Teach for America will try more training

Five weeks of training in the summer isn’t enough to prep college graduates for teaching, say some Teach for America veterans. Now TFA is launching a year-long training program for college students who want to teach, reports the Washington Post.

In addition to classroom experience, the pilot program will include classes in educational theory and pedagogy.

“With this extra pre-service year, we’ll give them more time to absorb the foundational knowledge all teachers need, more space to reflect on the role they are about to step into, and more time to directly practice the skills they’ll need as educators – skills like delivering a lesson or managing a classroom,” Matt Kramer, the co-CEO, told a TFA gathering in Nashville.

The five-week training program pumps up recruits’ egoes, but doesn’t prepare them to teach in high-need schools, wrote Olivia Blanchard in an Atlantic essay. A 2011 TFA recruit, Blanchard quit after a year at an Atlanta public school.

I was immersed in a sea of jargon, buzzwords, and touchy-feely exercises.

. . . Typical instructional training included only the most basic framework; one guide to introducing new material told us to “emphasize key points, command student attention, actively involve students, and check for understanding.” We were told that “uncommon techniques” included “setting high academic expectations, structuring and delivering your lessons, engaging students in your lessons, communicating high behavioral expectations, and building character and trust.” Specific tips included “you provide the answer; the student repeats the answer”; “ask students to make an exact replica in their notes of what you write on the board”; and “respond quickly to misunderstandings.”

TFA will continue to ask recruits for a two-year commitment, but Kramer said corps members will be “encouraged” to stay in the classroom longer.

‘If I need geometry, I’ll learn it then’

Scott Hamilton is the Forrest Gump of education reform, although with a lot more IQ points and fewer chocolates, I write in an Education Next profile.

He worked for Bill Bennett in the U.S. Department of Education and for Benno Schmidt at the Edison Project. He authorized charter schools in Massachusetts, co-founded the KIPP network, quadrupled the size of Teach For America (TFA), and introduced blended learning at urban Catholic schools. He’s been around.

Now 47, he’s started a new initiative called Circumventure, based in San Francisco. Through surveys, focus groups, field tests, and interviews, Circumventure is asking fundamental questions: Do people want what schools are offering? If not, what do they want? Can technology make it happen?

Being a “good learner” is valued by the students and parents he’s interviewed. Being “well educated” is not. “Young Millennials and their Generation Z siblings” believe they don’t need school to learn new things. They’ll do it all themselves—if and when they feel like it. “Teens think, ‘I’ll never use geometry. If I need it, I’ll learn it then’.”

TFA spinoff turns teachers into leaders

Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America alumni move into policy and advocacy roles, is expanding rapidly, reports Education Week.

Jennifer Aguirre, who teaches Spanish, won a LEE fellowship with a Baltimore community-organizing group run by a TFA alumnus. She’s now considering a public policy career.

“You have people who know something’s wrong,” she said, “but they need to be given the resources needed and encouragement to step out of their comfort zone and try to tackle a huge problem.”

LEE funds workshops with donations from Teach For America, private foundations and individual donors.

Electoral work amounts to less than a third of LEE’s budget, its officials say, but it has nevertheless fueled popular accounts of the organization, mostly critical. Such accounts accuse the group of supporting candidates who espouse a particular “corporate” brand of education policy focused on expanding charter schools and test-based accountability.

Bill Ferguson, a TFA alumni and LEE member, was elected to Maryland’s Senate, where he’s sponsored “parent trigger” legislation.

LEE officials say the group coaches candidates and reviews their campaign materials but doesn’t support particular policies.

Snowfall vs. the Grinch

A portrait of Mr. Noble by one of his students.

Arthur Noble II was in “full Grinch mode” on Dec. 23. A Head Start teacher with Teach for America in Chicago, he had to work through the holidays so parents could work. He missed his family. Determined not to teach, he turned on Dora the Explorer. Then it started to snow.

We watched the snowfall in silence until Ella, a precocious Ghanaian three-year-old, started telling a story about holidays at home: “We don’t have snow at Africa where my family is, but we all go to church and eat together.”

Two Mexican students chimed in excitedly about staying up late for church, and a Nigerian boy proudly broke out in a church processional.  A student from Spain bubbled over about her grandpa, who loved her all the way from his village, and showed me a letter full of hearts she had been working on intently during Dora.

Gianny said with a growing toothy grin, “Dude! My uncles are gonna watch football and take me fishing. I like fishing, and they always teach me how!”

Then Rihanna hugged my shin, “Don’t be sad Mr. Arthur. You can come to my house … my mom makes chocolate cake for my uncle when it snows. She is the best cook and you are just sweeter than piece of chocolate.”

His preschooler family “laughed and shared stories of love, family, and snow for the rest of the day.”

Ivy League shuns teaching — except for TFA

Nearly one in five Harvard students apply to Teach for America, but very few want to train as teachers, says Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan. “He hopes that eventually between five and 10 percent of the class will go through the undergraduate teaching program,” reports Eleanor Barkhorn in The Atlantic. 

