Home > Uncategorized > TFA Ambivalence

TFA Ambivalence

January 3, 2013

The business section in today’s NYTimes features an article extolling the virtues of Teach For America (TFA). For those unfamiliar with this program, it was established in 1991 as a means of attracting non-education students from elite colleges to spend two years working in urban districts. Over the past decade, TFA has become the darling of “reformers”. They love the bright, idealistic young adults who go into low performing schools and apply their quantitative skills to increasing test scores and after attending corporate sponsored programs like the Broad Academy go directly into administrative positions. At the same time, TFA has become an anathema to those who question the “reform” movement— particularly the reformers from the business sector who are disdainful of graduates “education schools” and want to make top-down change based on test scores. After reading the article I offered the following comment:

Here’s the biggest problem with TFA— and especially the alumni who become “reforme leaders”: they buy into the notion that test scores are the ultimate determinant of learning. They believe that their quantitative skills are directly applicable to schooling because they can be used to analyze test data and to an aspiring financier getting high test scores is analogous to improving the bottom line.

Experienced educators and parents know there is much more to schooling than test results.

That said, I DO have a degree of ambivalence regarding TFA based on my own experience. My career path is similar to those TFA alumni who went directly into administration after two years of teaching in 1970-72. Like many TFA alumni, my graduate work was underwritten by a well intended philanthropic organization (the Ford Foundation) hoping to develop “new breed of administrators”. In my case, the graduate studies were delivered by experts in other graduate programs at the University of Pennsylvania. Thus, our law course was taught by a professor from the Penn Law School, our course on negotiations was taught by a Wharton professor who worked in high level mediation cases at the national level, and our business courses on human relations and accounting were taught by Wharton professors as well. Our education courses were taught by experts as well. We also had a strong practicum element to the program, which enabled me to work in the central office of a nearby suburban school district for a young administrator named Tom Payzant who later led San Diego and Boston schools. So I have some ambivalence about requiring “x” years of teaching before entering a program for aspiring administrators.

There were some other differences between 1972 and 2012. I can say that every graduate professor I came in contact with respected public education, understood that poverty was the biggest challenge facing urban schools, and worked with us to find ways to adapt their instruction to meet the needs of aspiring public school administrators. I also found that unlike the business reformers I read about today, those in the early 1970s didn’t think they knew more than the teachers and administrators who worked with students day-in-and-day out— or more than graduate school of education professors.

%d bloggers like this: