Teach for America and the Future of Schools.
Aren’t we all Teaching for America?
By Bonnie Bracey Sutton and Vic Sutton
What’s the Problem? Teach For America, the New Kids on the Block
Teach for America is an organization you have probably heard about. My experience with them is that in the school of poverty that I worked in, there were so many immigrant kids I would stay to keep the computer lab open until about seven, because I only had 13 computers and we
had two kids on a computer during class. I managed to let them do that without a lot of trouble.
It’s amazing what you can do with technology as a tool even if the source is limited.
The Teach for America people and I came to an interesting solution, they started to learn the use of the software that I had, and asked to use the lab every day after school. That worked for me, and everything we did was legal. Most classes at that time had one computer and the software
I had was a collection of resources that I had purchased, or was given specifically for the lab or the school. The only software the teachers had was for older machines, so I would teach something but there was no place in the school where there were the same resources.
We became a team to give resources to the community. There was no friction. But they were not after my job.
Today we hear a lot about Teach for America (TFA) from the press.
TFA is a national teacher corps of recent college graduates who commit two years to teach and to effect change in under-resourced urban and rural public:
Here’s a snippet from the news to show the problem:
In Boston, TFA corps members replaced 20 pink-slipped teachers, says Boston Teachers’ Union President Richard Stutman. “These are people who have been trained, who are experienced and who have good evaluations, and are being replaced by brand-new employees.”
This month, he met with about 18 other local union presidents, all of whom said they’d seen teachers laid off to make room for TFA members.
“I don’t think you’ll find a city that isn’t laying off people to accommodate Teach for America,” he says.
In March, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools Superintendent Peter Gorman told board members he was laying off hundreds of teachers but sparing 100 TFAers because the district “made a commitment to this program.” Gorman noted that TFA teachers “are placed at schools with high populations of underprivileged students where the placement of personnel has proven to be difficult.”
A friend shared this on Facebook with me:
“In 2008-09, Miami-Dade hired NO new teachers… except for the 30 who were contracted to come from Teach for America. In past years, they had hired about 1,000 new teachers each fall for this massive school district.”
What that meant was that local kids who graduated from colleges in south Florida–who tended to be Hispanic or black in greater numbers than typical graduates of teacher education programs–did student teaching in the spring but didn’t get jobs in schools where they had proven themselves. How do you pay your student loan without a job?
It also meant that older teachers DID keep their jobs, in this case. No easy answers when there just isn’t enough money to start with….”
So that’s the first dilemma.
The Culture of Teaching has Changed or Has To
I live in Washington DC. I am a teacher, and I worked in the schools there briefly. I got thrown out, or escaped is more like it. I was innovative, creative and motivated. Not a problem, I went to Arlington, Virginia where I was welcomed and nurtured. In DC for a while I beat the odds, and was left alone. But to be an innovator in education used to be… used to be asking for trouble.
Now there is a whole new set of young teachers coming from Teach for America with innovation, education from the best schools, and solutions. And the national need is for innovation, imagination and reconstruction of schools. How lucky they are! What a contrast and a problem for those who did what they were told and now are having to find a way out of teaching. Some reward for standing in the places where before TFA most people feared to tread. But life is not fair.
There is the hidden racism that some bring up. That’s because the Teach for America crowd is seventy percent white. That makes for problems that people who are not minorities don’t discern, but most don’t voice the thoughts. We all know that change has to come. Separate but equal never worked but those who were taught under that caveat have not all died. Many good schools of education have not changed and so it is not just a racial problem. Can we call it an academic divide?
There is a darker side according to this article from CNN:
“Not so fast, says John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association, the USA’s largest teachers union. Last May, he sent a memo saying union leaders were “beginning to see school systems lay off teachers and then hire TFA college grads due to a contract they signed.”
“Wilson says TFA hurts children by bringing “the least-prepared and the least-experienced teachers” into low-income schools and making them “the teacher of record.”
“TFA, he says, has “done a marvelous job of marketing their program and branding their program — you cannot take away from their business model. But what they’re doing to poor children is malpractice.”
