It's the teachers

“The American system of education is broken,” writes Donna Foote, author of Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America, in Newsweek.

It’s the teachers, stupid! The single most important factor in student achievement is the quality of the teacher. And yet, we have no effective system to attract, train, retain and promote high-caliber candidates for our schools. Today’s teachers score in the lowest quartile of college grads and too many of the schools that train them are diploma mills. By making its program highly selective and attaching status to the job, Teach For America has proved that it is possible to get the best and the brightest into our classrooms. But no one — not TFA, not the districts, not the unions — has figured out how to keep them there. TFA’s most recent alumni survey indicates that one third of former corps members are still teaching K–12. Critics charge that the recruits’ short forays into the classroom exacerbate the critical issue of staff churning in our neediest schools and gibe that TFA really stands for Teach For Awhile. But the truth is, up to half of all the country’s 3.5 million teachers bail within five years.

To write about Teach for America novices, Foote became an “embedded reporter” at LA’s Locke High School. “At Locke, 1,000 ninth graders were enrolled in 2001,” she writes. “Of the 240 who graduated four years later, only 30 were eligible to apply to a California state campus.” Locke’s frustrated teachers voted to turn it into a charter school. Several of the TFA teachers in her book left Locke to teach at charters.

Some of TFA’s ex-teachers are rising to leadership positions, Foote writes. “Teach For America recruits can’t close the achievement gap, but its alumni might.”

Update: By the way, I’ve added Gary Rubinstein’s TFA Blog to the blogroll. An early TFA corps member, he has provocative advice for new teachers.

Update II: USA Today has an interview with Foote.

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Comments

  1. Why does she blame the teachers, and not the administrators? When I read teachers’ blogs, the thing that often seems to drive them crazy is lack of support from management, or even active harm done by management (eg enforcing crazy policies, setting up systems by which the teacher is interrupted continually during the day).

    I don’t see how paying teachers more and setting high standards for entry will stop those sorts of problems that teachers report from administrators.

    I may be wrong that the administrators are the problem, but the linked article doesn’t give me any reason to believe that teachers are the problem, not administrators.

  2. TFA strikes me as an effort to train the best privates for an army in which the office corp is indifferent to achieving victory and suffers no personal loss if the army loses battles.

    I suppose we’ll have to wait until it’s clear that TFA isn’t going to save public education before enthusiasm for TFA wanes. Then maybe some of those moneybags funding TFA will spend a couple of bucks to help open charters and fund lobbying efforts to loosen the caps on charters. Otherwise nothing much is going to change.

  3. She wasn’t “embedded”. She was soaked in the Koolaid and then let go. Nice objective reporting, there.

  4. Personally, I love teaching (admitted, I teach on an adjunct level at a very small state university). I found the practicum class that I was forced to take as a GTA a bit wanting…it was too theory-heavy with not enough practical advice. That’s what I’ve heard from all of my friends that teach K-12: all theory, no practical application of such, in pretty much every ed school out there. It’s difficult not to burn out when you don’t have more than theoretical know-how going into some of the situations that teachers face. In many ways, that probably goes double for TFA teachers.

    Maybe if we set up some type of apprenticeship programs with really good teachers after graduation from college, we could help the new teachers learn to cope with a real life class room, real life (and sometimes really disruptive) students, and real life administration, at least well enough to keep them longer than 5 years.

  5. TFA is not meant to train privates … it’s closer in model to the Peace Corps: adding energy to attack to real world issues in the short term, staying attuned to education issues across a career for the long term.

    Is the Peace Corps as a failure since not everyone stays in-country?

  6. To attack administrators would be to attack a group that is, in general, rich white Republicans. Foote might also take a look at the inane laws passed by politicians who have no knowledge of what it takes to provide a quality education.

  7. Well, Mike, let’s start with a simple question: How much money do you think you need per pupil?

  8. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Tracy nailed it. In the old Army we called it “soldiering” when you got no support from the ossifers and so went by the book.

