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The Dialogue Heats Up over Teach For America

A few days ago I posted this: Civil Rights Groups Press for Truly Qualified Teachers. I have hit a nerve, because the piece has gotten a number of comments. Last night some sharp questions arrived from a reader named Mike Hailey. I am interested in highlighting this dialogue, so I am going to post his questions and my answers here, and invite him to respond below.

Mike Hailey writes:

I have a couple of questions: First; Is the objection that TFA and other alternatively credentialed teachers are teaching in the classroom at all or that they have been designated as "Highly Qualified" teachers? Second; Who teaches these students if you successfully bare the above from the classroom? I will hold my comments pursuant to your answers. Thank you for a very thought provoking article

These are tough issues and I appreciate the questions. It is worth digging in to see if we can find answers that do not just paper over the problems.

Here is my objection. We have a problem in Oakland filling classrooms with teachers in the fall, because we have challenging working conditions for teachers and the lowest pay in the area. We have "solved" this problem by placing poorly trained interns in the classrooms, who turn over at even higher rates than teachers from traditional pathways. As I wrote in my earlier post, three years after they start, 75% of these interns are gone from Oakland. In my view this is a bandaid that fails to address the underlying reasons we have these unfillable vacancies in the first place. I can understand why the District has chosen this solution, but I think the high turnover has essentially been institutionalized as a constant condition in these schools, and I think that has very bad effects. In some of the low performing schools 40% to 60% of the teachers may turn over between one year and the next. This makes it very difficult to build a solid basis for improvement.

I have great respect for the Teach For America teachers I have worked with in Oakland. This is not meant as an indictment of them. I especially appreciate those who have stayed beyond two or three years, and joined in the professional community of educators at their schools and at the District level. I spent the past four years leading a program devoted to bringing experienced science teachers together with novices, including TFA interns, to support them and help them be successful. We made a dent in the turnover rate, but many of these interns never intended to stay in the classroom in the first place. This recent study indicates that fully 57% of TFA interns enter the classroom intending to leave after fulfilling their two-year commitment. And even among those who stay in education, many leave Oakland after getting their credentials. To me, it does not make sense to bring people into our classrooms who have no intention of doing more than two or three years of work there. We must invest a huge amount of time and energy in helping them with the basics of class management and curriculum, and just as they are becoming competent, they leave.

I think there are valid reasons for alternative certification programs to exist, as has been pointed out in the comments above. But I do not think we should demean the profession by calling people with six weeks of training "highly qualified." And I think, on the basis of equity and the civil rights of these students, Congress and the State of California needs to dig deeper to find ways to support Districts like Oakland so they can stabilize and build a more long term solution to the problems we face in retaining and developing strong teachers.

I want to be sure to directly respond to your questions. You ask:

Is the objection that TFA and other alternatively credentialed teachers are teaching in the classroom at all or that they have been designated as "Highly Qualified" teachers?

I object to the high numbers of alternatively credentialed teachers concentrated in high poverty schools for all the reasons above. In the context of the reauthorization of ESEA, which is intended to redress inequities in education, I object to Congress encouraging this practice by allowing these teachers to be designated as "highly qualified."

Then you ask:

Who teaches these students if you successfully bare the above from the classroom?

I believe Congress and the State of California need to take a hard look at the challenges that high poverty districts like Oakland face, because our District is hardly unique. We need a greater degree of support for the large number of special education students, English Language learners, and high poverty students. These students require a greater level of support than is currently provided. If such support were forthcoming, perhaps Oakland would not be among the lowest paid districts in the Bay Area. If pay were competitive, as it was a decade ago, experience shows us that turnover would drop and much of this problem would go away.

So the answer to your question is that we need to work to create schools that are capable of retaining teachers, through the combination of decent pay, good working conditions, strong collegial support, solid leadership and sound educational policies. If we have done this, we will build a profession, and not be relying on people recruited to be short term heroes in a flawed system. Instead we will have people who actually want to be teachers as their career filling our classrooms. The schools attended by the wealthy and even the middle class demand this. I do not believe we should accept anything less for schools attended by children in poverty.

Current education policy does not seem concerned about the issue of stability and retention, especially at our low performing schools. There is an attitude of disrespect towards teachers who work there, as if they are the reason for the low performance of their students, and thus we are better off with a situation that churns the staff. Many of the "solutions" the Department of Education mandates for chronically low performing schools require at least half of the staff to be fired or transferred. And most of the emphasis of our policies focuses on test scores. As I suggested in my post, there are many qualities of a good teacher that are not reflected in tests, that take years to develop. Designating interns with little training or experience as "highly qualified" seems to fit this pattern of disregarding the need to build stability at low performing schools as one of the conditions for improvement. And defenses of these practices that are based on the test scores these teachers achieve fail to recognize the other dimensions of good teaching that are not measured by these scores.

In my view, it is our job to seek the best possible solution for our students. I do not believe we have that with the status quo of high turnover, and the band-aid offered by Teach For America and other programs playing this role.

What do you think? Should stability and teacher retention be a higher priority? Should poorly trained interns be designated as "highly qualified teachers" and be placed hard-to-fill urban classrooms?

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