Saturday, May 28, 2011

Teach For America: From Service Group to Industry

This is a long form piece I wrote quite a while ago and have been unable to find a home for. So be forewarned: It's long. I also want to take a moment to commend the TFA corps members who have stayed in the classroom and to acknowledge the many, many thoughtful and critical reflections I've read by former and current corps members. 

Although Teach For America began twenty years ago as a well-intentioned band-aid, it has morphed into what is essentially a jobs program for the privileged, funded by taxpayers and wealthy individuals. TFA was originally designed to serve a specific need: fill positions in high-poverty schools where there are teacher shortages. A non-profit organization that recruits college seniors primarily from elite institutions to teach for two-year stints in high-poverty schools, preceded by five weeks of training, TFA has grown from 500 teachers to more than 8,000 teachers in thirty-nine rural and urban areas. As TFA is expanding, it is no longer just filling positions in shortage areas; rather, it’s replacing experienced and traditionally educated teachers. To justify this encroachment, TFA claims that their teachers are more effective than more experienced and qualified teachers, and that training and experience are not factors in effective teaching. TFA supporters also defend the explosive growth of TFA as an indication that TFA is elevating the status of the teaching profession for ambitious high-achieving college students.  Unfortunately, while Teach for America has been very effective at elevating the status of Teach for America, it has not had a similar impact on the status of teaching as a profession.

When I was a college senior, back in 1995, I applied and was rejected for a position with Teach For America. Given how the interview went, I was expecting as much, and so much the better. By my senior year, I was successful academically, but that was at being a liberal arts student—I was hardly ready for the challenges of a teaching position. I had also landed interviews at several private schools that I blew off.  Seeking urban bustle and adventure, I headed for New York City, but instead discovered existential misery working as a paralegal. At the very least, though, I learned that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. The following year, newly re-interested in teaching, I took a job as an after school and substitute teacher at a Quaker school in Brooklyn. My existential angst lifted: I wanted to be a teacher! I returned to my hometown, saved up, and applied to graduate school. I ended up with a master’s degree in education and a teaching license in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and Social Studies. I went on to teach for almost ten years. Once my children are older and I grow tired of the writing life, I plan to return to it.

Another friend from high school, who went on to be a successful teacher and department chair in the state of New York, was also rejected by Teach For America. We used to joke with a twinge of bitterness about the irony of our rejections. One of my graduate school professors had criticized TFA for taking people who might become career teachers and burning them out. Despite my own disappointment and his insights, I didn’t question the mission or impact of TFA, thinking his attitude was sour grapes, and eventually I viewed my own rejection from TFA as a blessing in disguise My brief teaching experience in New York prepared me well for graduate school, and, in turn, my graduate school education and training prepared me well for a teaching position, better, I think, than almost zero training or experience did some of my future teacher colleagues. Once I graduated and started teaching in an inner-city high school, I worked with many TFA teachers. Most were wonderful colleagues and dear friends. All were dedicated, smart, and hard-working, but most seemed overwhelmed. More significantly, most of them left the classroom after a short time. I started to realize that the youngest people with the least amount of experience were being thrown in the deep end with the most challenging teaching positions, when they should have been started in the shallow end. I still didn’t give much thought, though, to the negatives of TFA as a mechanism to attract and place teachers and to improve the quality of education. Now I do.

According to New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip, Teach for America has become very popular in recent years. In 2010, Teach for America hired more seniors than any single employer at numerous colleges, including Wesleyan, Yale, Dartmouth, Duke, Georgetown and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At Harvard, 293 seniors, or 18 percent of the class, applied, compared with 100 seniors in 2007. TFA’s acceptance rate is lower than that of Harvard University’s. The struggling economy and tight job market has probably boosted TFA’s popularity among graduates of selective colleges. Also, finance and business fields suffer from a tarnished reputation, and more idealistic undergrads are likely sensitive to this. Even so, TFA preserves the status of selectivity of industry and law jobs, but with the patina of altruism. TFA members gain access to a network of privileged and well-connected people with the added bonus of being perceived as “making a difference.” The program provides training in leadership skills, a notch on the resume, a social and professional network, and middle-income employment, almost all on the taxpayers’ dime and at the expense of the education of the most powerless of our society. 

