Teach For America (TFA) is not the Enemy

Over the past few weeks more than a few friends and colleagues have engaged me in conversations about Teach for America (TFA), so I thought it a good idea to clarify my position on the program which is now infamous in some teacher education circles. My position on TFA is probably not what you would expect from a faculty member in a college of of teacher education. To be clear, my views and opinions are only mine, and may or many not be shared by my institution. With that said, as this post’s title suggests, I support the work of TFA and other programs like it. Here’s why:

  • TFA has successfully attracted high ability undergraduates and recent college graduates into the teaching profession; something many of our traditional colleges of teacher education have struggled mightily with doing. As far as I understand, most TFA corps members were not headed for careers in the classroom. They were, however, academically talented students. Through intentional and extensive marketing and recruitment, many of those young people have now spent time in some of our nation’s most under-served schools. Some have taught for only a few years, but others who will spend their career in education as teachers, administrators, college faculty, policy leaders, and researchers.
  • TFA recruits and selects only students who are academically well-prepared to serve as teachers. You might wonder why that’s worth stating, but it’s a shift from the typical academic. Standards for entry into the teaching profession have been much too low for far too long. We ought to want the best and brightest young talent going into the teaching profession. Traditional colleges of teacher education must begin to intentionally recruit high ability students, and raise their standards for program admissions. TFA is one of several groups helping to push this conversation nationally.
  • Most TFA corp members serve in schools and communities where most traditionally prepared teachers have no interest in serving. TFA is committed to placing their corps members in low-income schools and communities, rural and urban. In some of these schools the choice is not between a TFA corp member and a traditionally prepared teacher; the choice is between a TFA corp member and a substitute teacher.
  • Research suggests that TFA corps members are improving academic achievement in low-income schools and classrooms across the country; and in some instances, students in the classrooms of TFA corp members show higher academic gains than comparable students in the classrooms of traditionally prepared teachers.
  • Traditional preparation programs have failed miserably with preparing teachers to serve in rural and urban high-poverty communities. TFA and other programs like it,  have attracted students who want to teach in these types of settings, and they provide training for corps members specifically aimed at meeting the unique learning needs of students in high-poverty communities. Research suggests that they are doing an okay job at it.
TFA is helping to change the national conversation around teacher preparation. Like any program, it has areas for improvement, but TFA is an important addition to the educator preparation landscape in the US. It has made valuable contributions to ongoing conversations about high quality educator preparation and the teaching profession. And if we want to be completely honest, if traditional preparation programs were doing such an outstanding job of preparing and placing teachers in high poverty communities, there would not have been a need for for alternatives.

The Teacher Salary Schedule Must Go

Since my time as an early career teacher it has always struck me as odd that teachers’ pay is as regimented as it is. I can remember my introduction to the teacher salary schedule as a first year exceptional children’s teacher in the New Orleans Public Schools. As a new teacher, I remember coming to the conclusion that it did not matter how good a teacher I became, how hard I worked, or how much my students learned, my salary would be determined solely based on the number of years that I stuck around and whether I earned another degree. That message is not one that we should be sending to new teachers, veteran teachers, or potential entrants to the teaching profession.

Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work with many teachers as colleagues, mentors, mentees, and students. Many of those teachers have been exceptional professionals, but a significant minority of them have not been. As I reflect on the teachers that I have seen and worked with over the years, a few things are apparent to me. First, there has not been a strong correlation between teachers’ years of teaching experience and their instructional prowess. While nearly all teachers take a couple of years to get the lay of the land and get comfortable with teaching, beyond those initial years I have seen immense variation in teachers’ abilities. I have worked with the third year teacher who could teach circles around the 10-year veteran, and I have worked with the 15-year veteran whose expertise in classroom management resembled that of a first-year teacher fresh out of a sub-par teacher preparation program.
Similarly, I have seen absolutely no correlation between instructional expertise and holding a masters degree. I have worked with teachers holding masters degrees in whose classrooms very few children learned anything, and I have worked with teachers holding only bachelors degrees in whose classroom no one–child or adult–ever left without learning. Now, after having taught in and researched teacher and administrator preparation programs across the country, I can completely understand why this is the case (I will explore this in a future post).
Here are a few things that I have learned about teachers: 
  • Some teachers are great. Some teachers are good. Some teachers are average. Some teachers are below average. Some teachers should not be teachers.
  • There is a strong positive correlation between great teachers and student learning.
  • There are a myriad of factors that contribute to great teachers being great. The list is as long as the discussion of the factors is complex.
  • Inputs like years of experience and additional degrees may be important, but these factors may or may not be positively correlated with student learning.
With all that said, we continue with a system where teachers are paid according to inputs (years of experience and graduate degrees) with no consideration of their outputs (student learning). This is preposterous. It makes absolutely no sense to me that a school district would pay two 10-year veteran teachers with masters degrees identically even when one teacher is clearly outstanding and the other is clearly not. It makes even less sense to me that a school district would pay a bad, 10-year veteran teacher significantly more for teaching 6th grade mathematics than it would pay a 5th year teacher who is clearly outstanding. What is even more ludicrous to me is that two teachers with identical inputs entering the profession in the same year in the same school district would earn identical salaries for the length of their careers regardless of whether they have differential development as teachers. What these realities say to me (and to teachers) is what we value most is you sticking around a long time whether you are good or not, and getting a masters degree. If children happen to learn anything in your classroom, that’s fine but not necessary; we are not going to reward you for it. 
As I am not one to mince words, let me go on the record here to say that I think the teacher salary schedule is ridiculous. While it may (or may not) have been useful in previous generations, it will not help us to encourage continuous improvement in the teaching profession or to steal top-notch talent from other professions in the 21st Century. The teacher salary schedule must go, and it must go now. It has already had an unbelievable negative impact on the teaching profession and P-12 student learning. We must eliminate its use immediately so that it can do no more harm.