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TFA: Don't Forget the Motor City

Contrary to popular opinion, there are lots of great teachers in Detroit.

I've been invited into their classrooms via videotaped lessons and face to face visits--and I've read analyses of their learning goals, student achievement and moment-to-moment teaching decisions. I've heard countless heartbreaking stories, and led professional development workshops that felt like old-time revival meetings, DPS teachers holding each other to high standards when nobody else seemed to care. The only triple-certified and triple-renewed National Board Certified Teacher in the country--Mary Edmunds--teaches chemistry in Detroit, and the 2007 MI Teacher of the Year, Kim Kyff, teaches at Jamieson Elementary, recently featured on NBC Dateline's "City of Heartbreak and Hope."

I know the bad news about Detroit schools, too, like the NAEP math scores, the half-empty buildings and random, hideous violence. I trust what Detroit teachers tell me about their schools--the good and the awful--and the teachers I know think Robert Bobb has done a pretty good job of trying to get a handle on a mess of gargantuan proportions. Having Bobb running the show, one NBCT told me, was like having four superintendents at once, kicking butt and taking names.

And now, Robert Bobb is laying off 2000 DPS teachers--and replacing a couple dozen of them with Teach for America corps members.

Scene: Last fall, at the MI Association of Public School Academies conference. A panel featuring an array of high-profile leadership figures in Detroit is asked about the most effective strategies for fixing schools in Detroit. Surprisingly, nobody mentions more charters. One of the panelists suggests that Teach for America would make a big difference. A former corps member herself, she refers to TFA as the Peace Corps of Teaching.

Q from the audience: Wow, that sounds great! What special training do TFA members get before they come to Detroit? Special classes for working in tough urban districts? Do they student teach here first?

Panelist: Ummm. Well, there's this five-week summer seminar called Institute that's, like, intense. But mostly, they're graduates of top colleges who have to compete to get into the program. They're the best and the brightest!

Sitting at a table with several DPS NBCTs and a Milken winner, I hear one mutter something about also being the cheapest. And--in the end--it is about money, more or less.

In the most economically depressed city in the most economically depressed state, it has to be about money. We all get that. That Milken winner? Laid off. A leader has to do what's necessary to keep the doors open and the buses running.

But why isn't Bobb replacing expensive veterans with first-year certified teachers trained in Michigan universities? Michigan exports more than half their new teachers, many of whom did their student teaching in Detroit or other urban centers here. These are young people who plan to stay in Michigan--and teach--for the long haul. Can't we form our own...corps?

It costs an additional $2000/year to hire a TFA teacher, and the money goes straight to the Teach for America organization. So it's actually cheaper to hire a home-grown trained and certified teacher with relevant field experience. And, despite some unsubstantiated and flat-out deceptive rhetoric from the Detroit News, there is little evidence that TFA teachers are the "Marine Corps" of teaching.

I don't get it. When did retaining the most promising teachers become a liability, rather than a goal?

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