Friday, June 18, 2010

Learning on Other People's Kids - an important book on Teach For America

I wondered, "Whose America is Teach For America really teaching for? Why is it tolerable for education to be less-thanfor other people's kids? And, what are we, as a nation, really prepared to do about it?

Those are the concluding words of Barbara Torre Veltri in her book Learning on Other People's Kids: Becoming a Teach For America Teacher

In just over two two decades since Wendy Kopp founded Teach For America as a result of her senior thesis at Princeton, the organization has become an influential player in education and politics in the United States. According to its website, for the past school year it had 7,300 corps members teaching 450,000 students. It regularly gets glowing press coverage from general media. Admission to its corps from selective colleges has become increasingly competitive. Yet what Teach For America is and does has been poorly understood.

Barbara Torre Veltri provides what may be the single most important examination of TFA I have encountered, and I hope you will continue reading as I explore the book and explain why I make that statement.

Veltri is herself a long-term educator, now a university-based educator of teachers. She began her own teaching career under emergency certification: like the members of TFA corps, that means she was NOT a fully certified teacher at the time she entered her classroom. Further, in her capacity as a university based trainer of teachers, she had a multiple year association with Teach For America: she was associated with one of the universities that serves as a site for the 5 week Institutes that represent the entirety of the training of Corp members before they get their own classroom, and she served as a resource for Corps members and TFA staff as the participants continued to learn how to teach even as they were already class-room based. The book is thus enriched not only with her insight into the experiences with which she was associated, but she had access to a large number of current and former Corps members and the people in school districts in which she was placed. Veltri is also a thorough researcher, having examined and absorbed much of the relevant literature.

As should be clear from how I began, Veltri now raises serious questions about our reliance upon Teach For America. That does not mean she is necessarily opposed to alternative programs to recruit and train teachers for hard to staff schools in inner cities and rural areas: in her Acknowledgments she refers to Jumpstart of Manhattanville College, whose model "includes 6 months of coursework, practicum, and mentoring, prior to placement of career-changers into New York Schools." By comparison, TFA Corp members get a 5 week institute. The difference can perhaps be reflected best in retention statistics - as of the writing of the book, 85% of those who completed Jumpstart remained in the classroom (these are 9 year figures(, whereas the vast majority of TFA leave the classroom upon completion of their two year commitments, taking advantage of the benefits offered by graduate and professional schools towards former TFAers, and includes a stipend from AmeriCorps equal to $5,000/year for use against any past or future educational expense. Remember (1) this is paid for by our taxes, and (2) TFAers qualify for this regardless of any financial need.

And while I am on the financial aspects about which you will learn in this book, let me also note the following. TFA requires that their Corp members be paid the same as would certified teachers in the same positions EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE NOT THEMSELVES CERTIFIED. Further, the contracts with school districts require a payment to TFA of several thousand dollars additional for each Corps Members, thus effectively making a TFA placement MORE EXPENSIVE than hiring others to teach, whether fully certified or - like TFAers - provisionally certified.

And there are the costs associated with the constant turnover of teaching faculty. On p. 168 Veltri cites a study that says the costs of teachers leaving the classroom range from $4,366 and $17,872 for each teacher leaving this classroom. There is further non-financial impact in the negative effect upon learning that is clearly documented across the professional literature in schools lacking a constant teaching faculty.

The real value of the book comes less from the statistics and studies which Veltri cites, but from the words and experiences of those who themselves were participants in TFA, with whom Veltri built a sufficient relationship of trust that they were willing to be quite candid with her. While most had little intention of staying the classroom permanently, they were drawn to this service because they wanted to make a difference, even if they were also drawn by the long-term benefits they believed would accrue to them after completing their two years. Many felt unprepared for what they were encountering in the classroom. They desperately needed experienced mentors, but TFA's support was largely limited to former TFAers, and they were on their own in finding support within their schools. They acknowledged their lack of relevant background on which to draw, and how overburdened they felt. Let me offer a few examples to illustrate this:

I tend to go over my lesson plan time. How do you fix that? (Cortina)

“My students need experienced teachers who know what works and can implement it effectively. Instead, they have me, and though I am learning quickly, I am still learning on them, experimenting on them, working on their time.” (Marguerite)

I mean, in a lot of was, how I am teaching right now is what I remember doing in high school. It's what makes sense to me. It's a kind of ... prior knowledge. I guess it is just that. (Ali)

... And, part of the problem is, I just never know exactly if I am doing what I am supposed to be doing and that creates a lot of stress. (Kyle)

That stress is increased by the requirement of completing 15 credit hours during their rookie year, because of their emergency certification status:

What does TFA want me to do? Attend UPenn classes four nights in a row, grade my student papers, and prepare for teaching, or listen to them? I'm done with it! (Curtis)

Let me comment briefly on the requirement for 15 credit hours. When I began my doctoral studies while in my 2nd year at my current school, I needed special permission to take 9 credit hours, because our system believes taking on anything more than 6 credit hours at time jeopardizes one' effectiveness as a teacher. I already had 4 years of teaching experience, one of which was in the school with the same preps as I would have while attending graduate school. I have seen beginning teachers with emergency or provisional credentials struggle to balance the demands of the classes they teach and those they attend, even with 6 hours and MORE PREPARATION than the 5 weeks offered in TFA institutes.

