Six Questions for Teach for America

Why would the Pittsburgh school board invite an organization into our schools that could potentially harm students and the district itself? I can’t answer that question, but it appears that is what they are about to do by signing a deal with Teach for America.

Teach for America (TFA) recruits bright young people, fresh from our top colleges, gives them five weeks of training, and sends them to work in mostly urban school districts. To understand the potential problems with TFA, you have to separate these young recruits from the program itself. Some of my own former students have gone into TFA, which is now widely considered an excellent resume builder and has become quite competitive on some college campuses. A couple years ago, a whopping 18% of Yale’s senior class applied to the program. [New York Times, 7-11-10]

While TFA may be a good thing for these young people who wish to experience “the real world” for two years before moving onto their “real careers,” the program is not necessarily helping students. In fact, it may be hurting them. And there are some very big concerns about the damage TFA is doing to public education more generally.

The Pittsburgh Public School board opened the door to TFA when it hired the outside consultants Bellwether and FSG at the beginning of this year to help close the district’s looming budget gap: their winning proposal promised to help the district recruit “high quality teachers” by “building a strong pipeline of talent through partnerships with local universities as well as with major alternative certification providers such as New Leaders, Teach for America, and the Urban Teacher Residency.” [Bellwether and FSG proposal, p. 12] At the time, the district’s director of strategic initiatives in charge of the Bellwether/FSG contract was Cate Reed, a TFA alumna who has since left to do development work for, yes, Teach for America. [Post-Gazette, 8-21-13] Meanwhile, TFA has set up shop in Pittsburgh and is now hiring a Founding Executive Director to plan their expansion into the city by next fall.

Here are six questions the Pittsburgh Public School board should ask before inking any deal with Teach for America:

1.  Will TFA help our students? Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig at the University of Texas Austin and his colleagues “have taken a look at every peer-reviewed research study that examines TFA and student achievement.” Their conclusion? “TFA is NOT a slam dunk.” Previously they found that “students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers.” [Vasquez Heilig, J. & Jez, S. (2010). Teach For America: A review of the evidence.] A widely publicized recent Mathematica study suggested that TFA instructors are effective and give their students a 2.6 month boost in learning over traditionally trained teachers. [Dept. of Education, Sept. 2013]

This sounds good. However, in a technical review of that work, Dr. Vasquez Heilig points out that this number requires context, noting that “class size reduction has 286% more impact than TFA.” What’s more, a recent analysis demonstrates that early childhood education has “1214% more impact than the TFA effect reported by Mathematica.” [Cloaking Inequality, 10-21-13] The bottom line? TFA doesn’t look like a silver bullet for our students and other initiatives such as class size reduction and early childhood education have an exponentially larger impact on student learning.

2.  Will TFA hurt our students? TFA corps members sign up for a two-year commitment and then most go on to other careers, contributing to the churn in the lives of students, many of whom are already facing great instabilities. Education historian Diane Ravitch calls TFA, “Teach for Awhile.” About 20-30% of TFA members stay in the classroom 3-5 years, and only 5% are still teaching in their initial placement by the seventh year. [Cloaking Inequality, 10-21-13] Many TFA alumni are now speaking out about their experiences working with some of our neediest students. With only five weeks of training, they say they were ill-prepared to work with troubled kids, could do little more than “teach to the test,” and worry that they really were harming children. [See for example Washington Post 2-28-13; John Bilby; Cloaking Inequality, 9-20-13 and 8-6-13] These are testimonies worth serious attention.

3.  Will TFA solve our staffing needs? Pittsburgh is apparently considering a deal with TFA because of a shortage of middle level and high school math and science teachers. The administration claims that TFA will help them get young people of color to fill these positions – a worthy goal, but at the last board meeting, TFA representatives said they could not guarantee that this would happen. If we truly have a staffing problem, why aren’t we working with local universities to place their recent graduates and “grow our own” regional talent? What happened to previous new-teacher programs in the district? I’ve also heard that our hiring cycle is quite late in the year, putting us at a disadvantage when it comes to making competitive offers: why don’t we address this simple calendar issue? I find it hard to believe that with at least seven teaching-degree-granting colleges and universities in Southwest PA, Pittsburgh can’t figure out a way to fill its ranks with highly qualified, trained teachers who want to make teaching their career, and perhaps even stay in their hometown.

Significantly, Dr. Vasquez Heilig and his colleagues conclude that, “The evidence suggests that districts may benefit from using TFA personnel to fill teacher shortages when the available labor pool consists of temporary or substitute teachers or other novice alternatively and provisionally certified teachers likely to leave in a few years. Nevertheless, if educational leaders plan to use TFA teachers as a solution to the problem of shortages, they should be prepared for constant attrition and the associated costs of ongoing recruitment and training.” [Vasquez Heilig, J. & Jez, S. (2010). Teach For America: A review of the evidence.]

