We were about 34 minutes into the podcast before I realized this “debate” about Teach For America (TFA) wasn’t really about TFA at all. It was about charters. Or more specifically, about the politics and workforce of charters. I recently joined Julian Vasquez Heilig and T. Jameson Brewer, two academics who have made quite the cottage industry out of bashing TFA, for the second episode of their podcast,
Truth for America—not because it has a big audience (it doesn’t) but because I think it’s generally a good idea to engage with people who disagree with your views, if you can keep the discussion civil and productive. The conversation was cordial, eye-opening and more than a little frustrating. I wasn’t planning to rehash it here because we all said our piece and frankly didn’t make much headway on the enlightenment front. And then I read an absurd little series of tweets by someone calling herself @kiwigirl58 who twisted my podcast comments in a predictably distorted way and served as yet another example of why it’s nearly impossible to meaningfully communicate on Twitter when the haters start to swarm. https://twitter.com/Kiwigirl58/status/700109495142191105 https://twitter.com/Kiwigirl58/status/700112608200798208 https://twitter.com/Kiwigirl58/status/700118532927803392 https://twitter.com/tracydell98/status/700195028346376192 I was invited to the conversation because
I wrote a blog post from my perspective as a mom with a college-graduating daughter who applied to TFA. I didn’t understand the kneejerk TFA antipathy by Vasquez Heilig, a California education professor, and Brewer, a TFA alum who left K-12 teaching after two years. I understand it more now. “There’s the political point which you don’t really want to talk about, which is TFAs role in private control and privatization,” Vasquez Heilig says. “The bottom line is that many of these charter schools could not stay in business without the constant churn of temporary labor (from TFA).” He’s wrong about that of course. There are scores of charter schools nationwide who don’t hire TFA corps members, and they are not going out of business for lack of staff. It turns out there are plenty of new, traditionally-trained teachers who want to work in charters. And
only a third of TFA’s corps members teach in charters. But he’s right in that I don't want to endlessly debate the outsize influence of a couple of big-name reform-oriented TFA alum like Michelle Rhee and John White and Mike Feinberg. Why? Because they are not wholly representative of the
50,000 corps members and alums, two-thirds of whom are still working in education, in relative obscurity, including 100 elected teacher union leaders. Nor do I want to want to go down that ol’ rabbit hole and debate which research report really reveals the truest picture of TFA’s efficacy in the classroom—is it
this Mathematica study or
this one? To what end? Because there are bigger questions Brewer and Vasquez Heilig just won’t answer. How do we elevate the teaching profession, so that bright and committed young professionals want to teach? How do we transform education colleges so that they are recruiting the best candidates and truly preparing them to teach, even in the most challenging circumstances? How do we hold those public teaching colleges accountable for how well they are training teachers, when they refuse to release data on their graduates? Vasquez-Heilig is a professor in one of those systems, California State University (CSU),
which alone produces more teacher graduates annually than all of the
corps members placed from TFA nationwide in 2015. I asked him, over and over, how well his system was doing in preparing teachers? Were they helping students learn in their early years? Did they stay on as teachers? Were the principals who hired them satisfied with their training and performance? (All data TFA releases publicly). Here was my point: “You are not going to fix the teaching profession by getting rid of TFA.” As I said on the podcast:
If you want to improve the status of teachers and elevate the teaching profession, I’m with you on that. What I don’t understand is the very narrow academic focus on one particular program that is producing such a small fraction of teachers for schools that, frankly, your (traditionally trained teachers) are not flocking to. They are not looking to land in the hardest schools in Watts.
For his part, Brewer conceded that his criticism of TFA wasn’t “an endorsement of the status quo.” But he didn’t want to talk about how to fix the status quo. He wanted to talk about political influence and big-money funders through the lens of two reform-oriented school systems—New Orleans (suggesting that teacher layoffs could be blamed on TFA and not Hurricane Katrina) and Chicago (pointing to school closings and mayoral control, as if either of those two policies had anything to do with TFA). And Vasquez-Heilig acknowledged he doesn’t want to get rid of TFA, he just wants them to get better training and make longer commitments. Ok, sure, makes sense. And maybe while TFA is reforming its program, he can lead the same change at his own college (CSU Sacramento)—ensure his grads are well-trained for urban schools and committed to teach for a minimum of four or five years. Right now, they don’t have to teach in hard-to-staff schools and they don’t even have to match TFA’s two-year commitment—in fact, they never have to teach at all. When my daughter’s English teacher in her top-performing high school asked how many in her class were thinking about going into teaching, she was the only one who raised her hand. That has got to change. There’s a lot of passion in this debate. It’s too bad we spend so much of our time fighting on Twitter when we should be working together to improve the status quo, whether it’s in traditional schools or charters, in public ed colleges or TFA.
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 ...