Last week on Corps Knowledge, advisory board member Kevin Huffman penned a piece that compared Teach For America to other traditional education programs in his state of Tennessee and across the country. If you haven’t read it yet, start there and come back in a few.
There are five questions that all teacher preparation programs should be able to answer. Some can answer some; few can answer all. But it’s my belief that all of us, collectively, should be pushing traditional schools of education to find out the answers to these questions before they attack other preparation programs like Teach For America. I’m laying them out here because I hope you will join me in asking them:
1. What are the student achievement results of the alumni of your program and how do they compare to the impact of Teach For America corps members and alumni educators?
Professors of education critique the length of pre-service training TFA corps members receive, but they don’t compare what actually matters: the amount of student learning in classrooms. The fact of the matter is that most professors of education won’t be able to provide this information because it isn’t something they or their programs track. You heard that correctly: by and large, traditional schools of education are not holding themselves accountable for student learning happening in classrooms taught by their graduates.
And why is that? Perhaps because traditional teacher certification programs, by and large, focus on quantity over quality, with studies suggesting that three out of four graduates have to determine their own teaching methods and less than 15% prepare their students to teach Common Core standards.
Those are among the reasons why Arne Duncan, AFT President Randi Weingarten and others have called for improvement. The point is underscored by Daniel Willingham, writing today for the New York Times states that only one in five teachers thought their teacher preparation “worked well” – primarily because it focused more on high-level theory than pragmatics and content expertise.
2. How many of their alumni teachers work in low-income schools and what is their average retention a) at the initial school they were hired at, and b) in low-income communities.
A common argument from critical professors of education is that they create “life-long teachers” who are retained in the system for longer than TFA corps members. Forget the ridiculous premise of this argument—that kids and schools are always better off having a teacher for decades, regardless of their ability, than one for a shorter time-frame (be they from a traditional or alternative certification program) who is a rock star and drives student achievement—it’s curious that professors of education don’t have this information readily available for their own institutions either.
Teach For America corps members are required, in most regions, to take the first job offered to them in a low-income school—a reflection of the philosophy that all students need great teachers and the focus must be on that rather than on teacher preference.
That runs contrary to the philosophy of most traditional education schools, where their alumni have full autonomy over where they choose to interview. So how many have chosen low-income schools? And of those, how many remain in their initial school?
It’s simply disingenuous to argue for greater retention for TFA teachers while saying that alumni of their own programs should have full freedom to change schools whenever they wish—something that may or may not be happening, but that they’re unaware of because they don’t collect the information.
3. What is the diversity of their program and what steps are currently underway to improve the diversity of their student body and to ensure there is a culture of inclusion?
Education professors often like to cast TFA corps members as a collection of privileged, white Ivy Leaguers, but the fact of the matter is that half of TFA’s 2015 corps are people of color and a third were the first in their family to graduate from college. That makes Teach For America one of the leading preparation programs for diversifying the teaching profession. Can the professor of education say the same about their own institution?
4. What do principals and parents think of their alumni?
For over eighteen years, Teach For America has collected surveys from principals regarding their satisfaction with TFA corps members, and the results have always been outstanding. Currently 90% of principals express satisfaction with Teach For America corps members and 87% believe their training to have been as effective as other new teachers. In a number of regions this year, corps members will directly survey their students and students’ families about everything from their satisfaction with the class to the quality of their relationship with the teacher. Are traditional schools of education doing the same?
5. Do you have a vision for educational equity in this country, based on the limitless potential of children?
Teach For America has one, whether or not the professors of education agree with it: in the short-term, we need high-quality teachers to work in partnership with other educators, families and communities to dramatically improve education for low-income students. In the long-term, we need leaders in many sectors (public, private, civic, social and economic) to challenge systemic injustices with an eye toward equity. Many Teach For America detractors assail some of our alumni for leaving the teaching profession. But our alumni are doing things like working for criminal justice reform, fighting on the Hill for expanded pre-K and wraparound services, opening medical clinics in low-income communities or working as public defenders or clerking for the Innocence Project. These people say we need “holistic” solutions to improve out schools, but when our alums enter the world to make that change, they attack them and it. You can’t have this both ways.
The truth is you shouldn’t expect an answer to any of the above questions. It’s more likely you’ll get the canard “we need to fix poverty first,” which translated into real-people speak is: “I don’t need to hold myself accountable for student achievement because it’s someone else’s problem to fix.”
You’ll find me on Twitter (@NedStanley) asking these questions of professors who regularly bash Teach For America.
I asked these very questions to frequent Teach For America critic and member of Diane Ravitch’s Network For Public Education Julian Vasquez Heilig, professor at California State University Sacramento. He was unable to answer but said he’d gather and provide the information.
It has now been 90 days without a response.
And earlier this week, I asked the same questions of Professor Eric Bybee of Brigham Young University, whose op-ed I responded to in the Salt Lake Tribune. Despite a lengthy Twitter conversation, he was unable to answer.
I hope you’ll join me in demanding otherwise. Perhaps collectively, we can convince them that they should do the hard work of studying their own institutions before launching attacks on others in an effort to supplement their Vitae and win points with their colleagues.
This post was written by NYCAN Deputy Director, Ned Stanley. He writes from San Francisco.