@2011s: Welcome to ‘Lead For America’

Do you feel horribly unprepared for the task you are about to undertake?  If you answered ‘yes,’ you are correct.  If you answered ‘no,’ then you’re really in trouble.

TFA’s training model is so flawed that without some serious extra reading and thinking on your part, you are doomed be a highly ineffective teacher next year.

How can I know this?  My first reason is empirical:  Just as I can look at a rocket ship made out of cardboard by kids and know that it is not going to fly, I can look at an improperly constructed training model and predict how successful it will be.  My second reason is just inductive.  Your training is just as bad as the training the 2010s received last year and, though TFA sometimes claims how successful the first year CMs are, the most telling comment is one made by Wendy Kopp in her latest book.  On page 126 she writes about the CMs:  “our teachers are still not, on average, changing the trajectory of their students in a truly meaningful way.”

Basically what she is saying in the new book is that TFA has shifted it’s focus and is now on it’s third mission.  The first mission 1990-1997 was to fill teaching vacancies in regions with teacher shortages.  The concept was that even if the TFA CMs were doing a poor job, that was still better for students than what they would experience if they were taught by a different substitute teacher each day.  The second mission 1997-2010 was to close the achievement gap.  It was during this mission that the ‘One day all children …’ statement was written.  Now, you’ll see from Wendy’s book, because TFA is failing to accomplish enough with the second mission, they have moved onto the third mission 2010-20??:  Develop new educational leaders.

Wendy explains in her book that though there have been some great teachers, (page 126) “It is a very rare person who can be a transformational teacher outside of a transformational school.”  So her solution is to make the main mission of TFA to recruit educational leaders who will lead schools in which new CMs and other teachers can be more successful.

Now, I have several problems with this new mission.  The first is that it diverts attention and resources from what I consider the most immediate concern:  How to train the new CMs to be effective as possible considering that they are going into a school that does not yet have a TFA trained educational leader.

The training model that you are experiencing, you must have figured out by now, is terribly inefficient.  I actually DO think that it IS possible to train people to be competent teachers in five weeks.  I just don’t think that TFA knows how to do this.  The biggest problem with the training model is the amount of student teaching each CM gets.  It would be costly, but well worth it, to find a way to have each CM to get at least double, if not four times, the amount of actual practice in front of kids.  One thing they could do is simply pay families to sign their kids up for the summer program.  Another option is to cut the size of the incoming corps while keeping the same budget for training.

The training is not very good and, as Wendy explains in her book (pg. 127), it is not going to get better anytime soon:  “And it would be misguided to assume that there’s an as-of-yet undiscovered route for teacher preparation or retaining excellent teachers that will prove to be the silver bullet.  There is no evidence, for example, that longer preservice training, teacher residencies that place new teachers as apprentices for a year before they assume full-time teaching positions, or incentives for teachers to stay in the classroom longer produce significant impacts.”

To interpret:  Our new CMs are not that successful.  It would be a waste to invest more resources into training since it won’t make a difference.

So, taken right from the founder of TFA, you now know why your training is so meager.  You are part of a machine that takes in thousands of eager college grads and outputs a handful of educational leaders.

The second problem I have with this new TFA mission is that it is the conclusion to her chapter about how the common ‘silver bullets’ (charter schools, pumping more money into schools, breaking the union) to fix education, won’t.  Wendy doesn’t realize that this leadership thing is just her own ‘silver bullet.’  In a recent TFA alumni magazine, there was a big quote from Arne Duncan, something like, “If we had 10,000 good principals, we’d be done.”  I disagree with this premise and the fact that TFA agrees worries me.  I think that anyone who agrees with anything Arne Duncan says about education is very simple-minded when it comes to the real issues.

The third problem I have with this new mission to recruit leaders is that from what I’ve seen so far in TFA’s history, the leaders they turn out often lack wisdom.  They teach for two or three years before becoming leaders and they too quickly forget how difficult teaching is.  They show, as new leaders, the same flaws that new teachers show:  They come up with a bad idea, but implement it anyway because they don’t have the savvy to predict the negative side-effects of that bad idea.

So now you know why your training is as poor as you, deep down, suspect it is.  (If you think you’re getting good training, you are in extreme denial.  You have no chance to overcome the poor training before school starts if you don’t first overcome this.)  So what can you do about it?

Well, since you can’t just proactively get another 20 hours of student teaching, all you can do is read and think more deeply about the issues.  If you want, I won’t mind if you buy and read my two books.  If you don’t want to pay for advice, most of the ideas in those books can be found in old posts on this blog.  My critique of TAL is a good start.

