Saturday, November 9, 2013

TFA comes to RVA

With a vote of 5-2 (with two members absent) the Richmond School Board has decided to contract with Teach for America to hire up to 30 teachers. I've already written in great detail about how the Teach for America model is problematic here and then here and about why TFA is not right for the K-12 public school students of Virginia here, so I won't repeat what I said there.

In the meantime, here is the reporting out of RPS leadership:

“It’s another tool in our recruitment tool box,” said Kristen Larson, 4th District, who voted in favor of the program during a School Board work session Monday. “We know we have a hard time hiring, and we need to look at all paths.” 
In Richmond, they will fill as-yet-determined hard-to-staff positions. 
The school system typically has to fill 200 to 300 teacher positions a year, but in recent years it has had a hard time finding enough qualified candidates. This school year began with about three dozen positions open. Some have been filled by long-term substitutes while others remain unfilled. 
“We have a lot of work to do in how we attract and retain teachers,” said School Board Chairman Jeffrey Bourne, 3rd District. “Teach for America is injecting some creativity and some new thinking into the hiring process. 
“I don’t think this is an ‘either/or’ situation. It’s an all of the above. There’s room here for different approaches.”

This is very disappointing, especially after the RPS School Board has seemed to be on the right track in so many other ways. They are trying to strengthen and diversify opportunities for Richmond children while staying under the umbrella of the public, democratic system and while involving leaders with expertise in education. Unfortunately, in this case a majority of the School Board has decided come out from under the umbrella and fork over $150,000 ($5,000 per corps member = $150,000) to TFA to hire inexperienced and untrained people to be teachers.

However, this is not surprising since TFA's chief lobbyist in Richmond has been diligently working the RPS School Board as well as Governor McDonnell's administration for quite a while. Furthermore, at least one School Board member in particular has been eager to hire TFA. And I don't live in Richmond proper and can't say how many residents have protested the idea of having TFA corps members teaching in Richmond. Perhaps parents have stood up and asked for them.

I do question, however, the nature of their recruitment problem and the extent to which TFA can aid that or ameliorate their retention problems. RPS should really find out how and why they have a recruitment and retention problem first and then propose solutions. If your car is not working for some reason, bringing in a rental car for a few weeks is not going to fix it. If the School Board  wants help with retention, TFA is not the organization to turn to. TFA leadership states unabashedly that they are fine with their corps members only staying two or three years, that getting them exposure to challenging classrooms is step one on a ladder to working in the education reform industry. And according to TFA watchdog and former corps member Gary Rubinstein, about 10% of TFAers don't even make it through their very first year of teaching

There also have been questions raised about the process by which this decision has been made. According to RPS parent and Alliance for Progressive Values member Kirsten Gray, there was no public hearing on the matter, almost no effort to publicize the matter, no review of research on TFA's effectiveness or lack thereof, and no evidence that there is a shortage and no positions open on the website. However also according to Gray, TFA was voted in with an amendment that caps the TFAers to 10% of the hard to staff schools and the amendment also requires the Richmond School Board to come up with a policy on how to use and place corps members. The way I see it, that's at least one way to pilot TFA and to minimize potential damage at least. But two School Board members, Kristen Larson and Glen Sturtevant, voted against the amendment and perhaps they'll work to remove it.

Finally, I also have my own personal experience to share which makes me question if there's a true shortage and how TFA will help with RPS's human resources issues. In Spring 2011, I was at a social function and I happened to be seated at the same table with a very high ranking RPS administrator. When I mentioned that I was a Social Studies and ESOL teacher and that I would be applying to area school systems including RPS, they told me the market was fairly tight and that my best bet, if anything, was to apply for an ESOL positions. I did, in fact, apply to RPS later that spring. However, I never heard anything back, not even to receive an e-mail confirming my application had been received, until September 19th when I got an e-mail letting me know they might need an ESOL teacher. Well, by then, I had already taken another job (and I had been contacted by two other area school systems with no shortages)--it was nearly a month after school had started. 

Now, I'm no super star of a teacher but I do have a B.A. from a highly-ranked liberal arts college, I have a master's degree in education, and a current Virginia license. I am dual-certified including in a hard-to-staff area, I have strong references, and several years of teaching experience, including five in ESOL in Virginia. I wonder how many other people with qualifications such as mine have applied to RPS in recent years. The problem there is not lack of "creativity" or lack of qualified applicants; it's lack of competence, disorder, and a lack of, um, hiring. TFA's presence won't change that. 

Those concerned about the impending contract between TFA and RPS should ask for information and for more transparency about the contracting process. They should also ask that citizens get the same access to public officials that TFA has had. They should also ask for a hearing where evidence both of the shortage and rationale behind hiring TFA would be presented. Finally, they should sign this petition which states opposition RPS's contracting with TFA (and make sure you read the comments there, too).



UPDATE I: This post has been cross-posted chez Diane Ravitch.

UPDATE II: Style Weekly, a Richmond publication just published an article on TFA in Richmond. Apparently there have been other well-qualified candidates who haven't been hired by RPS during the "shortage."

1 comment:

  1. Thoughtful commentary about the RVA's hiring practices and their choice to turn to TFA. I have little experience with TFA, but I know that any given school or district should invest in and support professional development especially for the middle career folks, those who have 5 - 10 years of experience. It sounds like most TFA teachers do not make it to that mark. Your analogy of using a rental car to deal with the malfunctioning car one owns seems apt. Sounds like RVA should evaluate its hiring as well as retention practices. I am sure they are not the only district of which that is true.

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