatively-certified candidates. And since the explicit purpose of traditional certification programs is to produce career teachers, traditionally-certified teachers are more likely to have the confidence and desire to get through those difficult first few years and develop the acumen of an effective teacher over the course of a years-long career.

The author concludes with this: “And maybe eventually, as a nation, we can stop arguing over which certification path put a dedicated teacher into a classroom, and instead build supportive networks, mentorship programs, and teaching communities to better train and support them once they get there.” I disagree. We should be arguing about this a lot more given the clear evidence of higher attrition rates for alternatively-certified teachers and their increasing share of new teacher hires. We should argue about this because low-income schools bear the largest brunt of this revolving door of teachers, particularly alternatively-certified ones. If we are serious about improving low-income schools, we ought to be having discussions about how we can get the best-trained, most-experienced teachers to staff them and less about how we can make our temporary band-aids better.

Or, are we to accept the future of teaching as an entry-level, temporary profession as unalterable and try to manage this dire reality as best we can?


(1) In the interest of disclosure, I was approached about writing for Teacherpop a while back.  I was kind of skeptical because a lot of the content seemed pretty fluffy. Plus, I think I was only asked because I had indicated in my application to TFA that I had been involved with student publications before.  I told the editor that I blogged already and sent him some links to this page to see what he thought.  I never heard back from them after that.

(2) Read: “student standardized test performance” because that is what they actually mean.

(3) I guess this depends on where you are placed. In an at-will state like Texas with a robust private-sector alternative certification market, many if not most of the teachers at low-income schools are alternatively-certified. In fact, many of them have even less training than TFA teachers do.  This used to be reason enough for me to support TFA, as a lesser of two evils. Now I have learned that two wrongs don’t make a right. Only took me 27 years.

3 Responses

  1. TheArtfulOne

    Great post. As a first-year TFA teacher it can often be frustrating to listen to people rag on what I am doing and the organization I work for. The even more frustrating thing is that those people are often right.

    Do I think I am better than the alternative my students would have had if I weren’t there this year? Yes, but I would rather they have a highly-trained teacher that had gone to school for years in preparation for teaching them.

  2. Ancedata aren’t data and all, but I am really suspicious of these (veteran) classroom teachers who are so, so, SO mean to the new Corps Members. I didn’t experience this at all as a Corps Member. To be fair, since my district Corps were not scabs (the district had a major teacher recruitment and retention program, and used to give signing bonuses to all comers. They also recruited heavily internationally – TFA was just another pipeline).

    When I heard from Corps Members who had experienced unpleasant situations with colleagues, these tended to be around race, class, and privilege issues. A veteran educator with a lot of successful experience would make some kind of recommendation (usually about management) to a CM. The CM would interpret this as the veteran having low expectations and express this theory. The veteran would then invite the CM to check his or her privilege. The CM would retort that he/she did Habitat for Humanity/had friends of color/took three years of college Spanish.

    (The one of these I remember most involved a CM criticizing the dental care her first graders were getting; I recall several about homework/getting questionnaires back, etc.)

    I am sure that some CMs have experienced unfriendly educators at their site. Schools are like any workplace; you have some colleagues with whom you work better and some with whom even small talk is a struggle. And some of those colleagues may dislike TFA as a program.

    But at least at elementary schools, one teacher who’s having a hard time makes extra work for everyone. Giving this person assistance makes the school climate better for everyone. The vast majority of teachers chip in to help newbies because we prefer functioning environments with happy kids, not ones where one hall is scary because the teacher at the end of it screams all the time.

    Of course, since TFA churn is a big stress on high-needs schools, it gets very frustrating to shoulder the burden for an ever-revolving cast of first and second year teachers. Veterans get frustrated with this. I think it makes them more likely to feel overwhelmed and seek less stressful schools, personally.

    Teacher credentialing programs absolutely need to do better preparing new teachers for high-needs schools. In my district, most student teachers do their practice teaching at wealthier, whiter west side schools. The vacancies that await them are at high-need southeast side schools. They are not at all ready. We have a residency program now that specifically places pre-service teachers in high needs schools (they are also there nearly full-time), and I think these longer, more intensive programs are a far better solution than fast-track credentialing that leaves you ready neither for the west side nor the southeast.

    • mches

      E. Rat, I don’t reply often enough, but you always offer such thoughtful comments. I am very appreciative of this!

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