Thursday, May 29, 2008

New Role for TFA

I was intrigued by an interesting suggestion that Robert Pondiscio made over at the Core Knowledge blog the other day, and the discussion surrounding it has me thinking. Here's a rundown for those of you who haven't been following along:

1.) Pondiscio writes that Wendy Kopp should consider a different tact for Teach For America (TFA) -- putting the new teachers they recruit in wealthy schools as fill-ins and taking some experienced teachers from these wealthy schools and putting them in poor urban/rural schools that TFA currently helps staff. This way the kids in these schools would be getting experienced teachers instead of recent college grads.

2.) Kopp takes the time to reply to Pondiscio's post and basically argues that the people she recruits are at least as good as the experienced teachers in wealthy schools.

3.) Eduwonkette calls out Kopp for some weak arguments and encourages Pondiscio to run with the idea.

The way I see it, everybody's points have some merit. Let me start with the fatal flaw of the idea and then make some suggestions on how it could be slightly modified into a one that even Kopp might like.

There are two reasons why Pondiscio's current idea will never work (other than the fact that Kopp, the head of TFA, doesn't want to implement it):

1.) Very few of the people who currently apply to TFA will volunteer to go serve in a wealthy suburban school as a placeholder while the experienced teacher from that school spends two years in a high-poverty school. I might be wrong about this, but I think the biggest draw of TFA and similar programs is the chance to make the world a better place. I'm willing to bet that almost every new TFA enrollee plans on transforming their class (if not the school) ala "Dangerous Minds," "Stand and Deliver," "Freedom Writers," etc. Serving in the suburbs for two years just doesn't have the same allure or romanticism.

2.) Wealthy suburban schools wouldn't hire uncertified TFA enrollees with no classroom experience. Many of these schools get hundreds of applicants for each open position and very few would have any problem finding a teacher they find qualified, motivated, and experienced to fill in for their teacher who's jaunting off to help save the world for a couple years.

That said, I still like the idea. I think Kopp was wrong to, essentially, summarily dismiss it. I'm maybe most disappointed in the fact that she cited a flawed study as definitive evidence that TFA shouldn't make any changes. Here are the tweaks I would make to the idea:

1.) For the reasons above I'd scrap the exchange part of the program. Why not recruit both recent college grads and experienced teachers to serve in underprivileged schools?

2.) I'd create a separate branch of TFA for experienced teachers. Similar to the Jennifer Steinberger Pease's idea of an "urban teaching corps" that I discussed earlier.

3.) I'd find some sort of incentive to draw these teachers into serving in these schools for 2+ years. TFA is quite adept at fundraising, so maybe they could raise some money for bonuses or something. I have little doubt that they could find a few thousand mid-career teachers to sign up to spend 2 years doing some community service if they pitched it correctly, could somehow guarantee them a job in their home district when/if they finished, and had some sort of incentive to boot.

TFA prides itself on its ability to select and train high-quality individuals and teachers. I see no reason why they couldn't do this with experienced teachers as well as recent college grads. If TFA is serious about upgrading high-poverty schools I think this is an idea they need to get behind.

No comments: