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Kopp Out

Last week, Robert Pondiscio put forth an ingenious proposal to leverage the service of recent college grads who teach for two years through Teach for America:

Instead of throwing TFAers into the worst teaching situations in the cities you serve, place them in some of the best, highest-performing schools….Place them in that high-functioning school for two years as pinch-hitters for some of our best, most experienced teachers, and send those master teachers to the same schools to which you’re sending TFA corps members now. We can call it the Teach For America Fellowship, and throw in a nice extra chunk of change to incentivize those master teachers.

Kopp rejected the idea. Here’s her argument, and my thoughts on each point:

1) It is a rare person who has what it takes to excel as a teacher in a low-income community, and it’s not at all a given that teachers who do well in more privileged communities will do well in urban and rural areas.

Sure. But is there any reason to believe that the most talented experienced teachers who are willing to teach in a high-needs school for two years will do worse than recent college grads with no teaching experience?

2) The individuals who come to Teach For America are coming because they want to work with the nation’s most disadvantaged children (and it is unlikely that most of them would decide to channel their energy toward teaching in more privileged contexts).

This is an empirical question. Many recent college grads understand that they would be doing a greater service to disadvantaged kids by putting an exceptional experienced teacher in that classroom – certainly many of my undergrads who’ve considered TFA have thought about this issue. Those who want to teach for more than two years might value learning to teach in a supportive environment. And let’s be honest – many TFA applicants gravitate towards TFA simply because it is selective. Finally, Robert’s proposal need not supplant TFA’s current recruitment efforts; this fellowship could operate as a stand alone program.

3) The recent Urban Institute study that looked at the impact of high school teachers in the state of North Carolina over a six-year period provides evidence that our strategy has a positive impact for kids.

We have discussed the generalizability of this study at length on this blog (see Teach for America Study Wrap Up and In Which We Make Sweeping Generalizations from a Sample of 69 Teach for America Teachers in North Carolina). Beyond those caveats, this study provides little insight into the likely effects of Robert’s proposal.

Why not? The Urban Institute study does not examine the distribution of teacher effects for experienced teachers – i.e. how effective are the top 10% of experienced teachers? Instead, it focuses on the average effects of TFA teachers versus experienced non-TFA teachers. Average effects are not helpful in evaluating the potential effectiveness of a program that would select the most exceptional experienced teachers.

4) Our strategy of channeling the energy of the nation’s future leaders into urban and rural schools is important for the long-term effort to ensure educational excellence and equity…Their initial teaching experience in under-resourced communities is foundational to their lifelong commitment to effecting the systemic changes necessary to ensure educational opportunity for all.

If Kopp’s point 2 is correct – TFA applicants are dedicated to improving the lives of the most disadvantaged children – this commitment pre-dates, though perhaps is bolstered by, their TFA teaching experience. And as many other bloggers have suggested, the TFA commitment could be lengthened to three years – two years in a low-needs school, and one in a high-needs school.

Robert, you should run with this idea - whether it is supported by TFA or another organization. Worst case scenario - we would gather useful data on a number of important teacher quality questions. Best case scenario - this "classroom swap" helps staff the toughest schools with the best experienced teachers, and disadvantaged kids benefit immensely.

There is a key question that this proposal overlooks. That is "does experience working with priviledged students provide the knowledge and skills required to work with underpriviledged students?" Given the racially and economically stratifying effects of our current system of assigning students to schools, it is almost axiomatic that the two populations are very different. Simply acknowledging the realities of stratification are very difficult for us (as Americans) to accept.

Does experience on the priviledged end of the spectrum foster needed skills, or foster a certain sense of entitlement and defense of an inequitable system--which results in an ease of "blaming the victim?"

Would guaranteeing TFAs a place among the elite (during which time they might be expected to network and develop "ins" that would be valuable in later job searches) alter the population of TFA? Research might be indicated, but I would bet on "yes."

All that said, I have to point also to the success of the Tennessee program that offered highly performing teachers incentives (down payments on houses, graduate school tuition) to move to and work in underperforming schools--to fill holes created by moving lower performing teachers to higher performing schools. In this case, there was a bit more care put into the selection of candidates (evaluated by principals and the TVAAS) and a high level of commitment required.

