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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, September 08, 2008

And this is where I tell MPS to be wary about taking free money

by folkbum

So mark the day on your calendars, if you will. And I should also qualify my title, in that the money would not actually be headed to MPS:
The Kern Family Foundation will provide $1 million to help bring college graduates involved with Teach for America into Milwaukee Public Schools classrooms by next fall, the foundation announced today. [. . .]

Teach for America leaders have given an initial approval to opening operations in Milwaukee with the goal of putting 30 teachers in MPS classrooms by next fall and 30 more by September 2010. But that is contingent on other pieces of the plan falling into place, including approval by the School Board and raising enough money by early October to pay for the first three years of the program.
Under normal circumstances, I would celebrate anyone willing to invest in MPS and invest in new, quality teachers in MPS. But I think something like The New Teacher Project is a much better way to go than Teach for America. MPS currently partners with several local universities to offer post-grad internships to people whose majors were not education, and to career-switchers who want to fight the good fight--those I also support. But TFA is, in fact, decidedly bad for schools. Anna, a New York City math teacher blogging at Feministe, explains why, in a post unambiguously titled "Why I Hate Teach for America":
At my school, a small public high school in Brooklyn, New York, well over half of the teachers at the school are Teaching Fellows, and, at least in the three years I have been at the school, the longest any of us has stayed (yet) is three years. A few of us are starting our fourth.

And this sucks for our students. I mean, it really, really sucks. It sucks to come back to school and have to have yet another first-year-teacher as a teacher. It sucks to have six different advisory teachers in four years (the case with my old advisory). It sucks to have no continuity from year to year. It sucks for the ninth grade math teacher you really liked to disappear by the time you are in eleventh grade and wanted to ask for some extra help before the PSATs. It sucks to slowly get the impression that teaching anywhere else, or doing anything else for a job is better than staying here and working with you. It sucks to get abandoned year after year after year by young, enthusiastic teachers who saw teaching in the inner city as something great to put on that law school application. [. . .]

Which is why I hate Teach for America. [. . .] TFA members are not required by Teach for America to pursue a masters in education (which, especially if you do not have an undergraduate degree in education is required to become permanently certified in most states), although some of the states where TFA has program sites require teachers to at least begin taking graduate courses as part of their alternative certification requirements. They don’t require teachers to take the steps to become permanently certified because there is no expectation that their teachers will stay in teaching once their two-year resume-building experience is over. How do I know? Because it’s on their website!
I'm eliding some of the best parts, and there is much much more after I left off. But the point is simple: Teach for America parachutes temps into schools instead of finding long-term, committed teachers. TFA is, as she suggests, much more a line on the resume or an entry in the vitae than it is a way to solve the teaching shortage in the country's most needy districts. (I was surprised--astounded, really--to read that MPS is claiming to have only 68 long-term subs in full-time positions this year, out of probably close to 6,000 spots.)

Statistics for urban districts are not much more encouraging for teachers trained the traditional way--something like half of all new teachers bail for the suburbs or different careers in five years. But TFA makes such impermanence explicit.

One of the things that sticks with me from my teacher training came not from the college classroom at all, but from some besuited motivational speaker hired to entertain the troops on the organizational day before school started the year I did an internship at Beloit Memorial High School. I remember nothing of the man's talk except this idea: In my career, I will teach thousands of students. But each one of those students will have only one 9th-grade English teacher (to pick something from my current roster). How do you think the students feel to know that their sole 9th-grade English teacher is doing the 00's equivalent of bumming around Europe, slumming a bit until taking on the MBA?

So my message to the Board, which will have to approve all of this before the TFA temps can parachute in for a year or two of "experience," is this: Be careful. Is an investment in such a transparently temporary band-aid going to do anything to address the educational distress in this city? I suspect not--though the prospect of some more warm bodies will likely be too tempting to pass up.

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