Since I have posted positively about Teach for America, it is only fair I post this article from the Atlantic of a Teach for America alum who felt she was unprepared for what she faced in the classroom.
Over the years, I have met many TFA teachers and have been in their classrooms, and have never gotten this vibe from them, but perhaps one of our samples (mine or the author's) are flawed**.
I guess my reaction to the article is this: TFA is the best program I have encountered to try to improve education within the framework of our deeply flawed public education system***. However, understanding the flaws of public education, and being someone who would much rather see competition introduced into the k-12 education system, I suppose I am not surprised that putting really talented people in a bad system can only do so much.
The education establishment, which is implicitly backed by most of the media, really wants to kill TFA, which just goes to show, perhaps, the impossibility of making change happen within the system. Think of it this way: TFA is everything liberals have wanted in teaching reform. It brings the brightest of the bright from America's colleges and diverts them from Wall Street and Harvard Law to teaching schoolkids. It is modeled roughly on the Peace Corps. It is the most establishment-friendly way I can think of to try to make public schools better and still the public school system immune system rejects it. If TFA cannot work, then we should take that as proof that it is time for a radically new system that eliminates the government monopoly on education.
** I confess it may be my sample. When we pay to sponsor a teacher, we specify that we will only sponsor one in a charter school. Consistent with my comments in the rest of the article, I despair of throwing even really good people into typical public schools, and want to send them where they might have a chance. The school where we have sponsored a teacher the last couple of years is doing great, with a population of kids nearly 100% eligible for the Federal school lunch program and most of whose parents do not speak English as a first language (or at all) significantly outperforming their peers.
*** I also think it is a great program for the young adults in it. I have seen many of the not-for-profit and NGO jobs smart kids go into out of college, and they are awful. They teach bad organizational lessons that will make these folks less employable in the future by productive enterprises and they at best do nothing (at worst spend their time lobbying to make my life harder and more expensive). Against this backdrop, it is a much better experience for folks who want a service type of job out of college - the life skills taught are more relevant and the work has a higher impact.
Via Reason on Teach for America (TFA)
The best evidence we had before today was a randomized evaluation conducted by Mathematica Policy Research between 2001 and 2003, which found that TFA teachers bested other teachers at teaching math — with gains for students equal to about a month of additional instruction — and were not significantly different from them on teaching reading.
A follow-up using the same data showed that that result held for students across the math score distribution, not just the average student. “These results suggest that allowing highly qualified teachers, who in the absence of TFA would not have taught in these disadvantaged neighborhoods, should have a positive influence not just on students at the top of the achievement distribution but across the entire math test score distribution,” the authors concluded.
We sponsor a TFA teacher each year, and have fun doing a few little things for their classroom through the year (we collect school supplies at the beginning of the year, bring presents during the holidays). Short of the school choice we really need, this is the best way we have found to help K-12 education.
One of the charities my family supports is Teach for America. Among other things, we sponsor a local teacher in the program. A bunch of our friends were kind enough to chip in with gifts for the kids in her class and my wife and I delivered them last week at the Phoenix Collegiate Academy, a charter school in South Phoenix for 5-8 graders.
The fun of delivering the presents was reduced later on finding out that at almost that same moment, another group of kids was being killed in Connecticut. But through a strange series of articles that seemed to have used the Sandy Hook massacre as an argument for teacher unionization and against charter schools (yeah, I don't get the connection either), I found out that teachers unions hate Teach for America. Which means that I will likely double my contribution next year.
Postscript: Teach for America began as a senior thesis at Princeton. Its key idea is to make teaching a viable job option, as least for a few years, for top college grads. The program is quite selective, and combines talented highly motivated young people with a proven teaching approach. They then drop these teachers into the public school system, often in classrooms with a high percentage of kids who qualify for school lunch programs (ie low income).
It's clear from the article that teachers union and education establishment types hate these teachers. Since they make a contrast by calling themselves "professionals", the presumed implication is that these young people are unprofessional. Its amazing to me that anyone who has spent even ten minutes in a room with a group of TFA teachers could be so hostile to them. I have met many of them, and they are a consistently amazing bunch who are both smart and genuinely love their kids.
I was skeptical, and still am a bit, of the notion of throwing great teachers into a failing public school system. They clearly help individual kids, which is why I am still behind it, but they do nothing to help the overall system. It's like sending great engineers into Solyndra -- at some level, it seems like a waste (though I am impressed with this particular charter school, which seems to be doing a good job with the limited resources it has -- it gets far less money per pupil than the average public school in Phoenix but does a better job given the demographic of its students).