Only 29% still teaching
“Detroit teachers union President Keith Johnson also put it bluntly last April, calling TFAers “educational mercenaries” who “ride in on their white horses and for two years share the virtue of their knowledge as a pit stop on their way to becoming corporate executives.”
“Actually, only 4% eventually go into business, according to a 2008 survey. About two-thirds remain in education — mostly in administrative or political jobs or working with policy or charitable groups — though overall only 29% of alumni are still in the classroom. That’s a bit lower than the USA’s overall teaching force, about one-third of whom quit within the first few years. By the end of five years, recent research shows, nearly half of new teachers leave the profession, though overall about 40% of teachers’ college graduates never enter the classroom— period.”
So we have a problem to solve.
How Do We Get Change?
You’ve seen Ms. Rhee stand with a broom in her hand on TIME Magazine. Teachers have had to walk the plank under her direction. She probably doesn’t know or care about the past struggle of teachers within the bureacracy of teaching and learning. Surely a lady who mocked those who came from institutions of learning much more equipped to make change, and motivated to be a dragon slayer, or shaker and mover has no idea how the schools came to be the way they are. Not her job. Not her task. But whose job is it to create fairness? You know that the children need change, We know that the schools must be changed.
What if the standing teachers were retrained, retooled and readied for the world of education today? We need all of the teachers we can get. If there is money for huge salaries, can we not sustain the salaries while we reorganize and make a level playing field for those who have invested their life in education, even if it is not an easy task?
To quote the CNN article again:
“The good news in the downturn: despite a lingering recession, state budget crises and widespread teacher hiring slowdowns, Teach For America (TFA) has grown steadily, delighting supporters and giving critics a bad case of heartburn as it expands to new cities and builds a formidable alumni base of young people willing to teach for two years in some of the USA’s toughest public schools
“Nationwide, about 7,300 young people are expected to teach under TFA’s banner, up from 6,200 last year. TFA is expanding from 29 regions to 35, including Dallas, Boston and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
“But critics say the growth in many cities is coming at the expense of experienced teachers who are losing their jobs — in some cases, they say, to make room for TFA, which brings in teachers at beginners’ salary levels and underwrites training.”
Remember the word training. Think digital natives, digital immigrants and teachers taught in the ways of yesteryear and probably professionally developed by people within their system. All school systems do not prepare teachers, or create the pathways to fluency, in the use of digital media. Most school systems
don’t know how to do this.
I don’t think there was a fancy name for it when I went to school. But I taught and got my scholarship to teach in Virginia many years ago. It was not ‘Teach for Virginia’, but it was a scholarship just the same. Just to an historic black university where I was taught to teach in their understanding of how teachers should be taught.
I don’t think there should be a smack down… one group vs. the other in teaching. There is such a need for teachers. I think we can’t throw away teachers because they don’t fit the current mold. We need to think: are there enough teachers in the Teach For America program to fill the need of our schools? and the answer is, certainly not.
We need to think: are there teachers who may need updating and professional development? It must be a terrible shock to be a teacher, feeling that you were well versed in your occupation, then to find out that in this digital age, in this testing age, in this more academic age, you have been weighed in the balance and found to be surplus material.
In high profile, Michelle Rhee stands as perhaps some model of the TFA initiative. In her pursuit for excellence in the DC Public Schools, she has had a lot of veteran teachers walk the plank. There may lots of teachers who are not trained in the TFA model. But I think pushing teachers out because they don’t fit the mold, or the new model, might be a mistake. Though it is not a racial problem, 70 percent of the TFA teachers are white. When employed it is said that they get more money.
We all know that there has always been pressure on those of us who stayed in teaching to ‘retire’ because our salaries , they say, drain the systems. Money?
No one came to teaching for the money. I hope they also didn’t come for the ‘summer vacation’. There may actually be places where there is a summer vacation. There are also places where a summer vacation is needed to recharge, refresh, recover and re-learn for the changing face of education in America. The longer you stay in teaching, under current funding structures, the more it caps your ability to ‘earn’ a raise.
