Too Few Answers

Right now in the debate over whether Pittsburgh ought to sign a contract with Teach for America, “TFA” stands for Too Few Answers. Two weeks ago I posted six questions that our school board ought to be asking before it agrees to any deal with the organization. [See “Six Questions for Teach for America”] That piece generated considerable discussion and just got picked up nationally. [, 11-21-13]

The Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh coalition also launched a petition asking the school board to delay a vote on the Teach for America contract (and two other issues), until the four new board members are seated in three weeks. As that petition states, “This newly elected board represents the largest board turnover in over two decades, and the new board, duly elected by Pittsburgh voters, should have its say in these important issues.” Over 1,000 people have now signed the petition on-line and in hard-copy formats. (Please sign here and spread the word through your networks.) That is over one thousand Pittsburghers who are paying attention to this issue and have spoken up about a school board matter – that’s not something that happens everyday in this city.

Since I posted the original TFA piece two weeks ago, I have also heard from numerous teachers, teacher-educators, teachers in training, former TFA members, TFA employees, concerned parents, and more. I met with Nicole Brisbane, TFA’s New York-based managing director for new site development, who helped answer a number of my questions. But for every answer, I have heard many new questions, which I have tried to organize into themes below.

Here are four more questions (bringing our total to 10) that the school board needs to ask, followed by three letters to the editor that warrant serious attention. I respectfully urge our school board members to read these, numbered 7 – 10, and then consider all ten questions that the community has brought before it. This is what authentic community engagement looks like. And right now, we have Too Few Answers.

7.  What is a “qualified” teacher for our students? TFA managing director Ms. Brisbane told me that TFA recruits are required to earn their Master’s degree in the two years while they are teaching, so presumably after this point they would have the same certifications as our professional teachers. But Olivia Grace, a teacher-in-training at a local university, pointed out on the blog, “Even in an excellent program, I recognize my first year [teaching] will be my hardest, and that I won’t feel completely competent for at least 5 years.” What do we mean by “qualified”?

Superintendent Dr. Lane has said that it is “pretty hard for us to pull in effective and qualified candidates” in math and science. [Post-Gazette, 11-9-13] But would TFA corps members actually be qualified in these fields? They are certainly not experts. Teach for America recruits college grads from many majors, such as history and literature: would the district be able to restrict its hiring to math and science majors? Dr. Lane also told the Post-Gazette, “We’ve got lots and lots of applications” for elementary teaching spots. Since these are presumably qualified teachers – they have teaching degrees, plan a career in teaching, and clearly want to teach in our district – could we not assign these folks to high school math and science classes? Wouldn’t they actually be more qualified than TFA recruits?

Dr. Lane explained that TFA candidates are attractive because of their “commitment to kids in impoverished neighborhoods, children of color” and she called that “powerful.” [Post-Gazette, 11-9-13] Would that not make certified teachers (even elementary level teachers) applying to work in our district even more attractive, as they plan to dedicate their careers to our children in Pittsburgh? Could we re-visit the grow-your-own concept with the proposed Teacher Academy?

Finally, parent Pam Harbin notes that Westinghouse and U.Prep are generally named as the particularly hard-to-staff high schools. But almost a quarter of their students (24% and 23% respectively) receive special education services – far above the district-wide total of 17%. Pam asks, “How much special ed training do TFA corps members get?” In other words, are TFA recruits qualified to teach our neediest students in our neediest schools?

8.  What is the relationship between the Gates grant and TFA? The motion before the Pittsburgh school board calls for spending $750,000 for a three-year contract with TFA, to be funded by our grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. [Post-Gazette, 11-20-13] Is this a requirement of our grant? Could we spend those funds on other teacher training programs, such as our former proposed Teachers Academy? Or other desperately needed student programs?

9.  What is the long-term plan for TFA in Pittsburgh?  Right now the district tells us that they plan to hire up to 30 recruits. Ms. Brisbane told me it will likely be 15-20 this year, but the contract will be written for 30 to cover the costs of hiring a local executive director. So is the school district covering additional program costs beyond the per-head finder’s fee? At $5,000 per head that TFA charges for each recruit, the proposed $750,000 three-year contract would yield 150 TFA corps members. That would be 50 recruits a year and no one has been talking about that many. If we are only hiring 20 recruits a year for three years, that should cost the district $300,000 – does that mean the additional $450,000 in this contract from our grant money is going to support the local TFA startup costs? What happens after the three-year contract is up – who pays to keep the program going at those rates? Pittsburgh high school teacher Jon Parker commented on the blog:

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.