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11 Responses to @2011s: Welcome to ‘Lead For America’

  1. A proud '05 Alum says:

    I have just finished my sixth year of teaching. I have a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in education. I joined TFA in 2005, and I have gone back to work at institute in 2007 and 2010. The school that I work at is a placement school for new corps members. TFA is by far the best training program that I have experienced, and it gets better every year. The new corps members at my school are much stronger than those that I saw even 2 years ago, and exponentially stronger than me and my fellow 2005 CMs.
    Can you train highly effective teachers who feel fully prepared for their classroom in 5 weeks? no. In a 2-year master’s program? no. In a 4-year undergraduate program? no.
    Are you well-informed of teacher training programs in the United States? What are you comparing TFA to? What are these better 5 week programs?
    In my 6 years of teaching and remaining in the TFA teaching community, I have seen a huge increase in a sense of entitlement and the expectation that things will be handed to you because you are a corps member. If you enter the classroom with this attitude, then you will surely get your ass handed to you, and I hope that you do not blame TFA, your students, or the failing educational system where you work.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Do you think more student teaching would make the training better? Less? Or is it the perfect amount already?
      I can compare the training to that of The New York City Teaching Fellows. I worked for them with three groups as a CMA and three others as the adjunct professor. They had much more practice teaching and did quite well.

  2. E. Rat says:

    So if TFA is now developing “education leaders”, most (if not all of whom) will do that leading outside the classroom, why send recruits to the classroom at all?

    TFA puts CMs in high-needs schools, serving students who need stable, trained and competent educators. CMs cannot provide long-term stability, aren’t very well trained, and apparently aren’t closing the achievement gap. Moreover, they assist districts in failing to recruit, hire and train career educators who are willing and able to be in these schools: why bother with recruitment and retention when you can have a consistent temporary labor force?

    That’s a huge cost that high-needs schools get to pay. It’s not really that healthy for CMs, either.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Good point. Why not take the hundreds of millions of dollars and recruit 500 people who will become the next generation of leaders. Pay them to dedicate their lives to this. They train for a year. Teach for at least 5 years, AP for 5 years, principal for 5 years, and become great leaders at around 35 years old.

  3. guidedmetotennessee says:

    I just finished Institute last week in Atlanta, and do feel that I gained a lot from the different sessions (LS sessions and the differentiated CMA and CS sessions toward the end of the 5 weeks were by far the best). I also did find the TAL rubric to be a useful tool for identifying my areas of strength and weakness. I haven’t read your critique of the TAL rubric, but I’ll go check it out in a minute.
    I do feel relatively well-prepared (for a first-year teacher) for the start of school. I think, however, that part of this may be that I worked in a school for a year before TFA as an intern/student teacher so I was more familiar with a classroom than many others. Though I don’t always agree with your posts, I agree wholeheartedly that CMs need more time in front of a class. Hands down this was the most helpful part of Institute; though we were given some amazing strategies toward the end of Institute I was unable to try them out in the classroom.

    I taught 8th grade reading, which in Atlanta means that I would have 4 days “lead teaching” a 60-minute lesson, followed by 4 days “support teaching” a 10 minute vocabulary lesson and 20 minutes of test prep. Over the course of Institute I lead-taught EIGHT times. That’s it. I understand the constraints that TFA is under – APS couldn’t afford a 5-week summer school program, and the state test retake was already scheduled, but we need to find a way to give CMs more time in front of a class before the start of the school year.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Ouch. 12 hours of student teaching is the lowest I ever heard of. The constraints of APS should not be a barrier to TFA using the hundreds of millions of dollars they have to provide a good training for their CMs. When there’s a will (and money), there’s a way. They have the money so it’s clear to me that they do not have the will to do this.

  4. B says:


    You make some great points about the “phases” of TFA. And your point about eschewing the teaching phase and just creating the “leaders” if that’s what they really want (even if said in jest) sort of makes sense.

    My point is this: If there is no teacher shortage, what is the new rationale for Teach for America’s existence? I am a recently excessed second-year teacher, and the job market currently for my certification area is beyond competitive–it’s nonexistent.

    Here in NYC, there is a hiring freeze for all teachers not already employed by the DOE (I was excessed from a suburban school). I know that TFA is training an NYC corps (my fiance, a veteran teacher and graduate student at St. John’s, sees them all the time). Where are those people going? How can 2011 TFA justify pumping unqualified people* into a job market already flooded with quality veteran teachers? On the most basic level, it’s unethical. How are students being served when committed career teachers are displaced by dabbling, resume-building dilettantes?

    *I have something of a unique perspective on this, since I actually attended institute in 2007, only to leave and eventually pursue a traditional certification program. I can call them unqualified because I know just how unqualified I would have been had I stayed on with TFA.