4.  Will TFA address our racial achievement gap? TFA’s recent job announcement points to the low number of black men going to college saying, “We believe that Teach For America corps members can play a vital role in the fight for educational equity in Pittsburgh.” [Linked In, posted October 2013] The implication is that by placing TFA instructors in our neediest schools that somehow these bright-eyed 22 year olds will solve our racial achievement gap. Do we have any credible research showing that youth and enthusiasm are the keys to this complex, persistent problem? Dr. Vasquez Heilig’s analysis of TFA outcomes answers that question this way: “The lack of a consistent impact…should indicate to policymakers that TFA is likely not the panacea that will reduce disparities in educational outcomes.” [Vasquez Heilig, J. & Jez, S. (2010). Teach For America: A review of the evidence.]

5.  What will TFA cost us? TFA operates like a temp agency, tacking on a finder’s fee for its recruits. It charges districts $3,000 to $5,000 per instructor per year – and that’s on top of the regular entry level teacher’s salary each TFA recruit receives from the district. How is that saving us money in the middle of this budget deficit crisis that has already forced the district to furlough hundreds of our kids’ teachers? To makes matters worse, TFA seeks out grants from states where it is doing business (it has a plan to increase state collections to $350 million in 2015). That is more of our taxpayer money that ought to be going towards equitable funding of our public schools.

And it’s clear that TFA wants to tap into other local resources: its current job ad says that Pittsburgh’s Founding Executive Director will “Grow a sustainable, diversified local funding base that will include gifts from individuals, corporations, and foundations; district and local public funding; and possibly an annual benefit dinner.” [Linked In, posted October 2013] Our city is not a gravy train and those valuable resources ought to be going to support students in public schools, not TFA. Make no mistake, TFA is a huge organization with a $100 million endowment and annual revenues close to $300 million. [All figures from Politico, October 2013] If TFA really wants to help Pittsburgh students, it could help us with our $46 million budget gap.

6.  Does TFA support public education? Here’s where the school board really better sit up and take notice. TFA has become a political powerhouse with huge political clout. In the middle of our federal budget standoff last month, TFA managed to renew a provision that defines teachers-in-training (including TFA recruits) as “highly qualified” so they can continue to take charge of our children’s classrooms. [Washington Post, 10-16-13] Right now TFA has seven alumni working for senators, representatives and the House Education committee through its new Capitol Hill Fellows program, paid for by Arthur Rock. A wealthy venture capitalist from San Francisco, Rock sits on TFA’s board and according to Politico, “has become a leading financier of education reform. He has made sizable donations to legislative and school board candidates across the country who support expanding charter schools and, in some cases, vouchers. Until recently, Rock also sat on the board of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which advocates public subsidies to send low-income children to private and parochial schools.” [Politico, October 2013]

Like Mr. Rock, TFA is funneling money into school board races all over the country where TFA alumns are running: this year a New Jersey teacher tracked hundreds of thousands of dollars channeled to candidates promoting corporate-style and privatization reforms. [Jersey Jazzman, 10-17-13] A Massachusetts teacher recently dug into the role of TFA in urban charter schools, and discovered why the program is expanding in districts where teachers are getting laid off: “In city after city, TFA has largely abandoned its earlier mission of staffing hard-to-fill positions in public schools, serving instead as a placement agency for urban charters. In Chicago, however, TFA’s role appears to go far beyond providing labor for the fast-growing charter sector.” She found documents indicating that TFA hoped to “dramatically expand the number of charter schools in the city,” with plans to support 52 new charters at the exact moment the district proposed closing more than 50 traditional public schools. [EduShyster, 9-9-13]

In Pittsburgh, TFA wants its new Executive Director to “Develop and evolve a strategy for maintaining and growing our public support, from district, local, and state sources,” and to “Establish relationships with school districts and charter management organizations to place corps members with an eye toward maximizing scale and sustainability.” [Linked In, posted October 2013] No doubt about it: they’re planning to stay. And grow. In a big way.

Is this the organization that we want to invite in Pittsburgh’s front door? I’m not convinced from the review of the evidence that Teach for America will help our students. And I am deeply concerned that it may directly harm students, while costing us resources we don’t have, and failing to address our actual staffing needs. Here’s one last question: Can we show TFA the back door and say, no thanks?