TFA makes it possible for some corps members to put off pursuing jobs in corporate law and finance until after they have “made a difference” for two years; perhaps at that point corps members and their peers have more distance from undergrad idealism. Perhaps to ease the transition to jobs in the private sector, financial institutions, such as Goldman Sachs, have established partnerships with TFA, to provide summer internships. Furthermore, TFA has partnerships with hundreds of graduate schools which offer TFA alumni benefits such as two-year deferrals, fellowship, course credits, and waived application fees. With education reform having become the new cause célèbre among hedge fund managers, Oprah, national journalists, and Hollywood types such as Davis Guggenheim, I can’t see TFA losing popularity any time soon. Many TFA applicants should indeed be applauded for their nobility, but I’m not so sure that is the beginning and end of all of their motivations. Is twenty-five percent of Harvard University’s graduating class so purely well-intentioned? 

Noble intentions versus teaching-poor-children-as-social-climbing-and-resume-building yuck factors aside, the essential question is: Is TFA good for education? I used to think it was. Making the profession of teaching more attractive to high achievers is certainly a laudable goal and when the organization was started, there were indeed teacher shortages in high-poverty areas. As many national journalists, including New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof, bemoan the state of our education system, they cite countries with highly rated education systems such as Finland and Singapore that recruit their teachers from the highest ranks of college graduates, while the Unites States doesn’t. What these journalists miss, though, is that Finland’s rigorous education and internship program for teacher candidates go far beyond TFA’s five-week training sessions. Most of these other countries have highly-professionalized teaching forces; TFA, however, de-professionalizes teaching by emphasizing talent over training. While Wendy Kopp and her supporters are in favor of increasing the numbers in teaching of graduates of more selective colleges, they are opposed to making teacher education and training more rigorous. Kopp says in her memoir, for example, that she is “baffled” that teachers are required to have professional training as doctors and lawyers are; teacher quality is a matter of talent and leadership. Selective colleges select talent, but due to admissions criteria biased towards students in wealthy school districts, they often perpetuate class privilege. To me, the idea that a person would inherently be a better teacher due to their privileged position in society smacks of elitism.

More seasoned and more rigorously trained teachers continue to be pushed out in favor of TFA teachers. This letter by such a teacher in Baltimore is just one example of a teacher who had a hard time finding a job in a district that has a high number of TFA teachers. According to Barbara Miner, whose journalism investigating Teach for America can be found in Rethinking Schools, Dallas, Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and DC all laid off teachers while sparing TFA-ers. When ex-Chancellor Rhee declared a RIF (Reduction in Force) in October 2009 due to alleged budget shortages, 229 teachers total lost their jobs, but only six of them were from TFA. Seattle Public Schools recently signed a new contract with TFA, despite parent opposition and despite recent layoffs of veteran teachers. The state Education Board in South Carolina recently approved guidelines that would allow TFA recruits to apply for teaching positions, thirty percent of which would be for elementary school positions, where thousands of teachers have recently been laid off. The teachers' union in Kansas City, Missouri, supported Teach For America as a way to fill gaps, but teachers there recently protested the district's plan to fire 87 non-tenure teachers who have been deemed effective while brining in 150 Teach For America recruits. Teach For America's regional director Alicia Herald confirmed TFA's new mission: "We're no longer here to fill gaps. We're here to provide value."  

TFA claims on their website that their corps members are often more effective than other teachers, including certified and veteran teachers, yet according to this review of literature on TFA studies produced by Arizona State University’s Education Policy Research Unit and the University of Colorado’s Education and the Public Interest Center, the impact of TFA teachers is unclear. “Teach for America: A Review of the Evidence” does note, however, that many of the studies cited by TFA either haven’t been peer reviewed or have results that are statistically problematic. Furthermore, the review claims that TFA teachers don’t initially do better than teachers who are traditionally certified. In some cases they do about the same and in others they do worse. Only after two to three years do TFA teachers seem comparable to more experienced and traditionally trained teachers. These findings imply that even with TFA’s “talented” achievers, it’s experience and preparation that matters, not talent.