So--I don't think that messing around with TFA is a good way to go--it already has folks who have demonstrated some willingness to commit to underserved schools, as well as some emerging knowledge about how to support and develop their skill-base. On the other hand, carefully selected teachers with skills and experience--and commitment for those same schools--has shown some possibility as well.

Great idea, Robert. I like it for two reasons: (1) it makes common sense; and (2) it introduces further diversity of practices into schooling. I'd encourage you also to find mobile PC users among recruits in order for them to help formalize more independent student mobile learning of school related content. Set up a pilot project, perhaps in NC or TN. Both have university faculty familiar with education experiments and public schools.

Hi Margo,

I'm struggling with this point, "Does experience on the priviledged end of the spectrum foster needed skills, or foster a certain sense of entitlement and defense of an inequitable system--which results in an ease of "blaming the victim?"

Why would we believe that teachers working in more privileged schools would be any more likely to blame the victim than the upper/upper-middle class Ivy League students who teach through TFA?

Thanks for deconstructing Kopp's argument against Pondiscio's TFA-Swapout proposal. Under all Wendy's twists and turns of logic lies this: experience in non-high-needs schools doesn't count. Those suburban teachers with 20 years of successfully teaching kids whose parents come to conferences? What do they know?

Kopp reinforces the idea that urban kids are so different that curriculum and instruction found in ordinary schools (the well-developed skill set of the accomplished teacher) would not be effective in high-needs situations--an idea that comes with lots of nasty backspin: these kids can't do regular work, these teachers don't care, we can't offer high-level coursework in places like this (and are reduced to "basics"), etc.. Deep under all this dissembling is the assumption that teaching is something anyone can do. It's not difficult, complex intellectual work (except in certain, distasteful locations). Good teachers are only good in context--their hard-won expertise won't hold up anywhere else.

If Kopp were to admit that a plan to send demonstrably excellent teachers to the most difficult schools made sense (and, on the face of it, it most certainly does), then it would be tantamount to saying exactly what Amy Wilkins has been smacked around for saying at the ED08 mediafest: first-year teachers are not the best folks to fix ailing schools.

I did love Pondiscio's statement that most advantaged parents would salivate at the idea of having Buffy or Tyler taught by someone from Harvard--that idea certainly has more cachet in the suburbs than at P.S. 152.

Great post.


You raise a good question re: ivy-leaguers vs teachers of the privileged and their attitudes toward entitlement. I don't have a well-researched answer, but I have to come back to the power of choice. TFA is a program that recruits well-educated, highly performing folks with an interest in working in disadvantaged schools.

Now, I suppose that the program could be substantially revamped to recruit high performing teachers with an interest in working in disadvantaged schools (who would be willing to give their jobs for two years to ivy-leaguers who have entered the program because it gives them the advantage of a guaranteed two year placement in a non-disadvantaged school). But if these folks exist--why aren't they already working in disadvantaged schools? What additional value-add or incentive would TFA provide to get them to take on this two-year adventure?

And when they arrive to discover that there is no booster club charged with raising slush funds, and they have difficulty communicating with parents because their Spanish is rusty and their Somali non-existent, not to mention that cell phones don't always have minutes, and they discover that an 8th grade kid with 3rd grade reading skills has never been screened for any learning disabilities, and that they cannot reasonably schedule a field trip that requires students to pay their own museum admission (because they don't have it), oh, and by the way, they are generally clue-less about most of the daily realities, lingo and customs of their students--who or what is going to bail them out when nothing that they learned in their old setting applies to the new one?

I am really all for taking teachers, students, parents and anyone else who is available or interested across that gap between the high and low-performing schools--in both directions. This is something we really have to do. But moving into another culture requires a set of skills that are quite separate from those learned in a suburban classroom.

I was also less than impressed with Kopp's rationale for dismissing the idea. With a few tweaks, I think it can work.