34 thoughts on “Six Questions for Teach for America

  1. Horse Pucky! TFA is for entitled children to pad their resumes so they can get into those ivy league law schools or business schools. PPA needs to hire people who want to make teaching their life’s work!! TFA won’t help Pittsburgh students! Actual teachers can do that! Get rid of Linda Lane! She does not have our children’s best interest at heart! Hire teachers!

  2. This needs to be reblogged. As a teacher-in-training at a local university, I couldn’t agree more with these points. Even in an excellent program, I recognize my first year will be my hardest, and that I won’t feel completely competent for at least 5 years.

  3. I agree with the notion of working with local universities etc. to find teachers in hard to staff areas. But it would seem that this is not an “either or” situation. What is essential is getting science and math experts in front of our students. And why indict TFA with accusations that they will hurt students? Can’t we say that is true for any group of teachers? Might there also be some in the current ranks that hurt students? We have to decide that teachers are not fungible. Some of better than others and some of more highly qualified than others. And we all know that some teachers have more expertise than others. So what is the big deal? We need a short term solution…time is running out.

    • Judy, I agree that this is not an “either / or” situation. However, I would like to know why PPS has not been successful in getting math and science teachers from our local education schools. I’ve heard from one of these local programs that there has been no communication or outreach. So it seems the district might still have unexplored opportunities for recruiting local, homegrown talent right here. I agree that we need to get math and science experts in front of our students — but that is precisely my point about TFA. These are not math and science experts. These are recent college grads with history degrees (to pick on my own discipline) — these are NOT content experts. And the recruits have only a few weeks of training. My concerns about potential harm to students comes from reading the many testimonies of former TFA instructors (see links above). I am also very concerned about churn in our schools. This affects not only students, but the teaching team, and the entire school culture. Education researchers have suggested that TFA might be a short term solution to staffing needs — essentially a temp agency — but the district is proposing to sign a minimum 3 year agreement. And TFA intends to stay in Pittsburgh, with big plans to expand. Is this what we want for our students? I think it’s very telling that our wealthy suburbs are not signing contracts with TFA. I still have many questions about this model and think the school board should spend some time asking more questions, too.

      • I would think that it would require some doing to get history majors certified to teach physics, for example. I ran two such programs back in the day to get folks who were in the work force in hard to staff areas to come into education. In some ways it was successful and in others not so much. I think we need to confront a basic issue and that is that there are not those many folks out there with these discrete majors and certification to teach.
        Is there a way to get this info from PDE so we can understand the magnitude of the problem? For example, how many folks graduated last year with a certificate to teach physics or chemistry, to name a few hard to staff positions. Based on my experience working in the PPS and in other places over my career, these folks are not standing in line to get a job to teach.
        On another note, what prevents the district from using a modified video teaching format? For example, the physics teacher at Brashear is a highly qualified and talented teacher. Why not have him broadcast his lectures to classrooms around the city where no physics teacher exists…then have a well-developed curriculum so that folks at the home school could moderate the discussion….I guess I would like to see us think outside the box and think of ways we could address this problem rather than waste our time lambasting a program that seeks to address a problem..

      • I believe the district was going to propose hybrid learning models such as you are describing in its Envisioning plan, but we haven’t heard those details yet. I am cautiously optimistic: I have not yet seen evidence for K-12 students demonstrating good learning outcomes (while I have read plenty of solid critiques of how these models are rolling out in higher ed, which makes me nervous). I don’t think technology is bad, I just don’t think it’s a panacea, either. And I’m worried about equity — I don’t want PPS offering an AP Chemistry teacher in one school, with a cyber-course in another.
        Right now I would like the board to make sure we don’t get locked into a contract with an organization that is not going to actually solve our problems (while costing us $150,000 at the same time we are struggling to get our students what they need). As you say, history majors are not chemistry content experts — but the district appears ready to address our staffing shortage with content *novices*. I don’t think it’s a waste of time to urge the board to ask questions before inking a deal.

      • The board did meet with TFA and did ask questions. Out of that discussion they decided to go forward. I worry that you are seizing on the hiring of maybe fifteen folks when the issues facing the BOE are much bigger. And saying you are against some students learning from a live person while others see the video is not confronting the issue that the numbers of teachers certified to teach the hard sciences does not accommodate the need. You did not respond to this. Saying you are against something without saying what you are for given the reality of the situation is not productive.
        For example declaring a moratorium on closing schools (e.g. Woolslair has 100 students) without making serious proposals on how PPS will address the funding gap is verging on magical thinking. You know a lot of folks read your blog. What if you decided that you were going to help your readers develop an understanding of exactly what is at stake? We have a responsibility to the parents and the community to look at the data with a clear-eyed focus and help others understand the big picture. And by this I mean looking at both sides of the question.
        I also commented on the variability of teacher expertise. You did not comment on that. Teachers are not fungible. Unless that fact is confronted and evaluation systems supported, the teacher assigned to students remains the single biggest lottery in a child’s school year. There is ample research and data to support the impact of a poor teacher for one year on the remainder of that child’s schooling.
        Finally I note that you did not look into the CBA and the librarian issue. I would think you would want to do this since the placement of librarians in all schools howbeit only for a day was part of the BOEs plan to provide equity in good measure.

