Last week I drove 950 miles taking my daughter to look at colleges. Aside from learning that the Good Lord has an evil sense of humor for conspiring that hormonal women of a certain age and their equally hormonal teenage daughters take long trips in small, enclosed spaces, I also discovered, in the course of a college tour, more disturbing news about my child’s intended course of study.
You see, my daughter, bless her, wants to be a teacher. She has the smarts, the intuition, the interpersonal skills and the empathy that will, most likely, make her a very good one. Despite my concerns about what is happening with national education policy, she is focused on making it her vocation. We’ve been schlepping all over New England comparing different programs, seeing which colleges offer a five-year combined BA/MA, asking how soon each program gets one into the classroom to observe and student teach, etc. This is a kid who is plans to be in teaching for the long haul.
We were on a college tour and someone in our group asked our tour guide (a senior) about his post-graduation plans. Our guide said he had “a few irons in the fire,” one of which was Teach for America. I explained that I was a columnist with a particular interest in education issues, and asked if TFA was actively recruiting on campus. “Yes,” he explained. “They sent emails to all the Resident Advisors.”
You have to wonder about the message that sends our future teachers. Here’s my kid looking to invest four, possibly five years pursuing a double major in a subject area and education, and yet she hears about TFA sending recruitment emails to any resident advisor, regardless of major, and sees a senior thinking about going into teaching not out of vocation but rather because the economy is weak, it’s only a two year commitment, and TFA touts stellar positions obtained by past “corps” members in business, government, and graduate schools.
This week the Washington Post ran a piece by Mark Naison, professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University and director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program, about why he won’t let TFA recruiters into his classroom.
Naison discusses a TFA flyer plastered around the Fordham campus several years ago that said: “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.” He writes: “The message of that flyer was to “use teaching in high-poverty areas as a stepping stone to a career in business.” It was not only disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it effectively advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume-padding” for ambitious young people.
Back in February 2012, as part of his Education Reform Bill, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy called for tougher standards for teacher education programs. Yet the most troubled districts in Connecticut, the “turnaround” districts, are the ones where one finds the most TFA corps members, who show up in classrooms after five weeks of training. Think about it: as Barbara Torre Veltri, author of Learning on Other People’s Kids: Becoming A Teach for America Teacher put it, “instant teachers are not hired in — Scarsdale, New York; Greenwich, Connecticut; or Los Altos, California . . . only in poor, urban school districts of mostly minority populations does TFA have the collective ability to save America’s tough schools.”
Let’s look at the research about the effectiveness of those briefly trained “elites” shall we? An examination of peer reviewed research by Julian Vasquez Heilig and Su Jin Jez, Teach for America: A Review of the Evidence,
found that students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of traditionally credentialed beginning teachers. While both TFA and traditionally credentialed teachers improved with experience, most studies found that relatively few TFA teachers stayed long enough for their students to reap those benefits. More than 50 percent of TFA teachers leave after two years and more than 80 percent after three. What’s more, studies show the negative impact of teacher turnover on school climate and student achievement, and such turnover is “particularly harmful to the achievement of students in schools with large populations of low-performing and Black students,” according to How Teacher Turnover Harms Student Achievement (Ronfeldt, Loeb & Wyckoff 2012).
One wonders then, why Gov. Malloy, despite his words about strengthening teacher qualifications, is allowing State Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor and Special Master Steven Adamowski to ignore the research and sign contracts with TFA in the districts that need stability the most.
Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.