About that professor who refuses to write TFA recommendations


October 11, 2013 by juicefong

Blogging has taken a back seat the past month or so. I blame moving into a new apartment, my day job, and tweaking my salsa verde recipe. But anyway…

It’s no secret there is a small but vocal group of people speaking up against Teach For America these days. I’m not losing any sleep over it. I’m no stranger to the critiques, and I even welcome many of them that will help create a stronger organization. The other day I began reading this one on Slate, but stopped after the first page because it was so full of false claims. I have no issue with it being written by a professor who is a TFA alumna, no issue with the fact that she no longer writes letters of recommendation for students applying to the corps—I take issue with the fact that it’s full of myths. Let’s take on some of Catherine Michna’s major critiques of Teach For America:

Dr. Michna, a 1998 Bay Area alumna, describes TFA’s incoming corps as “thousands of unprepared 22-year olds, the majority of whom are from economically and culturally privileged backgrounds.”

• In fact, nearly 40% of the nearly 6,000 incoming corps members this fall are people of color. Separately, 37% of them are Pell grant recipients. A majority (55%) of corps members fall into at least one of those categories; 27% were the first in their family to attend college. Teach For America is the nation’s largest provider of Latino teachers. Not everyone is 22, either. Nearly 1/4 of the incoming corps comes from graduate schools or other professions, including 80 military veterans who joined this year. No, this hasn’t always been the case. But this has been a major organizational priority over time and it’s beginning to make a difference. Still, TFA aims to do more and better to diversify its corps and do the important work of ensuring children are taught in a culturally responsive way. It can and it will.

Dr. Michna complains about the short training and the fact that many teachers train in a different city, subject and age group than where they land in the fall. She also claims that TFA teachers are no better and often worse than traditionally trained teachers.

• As for preparation, TFA’s summer training may be nontraditional, but it is undeniably rigorous. Anyone who has been through “institute” knows this. Ten years after my own summer institute, I can still say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. A Marine Corps veteran I interviewed last summer said the same thing. An 18-year teaching veteran, not from TFA, recently wrote about her experience. From a year ago, another good one is this piece from the dean of the ed school at Rhode Island College.

• Michna is right about the differences that sometimes occur in subject, age group and city. Given how late some corps members are hired (sometimes beyond the start of the school year), it’s often impossible to align things optimally. This last summer, two of TFA’s regions (Memphis and Jacksonville) ran their own local versions of “institute” to allow corps members to better immerse themselves in the community. This practice is going to quickly spread to other regions.

• Something that Michna fails to mention is the one-on-one support corps members receive during their first two years (in Houston it’s offered into the third year now). Inside the organization, we all acknowledge that the work of our teacher coaches is the most important thing we do. This crucial support in addition to our preparation is what differentiates us from traditional programs. While Michna notes that her support was inadequate 15 years ago, that is unfortunate, but not ignored. Strengthening both the training and the support is and has been one of TFA’s biggest organizational priorities. With real-time coaches and content specialists, mentors and more rounding out the team for each corps member, support has never been so robust. Our expectations for what students and teachers can do is very high, and we’ll continue to help them both climb higher.

• While Dr. Michna and other critics would like to focus on inputs, I prefer to focus on results. There have been dozens of research studies over the years about the effectiveness of TFA teachers. In my judgment, they’ve all mostly said that TFA teachers perform comparably to traditionally trained teachers. The recent Mathematica study is the most comprehensive and rigorous study yet, examining teachers in 120 schools across 8 different states, and performing an apples-to-apples (or is it oranges-to-oranges…?) comparison of teachers within the same school to control for various factors. It said that TFA’s secondary math teachers were having the effect of an additional 2.6 months of student learning when compared to both veteran and traditionally trained peers at the same school. Look, it’s not like everything is peachy in every TFA teacher’s classroom. Many of them struggle. Teaching is hard, no matter what preparation program you come through. But like Dr. Michna says, with the help of veterans, teacher coaches and other resources around them, we also have many corps members who are thriving. I’ve been to countless classrooms like this across the country. They leave me optimistic about both the organization and also the dramatic progress that can be made in delivering a great education to every child. Teach For America will aim to get better when it comes to teacher effectiveness. Our kids deserve it.

Dr. Michna says that our teachers de-professionalize teaching.

• I disagree. With education grad programs typically requiring only a minimum GPA of 2.50 for admission into teacher preparation programs, and education majors having an average SAT subject score of around 480, TFA is bringing in a corps of teachers at scale that has an average undergraduate GPA of 3.55. If anything, TFA is showing that teaching and education is a desirable career choice for competitive college graduates. I think that contributes to the professionalization of teaching.