If TFA followed Robert's advice their applications would drop by at least 80%. Part of the allure of TFA is going to a new place and living and working in and among new circumstances and new people.

Yes, commitment to the cause is already present in most who apply for TFA (though undoubtedly bolstered by the experience of TFA, as Eduwonkette suggests), and theoretically that commitment should make TFA recruits willing to go into any classroom where their presence will help eliminate the achievement gap - even if that means freeing up a suburban teacher to teach in an urban school. Two facts make this untenable in real life, though: 1. We have no idea if good suburban teachers will make good urban teachers (my experience with friends who've made that transition suggests that there is some correlation between success in both environs, but not a whole lot), and 2. Though closing the achievement gap is part of - probably the biggest part of - the rationale for joining TFA, there are other important factors, too. For some, one of them is learning more about urban education and the factors contributing to the achievement gap, for others, it's broadening horizons and learning about other people or cultures, for others still it's about giving back to the community in which they grew up. Very few are motivated to join TFA solely for the purpose of being a cog in an achievement gap-closing machine.

Hi everyone,

Margo, I think the truth is somewhere in between. Nancy explains convincingly that there are teaching skills that apply in every context, and that it is a trap - and a dangerous one - to assume that they are fundamentally different. But you are right that there are context specific skills that required specialized training/exposure. Kopp argued that TFA has gained expertise in teaching these skills, and they no doubt could be taught to experienced teachers from non-high needs settings as well.

Of course TFA as we know it isn't going to be replaced with Robert's proposal, so we can stop talking about it as a replacement and think about it instead as a supplement. Socrates, I think that many applicants, in addition to a new and different pool of applicants, would be willing to teach for a few years after college - in my experience, my undergrads who have applied for TFA have done so, in part, because they want to take time off before going to grad school, it provides an already set up post-graduation option, and it looks good on a grad school application. Yes, they have broad social justice commitments, but many have been pretty frank with me about this motivation. A fraction of these applicants (I'd say about 25%, but again, I'm working with a small sample) know they want to stay in education, and your interpretation of their motivation applies in their case.

A separate point about the attractiveness of Robert's idea for more privileged schools - if we consider the expertise of recent college grads in specialized fields like microbiology, art history, etc - this expertise could be used in schools that are able to offer advanced science electives. Many tony private high schools already bring in recent college grads to offer such electives, and other publics might jump at that opportunity.

Great comments, and I appreciate the care people have put into dissecting my modest little proposal, for and against. Two things I'd like to inject. First, my attempt at humor in my original memo led to the mistaken impression -- my fault entirely -- that I'm proposing a pinch-hitting arrangement only with affluent schools. Allowing new teachers in alt cert programs like TFA to cut their teeth in *functional* schools would be fine. Naturally, there are more functional affluent schools than in low-SES areas, but the same principle applies. Experienced teachers with the right makeup to function in challenging environments are the target, and TFA is clearly good at identifying those characteristics.

Eduwonkette is right that I'm not suggesting a wholesale change in the TFA model. The real opportunity exists with those who might make a longer than two-year commitment, as about a third of TFAers do. Have them spend two years learning their craft, then transfer to high-needs schools.

But here's, in my opinion, the hidden strength of this proposal: by having master teachers, the so-called "TFA Fellows" in the same school with the earnest neophytes, you add a vital layer of support. Formal mentoring programs, where a mentor teacher visits your room every few weeks too often become yet another person to whom the new teacher feels accountable. And the very mindset--the exceptionalism--of alt cert programs tends to create a mild (and sometimes not so mild) adversarial tension between the new teachers and the veterans. By having a like-minded master teacher in the building with the first-year alt cert recruits, you'd in effect have an onsite den mother to help guard, shepherd and guide the new teachers, when it's needed, not just when its scheduled. That guidance from an experienced colleague, available at all times, would be priceless.

Why can't we just get along?

Seriously, we need a Marshall Plan for Teachers and we need a Marshall Plan for Principals. Or better yet, let a multitude of flowers bloom with multiple Marshall Plans. We can use ALL of the talent that Linda Darling Hammond AND Wendy Kopp can inspire and train. We should then keep our eyes open for the full range of people with the talents needed for high poverty schools.

