Teach for America Responds to Criticism, Seeks to Reform

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Teach for America Responds to Criticism, Seeks to Reform

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Sep 8, 2014

Teach for America Responds to Criticism, Seeks to Reform

Since its founding back in 1989, Teach for America has had its equal share of supporters and critics, both from within and outside the TFA family. Frequent criticisms include an overly-zealous focus on data-driven results in the classroom, inadequate 5-week summer preparation for new teacher recruits, and low retention of corps members, two-thirds of whom leave the classroom after the required two-year commitment. However, as Vox contributor Dana Goldstein details this week with a selection from her new book Teacher Wars, Teach for America is beginning to listen to these pieces of feedback--and act on them.

These changes, likely largely catalyzed by the departure of former founder Wendy Kopp, follow some "soul-searching" conducted by TFA's current co-CEOs, Elisa Villanueva Beard and Matt Kramer, who seek to focus TFA’s efforts on improving its teachers, and more importantly, combating poverty. "This is never just about academics,” Villanueva Beard explained in a speech at TFA’s second annual educators conference this past July.

Changes in response to criticisms

TFA has enacted several changes for the 2013-2014 year to better prepare corps members to stay in the classroom for the long-term. In the midst of these changes, leadership conducted a serious look at the TFA mission--and how it might be potentially harmful. "Are we destabilizing communities? That is one question we've got to take and really critically examine," Villanueva Beard suggested at an alumni meeting last summer in Detroit.

In response to criticisms of its “quick-prep, high-turnover” model, Teach for America has added two 2013-2014 pilot programs. The first, called the Education for Justice Pre-Corps Pilot Program, will function like a “teaching apprenticeship” and provide a full year of pre-service training to select corps members. Fifty to 100 college seniors who applied early-decision to TFA and were accepted during their junior years will take part in the pilot.

The second pilot will provide continued training and support to corps members in 12 regions--Baltimore, Charlotte, Chicago, Connecticut, D.C., Dallas, Nashville, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, San Antonio, South Carolina, and St. Louis--encouraging them to stay an additional three years in the classroom beyond their two-year requirement. In South Carolina, for example, “support” will include instructional coaching, PD workshops, and stipends for further pursuit of graduate studies in education.

Teach for America also hopes to expand its diversity of placement. Beard announced that the Mississippi Delta will become a hub for training TFA teachers assigned to rural areas like South Dakota and reservations in New Mexico; additionally, TFA has added new regional partnerships in rural America, including Pueblo, Colorado and Muskogee, Oklahoma.

When it comes to the diversity of its recruits, TFA’s most recent corp exceeds the national average of 17% of U.S. teachers who are non-white: 22 percent of TFA's incoming corps is black, and 13 percent are Latino. A third are first-generation college students. The increased effort on recruiting more teachers of color may come in response to critical feedback that TFA recruits lack socioeconomic and racial diversity. “In 2014, it seems that in white-collar America, everyone has a daughter, nephew, colleague, or friend who 'did' TFA,” Goldstein writes.

Room for continued improvement

Despite these moves, Goldstein describes TFA's five-week Summer Institute trainings as drilling a “prescriptive set of directions” into new recruits. She also reflects on criticisms of the program’s "no excuses" discipline and “content-neutral” teaching as something that might detract from educating corps members on conceptual and subject-specific teaching methods.

And while other pilot initiatives like the Special Education and Ability Initiative plan to target corps members working with specific groups of students, one question remains on most skeptics’ minds: Will these pilot programs be successful? Will they change anything, or just add more fuel to critics’ fire?

As Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, alludes to in Goldstein’s article, addressing critical concerns and feedback are solid first steps towards Teach for America’s evolution as an organization. In fact, "this willingness to be honest, ask tough questions, and follow the data” may end up reforming TFA for the better.

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