Earlier this week, Lyndsey Layton – an education writer who I respect – wrote a column on a new teacher training program being launched at Harvard. Layton dedicates the second half of her story to covering the differences between the Harvard program and Teach For America, and offers some of the ’en vogue’ critiques of the latter by citing an article written by a member of Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM).
Though not detailed in her piece, it’s worth noting that SLAM is a division of the national group United Students Against Sweatshops which has been in existence for nearly twenty years, but which only began attacking Teach For America in 2015 – the same year that the largest donation made to their organization was a grant from, wait for it, the American Federation of Teachers.
Layton’s column misses that around the time that collaboration began to occur between Teach For America, other education groups and the two national teacher unions on the #TeachStrong campaign, the USAS-sponsored campus events centered on attacking Teach For America also stopped.
Conflict drives clicks, so I can see why it’s worth setting up TFA and Harvard’s new program as opposed to each other. But there’s an irony here, given that nearly every Teach For America alum that I’ve spoken with since the initial announcement of Harvard’s new program has been incredibly excited about it – and that includes me. Here’s why you should be too:
1. SAME GOALS
Harvard’s new teacher prep program and Teach For America are founded on the same ideals and core values – an excellent education for every low-income student.
Layton writes that James Ryan, the dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education has three goals in the formation of this program: 1) improve the quality of classroom teachers in urban schools; 2) change the perception of teaching to one that’s a viable, high-status career; and 3) create a model that can be scaled and replicated.
Sound shockingly familiar? It should, because it’s largely similar to Teach For America’s mission: enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation’s future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence.
If Harvard’s new program is as successful as I hope, this is going to mean another major step forward to ensuring that there are more great teachers in low-income classrooms, today. In the longer-term, it should generate more pressure to change our system of teacher preparation, one that we’ve repeatedly argued is inadequate.
2. SAME DISRUPTION
Despite Layton’s buried lede, Harvard and Teach For America are more similar to each other than they are to traditional schools of education.
Though many critics attempt to portray Teach For America as the conquering horde, the fact remains that the program makes up less than 0.3% of the American teaching force, and less than 2% of new teachers hired each year. As for Harvard’s new program? With an initial cohort size of 24 or less, they’ll make up less than 0.003% of new teachers. What both programs get, however, is that every great teacher counts.
At the end of the day, what’s truly important isn’t the differences between the programs making up this small fraction of the teaching force, it’s how their approaches differ from the 98% of the teaching force trained through traditional schools of education. Especially if they are achieving better results in student learning, in principal/parent/student satisfaction and in retention in low-income schools.
Layton quotes Dr. Katherine Merseth, who conceived of the program: “You can talk all you want about teaching, but when you are teaching is when the growth curve is the greatest.” Behind that statement is an indictment of the status quo of teacher preparation in this country, and an acknowledgement that adult learning is best facilitated through the act of doing – accompanied by appropriate mentorship, reflection and action-oriented growth – as nearly all research on adult learning has concluded.
In a possible follow-up to her piece, Ms. Layton could contrast the two programs not simply with each other, but with traditional schools of education at large, and how both Teach For America and Harvard’s new program are a response to the shortcomings (ones acknowledged by Randi Weingarten, and her union, repeatedly) of these collegiate programs. After all, there are many questions that Teach For America has been—and Harvard will be—answering that traditional schools of education have failed to answer themselves.
3. THEY BREAK NEW GROUND
Where the programs do differ, there’s tremendous opportunity for collaboration and learning between the organizations.
The innovations that Harvard is bringing to its program are fascinating – including a five-to-seven year commitment for their participants and a preparation model that looks similar to a medical residency; one where the number of classes taught and the amount of independence in teaching those classes is increased over time. It’s going to be interesting to see if these innovations lead to vastly improved results. If they do, Teach For America should and will take the lessons learned and find ways to apply them to their own programming in a manner consistent with the organization’s own mission.
And Harvard, in turn, will be able to learn from the sometimes painful growth lessons of Teach For America – what sounds ideal with an annual cohort of two dozen may not work as the program attempts to scale and replicate at universities across the country.
Pedagogically, my hope is that the organizations will share teacher preparation resources broadly between them, alongside other partners. Teach For America can certainly learn from the pedagogical expertise at Harvard, and in turn, Harvard can learn from the vast investments Teach For America has made in culturally-responsive teaching and pedagogy over the last several years.
Most importantly, there will be learning through a comparison and contrasting of that most important thing: the results. As part of their new program, I hope that Harvard will invest in measuring the impact their participants are having on students, the retention of those teachers in low-income schools for the five-to-seven year commitments and the satisfaction of principals, students, parents and districts that their participants will work for. These are things TFA measures. And they’re measured because they matter.
That’s going to teach us all a lot – and not only will we learn further avenues to pursue alternative certification in this country, we’ll learn about how to improve teacher preparation as a whole.
This post was written by NYCAN Deputy Director, Ned Stanley. He writes from San Francisco.