Naturally, I was there to beat the drum for traditional teacher prep programs. It was a very well-organized and thoughtful dialogue featuring two traditionally-trained educators and two alternatively-certified educators, but since the event I have been thinking about the proposed expansion of Teach for America in Baltimore City and the questions that were not answered during the panel discussion. Primarily, I have been thinking that if the expansion of Teach for America is inevitable, and with the political clout and the TFA bank account, it very well may be, what would need to happen to make TFA’s experience in Baltimore one that actually makes a positive impact in the lives of children not one that produces haphazard positive results based on the amazing work of a few cohort members?
Here’s what I have come up with, a list I’ll call “What TFA Needs to Do to Finally Make an Impact.”
1) Increase the term of service to five years. There is great research that says a teacher’s best work begins to happen around the fifth year. So who exactly is TFA afraid of losing by doing this? The two-year (or less) and done folks who have been their only Achilles heel in the press? Maybe those that would still go through the process would be a much higher quality, or at least much more dedicated, teacher for our children.
2) Recruit only from colleges within 40 miles of Baltimore City. There is more great research that teachers have a higher rate of retention if they work in a place close to where they have a connection. Home and/or college proximity may do the trick.
3) Change the interview questions to weed out teachers who may struggle. The first two interview questions should be: a) what was your experience like in public school as a child? and b) what was it like growing up as a working class child in America? If the answer to either question is “I don’t know,” an immediate flag should be placed next to the person as someone who may have trouble connecting with students.
4) Begin spending some of that political capital. Teach for America is a political and corporate darling, leaving it well-funded and with immense political power. Throwing the organization’s weight behind issues like class-size and over-testing instead of focusing increasingly on organizational maintenance could be key to making an impact.
5) Do not hire people into the organizational structure until they have taught for 10 years. Part of TFA’s retention problem is its own hiring. Many TFA success stories, and there are many, end abruptly when the TFA takes their best teachers out of classrooms to make them part of the TFA organization as coaches, mentors, etc… For starters, a teacher who would be a fourth-year is not an ideal mentor. Also, actively contributing to the churn of new teachers is clear evidence that TFA benefits from lacking teacher retention (read as: profits from the churn by increased contracts to bring in more teachers the next year). If I were TFA, I’d want to distance myself from that as much as possible.
As you can tell, I think teacher retention is key to improving struggling school districts. You may disagree. TFA disagrees publicly, but we are allowed to differ on these ideas. The only difference with me is, I don’t stand to gain from a lack of teacher retention. In fact, I stand, like the kids, to lose. I should note that I am not supportive of a TFA expansion anywhere. I do not want a program funded largely by Wal-Mart, Exxon, Wells-Fargo, and Visa to have a strangle-hold on teacher preparation and therefore on how our children are taught. But if such an expansion is inevitable, TFA should heed my advice and allow the men and women who sign up with the organization to do the work they dreamed to do: make a great impact on the lives of children.