If the impact of TFA teachers is not entirely clear, their rates of attrition and financial costs are. According to the review of literature cited earlier, fifty percent of Teach for America teachers leave after two years and eighty percent leave after three. They don’t become lifelong teachers or even ten-year teachers. Their improved effectiveness would only come into play after they would have left. Since the corps members don’t stick around long enough for their students to benefit from their experience, TFA doesn’t, in fact, ultimately lead to higher teacher quality.

Even for those TFAers who stay in teaching, it’s unlikely that they’ll continue on in the high-poverty areas where they were initially placed. One study cited in the review found that teachers are more likely to stay employed in schools that are close to where they attended school. How many Ivy League grads grew up in the Ninth Ward? How about the Bronx? Compton?

TFA teachers cost taxpayers more money than traditionally educated teachers. The afore-mentioned review  shows that the average cost of a TFA teacher is $70,000 per recruit. Public school districts are paying twice for recruiting: from $2,000 to $5,000 to TFA per recruit plus funding recruitment by their internal human resources departments. Recruitment costs should be one-time expenditures, but at the current rate of attrition, districts must pay anew every time a TFA teacher leaves. According to Barbara Miner’s investigations, on top of their school district-paid salaries, Teach for America candidates also receive taxpayer-funded Americorps stipends, plus because of their TFA member status, they qualify for funding that people who take traditional teacher training routes don’t. Finally, TFA receives millions in local, state, and federal dollars. TFA annual reports show that about a third of costs are borne by the public—add in a $50,000,000 grant they received from the Department of Education this past spring, and that share has probably risen. How can the federal government subsidize a jobs program for the privileged as it struggles to extend unemployment benefits for those who have lost their jobs?

Wendy Kopp and other TFA leaders counter that attrition and cost are not issues since the ultimate purpose of TFA is not to produce career teachers but to produce education professionals and philanthropists to fight educational inequity. I agree it’s beneficial for students of education policy to understand the realities of the public school classroom, but I don’t think it should be at the expense of knowledgeable teachers for our students. Many TFA alumni leave the classroom and enter into an echo chamber where the ideologies and industries of TFA, TFA alums, and like-minded individuals and organizations are promoted. This causes many of them to view education policy through a narrow lens and fail to recognize what causes the inequities in the first place: unequal distribution of resources, income inequality, and poverty. Furthermore, unlike jobs in teaching, many of the education sector jobs Kopp speaks of are very lucrative, for example being a charter school administrator in New York City, a superintendent in a mayoral takeover system, or a TFA executive, many of whom make $200,000 to $300,000 per year. One study even disputed the claim that TFA alums become civically engaged at relatively higher rates.

TFA claims not to be a political organization, but Barbara Miner reports on the lobbying organization founded by TFA, Leadership for Education Equity (LEE). LEE is a 501(c)4, a nonprofit that can engage in lobbying and political campaigning, which TFA as a 501(c)3 cannot. For example, LEE lobbies to water down teacher certification requirements. LEE is funded by big corporations such as Goldman Sachs, Visa, the Walton Family Foundation, Monsanto—parties who promote deregulation of the markets and in whose interest it is to break up the only viable unions left, those of the public sector. When a study done by Stanford University education academic Linda Darling-Hammond came out questioning the effectiveness of TFA teachers, Wendy Kopp called them “diatribes” and personally lobbied Governor Schwarzenegger to deny Darling-Hammond a position on the California’s State Teacher Credentialing Commission.