There’s “a long-standing institutional snobbery” about teaching writes Barkhorn.

As Walter Isaacson put it at this year’s Washington Ideas Forum, there’s a perception that “it’s beneath the dignity of an Ivy League school to train teachers.”

Teach for America has helped change that perception. “I think TFA has done a lot in terms of elevating the profession of teaching and elevating the importance of public education and education generally,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in conversation with Isaacson, CEO of The Aspen Institute, and Ryan.

Cornell has dropped undergraduate teacher-training, said Weingarten, a Cornell alum. “We say education is really important, but here you have the land grant institution of New York State that has eliminated teacher-training programs. If we don’t actually have real preparation like Finland and Singapore do that really teaches teachers how to teach … then what are we doing?”

In Finland and Singapore, only the best students can qualify as teachers. Finland combines master’s degree studies with supervised practice. In Singapore, master teachers mentor novices for several years.

The haunted school

Students Last, a humor site, visits The Haunted School.  “A robot-like coed sporting a Teach for America t-shirt and a forced smile . . .  promised to guide us through the house” but mysteriously disappeared.

“Michelle Rhee” leapt at our oldest child trying to tape his mouth shut. As my son cowered behind me, she threatened to remove my tenure while menacing me with a copy of the Common Core.

A second TFA guide appeared, but quickly vanished.

In the next room, “Executioner Andrew Cuomo” threatened to execute our school if it failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress.

When the third TFA guide abandoned the group, “we wandered into what we thought was a roomful of zombie children but it turned out they were actual kids just preparing for the specialized high school exam.”

Unprepared to teach

Olivia Blanchard quit Teach for America because the five-week training program hadn’t prepared her to teach “difficult” fifth-graders.

I had few insights or resources to draw on when preteen boys decided recess would be the perfect opportunity to beat each other bloody, or when parents all but accused me of being racist during meetings. Or when a student told me that his habit of doing nothing during class stemmed from his (admittedly sound) logic that “I did the same thing last year and I passed.” The Institute’s training curriculum was far too broad to help me navigate these situations. Because many corps members do not receive their specific teaching assignments until after training has ended, the same training is given to future kindergarten teachers in Atlanta, charter-school teachers in New Orleans, and high-school physics teachers in Memphis.

Katrina Ballard explains why she didn’t quit, despite feeling unprepared and overwhelmed.

She’d spent her five-week summer training working with second graders, but was hired to teach middle-school students in Denver.

 I struggled with behavior management, making connections with kids who grew up in realities far from my own, and the bureaucracy of working in a public school . . . I was failing at too many things for my ego and my body to handle.

But it wasn’t because she lacked traditional training, Ballard writes.

. . . about half of the incoming staff that year were fresh out of teaching school. They struggled with the same things I did. They found small successes and built relationships with their students, like I did. But TFA or not TFA — it didn’t make a difference.We all felt as though we were drowning.

. . . Teaching in many of our public schools is unsustainable, and many of the teachers don’t last, except for a few golden gems. When I left after my second year in May to come back to New York, about half of the rest of my school staff was quitting, too. Teaching is HARD. REALLY HARD. CAREER TEACHERS ARE SAINTS!

Ballard now directs teacher training at Democracy Prep, a network of New York City charter schools.

More states and teacher prep programs are requiring prospective teachers to pass an assessment of their classroom skills, reports Stateline.

Study: TFA teachers raise math scores

Teach for America recruits raised disadvantaged students’ math achievement more than traditionally trained teachers, concludes a Mathematica study for the U.S. Department of Education.

Students of TFA teachers moved from the 27th to the 30th percentile on average. That doesn’t sound like much but it’s the equivalent of two and a half extra months of learning, researchers estimated.

The Mathematica study looked at 45 schools in eight states over two years, 2009-10 and 2010-11. Students were randomly assigned to a TFA-trained math teacher or to a teacher from a different background. (Most of the TFA-trained teachers were in their first or second year of teaching, but about 17 percent were TFA alumni who had three, four or five years of experience.) At the end of each year, students were given standardized math tests and their scores were compared.

Students of inexperienced TFA teachers (with three years or less in the classroom) outperformed students of more experienced comparison teachers, the study found.

Although TFA is often criticized for the fact that its teachers make only a two-year commitment to teaching, the findings suggest that over the long term, continuing to fill a position with TFA teachers who depart after a few years would lead to higher student math achievement than filling the same position with a non-TFA teacher who would remain in the position and accumulate more teaching experience.

Another alternative route to teaching, the Teaching Fellows program, also was analyzed. “Inexperienced Teaching Fellows teachers . . . were more effective than inexperienced comparison teachers; among teachers with more experience, there was no difference in effectiveness between Teaching Fellows and comparison teachers.”

While TFA and Teaching Fellows recruit from elite colleges, “college selectivity is not a magic cure-all,” points out Dana Goldstein.