Dr. Michna complains that TFA teachers are just polishing their résumés for consulting firms, law schools, and grad schools.

• This is a tired argument. I can’t think of one person I knew in the corps who treated their teaching experience like this. For anyone else out there who’s thinking like that, turn away now. If all you want is to pad your résumé, there are a thousand better ways to do that than by joining Teach For America. We need people who are committed to long-term change, and sticking with their communities. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t begin with TFA thinking I’d stay in education forever, but ten years later, I can’t leave because of the urgency I feel to change a massive system that is largely failing students who grow up without privilege.

Dr. Michna says TFA is part of some effort to privatize education. She adds a pinch of charter schools in with this argument and complains about the close alliance with them. And of course, some “corporate reform” to taste.

• Actually, Teach For America corps members are teaching in public schools, and they are there to strengthen them—the vast majority work in traditional district schools and the remainder with charters. The organization is agnostic when it comes to school governance. The focus is on providing a great public education for students who need it most. And no, I don’t believe charter schools are private schools. They have independent governing boards but accountability ultimately falls to a state entity. What parents want is access to a quality education at no cost. Many charters are doing just that, some are okay, and some shouldn’t be in operation. Bottom line: charter schools are public schools. As for “corporate reform,” if it’s some conspiracy, someone needs to send me an invite to the party. The people I know who do this work, the funders I’ve met and everyone else involved have a real concern for what opportunities are available for the most vulnerable families in this country; and they’re giving away money or committing their careers to improve those prospects.

Dr. Michna complains that many TFA teachers tend to leave after just a few years in the classroom.

• Note to all critics of Teach For America teachers: You cannot simultaneously complain that TFA teachers stink and then complain that they don’t stay longer. It makes no sense. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Michna that it is problematic that our teachers don’t stay longer. That’s why many of our regions have started “Teach Beyond Two” campaigns that are working already. My colleague in Rhode Island tells me that four years later, 71% of its inaugural 2010 corps members remain in Rhode Island, all of those 71% still in the classroom or in education non-profits. Teach For America has also begun hosting an annual conference to honor and develop our veteran teachers. As for TFA teachers not staying—it’s a problem throughout the sector, actually—and it is more severe at high-needs schools with teachers from all preparation programs leaving at alarming rates. The better questions to ask are: What is causing so many teachers (of all backgrounds) to leave their schools? What should we change systemically in order to retain top quality teachers, particularly at our most challenging schools?

• Invoking Diane Ravitch, Dr. Michna also points out the comprehensive set of challenges that poverty presents. If she thinks it’s going to be done with teachers alone, she is mistaken. This is why I’m proud that a third of our teachers leave to do something outside of education, because it will require leadership from all sectors rowing in the same direction in the uphill battle to tackle poverty and inequity. Two of my personal favorites are Girl Trek (women’s health) and The Intersection in Baltimore (community activism).

Dr. Michna claims TFA is a “union-busting” organization.

• This is simply false. Many of our teachers are members of their union or have even taken on leadership positions within teachers unions. Teach For America’s organizational leaders do a lot of work around the country to establish good relationships with districts, unions and other community partners. Even the National Education Association found no evidence that TFA is trying to silence union voices or to bust unions. Teach For America is about getting students the quality education they deserve. We are not here to upend unions. A friend of mine who is close to union leadership in one of TFA’s regions said that new TFA teachers are actually signing up with the union at a higher rate than traditionally trained teachers.

If you’ve made it this far, I’m sure you’d like me to wrap up.

Dr. Michna has done a nice job rounding up a kitchen sink full of myths about Teach For America. There are absolutely fair critiques of TFA out there—this unfortunately is not one that rests on sound arguments. I’m all ears, but give me something good.

Standard disclosure: Justin Fong (@jgfong on Twitter) runs the small but mighty internal communications team at Teach For America. He blogs independently, without any oversight or editing from the organization or anyone, really.

12 thoughts on “About that professor who refuses to write TFA recommendations

  1. […] I keep reading about this professor at Tulane whose critique of TFA is “full of myths.” But it seems important to point out that you’re not actually a professor. Are you […]

  2. […] a professor who stopped writing TFA recommendation letters in Slate. (I wrote a response to her on this blog.) There is no shortage of criticism these days—EduShyster is always on the case and education […]

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