Teach for America: When good news is bad

teacher and students

Teach for America (TFA), the teacher-placement and social justice organization venerated by some and maligned by others, is in the news once again. In March, Mathematica Policy Research released a report suggesting that TFA teachers perform just as well as their non-TFA counterparts, which predictably led to polemic commentary. With articles like “Teachers in Teach for America aren’t any better than other teachers” and “Teach for America Passes a Big Test,” writers responded with everything from questions of the validity of the study to “I told you so!”

Although I do have some thoughts about TFA (which I hope to share in future posts), I want to pause for a moment. Even if the Mathematica study were flawed, it strikes me as revealing that this is even a debatable question—that we even consider if novice teachers with only five weeks of pedagogical training (i.e. TFA teachers) can perform as well as teachers with at least four years of undergraduate teacher preparation. That this is even in the realm of possibility strikes me as a damning indictment of our teacher training system. If a five-week intensive course can arguably produce comparable results to a four-year university degree, there is something wrong with that degree: The two most obvious explanations would be that 1) its training is ineffective or 2) its students are incompetent. There are other explanations (e.g. we’re using flawed metrics), but the most apparent possibilities are that non-teaching degrees attract higher-performing individuals who then enter the profession through programs like TFA, or that teaching degrees are not actually preparing their students to perform well in the classroom.

My experience suggests that there may be some truth to both possibilities. Although my B.A. is not in teaching (I studied Italian and English literature), during both my undergraduate and graduate work, I took courses intended for pre-service teacher preparation. In these settings, I found myself frustrated with the low levels of rigor and usefulness of my classwork, and generally uninspired by my classmates’ engagement with the course material. This is not, of course, universally true and I have known inspirational pre-service teachers (not to mention many in-service teachers) and exceptional professors of education. However, by and large, my formal training in teacher education was in my estimation mediocre at best. So, while I do not intend to advocate for TFA’s training model, I think studies like this should force us to reexamine the traditional model. Obviously, something is not working.

If, as I believe, our current model is flawed, the questions remain: Why is it not working, and what should we do instead? In an upcoming post, I will attempt to answer these questions. In the meantime, I invite any interested reader to respond not only to this post in general, but to these remaining questions.



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