 Teachers here who attended selective institutions did not outperform other teachers, regardless of whether or not they participated in TFA or the Teaching Fellows. That finding is in line with  new data from New York City new data from New York City linking student achievement back to the colleges teachers attended. In that study, NYU and Columbia grads were not significantly more effective than graduates of Hofstra or CUNY.

Traditional teachers were more likely than TFA or Teaching Fellows teachers to have majored in math. However, TFAers and Fellows earned higher standardized test scores in math. Higher teacher test scores correlate with slightly better outcomes at the high school level, but not at the middle school level, researchers found.

Goldstein speculates that TFA teachers perform well because they’re “incredibly mission-driven,” believe they can close the achievement gap, choose to teach in low-income schools and work very hard. In addition, TFA’s training emphasizes tracking student outcomes and raising standardized test scores.

‘Converted’ school fires activist teachers

Half the teachers at Crenshaw High in Los Angeles were fired this month as part of the latest plan to turn around the low-performing school, writes Dana Goldstein. The “conversion” got rid of Alex Caputo-Pearl, an activist teacher and reform leader. One of the first Teach for America recruits in 1990, Caputo-Pearl taught in high-poverty Los Angeles schools for more than two decades. He helped design the Extended Learning Cultural Model, which drew federal and philanthropic dollars to the troubled high school. He led Crenshaw’s Social Justice and Law Academy, a small school within the school with high expectations.

For their final project, (10th graders) had to analyze a data set that included test scores at various schools; neighborhood income levels; school truancy rates; and incarceration rates.

In math, students graphed the relationship between income and social opportunity in various south L.A. neighborhoods. In social studies, they read conservative and liberal proposals for school reform and practiced citing data in their own written arguments about how to improve education. In science, students designed experiments that could test policy hypotheses about how to improve education. And in English class, they read Our America, a work of narrative non-fiction about life in the Ida B. Wells housing projects on the South Side of Chicago.

Some Crenshaw students were placed in paid community-service internships. Others worked with local colleges to conduct research in their neighborhoods.

With 30 different administrators in seven years, Crenshaw relied on teachers to lead the reform effort. Test scores began to grow, especially for African-American and disabled students, Goldstein writes. But the district has rejected teacher-led reforms at Crenshaw.

Superintendent John Deasy announced in November that Crenshaw would be reconstituted with three new magnet programs on the arts, entrepreneurship, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). There will be more Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate offerings and no Social Justice and Law Academy.

Teacher had to reapply for their jobs. Cathy Garcia, the teachers’ union chair, charges the district targeted reform leaders, Social Justice teachers and experienced black teachers who live in the neighborhood. She lost her job too.

Cities are breaking up large comprehensive high schools across the country, Goldstein writes. In New York City, the small specialty schools are superior to the big high schools, according to research from the New School. But who gets to go?

. . . students whose schools close may not end up enrolled in those better schools; instead, a significant number of them will be enrolled by default in the nearest large high school that is still open, which itself has extremely low test scores. That school, in turn, will eventually be shut down, creating what the New School researchers call a “domino effect,” in which the most disadvantaged teenagers are shuttled from failing school to failing school, while those with more active, involved parents win spots at new schools.

. . . only 6 percent of students whose schools are shut down end up enrolled in a school within the top achievement quartile, and 40 percent of students from closed schools ended up at schools on academic probation.

Smaller, themed schools seem to be better for kids, Goldstein writes. But the transition may leave behind the students who need help the most.

At Crenshaw, a “politically and intellectually challenging” themed school-within-a-school reform was dumped and its leaders dispersed. That’s “discouraging,” Goldstein writes. It certainly doesn’t encourage the remaining teachers to become leaders.

Tiger Rhee

In Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, Michelle Rhee touts her skills at firing people — and buying them off — writes Naomi Schaefer Riley in a Wall Street Journal review of the book.


To get union approval for performance pay and a new teacher evaluation system, Rhee raised millions of dollars from foundations.

Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty backed Rhee — and lost his bid for re-election. Rhee resigned from the chancellorship and founded StudentsFirst to lobby for school reform.

The daughter of Korean immigrants, Rhee “was urged by her Tiger Mom to go to law school,” writes Riley. Instead, she volunteered for Teach for America.  She almost quit after her first year at a tough Baltimore school, but her father told her to finish what she’d started. In her second year, she asked for advice from the best teachers and found new ways to “push her students harder and keep them interested.”

As chancellor in D.C., Rhee “became livid” when she learned a sign at a Washington school that read: “Teachers cannot make up for what parents and students will not do,” Riley writes. As a Tiger Reformer, Rhee thinks effort always pays off.

When she was a child, Rhee attended school in Seoul, South Korea for several months, she writes in Radical. Every child in her class of 70 was ranked, publicly. “Rather than damaging the souls of the less accomplished, the rankings focused every family on moving their children up the ladder.”