Veteran teachers for America

Teach for America should stop sending neophytes into tough inner-city schools, argues Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. Instead, let recruits learn to teach in high-performing schools “as pinch-hitters for some of our best, most experienced teachers.” Send the master teachers to the tough schools for two-year stints with bonus pay.

Our toughest schools are no place for rookies, even well-educated, data-driven rookies. Being a first year teacher in a tough school makes for great memoirs, but all the good intentions and Ivy League degrees under the sun don’t make you a great teacher. We’re certainly not going to turn around thousands of underperforming schools on the backs of 22-year olds.

. . . Our kids who are furthest behind would get what they really need-the best teachers, not just the best-intentioned teachers.

Some TFA teachers would leave after two years; others would be prepared to handle tougher teaching assignments.

TFA chief Wendy Kopp responds:

It is a rare person who has what it takes to excel as a teacher in a low-income community, and it’s not at all a given that teachers who do well in more privileged communities will do well in urban and rural areas. . . The individuals who come to Teach For America are coming because they want to work with the nation’s most disadvantaged children (and it is unlikely that most of them would decide to channel their energy toward teaching in more privileged contexts), and in fact their motivation to level the playing field for them is one reason for their success.

I’d prefer to see first-year teachers work as assistants for master teachers before getting their own classroom. Maybe having an assistant teacher to share the workload would serve as a lure to get experienced teachers to commit to high-need schools. Asking TFA recruits to commit to three years of teaching would screen out those most likely to leave the profession.

But teachers who might choose a difficult teaching job won’t choose an impossible job. If the high-need school is chaotic and dangerous or if it’s all fads and no substance, people with choices won’t choose to be there.

Education Next hosts a TFA debate and Eduwonk wonders why the education industry doesn’t try to replicate a better mousetrap.

Update: New teachers say they’re unprepared for the diversity they encounter in their classrooms, reports Public Agenda.

Update II: On a New York state English exam, students were told to listen to a speech by Wendy Kopp, who founded TFA, and write about why young leaders don’t need experience. Disagreeing with the thesis was not an option. Skoolboy provides an example of an essay that got the top score.

About Joanne


  1. I have taught in an inner city school for 19 years, and I am very good at what I do, as shown by my students’ test scores. I think veteran teachers should step into those difficult jobs and provide very good education for those underprivileged students. Those of us who do stay and keep doing a good job in the toughest schools need to be paid a bonus for each year we stay.

  2. Miller Smith says:

    Let’s do it! Now how much pay would I have to get to go into West Baltimore? Hmmm. Double my pay plus 10% would make that $154,000 per year.

    I also have working conditions demands. Secure monitored parking. Security in the building until 6pm with teachers escorted out at 6pm. Violent children removed and not brought back until they have been through treatment and a government all authority takes full tort responsibility for any damages caused by the children. Strict enforcement of the student code of conduct.

    Now that is just to get me to come in the morning, do my basic jobs of chemistry teaching, and then to go on time. If you want more, that will be extra.

    Full travel pay at 50 cents a mile will also be required. And a fully stocked chemistry lab with all required and needed equipment. AC and heat. Clean building. Technology at the ready. WiFi and a free computer laptop.

    And cops…lots of cops. Stationed on each floor at each end and everywhere there are blind spots. My school would need 12 cops to do this. Radio in my hand and a panic button around my neck.

    You think I’m kidding? I am talking of West Baltimore! You saw it on national TV with the kids attacking the teacher and beating her on the ground with the cell phone video on youtube. Yep, that the one! The principal refused to even report that one.

    Baltimore City Schools has had a hell of a bad recruiting effort for next year due to the publicity of the attacks (yes, attacks). You can’t get the “best” teacher to go there due to the lack of administrative support.

    If admin would do the right thing you wouldn’t have to pay me all that above. But they won’t and they’ll just keep inferring racism towards all the white teachers who won’t even give an interview to the city.


  3. I’d prefer to see first-year teachers work as assistants for master teachers before getting their own classroom.

    Gack. What a monumental waste of time and money.

    If first-year teachers aren’t competent to handle a class on their own–and I agree, many of them aren’t–then they should be assigned home room duty to give real teachers more free time. They can be assigned all sorts of non-teaching jobs that will free up resources.