      • TFA AGAIN!!
        Today I did a little research, and found out that in 2012 Pennsylvania state colleges and universities graduated approximately 55 people certified to teach physics and 105 certified to teach chemistry. Biology numbers were higher. In this state there are over 750 public high schools. What do I deduce from this? It would seem that this explains the magnitude of the problem when it comes to staffing teachers in the hard sciences in the PPS. Perhaps TFA is not the best way to go about doing this but if we want teachers in these hard to staff subjects in classrooms teaching high school students then we need to think about where they will come from. The physics and chemistry trees are not bearing a lot of fruit; but there might be some folks out there (pre-med, engineers, chemists, etc. ) who are looking for a challenge and are willing to undertake the task of helping urban youth develop a love of learning for the sciences.
        I have had experience running programs in which folks from other fields have come on board to learn how to teach the subject in which they are expert. Not everyone was successful but that is also true for teachers who come into the schools today. By the same token some were outstandingly successful. For example, back in the old timey days a chemistry teacher par excellence at both Allderdice and Schenley was a pharmacist by training. She was not in any training program I ran but she sure did know how to help others learn to teach.

      • Judy, wow — those numbers are scary. I wonder how many new math and science teachers PA high schools require each year? And I wonder if there are ways to recruit other professionals into a second career as teachers (with the intention of staying)? That would seem ideal in many ways. And perhaps with the same kind of teaching support that TFA offers, which they tell me is the key to the success of their recruits.

    • Hi Judy,

      As someone who works both as a veteran public school teacher and teacher educator, I can’t buy into the concept of TFA as a “short term solution”. I’m tired of short-term solutions by organizations who claim to have the silver bullet that will save public schools. I have taught scores of graduate and undergraduate students, so many deserving a full-time teaching position in PPS, who remain on the sub list (I see former students all the time—in my school, at my children’s school), have waited so long that they have given up on teaching, or have (finally) found meaningful full-time teaching positions in other local districts. And some of these are those oh-so rare STEM teachers.

      PPS needs to do a better job working with out local universities, actively recruiting the talent, and posting and hiring in a timely manner (i.e., before the 11th hour). There are ‘highly qualified’ teachers out there, at preK through secondary levels, who are willing to give a lifetime to teaching, not just a ‘short-term’ (2 year) commitment.

      So, hiring “maybe fifteen folks” is a big deal. As for replicating live teaching with highly qualified video-based instruction (i.e., your comments below about physics at Brashear), who is going to hang out with the students at the other satellite school? A certified teacher, yes? Why not just hire a teacher? (This is an issue that’s been brought up with delivering AP courses at all schools; blindly using technology is not the answer.) So yes, some of “the issues facing the BOE are much bigger”, but anything that has a direct impact on our students’ education—my own children’s education—is big enough to worry about.

      Also, my Chatham students won’t come with a “finder’s fee” attached to their employment. Public education remains a civic duty and civic right, not a way for private institutions to profit. TFA is not and will never be the answer here.

      • I would like to know who can help teachers who are not fully certified such as Private Academic Certification teachers. Would they be more qualified than Teacher for American students? At least they went to a four year University and had student teaching in the classroom. Maybe there is another alternative way for them to teach or receive their full certification.

    • I would like to know there are a lot of good teachers out their but could not pass the teaching exams by 5 points or less. We are missing out on too many good teachers who could not pass all these tests. Retired teachers who taught over 30 years cannot recall if they pass or did not pass a test to teach. Now, teachers need to pass in PA at least 6 tests to become a teacher.

  4. In response to Ms. Johnston—Woolslair had more than 300 students just a few years ago and it was intentionally thinned by district policy to make it easier to close. On the question of librarians—I am a parent and I am not a union member—but I find the idea of staffing our libraries with volunteers to be ludicrous. There is ample data to show that professionally trained and credentialed librarians can boost the reading scores of a school. Real librarians in EVERY SCHOOL EVERY DAY are what is needed. Finally, the author of Yinzercation looks at the data with clear eyes. That we finally have someone as learned, careful, historical and accurate as Jessie Ramey fighting on the side of what the majority of parents, teachers and students want has made me more committed to keeping my kids in the PPS than I was when my kids started school here five years ago. Jessie Ramey is the voice of the people—my people—and I hope the perspective represented in this blog grows ever louder and more disruptive.

