« Is the Term "Lame Duck" Offensive? | Main | Halloween Edu-Parade, 2008! »

Where Do Teachers Come From? (Other than the Stork)


Recently, skoolboy’s students had a spirited discussion of Subtractive Schooling (SUNY Press, 1999), Angela Valenzuela’s wonderful book chronicling the social relations between teachers and students in Seguin, a Houston high school serving a high concentration of Mexican immigrant and Mexican-American youth. A central theme of the book is that teachers and students often fail to understand one another’s orientations and values, resulting in a kind of mutual alienation. Valenzuela, now on the faculty of the University of Texas-Austin (and founder of a blog on educational equity in Texas) demonstrated that students often felt that their teachers didn’t care about their family, community and national histories as Mexican immigrants with a strong attachment to Spanish language. In turn, many Seguin teachers felt that their students didn’t care about doing well in school. Both groups calibrated their effort and engagement with the other based on these perceptions. A particularly vivid quote from a teacher is: “’As if teaching were not enough to preoccupy myself with’ she sighed, and then continued in a more defensive tone, ‘It’s overwhelming to think that this is the level we’re dealing at, and frankly, neither was I trained nor am I paid to be a social worker.’”

In Seguin, it seemed that the teachers were often of a different social class and cultural background than their students. The process that yielded this outcome, and what might be done about it, were of great interest to my students. Students were particularly intrigued by the finding of the Pathways Project researchers, reported in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management in 2005, that most new public school teachers take their first teaching job near to where they grew up or went to college. In New York state, at least, 61% of the teachers starting their careers between 1999 and 2002 taught within 15 miles of their hometown (defined as where they attended high school or their home address from their college application). Eighty-five percent of new teachers in New York State began teaching within 40 miles of their hometown.

Alternate-route programs such as Teach for America pose an intriguing contrast, and the recruits to such programs probably weren’t very prominent in the Pathways data. TFA is highly selective, recruiting bright, energetic, and committed young people to teach for two years in a high-needs area, often some distance from where they grew up or went to college. (This should not be surprising, since many TFA recruits are graduates of elite institutions, and the high-needs communities that TFA serves send relatively few students to such colleges and universities.) But TFA’s practices create an interesting tradeoff: the recruitment process may select novice teachers who are predisposed to engage in the kind of caring teaching practice that Angela Valenzuela champions, while simultaneously parachuting these teachers into settings where they have little understanding of the cultural practices and values of the local community. The bounded commitment of TFA may be particularly problematic in such instances, as there seems to be little hope of cultivating an experienced corps of teachers with a deep knowledge of the local community if most of the novice teachers leave after their two-year commitments expire. Some TFA recruits do continue, but I haven’t seen data documenting how many stay in the same schools in which they began, building up the local knowledge that might enable them to sustain mutual caring.


It's not just TFA that has the elite students/lack of local knowledge trade-off. When I was in the NYC Teaching Fellows, I'd say that roughly half of the people were local and the other half were not. A lot more people start NYCTF with the goal of making teaching a career but, observationally, it seemed like those not from NYC originally were much more likely to head elsewhere after their two years (though, to be fair, a lot of the locals wanted to head to wealthier schools, charter schools, or suburban schools).

One local I taught with continually argued that NYCTF was making a mistake by recruiting such a geographically diverse bunch of people if their goal was to make people into lifelong NYC teachers. There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to doing it that way but I think he had a point.

Cultural difference between teachers and students is an ongoing reality, and one I believe that is best recognized openly. Just the nature of being employed as a civil servant in a neighbhorhood of blue collar or unemployed residents is a difference that is seldom recognized as a potential cultural barrier. I have certainly known some teachers raised up from the 'hood who were provided no more sensitivity to their students than someone who came from elsewhere and spent time learning about their cultural differences.

The culture shock experienced by TFAs is in fact real, no less than the culture shock experienced by an urban kid who begins college life at a state college. There is value in programs like TFA, even if they don't produce long-term allegiance to teaching in hard to staff schools. Every one of those teachers who goes through culture shock and returns to their home of origin take with them a new set of understandings--about themself and about others. VISTA has long done this, as has City Year. The people who come through these programs emerge with valuable understanding that ultimately affects their contribution where ever they are. Now--whether that is the best way to build the faculty at a particular location, I cannot say.

TFA is a great organization if you think of teaching as a community service credit to put on your resumé. It gives elite students an opportunity to feel superior to those of us who fought through the red tape of traditional certification processes. Of all the TFA teachers I've worked with in the last 16 years, not one of them is still in the classroom. The money wasted on those teachers could have supported thousands of teachers who actually wanted to teach.

It is time, I think, to consider not the "value added" by TFA, but to consider the "social value" added (or not)

Turnover is high everywhere, but among Teach for America, those two years are a magic line that few cross.

Most of us (teachers) come from different backgrounds than our students, but we have years and decades to learn about one another.

Without that extended time, with little promise of that extended time, what's a teacher's value?

We need to begin the process of weighing TFA against that question.