    In the meantime, they can spend time on their dime learning how to manage kids.

  4. And leave us not forget that there are professionals other then teachers in a school who can have a dramatic impact on the school environment. Anyone want to step up and recruit hard-nosed principals who are dedicated to running a good school and have proven their competence and dedication?

    Seems to me those “master teachers” might be a whole lot more effective if they had a “master principal” running interference for them.

  5. dkzody–why should they pay you more? You’re already doing the job for lower pay.

    It’s the same reason they may pay a bonus to a new math teacher, but they won’t pay one to me, an old math teacher. I’m already doing the job; they don’t need to attract and retain me, I’m already a serf to the district.

  6. Kopp is pretty right-on here. Kids in the suburbs generally receive better instuction not because suburban, affluent teachers are of somehow higher quality, but because the skill set on which they have been trained generally matches the daily professional demands of their job. The same cannot be said for urban educators, who are trained on a generic skill set and asked to undertake prohibitive amounts of on-the-job-learnings. While TFA provides scant preparation, it succeeds in providing folks with the necessary framework and predispositions in which to undertake and make sense of their on-the-job-learnings. This is far from ideal, but generally to superior to the bait and switch that occurs when teachers from traditional route realize they’ve been prepared to teach in Marin, not West Oakland, fail, and leave.

    Joanne’s suggestion about mentoring, while certainly more expensive, have been highly effective. Check out AUSL in Chicago, and BTR in Boston, programs that base teacher preparation on the medical residency model, and show high need urban teacher retention at the 90% and above mark, five years out. That’s huge.

  7. I’d like to challenge you on this TMAO. Exactly what is that “skill set” teachers in suburban, affluent schools have been trained in to which you allude? What is the specific training TFA corp members (“scant preparation?”) receive that their more experienced peers lack?

    If you’re suggesting that the difference is attitudinal, or personal makeup, then let’s define those too. If we take Wendy’s response as true–and I see no reason to disagree with her– that “it is a rare person who has what it takes to excel as a teacher in a low-income community,” the question becomes exactly what are those qualities, exactly how rare are they, and why do you believe those qualities are lacking in experienced teachers?

    Let me be clear. I like TFA a lot. It’s a great model. But you can’t discount and dismiss experience. I’ve worked with 50-60 corp members, I’d estimate. Some did beautifully. Most struggled. A few crashed and burned. I can’t accept the idea that once you’ve been a teacher for many years, you somehow lack the wherewithal to be effective for two years in an tough school, which is all my original proposal called for.

  8. Mark Roulo says:

    If first-year teachers aren’t competent to handle a class on their own–and I agree, many of them aren’t–then they should be assigned home room duty to give real teachers more free time. They can be assigned all sorts of non-teaching jobs that will free up resources.

    In the meantime, they can spend time on their dime learning how to manage kids.

    In other fields, it is common for newly graduated new-hires to not be ready to work on their own. At my company, for example, we make sure that the new engineers have a senior engineer who is responsible for ramping them up. We do *not* put them in a holding pen while they ‘spend time on their dime’ learning how to do their job. That wouldn’t work. I don’t see why a mentoring approach stops being a good idea when you move from engineering to teaching small children.

    -Mark Roulo

  9. Hi Robert,

    So we’ve got this group of skills that when applied effectively, compose the effective teacher. This includes the delivery of new information, the opportunity for practice, homework, some kind of assessment, and the ability to make sure a majority of the kids are getting all these things done a majority of the time. Most traditional route preparation programs provide prospective folks with an understanding of these skills and their application that is germane to a generic teaching environment, which generally, looks like an affluent suburb. What they don’t do (again, generally) is provide a reasonable, nuanced, and effective program for how these teacher-skills need to function in a high need urban classroom. What they don’t do is provide prospective teachers with the skills and dispositions necessary to mediate the myriad ways ethnic, language, and socioeconomic diversity effect teaching and learning.

    The jobs are not the same jobs.

