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What Is the Damage Done by TFA?

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Jack and Julian continue their conversation about Teach For America, focusing particularly on what damage, if any, has been done by the organization.

Schneider: I ended our last conversation with a question: To what extent has TFA shaped our weak national strategy for teacher recruitment and training? Maybe you can pick it up from there.

Heilig: There is no doubt that we need a national strategy to address teacher quality issues. I had high hopes that the U.S. Department of Education would take a careful look at the expert discussion on this issue in The Equity and Excellence Commission's report For Each and Every Child. Instead of modeling successful approaches, though, they ignored and/or buried the report and instead focused on requiring value-added models.

I do believe that the attacks on traditional teacher education are purposeful. No one can profit off of traditional teacher preparation programs that exist in a university setting. However, they are finding a ready market by easily placing teachers directly into the classroom after selling a few hours of online teacher education product. The public discourse is so focused on teacher education programs, that we are sidetracked from the real issue which is the unequal provision of teachers who have been prepared unevenly in alternative programs. There are of course longstanding alternative certifications programs in New York, North Carolina and elsewhere that are resoundingly applauded. However the scale of those programs compared to the growth elsewhere in the uneven alternative education sector is disconcerting.

Schneider: I think it's misleading to say that this is about private interests, when it seems so clearly about ideology. Teach For America's backers are neoliberal bureaucracy-haters who favor business models and entrepreneurship. And disdain for college- and university-based programs (a bureaucratic monopoly, according to critics) long predated TFA.

Also worth noting is that it took a few years for the TFA marketing department to figure this out. At first they billed themselves as a domestic Peace Corps for education, which had a limited appeal. Eventually, however, they developed a message about cutting through red tape, seeking data-driven solutions, and employing management strategies. And that message had very strong traction with big donors—a group of self-styled "education entrepreneurs" that I wrote about in my first book—as well as with political leaders on both sides of the aisle.

Have some shady for-profit providers jumped into the mix? Certainly. But the original vision (flawed though it may be) was about bureaucracy-busting more than it was about corporate profits.

As for TFA's role, I think the damage they do is primarily a result of claims that their program is as good or better than college- and university-based programs. It gives these "entrepreneurs" a kind of credibility that they really don't deserve.

Heilig: In my view, TFA is a gateway drug. They are the unabashed leaders of a movement that says sending poorly trained, temporary teachers to poor kids is a civil right. They're given millions of dollars by foundations and billionaires to buy research to demonstrates that this approach has a "positive" effect on student achievement. TFA has also openly bought congressional staff positions on Capitol Hill; and they have a propensity for admitting corps members whose parents are in influential positions. TFA brilliantly plays politics. Then, what comes in their wake is a variety of programs and policies that have the same premise, send poorly trained and under qualified teachers solely to poor kids. We used to call this discrimination, but now we call it civil rights.

Schneider: TFA does play a brilliant political game; though I'd say the genius is the reverse of what you've described. It isn't who they recruit, it's where they send those people—into leadership positions in government, foundations, and the non-profit sector after their two-year service commitments. Those alumni have really helped to push TFA's agenda over the past quarter century.

As for buying research, I wouldn't go that far. TFA plays the same game everyone else does, highlighting the data that presents them in the best light. A classic example is through presentation (rather than manipulation) of data. You commented on it in your blog, actually. TFA just happens to be slicker, better funded, and more unified in its message than other organizations.

But let's get back to the initial question. Do you think teacher education in the U.S. would be better if we were to jump in a DeLorean, go back to 1989, and erase TFA from history?

Heilig: I think if TFA had reformed their reform over the long term, I could have answered that question in the negative. But because TFA has been so resistant to reforming their temporary teacher paradigm, I have to answer in the affirmative.

I believe that many passionate and well-meaning individuals have been and are involved with TFA—I count many of them among my close friends. I have made the case to them in private and publicly that it is incumbent upon them to reform their reform away from a temporary classroom teacher model. Marty McFly learned from his missteps over time, so could TFA.

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