Problems with Teach for America and Suggested Solutions
There is a job shortage in America, but a recent solution implemented by the Obama administration has been to create infrastructure jobs through the Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Its tag line is “Putting Americans to Work”. Consider if, as part of this act, a new organization called The Engineers of America (EoA) was created. Recruits would be degree holders from top universities in America, and their degrees would be proof of their academic success. These degrees would span all majors and disciplines from educators to scientists to linguists to engineers. Motivated by a greater desire to improve America’s roads and bridges, these individuals would apply for and be accepted to EoA by signing a two-year contract. They would participate in a six week training program that would prepare them by teaching skills in planning, structure, and building techniques used to construct bridges in high needs areas where the bridges are dilapidated and unusable. At the end of this training period, EoA recruits would be individually responsible for their creations. Now answer me this - would you willingly drive a car containing your family across a bridge built by a biologist or English major whose only experience in engineering amounted to a six-week crash course?
The point of my hypothetic scenario is nothing new in the ongoing criticism of Teach for America (TFA) within the field of education. This conversation has become recently relevant to my life in light of my graduation from a four year university with a B.Sc. in English Education. Founder of TFA, Wendy Kopp, was my commencement speaker, and she delivered a speech that was a thinly veiled sales pitch for her organization and life’s work towards reducing the achievement gap, a phrase popularized by her organization. The problem with TFA is not with its well-intentioned ideals, but with its execution. As highlighted above, I take particular fault with the lack of preparation given to those who commit to the program due to its implications for the teaching profession as a whole.
Wendy Kopp and TFA perpetuate the myth that: “Those who can do and those who can’t teach”. This is due to the fact that TFA’s six week crash course in education implies that for adults who have been successful students in a specific content area, six weeks is sufficient preparation to make the leap from student to teacher. It is time enough to learn to not only read Individualized Education Program (IEP) reports, but also how to respond to them. Six weeks is allotted for recruits to practice curriculum planning, lesson structures, and classroom management. Unfortunately for both TFA recruits and their future students, six weeks is wholly inadequate.
Solution: TFA recruits should be required to participate in a full year training period. This method utilized in the United Kingdom in the form of their Post-Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) year, and it is used in some form in US teaching preparation programs in universities. The first half of the year should be devoted to a methods class that runs concurrent with a part time student teaching practicum. Assuming that TFA recruits are well versed in their specific content area because of their past academic success, the early years of a typical university education degree can be ignored because they focus mainly on content. It is the latter years of those university programs that turn toward methods. These methods classes must be coupled with a student teaching practicum as an opportunity for education students to practically apply their knowledge in the classroom. The second half of this year long training period should be dedicated to a full time teaching practicum under the direction of a mentor teacher - hopefully an established TFA member who has demonstrated success in the classroom. Their duel familiarity with the program and with teaching itself would serve new recruits well. The benefits of a student teaching practicum are simple - they allow student teachers to practice their craft under the safety net of a mentor who can offer solutions for classroom problems and step in if lessons are not going well. As it currently stands, new TFA members do not have the benefit of working side-by-side with a mentor teacher in a practicum setting. Though they are said to be observed by TFA throughout their teaching, their first few weeks in the classroom are the first few weeks of the school year, and the inevitable errors rookie teachers make are made at the expense of student learning. Students in high needs areas should not be treated as guinea pigs as TFA recruits begin the trial and error process of entering a profession with inadequate preparation and support.
Insufficient Time Commitment
TFA is a two-year commitment, the perfect length of time for recruits to put off law school and undergraduate student loans as they give back to the community.
Solution: TFA should be a five-year commitment - at least. If the training period explained above was extended to a full year, it would count as the first year in the five year commitment. Yet, TFA prides itself on the large swaths of academically successful adults it is able to recruit, a number which would surely dwindle if the time commitment was extended. Two years is the length of a full time master’s degree in the United States. It is merely 730 days. But by extending the commitment, it would intrinsically weed out those who are fully committed to neither education nor long-term student learning. Those who would sign a five-year contract would most likely have a predisposition to teaching and education. They would be committing to half of decade of education improvement, and the trajectory of their teaching success would hopefully improve. School culture is at stake. High needs areas are identified as such because there is a shortage of high quality teachers in that area. They are often highly urban or rural areas. Requiring only a two year commitment to the program perpetuates the high levels of teacher turnover in these already high needs areas. Schools are unable to establish any degree of stability within their teaching staff if the ongoing cycle of new teachers continues to turn, and it aggravates an already glaring problem in these districts.
A common misconception of TFA concerns the placement of recruits once they have been accepted into the program. Recruits are asked to rank their desired subject area, location, and grade level. Top choices are not guaranteed. Though a recruit may have been accepted into the program for their exceptional success in chemistry, they may be asked to teach elementary students with special needs. This practice assumes that academic success as a student translates to professional success in any discipline as a teacher. The ability to not only effectively convey information to another individual, but also to differentiate that information among upwards of thirty individuals takes both training and practice, an assertion which highlights the intersection between logical placements and proper training.
