TFA: The paradox of ed reform

When you hear proponents of the current style of ed ‘reform’ speak about their mission, it is all about getting ‘great teachers.’  LIFO causes us to fire great teachers.  Three great teachers in a row can close the achievement gap.  Effective teachers teach three times as much as ineffective teachers.  Despite all the research that shows that out of school factors greatly outweigh in school factors impact on achievement, the ‘reformers’ cling to the myth that if we could just get rid of all the ineffective teachers, the achievement gap would slam shut.

On the other hand, people who actually understand schools contend that the achievement gap wasn’t caused by bad teachers and that great teachers, alone, will not close it.  We say that the difference between effective and ineffective teachers, at least in terms of raising test scores, isn’t so wide since out of school factors dominate in terms of impacting achievement.

The paradox of ed reform is the way that Teach For America is viewed by the two sides.  I can easily imagine a parallel universe where the reformers oppose TFA while the anti-reformers support it.

Since reformers like Michelle Rhee are so passionate about having a great teacher in every classroom, it would be consistent with that message to insist that nobody with just five weeks of training ever leads a classroom.  Even if some of the first year TFAers are superstars, the vast majority of first year TFAers are, by their own admission including Rhee, herself, bad teachers.

Reformers often say that even one bad teacher is a blow from which some students never recover so I can definitely see how if most of the reformers had not started with TFA, they could be very opposed to it.

On the other hand, I could see how anti-reformers, like myself, could be in support of TFA.  Speaking for myself, four major adjustments would make TFA something positive.  1) Fix the training.  Truly make the 5 weeks as good as possible with ample student teaching, and if that turns out not to be enough, then make a one year training with a lot of subbing and student teaching, 2) Make the commitment at least three years (four if there is a year of training), aggressively encourage successful corps members to become career teachers, and make it clear that nobody should become any kind of ‘leader’ until they have taught at least five years, 3) Shrink the corps to an appropriate size.  Maybe it is more than the original size of 500, but it is a lot closer to that than it is to the current 6,000.  There are so many corps members, the only way to get jobs for them is to lay off experienced teachers in some districts and 4)  Be humble about how little progress TFAers have made in addressing the achievement gap.  Use the fact that even the ‘best and brightest’ weren’t able to close the gap so maybe it will take a lot more than ‘great’ teachers to conquer it.

In this parallel universe, TFA and reformers would be on opposite sides and TFA would be taking active stances against narrow-minded reforms that have not a single bit of evidence, like shutting down schools and firing teachers.  The ‘best and brightest’ would use their analytic skills to actually help identify the real root of the problem.  They would go about it in a scientific way which would not include being so stubborn and ignoring critics

Unfortunately, the universe we’re in has TFA and reformers in a bizarre symbiotic relationship.  TFA supplies the leaders and the reformers always make sure to look out for TFA.  Reformers even make sure that the legal term ‘highly qualified teacher’ somehow encompasses people who have student taught for 12 hours.  Reformers make sure there is a big chunk of taxpayer money subsidizing TFA.  TFA and the reformers are so co-mingled, I don’t see how this can ever change.

Anyone know where the nearest wormhole is?

This entry was posted in book proposal, Teach For America, tfa rants. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to TFA: The paradox of ed reform

  1. Todd says:

    Nice article. I like the statement about not being any kind of “leader” until 5 years on the job. I think that is key you have to understand the system before you can lead it.

  2. Katie says:

    “Despite all the research that shows that out of school factors greatly outweigh in school factors impact on achievement, the ‘reformers’ cling to the myth that if we could just get rid of all the ineffective teachers, the achievement gap would slam shut.”

    I don’t think that’s accurate. Anyone who’s spent any time in a struggling urban school knows that factors in the community play a monumental role in shaping students’ ability to perform well in school. Good educators in those districts are constantly trying to push for policies that will have real, lasting substantive change for the quality of life for students in poverty.

    But in the meantime, what would you suggest that those educators do? Effective teachers are shown to be able to help students succeed in spite of the still-to-be-addressed environmental factors. Despite all the problems in determining what measures best determine an effective teacher vs. and ineffective teacher, that move to try to get as many seemingly effective teachers in the classroom as possible is all we can do, right?

  3. Tee says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this post, Gary.

  4. Will says:

    You should speak to the LAUSD Superintendent Dr. Deasy about these things. I’m not sure he REALLY understands that a person’s socioeconomic status coupled with ill equipped parents who lack parenting skills will have more of an impact on test scores than a great teacher ever will.

  5. veteran says:

    As always-very interesting
    I think another big contradiction is that the Republican party generally backs the “Reform movement.” But that is generally the party of small government and family values. Yet, a teacher (usually a government employee) should be superman/woman to make all children succeed ie: take a VERY big role in a child’s life. Plus, bad parenting or family disfunction should never be used as an excuse- so family values are important- but if not there that is irrelevant and the teacher can make up for that? Seems contradictory to me.

    • Linda says:

      So does the Democratic party. Most of this is happening and being supported/directed by Arne Duncan. Your state NCLB waiver and RTT money are dependent upon following his guidelines. One of which is tying teacher evaluations to the test scores. Arne Duncan was supposed to have reformed Chicago schools years ago….look at them now. Then Paul Vallas reformed Chicago and then he reformed Philly and then he reformed New Orleans. They are all a mess. He is now here in Bridgeport, CT creating more havoc. If there is a disaster Vallas is there making it worse.

      See this blog for the latest Vallas shennanigans:

      These reformers, Duncan included, are carpet bagging vultures who are primarily concerned with lining their pockets all while pretendng to care about the children.

  6. batmanthecat says:

    I recently said something like this to a friend of mine at institute, and their response was essentially that committing to more than six weeks of training would probably have kept them from accepting a position with TFA in the first place.
    I think it’s a pretty good point. Make the training longer, and TFA will probably lose a lot of the high achieving applicants that they want. But should any program really want people who are so ambivalent about teaching that they are unwilling to spend more than six weeks learning how to do it?

  7. Ludo says:


    I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but the reforms you just listed describe urban teacher residency programs (see almost to a T. I chose to do a residency program because it is “just like TFA” except for all the things listed above:

    1) Training is one year long, instead of five weeks, and in a classroom as similar as possible to the one we’ll actually be teaching in. (During the training we get a master’s and become fully endorsed, with a traditional license. We are paid a (small) living stipend. If we fulfill our commitment, the program and federal grants reimburse us for the cost of the master’s degree.)
    2) The commitment is five years, although the consequences for breaking with that commitment after the first 2-3 years are only financial and frankly rather minor (compared to the trauma of sticking with something that is making you miserable). The whole point is to develop career teachers. The expectation is that if we feel qualified, we can become leaders after the five years. In the mean time, we can “take on a leadership position” by mentoring other residents.
    3) My residency trains about 60 people. That number varies depending on the personnel needs of the district, but never goes higher than 70.
    4) I think teacher residencies are pretty humble. The only goal is to place excellent, driven, passionate, qualified, well-trained teachers into classrooms to stay. If that helps the achievement gap to close (which it should), fantastic.

    While teacher residencies aren’t getting the PR, attention and money that TFA is getting right now, they’re growing and expanding. There are currently 17 programs. It is possible that they could one day replace TFA…

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