10.  Do we need a short-term solution?  The school board is feeling pressured to make a quick decision on the TFA contract “because of the lengthy recruiting and screening process done by Teach for America.” [Post-Gazette, 11-20-13] We’re told time is running out and we need a short-term solution. But Dr. Josh Slifkin, who teaches at both Allderdice and Chatham University (and is a Pittsburgh Public School parent), warns, “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.” Dr. Slifkin continues:

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 our 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. … 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.

In addition to these new questions, I urge the school board to consider the comments from these three letter writers.

City schools, avoid Teach for America
[Post-Gazette, 11-15-13]
Teach for America is wrong for Pittsburgh (“Pittsburgh Schools May Hire From Teach for America,” Nov. 9). It is from personal experience that I come to this conclusion.

I was a 2010 TFA Philadelphia corps member. I am currently teaching at a charter school. Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane has stated she wants Teach for America for hard-to-fill positions where a diverse applicant pool is difficult to attract. If she is genuinely looking for a diverse applicant pool, then she should avoid the hype that is Teach for America.

With Teach for America, Pittsburgh is guaranteed a specific kind of teacher; one who is inexperienced, unqualified and poorly trained. Not only will the Pittsburgh district receive an influx of unqualified teachers, but a revolving door of inexperienced teachers working with the students who most need a highly qualified one will be opened. One must look no further than urban districts like Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore where TFA has set up shop to see that an invasion of bright, idealistic and hard-working 20-somethings do not have the answers our district is looking for.

My daughter started school this year in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. I believe she deserves the very best and I have seen great potential in PPS. When poor decisions like this are being made by our leadership, one cannot help but question their motives. We can all be sure of one thing: Schools located in our wealthiest suburbs, like Upper St. Clair and Fox Chapel, continue to seek well-qualified career teachers for their already advantaged students.

Park Place

Teacher recruits
[Post-Gazette, 11-19-13]
I read with dismay the proposal by the Pittsburgh Public Schools to hire Teach for America (“City Schools May Hire From Teach for America,” Nov. 9). Any data-driven educator would shun TFA, given its poor outcomes and the rapidity with which its untrained “educators” leave the profession.

Furthermore, the stated rationale given by the Pittsburgh district for working with TFA is that there is a shortage of teachers for certain sciences, like biology and chemistry, in the district. Before working with TFA, the Pittsburgh district should be required to detail publicly its outreach efforts to recruit certified teachers from local universities. I can attest that there are numerous qualified, well-trained and certified science and math graduates in this region.

So, what really is the reason for bringing in Teach for America?

Point Breeze
The writer is a professor in the College of Education at Slippery Rock University.

Avoid TFA’s Trap
[Tribune Review, 11-25-13]
Last fall, I was accepted to Teach for America (TFA) in Philadelphia. This autumn, I urge Pittsburgh to reject falling in its trap. TFA is a temporary teacher program. Recent college grads receive five weeks training and commit to two years in the classroom.

After Philadelphia closed over 20 schools and laid off 1 in 5 veteran educators, it placed a cheaper bunch of more than 100 inexperienced TFA corps members in lead teaching positions. Art, music, libraries, counselors, and even nurses were deemed superfluous, leading to the recent tragic death of a 6th grade student.

The community here is outraged at these assaults and fighting back. Last spring, students organized the largest walkouts since 1967. Thousands took to the street to demand support for their teachers and their future.

When I echoed concerns I heard in the community about the role of TFA in harming the district’s schools, the organization told me to silence myself. When I refused, and continued to stand in solidarity with the Philadelphia community demanding support for their public schools, TFA kicked me out.

While TFA claims to provide teachers for hard-to-fill subjects, recruits will not be prepared for them. Last fall, the program encouraged me to join a conference call entitled “Being a great math or science teacher no matter your major.”

If the Board signs a contract with Teach for America it pursues an illusion, not a solution. We must not let TFA do further harm in Pennsylvania. Our students deserve better.


4 thoughts on “Too Few Answers

  1. Conventionally certified special education teachers in Pennsylvania must complete a comprehensive course of study combining a degree program at an accredited university and field experience in a special-education classroom. A quick search of “special education” on the Teach For America website finds a mention of special education on the “Where and What You’ll Teach” page, but no mention of special education on the “Training and Support” page.

    Will TFA recruits have a thorough understanding of the federal laws governing special education? Will hired TFA teachers have the knowledge and experience necessary to comply with each students Individual Education Plan (IEP)? Dr. Lane must address these questions prior to a vote on TFA for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

  2. Will the school board make a decision to delay a vote on this critical issues at the board meeting this Tuesday? Is there a public hearing on Monday?

    • Yes, there is a public hearing on Monday and people are signing up to speak and ask the board to delay the vote. We will be presenting the petition (well over 1,000 signatures!). On Tuesday, the board is scheduled to vote on the Teach for America contract. Will they listen to the public and take the time to consider all these questions that have been raised? That is the biggest question of all right now.

  3. 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

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