Solution: Place recruits in positions in which they will be best prepared and the most comfortable working in. The example given above of the chemist working with elementary school students with special needs is based on a real life example from a friend. My friend happens to have a degree in English Education, and though he is a trained educator, his experience does not lie with students with special needs - a group that arguably requires teachers with the most specialized training. The best educators have a predisposition toward their chosen level and discipline. Not all educators are created equally, and they cannot be carelessly assembled based on available space and need. Education interviewees will often ask prospective employers if they will be asked to teach outside their discipline - a practice that breeds inadequate education. Rather, teachers of different disciplines should be encouraged to collaborate to strengthen one another lessons instead of stretching their knowledge and experience beyond their capability.
The Take Aways
TFA and similar programs must first redesign the structure of their training program if they want to increase the effectiveness of their program’s impact. If they are as committed to reducing the achievement gap as their literature suggests, they must consider the impact of their program on alternative factors such as school culture and the teacher turn-over rate. As an educator, I do not want to discourage intelligent adults from entering the profession after they have earned their undergraduate degree, but it cannot be assumed that a successful student can immediately transform into a successful teacher. This requires conscientious practice, reflection, and revision. Extending the length of the TFA contract is a security measure for the program to ensure that recruits are truly committed to TFA’s long-term goals. TFA seeks to utilize the talents of top tier university graduates in the classroom, but this must be accomplished with careful and logical placements. These talents can be highlighted and developed during a yearlong training period under the guidance of a mentor. These talents can be cultivated in the same way an effective teacher cultivates growth in his or her students - but assuming success based on past academic merits is both faulty and dangerous. If my proposed Engineers for America ever came to fruition, the stability of our infrastructure would be at risk. Can the same not be said for our system of education and the students we serve?
Confessions of an education underachiever
Many educators enter the classroom with long-term goals for their careers. Some decide to teach for a while and then transition to administration and gradually work their way up the ladder to principal or a leadership position on the county level. Others parlay their classroom experience into book deals and speaking engagements and travel the county and country and make a name for themselves on the local or national level. Some start in high school and eventually make the move to community colleges or universities after working on their advanced degrees.
This may count as a professional failure on my behalf, but all I’ve ever wanted was to be a teacher.
- I don’t have lofty goals beyond that of working with my students and helping them to be successful.
- I’d rather take a sharp stick in the eye than be an administrator of any stripe.
- I don’t have a book in me; I have rambly tumblr posts.
- I’m not a mover and a shaker: I’ve been at my school for four years and only a small group of faculty members knows who I am.
- I’m not building a Curriculum Vitae of my professional accomplishments because frankly, I don’t have many. And who would read it if I did?
- I’m not burning with a fire to change the world; I just want to change my little corner of it.
I don’t see my classroom as a stepping stone to a better place. My classroom is the stopping place. Which works out well since no one is leaning on me to try for more.
I suppose that my lack of ambition makes me a professional failure. And that’s all right with me.
The latest problem..
This whole construction issue has caused so much headache in the last few weeks for the district.
After a Union meeting yesterday (our contracts expire at the end of June, perfect timing), we have a whole brand new issue.
With next school year ending so early (May 13), our final payout will be within the final week of May. With the following year not starting until September 9, that means there will be all that time with no checks.
Granted, summer checks *should* hold you over for every other week through the summer, those will technically run out at the beginning of August. Meaning there will be about five weeks of unpaid time.
The Superintendent’s response: “Not my problem.”
It most certainly is your problem, my friend. Especially since I’m sure you’ll continue to receive your checks without issue.
Does anyone have experience with this problem? How did your district deal with it?
To be clear, we aren’t being weasled out of money. It’s just with one year ending so soon and the next beginning so late, there’s a dry period with no work/no pay.
Any help would be appreciated.
A Teacher Who Made a Difference
Her name was Miss Ritcey. She wore tweed skirt suits, sensible shoes, and a hint of a smile.
A few of us were pulled from our classrooms once a week and taken to the library to spend the morning with her. We sat in table groups, hardly believing our luck.
On our first day, she called us into a circle, and said quietly, “A boy wants to go home, but there is a man with a mask in his way. Who is the man in the mask?” We were allowed to ask her questions with yes or no answers. We fell over ourselves coming up with possibilities, before realizing the key to the answer was asking the right question. We finally got to the idea of sport, and then baseball, and the answer: the man was the catcher for the other team - the boy was afraid of being tagged out. It was drastically different from the Halloween or horror ideas that initially popped into our collective heads.
From then on, we were hooked. Unaccustomed to learning being fun or engaging, her class was like a mirage to a delirious desert traveler. Days spent in our regular classroom dragged by, while we waited for that quiet knock which signaled her presence in the building.
She lead us in discussions ranging from books to science. We did the talking. She mostly listened. Everything fascinated her.
When she did speak, she was quiet and deliberate and began all of her sentences with, “Now, people.” As though we were adults. As though we were important. As though she was giving the Throne Speech instead of addressing a motley group of kids aged ten to twelve.
For those few hours each week in the library, it was cool to be a geek. No idea was ridiculous. No question was stupid. No contribution went unnoticed.