I agree that we need to augment our teaching force and that we need to make teaching a more desirable profession, but an oligarch and taxpayer-funded short-term jobs program for the elite is not the solution. Teacher education programs need to provide for more training and experience, not less. People work as paralegals before deciding to go to law school, why not have TFA candidates work as teachers’ aides and then fund their further education if they pledge to go on to teach in high-poverty schools? Why doesn't TFA start programs for top students such as this amazing one that is being phased out by Yale University? Why not have alternative certification programs that allow credit for non-traditional but still relevant and substantial experience? Why don’t we stop speaking disparagingly of our teachers from state and public universities, start recruiting them to teach in their home or high-poverty districts, and fund their teacher education and apprenticeships with loan forgiveness programs such as is offered by Sallie Mae?

It’s time to stop allowing achievement and privilege to masquerade as competence, dedication, and skill. It’s time for the grown-ups who promote TFA to acknowledge that the quality teaching that we all agree is so valuable comes from experience. It’s time to stop letting TFA stand in the way of the committed, skilled, and experienced teachers our kids so desperately need. 

And what do you say, Ivy grads, if we accept that you are talented with much to offer America's school children, would you accept that teaching is a profession? In other words, talent matters, but is worthless without practice. Would you still teach for America if it wasn’t in Teach For America? 

Friday, May 20, 2011

Education Films Series II: Why I Didn't Like Race to Nowhere

Race to Nowhere resonated with a lot of edu-folks I find common cause with. When it first came out I cheered it as an alternative perspective to the one presented in Waiting for Superman. Then my husband, Cedar Riener, saw Race to Nowhere and presented me with some valid criticisms. Cedar is an assistant professor of cognitive psychology at Randolph-Macon College. He normally blogs at Cedar's Digest. Here are his thoughts on the film:

I watched Race to Nowhere as part of a special preview opportunity last summer. While I found much to agree with in this film, there are two critical flaws that made me dislike it. First, the film takes the upper middle class problems of wealthy suburban California and presumes that the entire American educational system has these same problems. Second, it places too much blame for increased rates of depression and suicide on high stakes testing and homework.

First, let’s address the common ground. I agree that increased emphasis on high stakes testing is negatively affecting all of our schools. I agree that stress, depression, and suicide are important problems that deserve better solutions. I agree that in some schools there is too much homework and that many high schoolers stress too much about getting into a good college.

Given that director Vicki Abeles and I agree on the above, why am I not a fan? Maybe it is because as a scientist, I recoil at sloppy generalizing logic. Maybe it is because as a psychologist, I am skeptical of “single cause” explanations of complex problems. Maybe it is because as a teacher, every semester I can look out into my class, and tell that yes, some are stressed out. If I get a chance, I tell them to relax a little, that 89 on the exam isn’t going to kill them. But plenty of others need exactly the opposite; hey, that D- is kind of a big deal, maybe you should try stressing out a little bit more…

So here is a brief synopsis of the logic of the film. Kids today are over scheduled, over worked, and over stressed. They stress about high stakes tests, they have performance anxiety about their extracurricular activities, they start worrying about college way too early. A few scapegoats for this dire situation are the mountains of homework and AP classes.  The film presents a compelling emotional narrative, culminating with statistics of a rising suicide rate, and a heart-wrenching story of a thirteen-year-old girl who committed suicide after a poor math test score. How can we go along with a system which does this to poor innocent little girls?

My first problem with this logic is that there are (at least) two educational systems, each with their own brand of high stakes testing, which each result in different bad consequences. In Lafayette, California, where Vicki Abeles is from, and in Marin County, where this film has quite a few fans, AP exams, the SAT, and PSAT are high stakes for the students, and they get stressed about them because they see them as determining whether they get to have a future or whether they have to endure utter shame and failure by attending a non-Ivy, non-elite Cal State School. I have a sneaking feeling that some of them may even get some stress and expectations from their high-powered, elite-educated parents, who also may be a little more concerned about college than they should be.

In many other places, however, the high stakes tests are important for the teachers, but not for the students. Student disengagement is a problem in many urban systems. Ironically, many reformers talk about needing to include them in the “achievement culture,” which of course is seen as a good thing. And for students at the many urban charter schools with names that might as well be Achievement Academy for Achieving Achievers, promoting a culture of engagement and achievement may actually be part of the solution (although I am dubious that the names have anything to do with it).

