Why TFA is still needed...

This is a response (longer than their 4000 character limit could handle) to the posting at Education Week's TeachingNOW blog - see https://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teaching_now/2010/06/amid_teacher_layoffs_is_tfa_still_needed.html for the original post. First, some observations about TFA:
  • TFA has proven that you can take young grads from top schools with non-teaching degrees and make teachers out of them at least as good as new grads from teaching schools.
  • The TFA program appeals to participants' idealism and provides them an opportunity to spend two years in some of the most challenging school environments in the country.
  • After the initial two-year commitment, some fraction stay on because they want to devote themselves to making a difference from within the classroom.
The real strength of TFA is that the bulk of their participants return to the "real world" where they are likely to become part of the next generation of leaders (they did come from top schools, after all, with degrees that prepared them for something besides teaching). As they move into positions of responsibility (and power and wealth), they are better prepared to effect change (UPDATE: in education) than those captains of industry who never darkened the door of a classroom. Hasn't that been a big complaint of the teacher's unions and school/district admins - that those agitating for change "...don't understand what we do in the classroom"? By the way, there's another benefit - some of those who return to their original career path modify their goals based on their experience. A daughter of my closest friends, whom I've known since she was 2 years old, entered TFA after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard. This was a "pause" before entering medical school. She was assigned to the Recovery District in New Orleans to teach high school science - to kids who had never done a hands-on lab. She not only spent two years figuring out how to teach "beyond the textbook" (and classroom) but when she returned to medical school she redirected her path towards public health and intends to serve inner-city poor people with limited access to health care. She's still in school, but I expect her to join (or found) a clinic serving those in need. I would similarly expect her to be involved in improving the education of her school-age patients. This is only one data point, but it's a case where TFA has long-term ramifications for improving education beyond keeping a smart person in the classroom. Now, to answer the last question in the original post - Why can't education schools produce the kinds of teachers who would be qualified for those hard-to-fill jobs? The reason education schools can't graduate enough students for hard-to-fill jobs is that they have not proven that their graduates are competent to do anything other than teach! This would require the opposite program from TFA - taking ed school graduates and having them serve two years in industry before they enter teaching. Any takers in industry? Anyone want a freshly-minted graduate of an education school to work in your software company or law firm or hospital or engineering firm?? This fundamental asymmetry - coupled with the lack of employment stability (e.g., uneven revenues for districts coupled with last-in/first-out union contract provisions) - means that the best-and-brightest would be nuts to go to a school which only prepares them to teach! Any economically rational decision would lead you to avoid ed schools if you had a choice. The previous discussion refers to undergraduate programs, of course. How about graduate degrees in education for those with a bachelor's degree in some other discipline? The situation is different here - but still acts to suppress the number of qualified candidates. Consider someone who seeks an M.A.T. (immediately after their bachelor's or after a couple of years in industry). Can they take on additional debt for a job that pays less (and is less stable) than the one  they already have? Would a bank approve them for a student loan for the fifth year of education where their expected first-year income declines with the additional education? How about a joint B.A./M.A.T. program? This would substitute some of the normal "minors" courses that complement a major with courses to help you teach "minors". Such joint programs could be done in 4 years. This looks like a better solution. The young adult who is interested in teaching can tackle hard-to-staff positions (especially if their bachelor's is in math or science or some in-demand content area). They have taken on minimal additional debt. Perhaps there's differential pay for these hard-to-staff positions that raises the salary to the point where the perceived psychic rewards of teaching can make it more attractive than a starter-job in industry. Are education schools within strong universities developing these programs and partnering with their non-education colleagues? There are people like Eric Mazur of Harvard who are doing cutting-edge research on how to teach university-level subjects (Physics in his case). Wouldn't this be a fruitful collaboration that could simultaneously improve college and high school (and middle school) teaching? (Elementary school still requires some specialized training on how to deal with the very young whose cognition is radically different from adolescents or young adults.) Of course, it will hard to initiate and sustain a flow of great new teachers unless we replace the factory-worker/unempowered-laborer model with one relying on knowledge workers who are given autonomy to accompany their increased accountability. Perhaps the answer is staring us in the face - and we should simply restructure the profession to be like the Peace Corps (or like TFA!!). In this model, teaching is only a lifetime profession for some. Most sign up for a hitch of 4 years and then move on to something else. A few re-enlist and become lifers. You "wash out" those who aren't cutting it and won't improve; you conversely provide incentives to retain the very best and give them the opportunity to share what they've learned with the newbies to leverage their experience. This would require the abolition of tenure. Teaching would cease to become a lifetime profession for all but the extremely valuable (who take on a PD and/or oversight role as part of their duties). It becomes an attractive life-stage through which our best and brightest pass before moving on to other things. Gee - this sounds similar to TFA! I don't know if this is the line of reasoning Wendy Kopp used when starting TFA, but it implies that the long-term "win" for education is to make the customary teaching path more like TFA (instead of making TFA hew more closely to the customary path). Thoughts? Should we be thinking about restructuring the teaching profession to more closely match the path laid out by TFA? Remember that TFA doesn't dump-and-run its teachers on the schools. They form a community of practice and gather metrics to focus on improving the quality of teaching and the resultant student outcomes. Why don't education schools do this? Why don't B.A./M.A.T. programs do this?


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