How To Fix Our Schools!


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.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director/author. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
This entry was posted in Children/Teens/Young Adults, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to How To Fix Our Schools!

  1. Kim Thomas says:

    I vote Erika for President!!! You’d probably get your own personal parking space; one where you could take all the time you need to parallel park. You could even paint it pink! Think of the perks.

  2. Claire says:

    Just want to echo Kim’s sentiment and say I am absolutely enamored with your blog! Thank you for your honesty and direct delivery.

    As a Harvard undergrad/almost graduate, I’ve thought about TFA a LOT – watching many, many of my friends commit to the program this past year. Though a few applied early on in the school year knowing they wanted to teach, most of them applied as the months, and soon first semester passed, and they grew antsier with the options in front of them. First, it was like “ugh recruiting sucks,” and then it was like “I want to do something prestigious that’s not a lifelong commitment (2 yrs isn’t too bad) AND help people,” and then it was like “working for a nonprofit doesn’t really sound appealing, but TFA is kinda cool, and I’ll meet fun young people” (this doesn’t do their thought processes justice – it’s just a simple reduction of what I heard). I’m sure students in Pfoho spoke on similar wavelengths.

    I bring this up because I agree wholeheartedly with the general perspective of this post and of other TFA critics, and it’s so important to talk about based on the basic fact that around 20% of my class I believe joined the TFA corps, feeding TFA’s growth. Clearly, TFA recruiters are doing something right! I’ve read articles about what exactly it is they do well – their marketing, alumni network, direct individual recruitment (and intense stalking strategy?), and other factors all contribute to their prestige and general appeal, but I still can’t figure it out. This may be a loaded question: what exactly is it do you think that leads so many students to TFA?

    Then, let’s assume that a significant number of TFA-ers are actually interested in teaching itself, and that this is a good thing:
    How do you think TFA’s strategies can be applied to other (perhaps more traditional) teaching programs, such as UTEP? Why is it that I never once heard about UTEP from a Harvard administrator/faculty member/tutor my first couple years here and only found out about it from friends when it was too late for me to consider it? I think if I had been personally interested in education before my junior year, I may have sought out the program myself, but if a student is interested in a lot of things in an unfocused way for most of college (the reality for many of us) then it’s more reasonable for programs to make themselves known to us to gain interest. Or, what other teaching programs are out there? I feel like it’s an issue in itself that I don’t know the answer to this question. I also bet that many of my TFA friends can’t answer this either. HOW does one become a good teacher? Is it just a question of commitment and time? What would you ask a student who was interested in TFA and where else might you direct them?

    Let’s also assume that there may be TFA-ers who aren’t that into teaching, but may hold legitimate interests in education reform or some aspect of the education field that’s not teaching:
    Where do you suggest said person should start, if not TFA? What are your thoughts on many people’s view that even if you want to become a school administrator, involved in education policy, or work for an ed reform organization, you need to first understand what goes on in the classroom and have SOME experience teaching?

    It’s obvious that a lot of us are afraid of commitment. I don’t know myself that I could commit to a traditional teaching program, where I have to learn to teach for a couple years before teaching (yes, this is an absurd comment but I feel it accurately portrays the thoughts of my fellow peers) in an actual classroom, because I don’t know if I want to teach forever and/or if I will be a good one! Tutoring and after-school teaching volunteer opportunities at Harvard are plentiful and wonderful, but having participated in several of these programs, I have no idea what it would be like in a real life classroom with many more kids!

    Any thoughts on the above would be much appreciated, as I really value your opinions!

    Thank you, Erika!!

    • Thanks so much for your honesty and good questions! I’m going to reply in a new post, hopefully tomorrow, and also directly to you, okay? But I’m working under a writing deadline now. Gosh, that sounds glamorous and really it’s just my supreme laziness. So stand by. Thank you very much for writing. Feel free to reach me directly, too.

      • Claire says:

        Take your time! No urgency here- perhaps I will just pay you a visit once school starts, so we can have a real life dialogue. Great, courageous column yesterday!

  3. Priya Licht says:

    Hi Erika – Long time! Just found your blog (and TIME column) and you’re captivating as ever. I have several ‘very smart’ friends who flamed out in these kinds of teaching environments and it’s really sad and frustrating to watch. The gap between passion and practicality remains ever present. It would be brilliant to have the teaching profession lifted to the pedestal levels as in Norway, Japan and Singapore (minus the whole police-state bit). But perhaps we can solve the world’s problems over a cuppa. It would be lovely to see you again.

    • Hi Priya!
      I was just walking past Newtowne today and thought of you and remembered that I hadn’t replied to your note from earlier in the summer. So sorry! It’s great to hear from you. Would really love to catch up and see you again. Please get in touch if you have time!

  4. Eugene solberg says:

    As a retired Instructor at a Technical College, I must say that I do not see how 95% of the people in our society (yes all of society,lawyers, doctors & politicians; not just teachers) could ever meet the lofty expectations of administrators, parents, students & “public in general”. It is scary, it is mind- boggling. I certainly do not know the answer. It is easy to throw harpoons, make sarcastic witty remarks & oh yes, suggest that throwing money “at it” will solve the problem. It might help, but I think that we as a society ask way too much of our teachers without anywhere enough support for them. (This goes for our military too!)
    To me, awards are not the answer….I have seen too many awards given for the wrong reason.
    At the request of an administrator, I filled a vacant teaching position in a high school & middle school for one semester after I retired from the Tech College. My hat is off to any teacher who can handle the myriad of motivation, discipline, organizational, parent & administrative problems…. let let alone have time to help young folks learn. Even if you can pay a huge salary, I do not think there are enough people in this society qualified to fill the requirments.
    We need more reasonable expectations of teachers and a supportive attitude toward education from all of society.
    Now, I apologize for the rant.

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