In other words, for some wealthy students the problem is caring too much about school, but for many other children the problem is not caring enough. Overall, students do less homework in college, with less rigor, than they did even ten years ago, and this has been a gradual trend for thirty years. These are not the students from this movie.

My second problem is that suicide is a multiply-caused, complex problem, and we should not blame it on too much homework. The recent small uptick in suicides is a mystery, attributable to many different factors (and probably is due to a combination). Many psychologists argue that we should treat suicides as acute problems, rather than the tragic end of a chronic battle with depression. Many who commit suicide would not satisfy the criteria for depression. It is horrifically tragic that thirteen-year-old girls commit suicide (and so do seven-year-old boys, the age of my twins). And I agree that caring too much about your five upcoming  AP tests is a bad thing. But I don’t have to say that homework causes suicide to have a reasonable conversation about homework, do I?

I wanted to like Race to Nowhere. There are benefits to having a big tent of high-stakes test doubters. Placing too much emphasis on unreliable quantitative test data is bad anywhere. Anything that chips away at the market-based reformers stranglehold on the national dialogue is a good thing. If the hard-working immigrant 10th grader who is expected to read on grade level after two years of formal schooling won’t do it as a poster child for why the NCLB “failing schools” model of testing doesn’t work, maybe a rich thirteen-year-old suicide victim from Lafayette, California will work.

On the other hand, the schools and the students in Lafayette and Marin are actually different than those in the DC Public Schools that I remember, and the public schools that my kids have gone to, and lumping them together does each a disservice. We need to treat them differently because they have different problems. I disagree vehemently with the view presented by Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias, that rich kids can have their creativity (and content), but poor kids just need to learn how to read and get basic math skills before they get anything else (let’s eliminate recess! drill baby, drill!). But the attitude in Race to Nowhere doesn’t address the urban reformers like Michelle Rhee who don’t care about creativity and curiosity if you can’t read.

But you know what? Some homework is fantastic. Some tests are necessary. Some students are too motivated and some are not motivated enough. The sooner we all can realize this and start trusting their teachers more to find the right solutions for the students in front of them, the better. Unfortunately, I am not sure that Race to Nowhere starts us on the road to the somewhere.

Friday, May 6, 2011

It matters little that the road to ed reform is paved with good intentions.

I'm honored that Erik Kain dedicated a post to my post on how important it is to frame and present education issues honestly. One thing I really like about Erik's blog is that it often features the ideas of no-name indie bloggers such as your truly. His blog has definitely connected me to the fresh ideas of many people I wouldn't have come across otherwise.

Returning to the topic of how we frame the issues in ed reform debates, Erik says in his post that:
"Most people – even people I really disagree with – who are involved in the education reform debate really do want what they think is best."

In these conversations about ed reform, we do end up talking quite a bit about intentions. Intentions matter to me. For example, when one of my children hurts the other, how I handle it changes depending on whether it was a purposeful act or not.

Even so, with education reform, I constantly have to remind myself intentions are uncertain (though, frankly, I sometimes forget). For one, unless intentions are clearly bad, such as in the case of profiteering or corrupt practices, we can't discern intent. Furthermore what you may think is good for public education, and assume comes from good intentions, for example a free market approach that would involve privatization, I may think is harmful for public education and presume comes from bad intentions. There, we have a conflict of values or philosophy, but not of intentions. However, even assuming someone's intentions are good, if the policies they endorse are leading to bad outcomes, I will protest them.

That all being said, we do know what education reformers and organizations do: what their missions are, which reforms they push, and which policies they endorse. It's those items we should focus our energies on. We also know roughly what a democracy is supposed to be. As I explained in this past post, it doesn't really matter to me if Bill Gates is trying to help humanity, as some of my friends have argued to me, his influence and policy purchasing power is undemocratic and corrupting. And the United States is supposed to be a democracy, not a plutocracy or oligarchy.

