TFA and the Discomfort Zone

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Editorial by Kate Walsh

While Napoleon, Custer, and Rommel might have wished otherwise, it's generally hard to win a battle by simply declaring it over. Yet that's essentially what Barnett Berry, head of the newly renamed Center for Teacher Quality, attempts in a recent Ed Week commentary. Berry urges both defenders of traditional education and advocates of alternative certification to lay down their arms and put aside unproductive debates about what the research does or doesn't say, or what it means to be highly qualified. This all sounds quite conciliatory--but it quickly becomes clear that Berry is seeking not a ceasefire but a full surrender from the alt cert camp.

Mr. Berry implores educators to stop sinking into an "abyss of false dichotomies" which would have schools choosing between well prepared, career-oriented teachers and Teach For America (TFA) corps members doing their stint of public service before heading out to 'real jobs.' In Berry's view, the choice is so obvious it's not worthy of debate.

But debate he does. If Berry's commentary is truly intended to move us past an irrelevant dichotomy toward his own vision for staffing high-poverty schools (have the feds pay for 40,000 college grads to earn master's degrees in teaching, tweaked to connect better to real schools), it's not clear why he dedicates so much space to mashing TFA into a pulp.

Mr. Berry does acknowledge the energy, zeal and academic ability of TFA recruits. He would "claim to be the first" to sing their praises, an unfortunate choice of wording given that he has been an relentless critic of TFA, surpassed only by his frequent co-author Linda Darling-Hammond. The political power that TFA has gained may have forced its critics to soften their blows somewhat, but the agenda remains the same: shut TFA down.

Citing the results of the recent Mathematica study of Teach For America, Berry condemns TFA for not being a "silver bullet"--for failing to improve upon the abysmal attrition rates of other teachers in high-needs schools and for still very much struggling against poverty's pernicious effects on student learning. The low student gains produced by TFA in the study reveal these teachers to be the amateurs they are, claims Berry, and he's undoubtedly right.

But Berry never faces up to the equal or worse performance of the other teachers in these same schools, who he wholly misrepresents as being "remarkably, even more under-prepared" than the TFA teachers. In fact, two thirds of these teachers met the standards of their states, holding full certification. Half had degrees in education and they had, on average, six years of teaching experience. The results? TFA teachers were shown to be more effective. The researchers then made a point of comparing TFA teachers only to certified teachers. TFA still came out significantly ahead in math and slightly ahead in reading. What is the logical takeaway here? It's probably not, as Berry recommends, that we should further tighten the stranglehold that schools of ed with their regulatory sisters, the states, have on teacher preparation.

States report that over 90 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools are fully certified, compared to roughly 95 percent in low-poverty schools. Even accounting for some padding by states to get their numbers this high, it's still safe to say that the large majority of all teachers of poor children are fully certified. If blame is to be laid on anyone for the unacceptable progress of too many poor children, it's far more appropriate that it be laid at the feet of the long-entrenched system that has gotten to make up all the rules.

As Berry does by calling teacher preparation a "mixed bag," many defenders of traditional teacher preparation readily concede that there is an enormous variety in the quality of programs. Of course programs vary in quality. But it's unacceptable for teacher educators and states to ask us to hold fast to a system that cannot provide proper assurance of quality and has never systematically proven its preeminent value. Certification must either stand for something or it should not stand.

Perhaps TFA's most important contribution has been to rock the boat, forcing state officials and teacher educators to justify their monolithic certification policies and procedures. With the power gained by this organization, there is finally some check on the often arbitrary and capricious decisions made about who can and cannot teach in urban schools; leaders with any political radar know that TFA is to be embraced, not reviled--quite a sea change from just a few years ago.

Berry, other teacher educators and state officials all must ask themselves why schools even consider employing TFA corps members. He's absolutely right to be mystified by the notion that schools would employ teachers who are likely to leave after two years. TFA never could have gained any traction at all if the system surrounding it wasn't so thoroughly unsatisfactory. Ironically, TFA's expanding influence is in direct proportion to the dysfunction of our schools.

The dichotomy between bright, hard-charging alt cert folks and traditionally prepared teachers is not false, as Berry would have it, but real--and it must be confronted on a range of issues, including who the profession recruits, the training they receive, and who schools are allowed to hire. Educators could start by getting over their open disdain of intelligence. Many defenders of traditional ed are so worried about appearing elitist that they can't even use the word 'smart' to describe a teacher, substituting the word instead with "academically able," which is right up there with 'vertically challenged' and 'big-boned.'

Berry may assert that "no one will deny that public schools need more teachers who come from the top of their class and from [the] most competitive colleges," but anyone who has attended a conference on teacher quality hears something else entirely. Intelligence is routinely denigrated. When someone concedes that a smart teacher might be a good thing, it's often hurriedly accompanied by the caveat, "but it's certainly not enough." Of course it's not enough. Nothing's enough. Sadly however, these expressions too often convey that being a smart person is at best relatively unimportant, and at worst perceived to be code for wanting schools to only hire rich white kids from Harvard.

No matter what its shortcomings may be, TFA has become a cultural symbol for a profession that must be dealt with now. Presidents, governors, the US Congress, superintendents, and school principals have responded so enthusiastically to TFA because of, not in spite of, the status quo.