What should be done for veteran teachers? It depends. Many veteran teachers who stand in the places of need, where angels used to fear to tread, came to teaching from traditional or minority serving institutions. They teach as they were taught. Professional development in many cases relied on in-house staff and the vision of the current thinking of that school board and system.
Most Teachers Leave after the First Three Years
Many teachers who survive the three year leakage of teachers bailing out of the profession learn to be like a yo-yo. There is a point at which the teacher has to decide: is it me ,or is it them. Who is doing this job and who knows how to do it best? The job gives some permissions but when I hear the blame being put on K-12, for not doing a job well, I think how the political forces, the budgets, the trends in education, the textbooks and vendors all influence what happens in that classroom. I have seen leaders like Norm Augustine worry about the quality of teachers in America. He is right to worry.
If teaching was a flight to a city all of the passengers would enter the plane and head for the cockpit to fly the plane. Of course the plane would never get off the group because there would be a fistfight over control. No ascent, no landing… no flight. Everyone thinks they know education and has a decided opinion, and there are fashions in education, just as there are in clothes fashion.
Recite for me: unit plan, open schools, team teaching, magnet schools, etcetera, etcetera.
Add STEM. Individual teachers can enhance, augment, add and create wonderful learning spaces but policy is national, state and local. A special layer cake I like has nine thin layers of cake and lots of chocolate. I can’t begin to tell you how many layers the teaching bureacracy has, but with no chocolate. If you are an elementary teacher, add the variety of subject areas and the traditional fights that go on, hands on vs reading science. Independent reading vs. phonic and other traditional methodologies,
geography if taught at all, vs social studies. skill and drill math vs problem solving. I think you get the drift.
But wait, there is more. There are social programs and community outreach that are fingers into the classroom. There are also pull-out programs in some schools, some for remediation, some for music instruction and so on. There may or may not be counseling programs and there is a small amount of sports. It makes for a very busy day. It makes for a crowded schedule, it makes for a lot of responsibility, particularly with NCLB. There is a lot of interference by people who really have never stood in a classroom as a teacher.
I once had a science supervisor who wanted me to teach by HER schedule. She wanted me to be on the page and lesson that she decided from her office. Managing to do that was just about impossible, so I let her demonstrate for me. When the kids who ‘helped’ with the K student in PE got up to go there for a half hour she asked: “Where are they going?” (the principal had volunteered them )
I said, “Well, come back tomorrow and we can try it again.” (The students who took flute had their lessons which were pull-out on that day.) I know you can see that she was frustrated and actually very upset that SHE could not manage the schedule. But I never said a word in back talk. She relaxed her schedule. You can’t even imagine the inane things like that which become a part of school culture. Teachers also tend to teach as they were taught. Most teachers are sheep because it works better that way. I don’t mean it as a denigration, but protesting is usually a problem. Think Margaret Spellings and science. Who protested? (I did.)
There are some incredibly gifted teachers in classrooms today. They probably have not had practice with the new Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy. They may not know it at all. The things we look at for tools of innovation are things that new and old teachers can explore together.
We need some transitional ideational scaffolding for teachers who have given time to work in classrooms, we need to think of a way to let them become a part of the teaching force that is considered valuable. There are things that we who have taught successfully, can share.
This summer, I taught with a friend. She and I had traveled India together. We had never actually taught together. We had the best of circumstances. We had all the resources, and then some and a budget. I annoyed her no end, with computer simulations, games, U-tube work and by letting small children work using the computer. She annoyed me by doing a lot of dittos with crayoning and by talking, talking, talking, talking. I guess you can say we did not have congruent teaching styles. She and I are the same age,so it’s not about TFA. The culture of teaching has been shaped by institutions.
I believe that we have not properly educated teachers for the schools of today, for innovation, excellence and or change. Perhaps the funding for highly effective teachers will fund ideational scaffolding and professional development courses for teachers old and new, and minority and majority, and STEM deficit and technology needy. Just a thought!! The schools of education could do a national outreach.