I try to assume people have good intentions because it keeps me from thinking humanity is evil and from getting really, really depressed. If I find out someone has bad intentions, I will do what I can to publicize that. However, if people are pushing education policies that violate basic tenets of democracy, that evidence shows do not work, or that hinder quality teaching and meaningful and rich education, I don't care if they're the Second Coming, I'm going to openly disagree with and protest their ideas, intentions be damned.

As Mike Rose so thoughtfully says in this essay from Dissent magazine:
"The reformers are a varied lot, representing a wide range of ideology and motive – including free-marketeers who would like to see public education shrunk or dismantled. But overall, reformers are addressing issues of real importance. . . . But it is with the remedies, the methods of reform, that problems arise, for it is the methods, and the assumptions behind them, that directly affect what happens in the classroom."
Exactly. It's not wanting to solve the problem that matters, it's the solution provided.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

How we frame the ed reform debates is as important as the issues we're debating.

One of the more troubling things about the education reform debates is not that they happen, but how they're framed--the debates and their participants are often misrepresented. First, some folks inaccurately describe the education reform debates as two-sided or of two neatly defined camps, for example, reformers versus anti-reformers or reform versus status quo. This leads others to decry the existence of such polarized debates. Presuming to be above the debates themselves, they admonish participants to stop being so polarizing, so we can all just move forward.

First of all, there are no real two sides. There are no anti-reformers. They're all reformers; they just have different ideas about what the reforms should be and how they would be best achieved. There are certainly people who fall into different camps on certain issues, for example people who want to use pay for performance based on test scores, school-choice advocates, people who think reading should be taught by using phonics, people who think there should be no homework, and on and on and on. But there's no two camps; there's tons of them. Even people who agree with one another on many things have some pretty significant differences.

Nor is there anyone really defending the status quo. For one, at its heart the whole process of educating people means challenging the most basic of status quo's, that of being uneducated. Second, there's no one status quo, meaning everyone in the debate has different opinions about which part or practices of our education system they'd like to keep and which they'd like to change. For example, some would like to keep NCLB pretty much as is--they want to preserve the status quo in the case of NCLB. Others think the larger class sizes in places like California (and I don't care what the law says there, unless your PTA is rich, the class sizes in CA are large) are not problematic--they want to preserve that status quo. Some people think the current teacher evaluation system used in their district is pretty good as is--they want to preserve that element of the status quo.

Now there are certainly hard core ideologues who stick to one platform of belief-based policies, but those people should be ignored anyway, as knee-jerk reactions generally indicate a lack of thought and understanding (though granted it's hard to just ignore someone when they are in a position of power or have gobs of money).

This is absolutely not some sort of "why can't we all get along" statement--that's silly. People don't always get along, and when they have differences of opinion, they argue about them. Even after that, they won't necessarily end up agreeing. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. In fact, it's healthy (disclosure: I was raised by lawyers). Furthermore, when your government implements policies you don't agree with, you should protest them. That's how a democratic society is supposed to work. Finally, those who use polarizing language to urge people to stop being polarizing are practicing the equivalent of trying to get people to stop swearing by telling them to "cut the fucking cursing out, god damn it!" I don't find that particularly effective or genuine.

Yes, sometimes people (present company included), get carried away in their rancor and resort to false accusations and hyperbole. However, sometimes in the course of debate you are forced to articulate your argument in such a way that leads to a richer understanding of it. Likewise, sometimes in the course of debate someone else challenges your thinking and you change your views.

It's important to be thoughtful not just about the issues in education we're debating, but also about how we frame the debates. When we talk as if there are just two sides or two camps, we miss the finer details of the policies we're discussing, distracting from the more crucial issues and obscuring their complexity. Plus, although it seems simplistic in one way to say, "there are two sides here," it's ultimately very confusing because at different points you'll perceive people changing "sides" when really they just have a certain opinion on one issue.

When people frame the debate inaccurately, at best it's ignorant and at worst it's dishonest. Let's work harder on not being either.