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Better Off Without Teach For America?

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This week Jack and Julian look at Teach For America, beginning with an initial discussion of whether students in the U.S. would be better off if TFA had never existed.

Schneider: You and I have both written extensively about Teach For America (TFA). Readers can find examples here, here, here, and here. But though we've both been critical of the organization, we tend to take different positions.

I think TFA has a very real downside, primarily around their messaging. Listening to the TFA publicity machine, you might think there's nothing to learn in teaching, that our current teachers aren't smart enough for the job, and that there's no difference between an experienced teacher and an inexperienced one. That kind of baseless rhetoric has had a major impact on how people—philanthropists, the public, and future teachers—view the profession.

But I also think that TFA has some upside. Their corps members are preferable to long-term subs or emergency fill-ins. And they've done some interesting work in the area of teacher preparation—bringing greater alignment among coursework, practice teaching, and mentoring. So when people ask me about TFA, I tend to say that I'd support them if they brought the rhetoric in line with reality—if their message was something like: "we don't have the answers, but we're here to fill holes and build bridges." I could get down with that.

On the whole, however, I get the sense that you think the world would be a better place if TFA had never been created.

Heilig: TFA is an example of a solution being a part of the problem. Our current national teacher strategy in the U.S. can be likened to taking a plate of pasta and throwing it against the ceiling and seeing what sticks. Teach For America, with its high-levels of attrition out of the classroom after the two year temporary commitment exacerbates this issue for poor students.

We know from the data that about 50% of traditionally trained teachers remain in the profession after five years. By comparison, previous research on TFA has demonstrated that their attrition rate out the classroom to greener pastures (Note: I did not say in the "field" of education, a phrase TFA likes to use—meaning that corps members have left teaching and gone to graduate school, have begun working for an education-oriented foundation, etc.) is around 80%, though it varies by community.

The falling spaghetti is not just Teach For America. Almost 60% of all new teachers in Texas are alternatively certified teachers, which means they could have as little as 30 hours of training online before they enter the classroom. Alternatively certified teachers also have higher rates of attrition out of the classroom compared to traditionally trained teachers.

Our strategy in the U.S. is to send the least qualified teachers to the classroom as quickly as possible. Thus, the falling temporary teacher approach is essentially the antithesis of the national teacher strategies employed by the countries with the world's leading educational systems.

Schneider: I agree with you that alternative licensure efforts can be sloppy and insubstantial. Yet research indicates that the differences between alternative and traditional programs are less significant than the differences among alternative certification programs.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that alternative licensure programs are as effective as their college- and university-based counterparts. But it is worth noting that when we talk about the need to overhaul our approach to teacher education, we do need to include college- and university- based programs in that discussion. The best programs are fabulous. The worst are pretty bad. And there's a wide range in between.

You're right that our national policy is a mess. But how much of that can we put on TFA—even if we say that they've helped shape misconceptions about the time it takes to train a teacher?

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