  9. The ex-teachers I know left the profession primarily because they got fed up with all the micromanaging from administrators & bureaucrats and all the stupid red tape they had to deal with. TFA’ers may be particularly susceptible to this frustration given their backgrounds. If we empowered teachers to actually do their jobs with the minimal amount of interference warranted by their performance, we’d see much less turnover both in TFA’ers and the general teacher population.

  10. Rags,

    I need the money to meet 100% of the goals the politicians are setting forth.

  11. Ragnarok says:

    Of course, Mike, but how much do you need? A dollar figure is what I’m looking for.

    How much do YOU think is adequate?

  12. Ragnarok wrote:

    Well, Mike, let’s start with a simple question: How much money do you think you need per pupil?

    Har! Yes Mike, do tell us how much money would be enough.

    No one should hold their breath waiting for an answer.

    Crimson Wife(?) wrote:

    If we empowered teachers to actually do their jobs

    Got an idea of what the “empowering” policy is supposed to look like?

    I can think of plenty of great ideas but it’s execution that’s often the sticking point. So Crimson Wife, what’s this public education system look like? How’s it work? How does it differ, other then empowering teachers, from the current public education system.

  13. Andy Freeman says:

    MiT is back!

    In addition to a $figure, perhaps he’ll tell us how responsible teachers should be for student achievement and what criteria we should use to decide whether they’re meeting that standard. Yes, that criteria will be used to “let go” teachers who don’t make the grade.

    Surely he won’t argue that all public school teachers are adequate, so I’m just asking for how we should identify the inadequate ones so we can let them go and get other teachers. Or, must public school teachers who get tenure be retained regardless?

  14. timfromtexas says:

    Without a determination as to the specifics about what is wanted from the aministration, teachers students, without an established agreed to set curriculum, there is no product. Therefore, no evaluation of any kind.

  15. timfromtexas says:

    Teacher attrition is high, because there is no visible, conceivable product. How can anyone get inspired about any product without some conceivable idea of the product.

  16. timfromtexas says:

    It’s difficult to work in those conditions.

  17. Rags,

    Dollar figures will vary from place to place, which is why I stated the need in terms of the results expected. Perhaps you’ve heard the cost of living is different in various parts of the country.

    I’ve posted numerous times links to the judge’s decision about Texas education funding, where a study commissioned by the state found it was funding a 55% success rate. Based on the demands of the state and federal govt. this is obviously inadequate.

    The last figure I saw for the district I work for was $6200 per student, which was costs for ALL district students from PreK to 12. Using the state’s own numbers my district should have been receiving about 8900 per student.

    BUT as I orginally stated in this post, which if you’ll remember was about Foote blaming teachers for the supposedly horrible state of American education, adminstrators and politicians are to blame. If my district were to get an additional $2700 per student I’m sure they would use it to for something else other than student achievement.

  18. Andy,

    Ahh, the evil teachers’ unions again. You should do a little research on the state of Texas, where there are no teachers’ unions. Teachers are at will employees.

    But perhaps you can find comfort in the words of Foote, who presented absolutely ZERO facts to back up her claim of horrible teachers, while gushing all over herself about TFA.

  19. Andy Freeman says:

    > Ahh, the evil teachers’ unions again.

    The observant reader will notice that I didn’t mention unions at all.

    Instead I ask asked how responsible teachers are for student achievement, how we should evaluate teachers to determine whether they’re satisfying that responsibility, and what we should do if they aren’t?

    It’s interesting that public school advocates, like MiT, won’t even acknowledge such questions. MiT’s typical procedure is to get abusive – we’ll see if that happens this time.

    In case he needs an excuse, I’ll ask two more questions.

    Why are we spending money on public schools and what we should do if they don’t deliver?

    I don’t expect MiT to answer, so I’ll give him something to attack.

    My answers are educate kids beyond what they’d get on their own and stop giving them money.

