Let’s do a thought experiment:
Imagine you have a really complicated surgical problem. Thoracoabdominal aortic aneurysm, let’s say. Just a little bulge in the body’s major vessel that extends from the chest to the abdomen that delivers a little blood supply from the heart to the… whole body. Nothing fancy, really. I mean, some surgeons have called it a “formidable undertaking” and such, but, really, I think we’d probably agree the best approach to managing this complex surgical risk is to HIRE YOUNG UNTRAINED IMCOMPETENTS!!! Let’s turn a brand new intern – nah, that’s too expensive. Let’s hire a third year medical student to do this procedure.
And here’s the fun part. Let’s just turn the medical student loose in the operating room with a mere few weeks of training (BY OTHER YOUNG UNTRAINED INCOMPETENTS) and call it a day. No professional step ladder with months/years of incremental layers of skill and responsibility. Just give ‘em our hardest surgical problems. Why should the surgeons with decades of experience have any role? What the hell do they know? And, speaking of which, let’s make sure that we create a surgical culture where this young, scared, UNTRAINED person doing the complicated surgery is taught to disparage and look down on the “wisdom” of the older, more experienced, LICENSED surgeons. Make sure their “exposure” to these corrupting influences is limited. State explicitly that you’re not interested in anything pedestrian as actually growing a competent surgical force…
BUT WAIT, you say, the medical student surgeon is really SMART. He/She went to an Ivy League school. He/she really wants to make a “difference” – not to this indivdual patient, mind you, but in a larger sense. The student-surgeon wants to take what he/she learns in the operating room — no hard feelings if there are a few casualties – and “apply” this newfound wisdom to the realm of policy. See, if we let the incompetent, untrained person get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a sick person
receiving terrible care, and what it feels like to be a poorly trained, unskilled surgeon, the world will, eventually, be a better place when the student-surgeon decides to apply to law school or work for a think tank or a hedge fund. Got it?
This is what is happening in Teach for America and, as usual, the Onion tells it like it really is.
I know my critique is harsh but it also happens to be largely true. Yes, yes, there are exceptions. Some people are natural teachers; we need more math and science people who actually know math and science and aren’t just education majors; our schools are failing disadvantaged kids; we need more accountability and standards. (I would argue we just need more teaching, but that’s another story.) I’ve written myself about how much, um, ‘less academically gifted’ most teachers are compared to other peers in the workforce.
I get it! I am a certified teacher. I sat through numbing teacher education classes. I saw the dopey reward/punishment cycle that is public school administration. But the solution to our problems isn’t throwing gung-ho and, frankly, variously clueless 22 year-olds into a classroom with the toughest possible problems and fewest resources so they can go and write a good graduate school application essay about it. (Oh, sorry, I forgot: they’re learning to be “change agents.”)
Look, I know TFA applicants are really well-meaning people. I do. I work with many of them and they are, without exception, my very favorite college students with whom I work. This is not a personal critique. But I talk to students all the time who know literally nothing about child development or curriculum or reading instruction etc. They don’t understand how children think and learn. This is the fundamental building block of teaching elementary school: you have to understand something about how children’s minds work and grow. I think you could maybe make the argument that a good, smart 22 year-old with an excellent knowledge of biology could, maybe, teach biology to high school students effectively without any real training in classroom management, curriculum development, learning disabilities, developmental psychology etc. (I doubt it very much… but you could possibly make that case.) And maybe that’s better than a teacher who knows some of those things but really doesn’t understand science. The jury is out.
But it’s absolute insanity to ask completely untrained people to work with young kids, and then test the young kids on their reading and number sense and punish them for not learning enough to jump through the right hoops. It’s depraved. And, ultimately, just as costly to society as anything other lame experiments we’ve inflicted on kids.
So, to recap: I’m not feeling the love for Teach For America. Have I made that clear enough? Let’s get real here. We have a wide-ranging set of problems with our poorest schools, among them:
- income inequality and a culture of low-achievement in some school systems and communities
- low salaries and a salary structure that doesn’t reward good teaching
- high stakes testing that is TOTALLY UN-VALIDATED, scientifically and is used as a proxy for teaching and learning.
- Did I mention low salaries? PAY TEACHERS BETTER!! I heard on NPR a few months ago that the spread between the starting salaries of newly minted teachers and lawyers has increased astronomically in the last 30 years. Society has changed: kids have a lot of needs. The workforce and families have changed. We need to get over the fact that women no longer “have” to teach. If we want smart, capable, nurturing teachers, we need to create an incentive plan that will actually attract and retain teachers. It’s nice to have mentors — you can’t become a good teacher without one and it’s depressing to soldier on in your classroom all alone, without support. Teachers are terribly isolated and receive very few tools to make their jobs possible. (Dirty Secret #147: MOST TEACHERS PAY FOR THEIR OWN SUPPLIES AND BOOKS.) No wonder teachers flee.
But there’s an even better incentive than good supervision and warm fuzzy blankets. It’s called money.