    • In discussing the librarian issue we need to look at the current state of this. In elementary and some middle schools librarians are only in the buildings one day a week. It in my understanding that their work that day is confined to restacking and checking out books. (Could someone verify that is the case?) I agree with you completely that there should be librarians in every school every day but there is not. (and given the financial state of the district the chances are good that will not be the case in the near future) I am asking why when the librarian is in the building he/she is not involved in finding ways to engage students in reading and learning from books. I am not in favor of staffing libraries with volunteers; I am in favor of finding ways so that the one day the librarian is in the building is used to work closely with students not just to check out and restack books. Actually I find that very insulting to librarians who, I am sure, would rather be involved with students. In Propel schools, for example, students are asked to take this on thereby learning how a library functions.
      In terms of Woolslair, I do not know that the board deliberately moved students away from Woolslair. In fact, given the many comments on this blog and others it would seem that most people think the administration could not think that far ahead. We can’t have it both ways. The central office cannot be inept and then have them making decisions that reflect forward thinking that would decrease the number of students at Woolslair. I for one would like to know if the housing patterns have changed; where did the Woolslair students go? Given the small numbers at Arsenal Elementary and Middle, they are probably not there as well.
      Finally I find it admirable that you defend Ms. Raimey but she does not seem as if she needs that. To my way of thinking she is a smart, perceptive woman capable of holding her own. What I did say is that there is a need for a clear-eyed view of all sides of a question…and would you share with me who “your people” are?
      Finally I am always available to engage in these kinds of discussions in person.

  5. Wow, Mrs. Johnston appears to think we can solve educational achievement disparities by robbing schools of any qualified educators or staff.

    Let’s start with Teach for America. Any assertion that students in TFA led classrooms receive instruction from highly qualified and effective educators is laughably false. Research shows clearly that Teach for America fellows are terribly unqualified, extremely under-prepared, and produce incredibly discouraging achievement results for students. In spite of this, PPS plans to push forward with this contract because it can’t seen to figure out how to hire teachers to fill high school science classrooms. But PPS hasn’t done the diligence to show that they need TFA to do this. I find it hard to believe that they have really gone out and tried to recruit qualified, certified, and well credentialed teachers to fill these jobs and until they can prove they have actually done that, they need to cool their jets on TFA because it is not a preferable option at all.

    Regarding librarians, this is typical A+ Schools talking points… It must be the union’s fault!! The reality is that librarians are specially trained employees. There are special degrees and programs for librarians, and library sciences is a discipline unto itself–one that has very little to do with pedagogy. The reason why the PFT’s CBA doesn’t allow teachers to fill in for librarians is because teachers are not trained as librarians. These are two completely separate jobs, and if either of them are to be done well then they both need to be filled with highly qualified employees. I would never let my auto mechanic fix my furnace, and I would never let a teacher sub for a librarian or vice versa. Additionally, the idea that we can make libraries better by firing all of the librarians is a shocking and unfortunate position for anyone to hold. Very disappointing.

    I also am shocked to read that “we need a short-term solution” to the problems our schools are facing. This mentality is exactly the problem. We need vision, leadership, and long term planning to fix our schools. If we continue down the path of one-off fixes and band-aids every year we are going to end up with a Frankenstien-monster-like school district with no real direction and no real hope for getting better.

    Finally, the idea that we should close a ton of schools because local activists haven’t solved the school district’s budget crisis is disappointing. We know that closing schools leads to more student population loss to charters, which worsens our financial position, and begets more closings. We need to stop the bleeding, otherwise our budgets will continue to worsen. There seems to be movement in city government to provide more funding for the schools, and there are local tax options. These are not revolutionary ideas, they have always been on the table. But no one has been courageous enough to stand up and demand that we explore them until now. The continued insistence that closing schools is the best way to improve them shows a lack of leadership and a lack of understanding of the very real impacts these closing will have on students and on this city. That is not the type of leadership we need for our schools.

    • I don’t think this was directed to what I said…but I do want you to look at the info about librarians…A+ has nothing to do with this. I only want to know if it is true that only librarians can check out books and restack books. Librarians are trained for so much more and keeping them to those tasks while they are in a school for a day seems like a waste of the librarian’s time, don’t you think? Why not figure out a way for them to do what we value them to do?

      • I don’t know the answer to this — perhaps one of our readers can tell us? Or you could ask the district and let us know what you learn? I agree that it would be far better for our students to have their librarians delivering student services while in the building — but I also think the bigger problem is that they are only in the building one day per week. It seems we are asking far too much of these professionals, to take on five different schools, to try to learn hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds?) of kids, not to mention teachers. One of the wonderful things our full-time librarian is able to do is to coordinate lessons with all of the teachers in the building — there is tremendous collaboration and mutual support going on. You just can’t to that when you’re in the building 1/5th of the time.