    I realize that MiT may disagree that with educate kids. On the off chance that he disagrees with “if they don’t do it, stop giving them money”, I’ll ask if public schools are different or he thinks that other organizations should continue to get money when they don’t produce what they’re being paid to produce.

  20. Andy Freeman says:

    > If my district were to get an additional $2700 per student I’m sure they would use it to for something else other than student achievement.

    Fair enough, but that doesn’t tell us whether MiT thinks that his district should get another $2700 per student anyway. If so, why?

  21. Ragnarok says:

    Mike,

    I’m still waiting for you tell me how much YOU need in your school.

    Not some inexpert judge, but YOU!

  22. Rags,

    I think the $6200 for my school, if adjusted each year with inflation (including increases for transportation costs and food costs, not the way the govt. figures inflation) should be plenty for my school, especially if the district spent its money wisely, which it does not.

  23. I should add, the cost of living in my area is not high compared to most areas. A nice 3 bedroom, 2 bath, 2 car garage in a decent neighborhood can be had for around 100K.

  24. Margo/Mom says:

    Aw, geez Mike, you’re begging me to ask. How ought the dollars be spent. In other words, what should the district eliminate (the waste) and how should they spend those dollars instead (to improve student learning)?

  25. Catch Thirty-Three says:

    There are NO TEACHERS UNIONS in Texas, Mike? That is a boldfaced lie. I once knew a teacher who not only taught students but also was a union thug in her spare time!

    And, it seems that you fervently believe that if we just throw as much money at the schools as possible, the kids will just instantly become smart and the schools will magically fix themselves. Well, if THAT is the case, the schools in DC should be churning out vast armies of Shakespeares, Salks, Baarnards and Mozarts every single year. But they don’t. Why is that if money is THE solution?

  26. To attack administrators would be to attack a group that is, in general, rich white Republicans That’s a joke right? An ignorant, myopic, racist joke?

  27. Mark Roulo says:

    I think Mike means that Texas teacher’s unions don’t have the same power that they do in other states. I found this:

    Ten thousand members of America’s largest teachers union are in Dallas this week. But if they start looking for the union label, they could be searching a while.

    That’s because Texas’ teachers unions are among the nation’s weakest. A combination of state laws and large nonunion competitors has pushed them further into the background here than almost anywhere else.

    “People who are coming from union states are going to have real trouble understanding how different Texas is,” said Ignacio Salinas Jr., president of the Texas State Teachers Association. The 70,000-member TSTA is the state affiliate of the National Education Association, the 2.7 million-member union holding its annual meeting at the Dallas Convention Center.

    The biggest difference is the absence of collective bargaining, the traditional contract negotiation that goes on between a teachers union and schools. Bargaining over issues such as salary, benefits and working conditions is a given for teachers in most states.

    Texas is one of six states with no collective bargaining for teachers and one of two states that explicitly ban the practice by law. That makes some wonder why the National Education Association is coming to town.

    “Why are we bringing 10,000 delegates and millions of dollars of convention business to a state that denies the basic right of collective bargaining to its teachers?” said Louis Malfaro, president of Education Austin, that city’s teachers union.

    Nationally, the NEA and its smaller, friendly rival, the American Federation of Teachers, dominate the world of teacher associations. The vast majority of local and state teacher organizations are affiliates of one or the other. Some, such as Education Austin, are affiliated with both.

    Texas is different

    But in Texas, four state organizations compete for teachers’ attention. The largest is the Association of Texas Professional Educators, with almost 100,000 members, and it is vocally anti-union. The 44,000-member Texas Classroom Teachers Association is also opposed to collective bargaining. TSTA and the 40,000-member Texas Federation of Teachers represent the unionized side.

    Having four groups means that the Legislature sometimes hears opposing arguments from opposing teachers groups – a far cry from some states, where a single state union dominates the conversation.

    http://www.clipfile.org/clips/000523.php

    -Mark Roulo

  28. “To attack administrators would be to attack a group that is, in general, rich white Republicans”…which wouldn’t bother me at all, assuming the administrators aren’t doing the job–and evidence says they’re not. If I’m a shareholder in a corporation and the CEO isn’t doing the job, I want him out and don’t care about his political views. I certainly don’t care about his race–why did you feel compelled to bring that factor into the discussion?