    This is nearly self-evident, but a few examples of how the job differs: 1) the creation and use of skill-based diagnostics are critical in urban classrooms, when you cannot assume that 5th grade menas 5th grade skills; 2) so too, a powerful ability to provide differentiated instruction, and for the same reason; 3) the role of formative assessment; 4) creating and maintaining positive classroom culture; 5) requisite amounts of courage and resolve; 6) the type of groundwork (i.e. front-loading and scaffolding) that must occur prior to delivering new material. I could go on for quite a long time, but the point is that TFA training starts with the idea that the jobs are different — a point few programs ever reach — and proceeds from there. It also starts with the idea that this isn’t going to be enough for you; you’ll have to continue to get better, like, all the time if you want to really bring it. These are good things.

    I don’t know if it’s the rare person with the skills to make it. It certainly is the rare person who can figure out these skills on the run, absent effective and appropriate preparation. Because of our failure to acknowledge these fundamental differences and prepare teachers accordingly, we’ve created the conditions of rarity.

  10. Thoughtful reply, TMAO, and thanks. I never argued that the jobs were the same — they’re not, clearly. But I’m not sure that the picture you paint of traditional vs. TFA training obtains. I haven’t made a study of it. I went through an alternative certification program, not TFA, that by your definition was traditional (there was no obvious urban slant to it) and it didn’t differ terribly from the assessment/math methods and literacy course that I later taught to my TFA first years. I’ve never attended the TFA institute, but it sounded a lot like the Teaching Fellows program I went through — lots of classroom management, lots of nuts and bolts, lots of live fire in summer school.

    Again, I’ve not made a study of it (calling Eduwonkette!) but the work you describe — diagnostics and assessment, differentiation, classroom culture, etc. sounds like pretty standard stuff to me. We’re all data-driven now.

    While I know it’s not your intent, you help make my point for me when you note “it’s the rare person who can figure out these skills on the run absent effective and appropriate preparation.” Our best, most experienced teachers (and let me be clear, I don’t mean from affluent schools, but experienced teachers from *functional* schools regardless of SES). They don’t have to figure out these skills on the run because, well, they’ve already figured them out. The fewer the moving parts, the less there is to go wrong.

    In any analysis, it seems to me, the myth of TFA execptionalism is just that–a myth. If you can get bright, energetic college grads ready to make a difference in the lives of struggling students in 6-8 weeks, why can’t you enhance the effectiveness of bright, energetic veteran teachers in the same or less amount of time? If you’re saying conversely that experience is a negative in challenging schools, that’s quite a claim

    If TFA has patented the magic formula (a claim they’re surely not making), then let’s spread that genetic material more broadly.

  11. Hi Robert,

    Couple things:

    1) Fellow programs are also alt route, and rather similar in many ways to TFA (there’s quite a lot of inbreeding between TNTP and TFA). The difference between alt and traditional is not the urban slant — although so many alt route focus on urban prep that it comes with the territory — but rather the time and structure of the preparation.

    2) I’m not claiming experience is a negative. How could it be?

    3) You say you aren’t arguing that the jobs are the same, but later you throw out, pretty much, the key things that make them different. Yes there’s data in all schools; yes, there’s classroom management and assessment, but these things are fundamentally different given different environments. I think there exist more people that can successfully apply those essential skills in Westchester, than there are people who can apply those skills in the South Bronx.

    4) I totally agree that you can provide these skills, dispositions, and understandings to more experienced teachers. In addition to running a Fellows program in Oakland (OTF), I also directed a program called Oakland City Teacher Corps (OCTC). We do exactly that: recruit and train credentialed teachers w/o high need urban experience, and provide training and support to translate and redirect their skills to meet the rigor of Oakland classrooms. Although smaller than the Fellows program, I think OCTC has a far greater potential as it reverses the general trend in experience leaving high need urban schools — the exact problem your solution seeks to remediate.

    Nice typing with you.

  12. Miller Smith says:

    Demanding that verterna teachers be sent to troubled schools is code for ‘make white teachers teach in the hood.’

    It’s pure racism plain and simple. Rather than make the schools the oasis of excellence in environment and supplies with pay high enough to recuit anyone, we instead, in a roundabout way, call white teachers smart enough not to become targets racists.

    But white teachers aren’t hearing us when we call them names. they are deaf to our name-calling. They actually want to live.

  13. Walter E. Wallis says:

    How about requiring administration to relieve teachers of the disciplinary problems?