First, take a look at the adults who are in every building and attract sudents. If the cafeteria lady, the bus driver, the security guard etc. does not have a college degree but has a talent with kids, let's recruit them. As Margo has argued in a separate blog, poor kids need help decoding the "hidden rules" of academic success (not Margo's phrase but Ruby Payne's). People from the community can help play that parental role.

Then think of other institutions that have demonstrated success in translating complex knowledge to the public in a holistic manner. Whenever middle class families go to a national park, how often do they learn from a park ranger who would be a great inner city teacher? Why not create a two way street? Have our national parks draw upon their fabulous curriculum and train teachers, while also bringing urban kids to the parks?

Think of the resources at NPR and PBS and the Smithsonian. Why not take a page from TFA and have those institutions help develop teachers who could teach Multimedia I, Multimedia II, Multimedia II and IV? I want a teacher trained by a Hip Hop museum who can use multidisciplinary methods to teach language arts. Why not recruit some kids with digital talents to create a video gaming curricula?

As the Baby Boomers mature (being 55 I'll start maturing soon) this could give our generation a last chance. Too young for Mississppi Summer? Join the civil rights movement of the 21st century (and its not near as dangerous)

Let's draw on the greatness of American Democracy and stop quarreling over who loves our kids more.

Wow. Seldom have I seen so many assumptions assembled in one place. Here's the one that troubles me most (from Margo/Mom, re: experienced teachers)--

"by the way, they are generally clue-less about most of the daily realities, lingo and customs of their students--who or what is going to bail them out when nothing that they learned in their old setting applies to the new one?"

Who are these useless teachers? I am a teacher, and I know literally thousands of teachers, many of whom work in some the most difficult schools in America. Teachers who choose to work in challenging schools (which are not, by the way, exclusively urban) do have a clue about the working conditions there and the societal problems reflected in what students bring to the learning process. Since we are talking about a hypothetical teacher population in this thought experiment, it seems a little hasty to condemn "suburban" teachers who would willingly share their accrued instructional expertise as downright dumb.

Again--if nothing that a teacher in a more advantaged school knows about teaching applies to teaching in our toughest schools, we're in such trouble that nobody (including a freshly minted Yalie) can make a difference. And that's patently untrue. My teacher buddies who make a difference in Detroit every day, against huge odds, would agree. Good teachers matter more than anything else, although leadership is a close second. And any way we can get high-quality people into tough schools is worth considering.

There is a difference, however, between taking a highly coveted and selective position (construed as missionary work) for two years, before graduate school --and signing on for a couple of decades working against the odds. The first is an adventure, the second is a professional commitment. And that's the real prize, the only reason to believe that schools can be turned around and made functional in neighborhoods that have been abandoned by other social supports.

John is correct--let a thousand pilots bloom. Offering experienced teachers a chance to teach in a different environment without severing their current positions is a great idea. And Robert is also correct--pairing novice teachers with high-quality veterans improves retention and efficacy. And aren't those our goals?

I've been trying to find the words to express what Nancy did: "There is a difference, however, between taking a highly coveted and selective position (construed as missionary work) for two years, before graduate school --and signing on for a couple of decades working against the odds."

One of the not so hidden aspects of the debate over TFA is the conclusion that all those people who spent decades working in these schools are failures and are the cause of the achievement gap. Do you think there is some resentment over the attitude that their struggles and all their experiences can be dismissed so easily?

The fact that it is a given that most TFA's will leave after such a relatively short time does rile experienced teachers who know full well TFA's never had the chance to develop deeper understandings but will go on to make ed policy based on such a small slice. This will ultimately be harmful to the very children they are trying to save.

There's nothing like seeing what happens to your students years after you have them - students who did make progress in your class – to give you a deeper understanding of the enormous gaps that go beyond the achievement gap. Sure, try to close that gap. But do not sit still while all the other gaps get larger. To engage in that struggle, you have to stay and work at the grass roots level for change beyond trying to pump up a test score - and yes, those great scores kids get in the 4th grade can tend to sink back a few years later - even if the kids have all TFA teachers. But most TFA's will not be around to find that out.