    But I don’t think many administrators are really “rich,” though I might agree with “overpaid.” And I doubt if they are mostly Republicans. In general, people who work for nonprofit & government institutions tend to be Democrats, regardless of their income levels (which are pretty high for senior people at many “nonprofits”)…after all, the more money the government shovels at their institutions, the more of it is likely to stick to them.

  29. Mike in Texas wrote:

    I think the $6200 for my school…should be plenty for my school, especially if the district spent its money wisely, which it does not.

    Hmmm, you know Mike that there’s a type of public school in which no one concerns themselves with the district spending money wisely because there’s no district.

    No superintendents, no assistant superintendents, no Chief Pedagogical Officers, no Assistant Superintendents in Charge of Safe, Clean and Healthy Schools, no central office staff that specializes in doing nothing worthwhile. No central administrative building with a quarter of a million dollars worth of bad art on the walls, $70/yard carpet on the floors and well-paid drones doing nothing worthwhile all day long.

    Now, remind me why a central administration is a good idea.

  30. Catch Thirty_Three,

    A boldfaced lie? You’ll excuse me if I disagree with you. Perhaps you could read the article Mrk Roulo posted. The article failed to mention teachers are barred from striking by law.

    No collective bargaining, no strikes= no union

    I understand from reading that the political climatein DC is quite corrupt, with scads of money being spent outside the classroom.

    DavidFosterp,

    In my experiences teachers and especially adminstrators overwhelmingly are conservative Republicans. Granted I have been teaching in Texas for the last 15 years. As for them being rich here in Texas many of them have salary and benefits packages of over half a million a year, which makes them rich in my book.

    Allen,

    I’m sure you’ll claim charters do all the things you suggest, but here in Texas that hasn’t been the case. The last time the figures for both public and charter schools were released it turned out the charters were spending more per student than the public schools. Am embarrassed Rick Perry, Texas gov., claimed after the fact the figures for charters were caused by a $55 million accouting mistake at a charter school.

    And finally for Andy Freeman who wrote:

    Why are we spending money on public schools and what we should do if they don’t deliver?

    In Texas the constitution requires the state to provide for public education. There are also compulsory attendance laws.

    If schools are failing then find out who is responsible and hold them personally accountable. Of course, if school failures are a result of idiotic laws regarding public education, lack of sufficient funding or other factors outside of a district’s control how do you hold the politicians responsible? If the supt.or the principal are responsible then hold them accountable.

    My school has had the state’s 2nd highest rating, Recognized, for the last 10 years. I’d say 7 of those years have been under mediocre leadership, both at the school and district level, including absolutely horrendous curriculum choices, idiotic personnel decisions and a total lack of accountability for those in charge. It was the teachers at my school who raised the bar. Under NCLB and most of the people commenting on this site, it would be the teachers who would be blamed were we to slip into the “unacceptable” category those same teachers would be the first to go.

  31. Andy Freeman says:

    I asked:
    >>Why are we spending money on public schools and what we should do if they don’t deliver?

    MiT responded
    > In Texas the constitution requires the state to provide for public education.

    Providing for public education does not imply public schools.

    > In my experiences teachers and especially adminstrators overwhelmingly are conservative Republicans. Granted I have been teaching in Texas for the last 15 years. As for them being rich here in Texas many of them have salary and benefits packages of over half a million a year, which makes them rich in my book.

    Many Texas teachers have salary and benefit packages worth over half a million a year?

    How about some documentation?

  32. Andy Freeman says:

    > > In my experiences teachers and especially adminstrators overwhelmingly are conservative Republicans.

    What definition of “conservative Republican” are we using? Are these “conservative Republicans” all that different from typical Texans?

  33. Andy,

    I worded my statement poorly, I meant many administrators have salaries and benefits packages of over a half million.