A heartening bit of news came out of San Francisco this week for folks who are exhausted by the kneejerk political opposition to reform-oriented organizations such as Teach For America (TFA). Turns out, a handful of San Francisco principals have more courage and good sense than the leaders elected to serve the best interests of the district’s most vulnerable students. Two months ago, TFA critics were
crowing about a political decision by the San Francisco Unified School District Board to bow to union pressure and suspend TFA’s district contract for the coming school year. They made this decision against the wishes of their own leaders and despite knowing that the 15 classrooms that were supposed to be staffed by TFA teachers would instead be filled by either long-term substitutes or untrained college grads with emergency certification. On Monday,
the district and TFA announced that 8 TFA teachers were hired by principals for hard-to-fill vacancies at 4 San Francisco schools. Six of the teachers will work in bilingual classrooms, and 2 will work as special education teachers. And despite the frequent criticism that Teach For America is mostly interested in padding its coffers, TFA officials opted to waive the $40,000 placement fee for the 8 teachers, which is intended to partially offset the cost of training and staff support during the corps members’ 2-year commitment. TFA said it didn’t want to leave these schools in the lurch, given the state’s
dire teaching shortage. The principals said they defied the board’s political decision because they wanted to find teachers who were truly interested in working at their schools. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle:
With a big teacher shortage weighing on them, they said politics mattered less than finding the best teachers to put in front of children. Schools like Bret Harte in the city’s southeast Bayview neighborhood, where 90 percent of students come from low-income families and nearly half are English learners, have an even harder time finding teachers. “I can’t find anybody who would either send me those (experienced) people or tell me they’re out there,” Bret Harte Principal Jeremy Hilinski said. “Those candidates are not interested in going to places that Teach For America corps members go.”
Predictably, the board’s vice president said she was “livid” about the principals’ move to hire committed teachers, no doubt because it exposed the board for its craven kowtowing to union pressure. In justifying its decision in May, the board majority said it didn’t want to staff its school with recent college graduates who committed to teaching for only 2 years. This ignores the fact that
most TFA teachers stay longer than 2 years, and that they specifically seek out tough assignments in hard-to-staff schools. And it disregards the fact that even a so-called “trained teacher,” newly-graduated from a teaching college, can—and often will—
leave a tough urban school without making any commitment at all. One principal said finding a teacher with an autism certificate who was willing to teach in his struggling neighborhood, even an inexperienced one from TFA, is “more precious than gold.” Another observed that board members don’t understand the consequences of making bad hires:
“When the parents come in angry (about a bad teacher or long-term substitute), they come to me. And when the kids come in angry, they come to me. I don’t feel like people in these decision-making entities really feel the pressure to put the best people in front of the kids.”
As it stands now, TFA will place the remaining seven teachers in charter schools, which is, of course, exactly what opponents are trying to avoid and what really fuels the antagonism against TFA—this idea that
TFA bolsters the charter networks with a steady supply of new teachers. I don’t expect the predictable TFA haters to weigh in on the latest twist in this saga, because how could they argue with these principals’ common-sense, child-centered reasoning? After all, I couldn’t get a straight answer from any of them to two simple questions: Do they really believe a sub is better than a TFA corps member? Is that what they would choose for their own children? The San Diego Unified School District signed its TFA contract last night as routine business and agreed to pay placement fees out of philanthropic dollars rather than public dollars, which defuses the argument that TFA drains resources from cash-strapped schools. I’m hopeful that San Francisco leaders will also come to their senses, reconsider the board decision and approve a new contract for TFA next year. Perhaps it can borrow a page from its California neighbors and explore innovative, collaborative ways to secure the teachers that principals want—and the ones children desperately need.
Tracy Dell’Angela is a writer, education nonprofit executive director and a mom passionate about education improvements. Previously, Tracy was Director of Outreach and Communications for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. She came to IES from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, which produces research that ...