We became our very best selves. Freed from chalkboard pointers, we dared to dream. We learned what it meant to think outside the box. We were encouraged to be different. We were encouraged to be daring. Miss Ritcey often smiled, but never laughed. We emulated her, and listened carefully to our classmates, used our powers of critical thinking to debate ideas rather than dismiss them out of hand.
She didn’t need to raise her voice. Robbie and Jennifer - prone to misbehaving - sat quietly for a change. We were all in awe of our wise teacher, mesmerized by her serene aura. Lulled by the calm oasis she created, despite it being in the basement of the school, where three rows of books amounted to the library. Her presence induced a pavlovian response to learning, cobwebs cleared from our brains and we readied for takeoff.
From grades four to eight, Miss Ritcey parachuted into our school, a Mary Poppins amongst mortal teachers. After that I never saw her again. I never kept in touch. She was constantly on the move, rotating schools around the city, and it was long before email existed. Dropping by to see her wasn’t an option. I haven’t seen or heard of her for thirty years, but I will never forget. Her voice was one of reason, her body was one of composure, her pores reeked wisdom and the palest scent of Chloe, and especially the unwavering respect she showed each and every one of us.
Miss Sally Ritcey, wherever you are, you encouraged us to believe in ourselves, instilled in us a hunger for knowledge, and a desire to be different. Thank you.
“Wisdom begins in wonder.” - Socrates
Who was the teacher that made a difference in your life?
“One of my little boys just kept saying, 'I love you, I love you, please don't die with me.' I never thought I was going to die. The whole time I just kept screaming to them, 'Quit worrying, we're fine, we're fine.' And I'm very loud, so I just hoped they could hear me because I could hear them screaming. [One girl] was sobbing, and I was like, 'We're going to be fine, we're going to be fine, I'm protecting you.' And then I said a few prayers. 'God please take care of my kids.'”—
RHONDA CROSSWHITE, sixth grade teacher at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma, which was leveled by a tornado. She threw herself over students inside a bathroom stall as the storm passed, likely helping to save their lives.
Teachers. Among the best of us.
My work as a public artist is specific to the discovery and interpretation of connections between people and culture through interactive, participatory visual art. For the last four years, Green School math teacher Nathan Affield and I have teamed up to create murals that combine art and mathematics to empower students and connect them to their communities in Brooklyn, New York. These projects build lasting relationships and help students realize their strengths.
Our first project took place in the school with two mapping projects that are permanently installed in our school’s hallways. Based on the sustainability principles of the school, the students went out in their community to collect visual data on what was culturally, environmentally, and personally sustainable in their neighborhoods. They mapped out the neighborhoods using zoomed in abstractions, noting the collected data with symbols.
In 2011, Affield and I created a project where a math class surveyed the whole school on how they were feeling, what color that feeling represented, where that feeling fell on a scale between one and 10, and what time of day the data was recorded. The students then aggregated and color-coded the data to create a 150 histogram covering the back wall of the school. In a line graph organized by the time of day and negative space that color–codes the students’ grades, one gets a full day glimpse into the emotions of the students at any given point of the day. At first glance, the mural looks like an abstract, colorful cityscape. It is only when the mural is “read”, that the data can be understood.
Histogram of Emotion
In 2012, we brought the students outside the classroom and into the community where they teamed up with seniors from the local senior center to graph out weather patterns from 1930 to a projection of the future. In class, students had been studying mathematical modeling and how to use evidence to defend a claim. With daily high temperature data from NOAA, two-dimensional graphing techniques and their knowledge of central tendency, students collaborated to reposition their two-dimensional graphs into a single three-dimensional line graph modeling the past weather cycles that they used as evidence to base their climate change claims. They worked with seniors—some who remembered the historical weather patterns the students had graphed—and passerbys, creating lasting connections among each other and the community.
This year we will be visualizing the number Pi on another wall on Graham Avenue in East Williamsburg. The design involves replacing the infinite digits of Pi with color-coded blocks and viewing the irrational number as a shape. For the first time, students will see the negative space of Pi and search for patterns. To focus students on the concept of infinity, we chose to use the Fibonacci or Golden Spiral, representing another irrational number, Phi, as the framework for the visualization. As the space in the spiral gets smaller, the bars of the number shorten. When you first look at the image, you might see a shell pattern or a cityscape. Only upon investigation, will you know that it is a representation of Pi.
Mockup of Visualization of Pi
The act of painting murals is empowering. Once a student makes a mark on a wall, it becomes his or hers. When you walk down the busy street of Graham Ave, almost every wall is covered in random tags. We help the students create public art that means something and has significance. Students living in Brooklyn need this kind of connection to their communities because when the students invest in their communities, the communities invest in them. These murals are also made for the neighborhood. The results are not only beautiful images, but also sparked conversations.
The Kickstarter campaign we created has been a wild success, attaining its goal within 48 hours, which has more than doubled in four days. Money beyond the goal will be invested back into the community to create more public art in the neighborhood. Artist Ellie Balk will manage a grant and call for local artists to create another mural in the neighborhood. A scholarship program for students will also be set up. People still wanting to support this project should know that their investment will go directly to the enrichment of students and their community. Consider backing an educational and culturally enriching project.