  5. Katie says:

    Gary, while I think many of your points are absolutely valid interpretations of the book, I think some of them suffer from a lack of context. When Kopp writes “our teachers are still not, on average, changing the trajectory of their students in a truly meaningful way,” she’s not stating her lack of faith in her organization’s mission. This sentence comes in the middle of a larger point that most great teachers, ones who are wonderful educators, can still fail to be transformational agents of change. This isn’t a statement of lack of faith in her CMs, but rather a reminder to educators that in underserved communities, being even a great teacher can just not be enough.

    And, Gary, I’m interested in your thoughts on what aspects of the Institute training can be made more effective. Time spent in the classroom is a good point–but that is, after all, something highly variable across Institutes. (Where this year’s Atlanta Institute apparently only had 16 hours of time spent teaching, the Phoenix Institute had well over 50.)

    But that still wouldn’t meet your suggestion of “two or even five times” the current hours spent in the classroom. So if a five-week training can prepare students for teaching, what aspects of the current curriculum should be cut to provide more classroom time? Sessions on lesson planning? Engaging students? Differentiating content? Classroom management?

    I’m interested in your thoughts. Thanks for bringing these points up for discussion!

  6. Mavor says:

    TFA is now a participant in Michelle Rhee’s war on teachers. I know when I was a Teaching Fellow in New Orleans the preparation they gave us was more like propaganda. The union rep., Larry Carter was more helpfull in preparing for reality than the training.

  7. H says:

    I filled out that alumni survey last year (skipped it this year) and one of the questions was asking something about why I am not involved with alumni groups (or something like that). The answer I put, and then deleted, was that I don’t like TFA’s increasing political agenda. I don’t like their support of anti-union leaders like Rhee. I don’t like the constant tooting of the KIPP horn. I don’t like placing TFA CM’s in charter schools. I never joined TFA to influence education policy on a large scale level by becoming a cog in a wheel of a political machine whose agenda I don’t support or believe in. I joined because I thought the intent of the organization was to help make change in the lives of children who needed it. Then, organically, greater change would begin to happen as the achievement gap was closed, TFA-ers took on school leadership positions, and so on. Idealistic, I guess, but what did I know, I was just an incoming CM. It bothers me to see the organization take political stances that, I feel, harm the American public school system. At the very best, I believe that the current “reform” movement espouses solutions that are more akin to applying a bandaid (that has lost half of its stickiness).

    As for TFA teacher training- for me, it was totally ineffective. I really struggled my first year. If it weren’t for enrolling in my Masters program, my own curiosity and desire to seek out, read about, and test out different teaching strategies and ideas, and my decision to reach out to regular old certified teachers for help, I would surely have failed. I still feel like I failed that first class I had absolutely miserably (while I pretended I knew what i was doing because that’s what it seemed like all TFA’ers did- ha!)

  8. Sandy says:

    I am a 2011 corps member who reads your blog fairly regularly. While I disagree with a lot of what you say on this blog, you are completely spot on about the lack of classroom training being a serious problem.
    I taught sixth grade for eleven students over four weeks. For two weeks I taught 1 hour math blocks, 1 week I taught a 30 min writing block, and in the last week I am teaching a 45 minute reading block. If I’m doing my math correctly, I have 18.5 hours of lead teaching experience from Institute. I will teach more hours in my first week of school than I did a my five weeks here.
    The only reason why I feel somewhat prepared for teaching is because I spent last year teaching at a residential school for young adults (16-22) on the autism spectrum. And I’m talking about the nonverbal, self-injurious end of the spectrum. As for what I’m going to do in four weeks, when I’m in front of more than 11 high school students that CAN talk back? No idea.
    I know that I signed up for this.
    I know that if I wanted an easier job, I would work for NASA or something.
    But my goodness, we need a little less reflection time and a lot more face time with students.
    My second point of contention with Institute is that the model is not sustainable. After five weeks, I would say the majority of people are still spending 2-3 hours per lesson plan, for a 40 minute lesson. This is ok here, when all you are teaching is that one 40 minute lesson. But what happens when you teach five blocks per day, coach a sport, make your own meals, are not handed an aligned curriculum, possibly want to have a social life, and its taking you that long to lesson plan? My best guess is you burn out within 2 months.
    People have been talking about how they are “so done” with teaching at Institute. And while I’m all about getting away from the communal showers and plastic mattresses, the reality is that we can’t be “so done” with something before we even start it.
    The frightening thing is, I would still say that after Institute, the vast majority of us think that these past five weeks have been the hardest part of teaching that we will encounter.
    This is only the beginning.
    This isn’t even the beginning.

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