TFA seems to me to be a quick-fix (a la 'bandaid solution'), a way to get hard-to-staff-schools staffed (some may argue as glorified babysitters) and can be a 'rewarding' and 'eye-opening' experience for the TFA'er (not to mention look good on Ivy law school apps). All of this has substance and a place in social change, and surely TFA'ers can teach (perhaps some better than others) and the bottom line is we need teachers, sometimes anyone, in hard-to-staff classrooms. The problem is that it can not be and should not be a larger policy solution to staffing teachers (especially those qualified, experienced, culturally sensitive) in hard-to-staff schools. That is when TFA and other such programs become problems, when they are not seen for what they really are: temporary and expensive (especially in the long-term) bandaids.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Brittany: TFA seems to me to be a quick-fix (a la read more
  • Jonathan: It is time, I think, to consider not the "value read more
  • Loren Steele: TFA is a great organization if you think of teaching read more
  • Margo/Mom: Cultural difference between teachers and students is an ongoing reality, read more
  • Corey: It's not just TFA that has the elite students/lack of read more




Technorati search

» Blogs that link here


8th grade retention
Fordham Foundation
The New Teacher Project
Tim Daly
absent teacher reserve
absent teacher reserve

accountability in Texas
accountability systems in education
achievement gap
achievement gap in New York City
acting white
AERA annual meetings
AERA conference
Alexander Russo
Algebra II
American Association of University Women
American Education Research Associatio
American Education Research Association
American Educational Research Journal
American Federation of Teachers
Andrew Ho
Art Siebens
Baltimore City Public Schools
Barack Obama
Bill Ayers
black-white achievement gap
books on educational research
boy crisis
brain-based education
Brian Jacob
bubble kids
Building on the Basics
Cambridge Education
carnival of education
Caroline Hoxby
Caroline Hoxby charter schools
cell phone plan
charter schools
Checker Finn
Chicago shooting
Chicago violence
Chris Cerf
class size
Coby Loup
college access
cool people you should know
credit recovery
curriculum narrowing
Dan Willingham
data driven
data-driven decision making
data-driven decision-making
David Cantor
Dean Millot
demographics of schoolchildren
Department of Assessment and Accountability
Department of Education budget
Diplomas Count
disadvantages of elite education
do schools matter
Doug Ready
Doug Staiger
dropout factories
dropout rate
education books
education policy
education policy thinktanks
educational equity
educational research
educational triage
effects of neighborhoods on education
effects of No Child Left Behind
effects of schools
effects of Teach for America
elite education
Everyday Antiracism
excessed teachers
exit exams
experienced teachers
Fordham and Ogbu
Fordham Foundation
Frederick Douglass High School
Gates Foundation
gender and education
gender and math
gender and science and mathematics
gifted and talented
gifted and talented admissions
gifted and talented program
gifted and talented programs in New York City
girls and math
good schools
graduate student union
graduation rate
graduation rates
guns in Chicago
health benefits for teachers
High Achievers
high school
high school dropouts
high school exit exams
high school graduates
high school graduation rate
high-stakes testing
high-stakes tests and science
higher ed
higher education
highly effective teachers
Houston Independent School District
how to choose a school
incentives in education
Institute for Education Sciences
is teaching a profession?
is the No Child Left Behind Act working
Jay Greene
Jim Liebman
Joel Klein
John Merrow
Jonah Rockoff
Kevin Carey
KIPP and boys
KIPP and gender
Lake Woebegon
Lars Lefgren
leaving teaching
Leonard Sax
Liam Julian

Marcus Winters
math achievement for girls
meaning of high school diploma
Mica Pollock
Michael Bloomberg
Michelle Rhee
Michelle Rhee teacher contract
Mike Bloomberg
Mike Klonsky
Mike Petrilli
narrowing the curriculum
National Center for Education Statistics Condition of Education
new teachers
New York City
New York City bonuses for principals
New York City budget
New York City budget cuts
New York City Budget cuts
New York City Department of Education
New York City Department of Education Truth Squad
New York City ELA and Math Results 2008
New York City gifted and talented
New York City Progress Report
New York City Quality Review
New York City school budget cuts
New York City school closing
New York City schools
New York City small schools
New York City social promotion
New York City teacher experiment
New York City teacher salaries
New York City teacher tenure
New York City Test scores 2008
New York City value-added
New York State ELA and Math 2008
New York State ELA and Math Results 2008
New York State ELA and Math Scores 2008
New York State ELA Exam
New York state ELA test
New York State Test scores
No Child Left Behind
No Child Left Behind Act
passing rates
picking a school
press office
principal bonuses
proficiency scores
push outs
qualitative educational research
qualitative research in education
quitting teaching
race and education
racial segregation in schools
Randall Reback
Randi Weingarten
Randy Reback
recovering credits in high school
Rick Hess
Robert Balfanz
Robert Pondiscio
Roland Fryer
Russ Whitehurst
Sarah Reckhow
school budget cuts in New York City
school choice
school effects
school integration
single sex education
small schools
small schools in New York City
social justice teaching
Sol Stern
Stefanie DeLuca
stereotype threat
talented and gifted
talking about race
talking about race in schools
Teach for America
teacher effectiveness
teacher effects
teacher quailty
teacher quality
teacher tenure
teachers and obesity
Teachers College
teachers versus doctors
teaching as career
teaching for social justice
teaching profession
test score inflation
test scores
test scores in New York City
testing and accountability
Texas accountability
The No Child Left Behind Act
The Persistence of Teacher-Induced Learning Gains
thinktanks in educational research
Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
Tom Kane
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