I didn't mean to offend, but I thought that the topic had to do with whether teaching at a suburban (actually the term used was "functional"--which I find to be sort of obtuse) school was good preparation for teaching in an urban school. Having made the the transition in the opposite direction at one point in my life (I thought it was going to be like going back home!), I can tell you that the two cultures have many differences. The means of communication with the community are different, the expectations are very different (in one I was considered to be hired help, in the other I was a person with valued opinions). There are language differences. In one setting parents wanted their children to be "with their friends," in the other there was a much stronger preference for connection to family members to watch out for one another. In one setting disagreements were very direct. In the other you might never know what hit you when you crossed someone.

Unless someone has spent a good bit of time in cross cultural situations--teasing out the differences and really getting to know one's self in the process--it is the rare person who can move from one to the other seamlessly. When you pile on top of that the fact that suburban and urban areas are divided economically by design--which is at least silently acquiesced to by those who live there, there is more than a little inner conflict likely to be faced.

Hi Margo.
Of course there are cultural differences in advantaged and disadvantaged schools-- there are also differences between two schools in the same system, with the same kids. Leadership matters, and who's teaching matters, and the vision they have for what a good school looks like and achieves matters. Even best-case schools in tough areas--a Central Park East in Harlem, for example--deal with crumbling families, crime and extreme poverty. But the vision for the school was built on collaborative, selective staffing, building a workforce with a common vision and commitment, not a revolving door of bright ivy leaguers. All schools need the energy of new teachers. But perhaps only functioning schools can readily absorb their inexperience and help them fill tool bags with useful strategies.

Any experienced teacher going from one educational setting to another would certainly prepare and would expect lots of transition issues. And who said the transitions would be seamless? If someone is going to step into a challenging situation, far better that the person have *some* experience. Frankly, I worry about TFA graduates who go off to write about education policy, believing they've experienced the "real world."

And I like "functional" as a descriptor. Not all suburban schools function well (although they hide their dysfunctions better)--and there are functioning schools (you know, where kids are learning and growing in a safe environment) in places you wouldn't expect.

I have no arguments with anything you said in your last post--but I am very sensitive to knee-jerk, unexamined critique of veteran or long-term teachers. It has become kind of hip to take regular potshots at teachers, to express disbelief that a large majority of them are, in fact, competent and enthusiastic about their work.

(Aw man, late to the party.) Hi Nancy, what's up?

I respect your desire to protect certain segments of the teaching population from pot-shots, and to generally watch-dog the representation of career teachers, but we once we're done with that and on solid ground, we can go back to the original issue: Teaching in Oakland County is not the same as teaching on the other side of 8 mile, y'know. And this has relatively little to do with parents, expectations, and blah blah blah, and rather a lot to do with how the technical applications of teaching and learning vary from an affluent surburban context to a low-income urban one. I could give a variety of examples that could stretch on for miles, but a short list would include the role of skill-based diagnostics, formative assessment, classroom management and culture, how you work with standards when no one can do the standards, and the critical importance of differentiation abilities. This isn't to say that suburban teachers somehow don't do those things, but it is to say that they do them VERY differently, assign different levels of importance, and do them at different frequency than a high-need urban educator. The job is different, and the importance of Kopp's response, and maybe TFA/ Teaching Fellows programs in general, is the way in which they acknowledge this, and alter training programs to reflect and prepare for these differences.

Suburban teachers can make this transition, and it IS a transition from suburban and affluent to urban and low-income, and not a transition from functioning to dysfunctioning; to suggest otherwise is to once again ignore or minimize the myriad ways SES, language, and ethnic diversity affect teaching and learning. First though, those teachers gotta want it. Do they and will they? Second, they need a transition program to help in the translation and reinvestment of the skills necessary to continue to be successful in a new context. Do we know how to do this?