Another key value of the Veltri book is that she explores serious questions. If I may quote from her website, the book is organized around key questions:
Previously unanswered questions are addressed: Why do intelligent college graduates apply to Teach For America? How are they recruited, trained, and hired? How do they learn the culture(s) of the community, schools, grade level, and curriculum? Is there a “culture” of the TFA organization? Do TFAers see themselves as effective teachers? What recommendations do corps members offer to TFA, its’ donors, policy-makers, future corps members and the public?
It has three main parts, of which the final, as Veltri puts it,
presents TFAers’ views on their corps teaching experience, analyzes the “master narrative” as it relates to the education of poor children, and raises questions for readers to contemplate.

One real issue for many beginning teachers is managing the classroom, for if students are not on task learning is less likely to occur. Allow me to quote what Veltri says on this topic, on p. 111:
Classroom management proved to be one of the top three needs of first year TFAers over seven consecutive cohorts whose classrooms I visited in both the middle Atlantic and Sothwest regions.

One question some often ask is if the TFA approach is effective. The organization likes to claim that its members are more effective teachers (as measured by test scores) than others in the same setting. Perhaps in this regard it is worth noting a new policy brief, Teach For America: A False Promise, produced by the Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) at the University of Colorado and the Education Policy
Research Unit (EPRU) at Arizona State University with funding from the
Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. The subtitle is Alternative teacher training program yields costly turnover while doing little to improve student achievement. Allow me to quote two paragraphs to illustrate why the TFA claims, while somewhat accurate, are deceptive:
Studies show that TFA teachers perform fairly well when compared with one segment of the teaching population: other teachers in the same hard-to-staff schools, who are less likely to be certified or traditionally prepared. Compared with that specific group of teachers, TFA teachers "perform comparably in raising reading scores and a bit better in raising math scores," the brief's authors write.

Conversely, studies which compare TFA teachers with credentialed non-TFA
teachers find that "the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers," Heilig and Jez write. And in a large-scale Houston study, in which the researchers controlled for experience and teachers' certification status, standard certified teachers consistently outperformed uncertified TFA teachers of comparable experience levels in similar settings.
The study goes on to note that the majority of TFAers leave at the end of two years, with over 80% being out of the classroom after three. Some of the claims for evidence of better performance are based on the less than 1 in five who stay, who have become fully certified.

I entered teaching through a traditional Master of Arts in Teaching program. I had 16 weeks of practice teaching under the supervision of experienced teachers, 8 each in middle and high school. I had received formal training in pedagogy, both general and related to my content area (social studies). Before my student teaching I had multiple occasions in which I observed experienced teachers in a variety of settings. I was trained in the legal requirements of special education students. I was given training and education in teaching students whose culture and background might be very different than my own. I was an honors graduate of an elite college (Haverford), in other words, the kind of candidate sought by Teach For America. I had previous teaching experience to adults in business, and years before in a private secondary school. And when I got my own classroom in 1995 I was 49 years old. Still, it was not an easy task, although now having completed my 15th year I am generally considered an excellent and effective teacher.

I have a certain antipathy towards the TFA approach, because I believe it is unfair to the students and schools in which TFAers serve. I refuse to accept the framing that implies a TFA teacher is better than currently available alternatives. The correct answer to the need is to provide properly trained teachers who are committed to students and the profession. I do not think we do our students justice when they are viewed as a part of getting one's ticket stamped for something else in life, and the opportunity to have claimed to have been of service.

I also think the resources dedicated to Teach for America might be better spent on preparing regular teachers. Veltri provides a table using data from TFA, showing that in 2006-06 the 4,700 corps members were served with an operating budget of $39,500,000, while for 2009-10 the projected figures were 7,300 corps members with an operating budget of $160,000,000. Let's put those numbers on a per capita basis. In 2005-06 the cost per corps member was 8,400, while in 2009-10 it had ballooned to $21,917, or more than half what most teachers in this country make in their first year. I question whether that is money well spent.

Veltri raises other pertinent questions as well. She notes that to be a cosmetologist requires 9 months of training for licensure in her state, and wonders why those to whom we entrust the education of our young people should have only a 5 week institute that does not connect with the real world of the classrooms to which the TFAers will go. As Veltri writes on p. 196
When teacher training is compressed like a microwaveable meal and field experience is deemed unnecessary or a waste of time by those in public policy positions, a message is sent that "other people's kids" are able to withstand someone learning how to teach on them.

Teach For America and its alumni are highly visible. It serves as a 501c3 organization favored by corporations. Its graduates are highly sought after in business and law schools. It garners glowing media coverage. It is now expanding its reach to other nations around the world.

And yet, the question should remain: does Teach For America truly serve the needs of those it claims it is helping? Does it even fairly serve the needs of its Corp members while they participate in TFA? I would argue that it does not. And had I any doubt before, what I read in Veltri's book would have convinced me.

If you care about education policy, I strongly urge you to read and digest this book. It will provide you with information relevant to those who are considering associating with TFA as a source of obtaining teaching staff.

Please note - I fully understand the desire to be of service, even if only temporarily. After all, that is the motivation for the many who have entered the Peace Corps, an organization I admire in many ways and for which I was selected but was unable to accept the offer. I am not necessarily criticizing those who apply, although I think they are misguided.

Perhaps you are not yet convinced. I suggest that if you read Veltri you will be.

Which is why I again urge you to read her book.


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