Teach For America's Model: Does It Need to Change?

Posted by Liz Dwyer

tfa.summit
Last weekend, more than 11,000 Teach For America teachers and alumni descended on Washington, D.C., for the organization's 20th Anniversary Summit. I'm one of the alums who attended, and I had a fab time reconnecting with old friends and hearing from A-list education stars, like Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee. But yesterday a fellow alumnae sent me a link to a petition that asks TFA to change the way it trains its teachers. It has me thinking: After 20 years in education reform, does the organization need to mix things up?

Central to the petition is the question of whether the predominantly low-income children of color taught by TFA teachers would be better off if those teachers had more training before they're put in front of a classroom. The petition asks TFA to expand its five-week summer training into a year-long "residency"—meaning that once accepted, a TFA teacher would spend a year apprenticing and learning the craft of teaching under the supervision of a mentor teacher.

According to the petition,

"few TFA teachers remain in the classroom beyond TFA’s two-year requirement, depriving our children of experienced educators. These are bold injustices in a perpetually unfair education system that denies our children the critical resources they deserve and need to reach their full potential. The status quo educational inequity that assigns well-prepared teachers to middle class and wealthy white children and inadequately prepared teachers to our children must end." 

Most studies show that Teach For America teachers are either doing right academically by low-income children, or at least are, on average, doing no worse than your everyday beginning teacher. On the other hand, there's a 2010 study from the Education and the Public Interest Center that says the turnover rate and learning curve TFA teachers face makes for a "harmful dalliance into the lives of vulnerable students who most need highly trained and highly skilled teachers."

Whether a teacher comes from TFA or not, the amount of staff turnover in low-income areas is insane. No child, and no school, should be subjected to a continually revolving door of educators. Ideally, teachers should become a trusted part of a school community—someone who knows the families and is intimately familiar with the school and neighborhood culture.

Being a first year teacher—whether you student teach for a semester or only have a five-week summer training institute—is also undeniably tough. But, the petition has a point. If teacher prep programs as a whole move to a more medical-school style residency model, that might prove better for student learning and help stem the turnover rate.

Of course, what's at the heart of this petition is that middle class white school districts and elite private schools probably wouldn't hire someone unproven and with only five weeks of preparation. There's a reason I was a TFA teacher in Compton, California, not in Beverly Hills. In our society its OK for low-income black and Latino children to have teachers with only five weeks of training. That would never fly in wealthier and whiter school districts.

Undeniably, part of what's kept Teach For America going over the past 20 years is the ability to cultivate achievement-oriented individuals who are committed to keeping student achievement front and center. Improving its training is surely going to be a part of how the organization prioritizes its students in the 21st century. But if Teach For America stepped up and took the lead in the national conversation about race, class, and education—if it used its considerable influence to challenge how school districts decide which teachers get funneled to certain schools—now that would be something spectacular.