We say that affluent kids have better teachers, as if talent is somehow attracted to zip codes. What we mean is the teachers of the affluent have a job description that closely matches their profession responsibilities; teachers of poor urban kids cannot say the same. This is a fundamental cleave, and until we acknowledge how manifestly different the job is, not in oh-your-car-got-keyed ways, but in terms of the technical delivery of knowledge and skill, and the assessment of same, we'd be hard-pressed to bring about better outcomes for those populations so many of us are so rightly concerned with.

Hey, KB. Better late than never. And, for the record, I don't teach (and never taught) in Oakland County. My district is classified as "rural"--it covers 83 square miles and busing controls everything. The work I love most passionately, however, is coaching teachers in Detroit who are pursuing National Board Certification--the only time I have ever experienced genuine collaborative professional learning, not fake "professional learning communities" which meet every Tuesday. I also work in NC with rural districts where up to 40% of the teachers turn over annually. So--I've never sat on the velvet throne of teaching. Honest. Not that it matters.

It's probably worth re-stating--this whole discussion is about a thought experiment: what would happen if we sent experienced teachers into tough schools, and replaced them for two years, with new-minted TFA teachers?

The suburban teachers you're saying are experiencing teaching as ed school says it's supposed to be? They're hypothetical, too. The only arguable question here is--would it be better to put experienced or inexperienced teachers in (likely temporary) teaching jobs in high-needs schools? It's really a dialogue about whether experience (combined with willingness) trumps inexperience (combined with willingness and TFA boot camp). You can't know for sure who would best survive, thrive and make a difference until you tried it. And it seems worth a try.

The model would certainly change the nature of TFA, as as Wendy Kopp conceived it, so it's not surprising that she thinks changing anything about TFA is a bad idea. It certainly would be harder to get Prestigious Grad School to be excited about offering you a full doctoral ride on the strength of your angst-ridden two years teaching Biology 9 at Grosse Pointe. But that's a different question--and the question here is, who is most likely to get up to speed quickly in a challenging teaching context?

Your response does point up the need for MUCH better preparation for teaching in diverse settings, something that I agree is poorly done, if done at all--and probably can't be truly learned without first-hand experience. And I personally don't believe for one minute that affluent kids necessarily have the "best" teachers-- committed, effective teachers often go (and stay on) in places where they get some respect for their hard work and creativity. Some of the worst, laziest teaching I have ever seen was overlooked for years because the kids had so many other social supports. If you're a better teacher now than you were six years ago, however, then you have to admit that putting experienced teachers with a passion for using what they know where it could do the most good into schools like yours might be a viable idea.

Hi Nancy,

I'm struggling a little with the reduction of this argument to: Does experience trump inexperience?

It's not the simple. And in that long foregoing post, I wasn't wandering off topic, but rather trying to make the case for why it's not that simple.

In a very general sense, yes, but it's not this automatic thing, and it's counter-productive to suggest that there is no, or so very little variation in the nature of the experience itself, that skills etc., just automatically transfer across the divide. Yes, I'm a better teacher now than six years ago, and if I taught in the burbs that would be true as well, but it does not necessarily follow that teaching in the burbs for six years makes me better suited to teach in a high need urban classroom than someone who's on fire to do the work, has received training specifically aligned to the needs of that environment, and will be supported by people who've walked that walk. Again, this argument does not disparage anyone; it does not make the case that we (that's a bigbig we) have failed to forcefully acknowledge the technical and skill-based differences in teaching that arise from these contexts, differences that run broader and deeper than talking to parents and getting the kids to sit down.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • TMAO: Hi Nancy, I'm struggling a little with the reduction of read more
  • Nancy Flanagan: Hey, KB. Better late than never. And, for the record, read more
  • TMAO: (Aw man, late to the party.) Hi Nancy, what's up? read more
  • Nancy Flanagan: Hi Margo. Of course there are cultural differences in advantaged read more
  • Margo/Mom: Nancy: I didn't mean to offend, but I thought that read more




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University of Iowa
Urban Institute study of Teach for America
Urban Institute Teach for America
value-added assessment
Wendy Kopp
women and graduate school science and engineering
women and science
women in math and science
Woodrow Wilson High School