      • To clarify, this was posted directly in response to your comments.

        Librarians are hired in the schools to serve as librarians. Trivializing their work as “checking out and restacking books” is a simplistic and derogatory summation of what PPS’ librarians do day in and day out for students. Again, this kind of attack on our school employees is very disappointing.

  6. Jessie,

    Kudos to you for adding some simple questions that will unpack an issue that has so many layers. It is certainly crucial that PPS take the time to ask these questions.

    Unfortunately I am not hopeful that the district will actually do its homework on TFA for two reasons (and these are reasons that are clearly linked). TFA’s impact is most profound through its lobbying and through its alumni. 30 percent of TFA alumni are in policy making roles in school districts throughout the country. In PPS there are at least 5 current project managers who are TFA alumni, and that doesn’t count two recently departed project managers, one of whom went straight from the “Envisioning” team back to a TFA executive position working from Pittsburgh. These decision makers are driving school policy around gifted and talented models, student services, teacher effectiveness, and data collection, and most of them have only 5 weeks of training in pedagogy through TFA. No matter how much the district interviews or doesn’t interview TFA, there is no question that TFAs tentacles are already wrapped around Bellefield Ave.

    Second, there is no way on earth that TFA is coming here for 15-30 positions. It may be that number of positions in year one, but when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2015, TFA will have its foot in the door and will not be settling for 30 positions. In Charlotte, NC, Clark County, NV, and Chicago TFA contracts have meant furloughs of experienced teachers who were replaced with TFAers. Ultimately, even with the finder’s fee, a first step TFA teacher will cost the district less money in the short term. Unfortunately this decision will most dramatically impact our students and their families negatively. Pittsburgh needs teachers who want a career in front of our students, not a 2 year commitment. If we are financially strapped, we should be investing our resources in lasting change not a short-sighted contract rushed through without time for public consideration and meaningful dialogue.

  7. Thank you for supporting quality teaching in Pittsburgh Public Scools. In my opinion, this issue, as it will pertain to harming our students, boils down to a few main points.
    1. First year teachers have it rough, no matter what their education or training. If our district fires teachers through the current cut score evaluations and then hires people who don’t intend to remain teachers for more than two years, we are faced with two distinct problems. The first is that we will have “teachers” who are not invested enough do what it takes to improve in the classroom. The second is that we will create a revolving door through which every two years brand new inexperienced TFA employees will march, idealistic and unprepared.
    2. PPS only interviews the top ten percent of applicants off of an eligibility list. If the district is having a hard time staffing, that may be a better place to start rather than bringing in people who do not plan to remain in our schools. Also, if staffing is an issue, perhaps firing 15% of the current certified teachers is not the right plan of attack. I would suggest instead that the district invest in their current teachers who want to remain in their positions.
    3. To think that this is a short term solution or that it is only 15 positions is niave. If TFA gets a foothold, our school system will be forever changed. In my opinion, these changes will be detrimental to the growth our schools have made and I simply believe our kids deserve the best we have to offer them- TFA is a band aid effort for schools without enough teachers- that is not PPS.

  8. From the perspective of a newer teacher, I have to echo the cautions about TFA. I am in my third year in the district
    (and as a teacher overall) and I, daily, feel that I’m still learning how to fully serve my students. Though I was well educated at Pitt and have excellent support and mentorship from my colleagues, one cannot learn how to be a good teacher in one or two years and especially in 5 weeks. We need teachers in the city schools who are committed to staying there well beyond the first few years of their career if we really want to impact our students in a positive way.

    The trouble with TFA is not that the corps members will not be effective teachers. Some of them may be very good early in their careers; many will not. The trouble is that teachers do not achieve mastery of their craft until AT LEAST a few years into their careers (let’s say 3-5 – I don’t know what research suggests but I do know that you are not allowed to take a student teacher until you’ve completed at least three years). We are subjecting our students to a revolving door of teachers who are “figuring it out.” While they may be “experts” in their fields (no one has addressed that having a bachelor’s degree in a field by no means makes you an expert), there is much more that goes into being an effective teacher. That knowledge comes with time and experience.

    I have experienced first hand the way that teacher turnover can impact students. It is emotionally difficult for even our best students to feel that they are being passed off from one teacher to another. Teachers only begin to build a reputation in a school after they’ve been there longer than the oldest students; this goes a long way toward building rapport which we know is important in being effective with the population that we teach.

