Monday, August 05, 2013

We Can Do Better Than That

During a workshop at the recent Inspired EC conference in Shoal Bay, Australia, our conversation lead me to briefly describe the controversial American teacher training program Teach for America (TFA). When I got to the part about a mere 5 week training program before being put in charge of classrooms of disadvantaged students there was an audible gasp from the room. Jaws literally hung open as I described the concept pioneered by TFA that teaching experience didn't much matter and that these "graduates" would do just as much good, perhaps more, by simply sticking around for two years, treating teaching as a kind of public service, like a stint in the military or Peace Corps.

TFA is a largely business-sponsored program, one that relies heavily both on the philanthropy and ideology of American corporations, hence its reliance on measurements, efficiency, and keeping the costs of labor low. Essentially, they are teaching young college graduates, kids who've not necessarily even studied education, to coach children through standardized tests. Education charlatan Michelle Rhee is their most famous graduate. When I first started learning about TFA, I too did so with audible gasps and jaw hanging open: it flew in the face of everything I knew about teaching. 

Recently, a former TFA teacher and manager Wendy Heller Chovnick spoke with Washington Post education writer Valerie Strauss to answer questions about her experiences, providing a view from the inside of TFA that would have again made me gasp and gape had I not by now grown so cynical about the entire corporate education reform movement.

I was not surprised that Ms. Chovnick has concluded that the five week training is grossly inadequate, not to mention the mere two year commitment because it simply doesn't jibe with the experience of myself or any other veteran teacher with whom I've spoken. In fact, I only now, after nearly 15 years of going into preschool classrooms every day, am beginning to feel like I know what I'm doing, and I'll need another 15 years to become a true master. Experience may not matter when it comes to coaxing improved standardized test scores from students, but if the goal is, you know, an actual education, one that results in citizens with strong creativity and critical thinking skills, experienced teachers are essential. I'm not saying that new, young teachers can't be good teachers, but with a two year sunset in sight, I can't imagine there is a lot of motivation to do more than plow through before moving on to greener pastures. Experience does matter and anyone who has spent any time in actual classrooms knows this.

What did stun me about the Chovnick interview was just how much the organization of TFA has come to resemble so many of the large corporations with which I'm familiar, with multiple layers of seemingly unnecessary management, high executive pay, significant turn-over as managers more committed to careers than education seek out greener pastures, and, most damning, a massive public relations effort designed to deflect and diffuse any criticism. Let me tell you something: if you need a massive public relations effort, there's something deeply flawed about your "product."

"(O)nly a smal fraction of the dollars are devoted to the real work happening in regions to improve educational outcomes for low-income students and too many of the dollars are spent on unnecessary management layers and national teams that do a lot of thinking and changing but not a lot of concrete work to close the achievement gap in classrooms across the United States."

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