    TFA will not be limited to the 15-30 positions the district claims are “hard to fill.” TFA does not go to cities for that many positions. We need to consider the doors that we will open by allowing this organization to come to our city – how many well educated, experienced teachers will we eventually supplant with the revolving corps?

    If we want to solve our math/science teacher shortage, we need to ask why those teaching graduates do not want to teach in PPS. How can we support new hires to keep them in the district? How can we attract them to our neediest schools? TFA will not solve that problem, not by a long shot.

    Our board needs to have a long, hard think about how TFA will impact our students and how we might be able to solve the problems with a better solution than a band aid.

  9. 18.2% of PPS students receive special education services. I’d like to know how much of the 5 week TFA training is spent learning about disabilities. Students with disabilities have a right to free and appropriate public education. It is not at all appropriate to put TFA teachers in front of students receiving special education services without the proper training.

  10. Let’s face it folks there isn’t one solution that is going to solve Pittsburgh Public Schools problems regarding getting quality teachers into the classroom. Besides it’s not just a quality problem it’s also a money problem.

    It is my understanding that the $5,000 per TFA teacher will use Gates Money, money that isn’t available for teachers hired under normal channels. So we are essentially getting these teachers at the same price. So they aren’t costing $150,000 more because that money runs out in two years.

    If I were superintendent I would work with the unions to move existing quality teachers into these failing schools. The problem is the work rules make it very difficult to take a highly performing existing veteran teacher and ask her to move into a position that would really make a difference to the lowest performing students and schools. I would’ve asked to use the Gates money to move existing vet teachers into these positions. However when this option is off the table then where else do you go? Why not to TFA? The recruiting is done for you – less HR overhead and they are hired just like regular teachers. I have to agree that the finders fee is steep and would like to make that payable if and only of the teacher stays 5 years or more in the same school (of course showing growth in the rubric of at least the average teacher during their tenure).

    The long term problem is that there are 9% of all PPS teachers that aren’t quality and need to be replaced. Eventually a percentage of these teachers will either quit or be fired. We need a pipeline of quality teachers year after year to fill these positions. Once again has the current system of hiring been good enough for the quality of teaching we have? Will it be good enough to fill those who will not make the grade in the future? Why not try something different?

    • Mr. DeFlitch,

      I agree with you wholeheartedly that one option is not going to solve the problem of hard-to-fill positions in PPS. TFA will certainly give us teachers for those positions and I’m sure some of those teachers will continue teaching in PPS and make a wonderful impact on our students.

      The problems with TFA are its unintended consequences. If we invite teachers into our classrooms that are only committed to a two-year contract and who turn over at a much steeper rate than our current teaching force (TFA retains 30% in the classroom while PPS is closer to 80%), we are not solving the problem of maintaining a consistent presence of high quality teaching in our neediest schools. As soon as those teachers acclimate to the community, most will leave. As soon as the students come to see those teachers as committed and integral parts of their school, they will have a new teacher or a new face to pass in the hallway. As soon as those teachers become truly effective, they’ll be gone.

      The larger moral issue with TFA is the way it deprofessionalizes teaching. If we want to attract more good teachers we need, as a society, to show that we value teaching and that it is a profession which requires expertise. By claiming that one can become an effective teacher with virtually NO training perpetuates the idea that anyone can teach. While I also believe that there is a fair amount of talent involved in being an effective teacher, “smart” does not equal “talented” and neither of those terms equal “talented and well trained.”

      Yes, the money for TFA is not coming out of the district’s pocket, so to speak. But why can’t that $150,000 of “Gates money” be used to support the teachers we already have? Or to implement programs that will help us stabilize teacher turnover in our neediest schools? And to support the great teachers that are ALREADY teaching in those schools?

      Claiming that 9% of our teachers are failing, firing them and then replacing them with novices is not only not going to fix the problem — it will make it much worse.

      • I guess the 30% versus 80% comes from generic past performance? The 30% presumably not at PPS schools, but I get it that it’s an indicator that TFA teachers don’t stick around, I guess I’m more willing to find out if 15-30 TFA teachers do better than normal hires. Although I agree it’s a red flag.

        I agree that as a society we don’t hold teachers in high regards compare to previous generations. It is my opinion we have made the teacher to scapegoat for larger societal problems like broken families, generational poverty, and general apathy about wanting to change your socio-economic status through education. I’d argue that taking away teachers ability to negotiate their own salary “deprofessionalizes” teaching too.

        Actually the $150k would be money we would give back to Gates we wouldn’t be able to spend it on say computers of something else. I believe was originally earmarked to give to teachers as bonus money for reaching certain high standards (I could be wrong on this and I’m sure some one will tell me as much) and those standards were never reached so they had to spend it on something else.

        Like I said I’d use the $150k like to use it as an incentive for current quality teachers to improve the situation at some of these lower performing schools. This only works where the right teacher fits into the right culture. It’s not always about the money but having monetary incentives may move some teachers into these seemingly tougher positions.

    • This reply is from Josh Slifkin, whose computer was not cooperating:

      As many of us have noted above, TFA just doesn’t cut it. When you write that it’s “not just a quality problem, it’s a money problem,” it appears you’ve taken the stance that good teachers just cost too much money. Teachers like me—tenured, advanced degrees, top of the pay scale. So, I’m guessing the answer is to hire short-term, minimally trained (and I’m using that last word very, very loosely) teachers (or are they being called ‘interns’ now?). I don’t think so. TFA will never agree to a 5 year guarantee; it’s not the way Rhee-form works.

      As I’ve noted above, I’m a teacher, a teacher educator, and a parent with two children in PPS. Teaching is an avocation, not a rung on someone’s resumé or MBA application. My high school students don’t deserve short-term solutions. My undergraduate and graduate students don’t deserve to be short-changed in the employment process. My children deserve better than a two-year commitment.

      Your call to “move existing quality teachers into these failing schools” brings with it even more issues. Why are the schools ‘failing’? Your comment seems to place blame on the teaching staff, and not other variables, like economics/poverty, family/culture of learning—things that are beyond the classroom. As if moving teachers will suddenly make those dreaded standardized test scores go up. So, should we uproot teachers from schools where they have helped to develop a sense of community and move them around to other locations? Who decides? How often? Volunteers? Lottery? Teaching, like learning, isn’t one-size-fits-all. Just because a teacher is effective with one population doesn’t mean that s/he will be successful somewhere else. (This goes for administrators, too.)

      Addressing the ‘quality’ problem: there is no doubt that there are teachers who may need help with their pedagogical practice, even some who may not be cut out for life in the public schools (or any school, for that matter). And this begs the questions: will these TFAs be held to concepts of PPS’s RISE teacher evaluation process?

      There are scores of quality pre-service and new teachers out there. Are we saying that our universities are not training our students correctly to teach the next generation of students? I’d like to think that Pitt, Carlow, Point Park, Chatham, etc. are doing better than that. The district continues to hire too late, at the 11th hour; many ”quality’ teachers end up looking/going elsewhere.

      Anyway, it’s really great to know that hundreds of thousands of dollars in Gates money is marked for this kind of loose bandaging.

      • Josh – thanks for being a teacher I honestly believe that we don’t say that enough. Like I said in the previous post teachers are the scapegoats for the problems we have.

        Likewise, I don’t really have a “stance” on not being able to afford quality teachers. I have opinions based on some facts and opinions. The fact is a 10 year veterans PPS teacher can make $89,100 for 192 days of work 7 hrs 16 minutes of work time (includes lunch and planning periods), lifetime healthcare, and a nice pension. Can we continue to afford this? it is my opinion that the budget deficits seem to indicate that our collective ability to continue to be able to afford this are in peril. My experiences talking to people seem to indicate that we cannot or need to find another model that will work. We have been continually relying upon state and federal/grant dollars to keep us near $525M – this is not sustainable. It’s not just teachers salaries it’s the whole educational system, but salaries and benefits are a large contributor to the budget.

        I’m not pointing the finger at teachers for the problems, I question the leadership that is telling our teachers they are worth X and we can only afford Y. I blame the leadership.

        If you are asking me to comment on why some schools fail I’m sorry but I’m not ignorant enough to believe that I have the solution to that problem, especially when you factor in culture and generational poverty. I do believe that when we give up on these schools there are charter schools willing to come into these communities and try something different. Then they get blasted for sucking dollars out of the public. We need to get to the root cause of the problem and I don’t believe that anyone has been able to state what the root cause of that problem is.

        TFA teachers must be held to the same standard. I would argue a higher standard if they are coming in at a higher price tag.

        As a district if we don’t start having more conversations between teachers/community/administration about how to reach students with less resources then we are destined to failed. This takes leadership and direction and that is what is truly bringing us down IMHO.

  11. Excellent points, Jen. It makes so much more sense to invest in teachers who (gasp) actually want to be teachers- for their actual careers!

  12. Pingback: the Bullies Resources TFA Truth Squad Donate Featured Writers A growing compendium of blogs and articles about TFA: By Jonathan Pelto December 10, 2013 | ΕΝΙΑΙΟ ΜΕΤΩΠΟ ΠΑΙΔΕΙΑΣ

  13. Pingback: #HaveWeekendLinksLandedYet | Gerry Canavan

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