Multiple Pathways for Students … and Teachers

We all like to believe that we’re all entitled to one week in the sun.  No one can dispute that last week was just such a week for Teach For America.  Bookended by articles in The New York Times magazine and the Economist, TFA has been the “it” program of the week.  No small feat, what with continued discussions of NCLB, merit pay, and a host of national policy shifts.

Without doubt, TFA has a growing cadre of supporters throughout the nation.  As it has expanded the cities and communities in which it serves, the organization has had a demonstrable impact on the school culture, on student and teacher motivation, and, yes, on student performance.  Don’t believe Eduflack?  Check out the comprehensive research study Mathematica has done on the effectiveness of TFA.

Unfortunately, such attention and growth also gives birth to a healthy opposition.  I’ve long told reform clients that if you don’t have such critics, you aren’t doing your job.  Changing the status quo, calling on stakeholders to work harder or think smarter or do better invariably always brings forward that opposition.  And TFA is no exception.

For years, those critics have been led by Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, perhaps the greatest defender of the status quo pedagogy of teacher education.  Yes, she is a name to be reckoned with.  Yes, she brings a distinguished history of good work and a commitment to public education.  But sometimes, even the best take a wrong turn.

The status quoers have tried to protect teacher education for decades.  The result?  Our students’ test scores have been relatively flat for most of Eduflack’s lifetime.  We may claim that our schools of education are churning out the best educators ever to face a classroom, but the results don’t reflect that.  For too long, we’ve allowed pedagogy to substitute for results.  Sure, the inputs may be great, but what out the final outcomes?  To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, are our students better of now than they were two decades ago?

The simple answer is, of course not.  Today, we are asking far more of our students than ever before.  Success in 2007 requires a high school diploma and a postsecondary degree or certificate.  The time when only a third of high school students went to college is over.  Instead, we are demanding multiple educational pathways for our students, pathways that provide every student with a way to postsecondary education and a guide to life success. 

Which takes us back to Teach For America.  If we are expected to build multiple instructional pathways for our students, it only goes to reason that we are to build multiple instructional pathways for our teachers as well.  There is no one way to train a teacher.  If there was, we’d build that factory and have a non-stop supply of highly qualified, effective teachers for every classroom, including those in low-performing areas.

No, the challenges of our schools requires multiple ways of thinking.  From looking at those schools where programs like Teach For America or Troops to Teachers reside, we know that pedagogy is the least of these classrooms’ problems.  Here, many students have all but given up hope.  They’ve lost faith in the school, or in the teacher, or in learning itself.  For them, it isn’t about instructional approaches.  It is about repairing the school culture.  Returning hope.  Connecting the student with the teacher and the school.

And that’s where programs like TFA excel.  Success is not measured by an individual teacher or a specific cadre of corps members.  Success, in the long run, comes from knowing there will always been a TFA teacher in front of that classroom, a teacher who connects with the student, inspires the student, and reconnects the student’s passion for learning.

Accomplish that, and the student achievement will come.  And scientific research can prove it.  If anything, Darling-Hammond and her defenders of the status quo should be seeking out more opportunities and efforts like TFA.  More programs that bring hope to inner-city schools.  More programs that instill a culture of learning.  More programs that provide our schools with enthusiastic, driven instructors eager to lead a classroom that has long been neglected.  More programs that build a future generation of leadership on the notion that no issue is more important to the success of our nation and our community than a high-quality, effective education for ALL students.

Some critics, including those at dear ole Stanford, would point to the lifespan of a TFA teacher, questioning whether two years in the classroom really makes a difference.  But how different is the two-year commitment of a TFA teacher from the short lifespan of today’s traditional new teacher?  TFA’s mission was never to focus on teacher retention issues — it was to provide an ongoing stream of qualified, enthusiastic, committed educators in the communities that need them the most.  TFA plays that specific role extremely well, so much so that it is continually embraced by superintendents, principals, and teachers across the nation.  And in reality, the studies of TFA alumni show many of them stay in the classroom, go into school administration, or assume other roles that support education and growth in the community.  And isn’t that a measure of an effective educator?

In a nation looking for K-12 solutions, we need multiple answers.  One just won’t do.  And Teach For America is definitely one of the answers.  Ask a “traditional” teacher who works with a TFAer, and they’ll tell you the same thing.  Ask a family whose child is in a TFA classroom, and they’ll concur.  Ask Mathematica and other researchers, and they’ll give you the proof points.

Teacher For America and its leaders should enjoy their week in the sun.  The hard work begins today.  Across the nation, districts and schools know TFA and programs like it work.  So as the critics circle, TFA, its leadership, and its corps members need to ensure the highest quality implementation, instruction, and effect.  Success is the best defense of the critics and the status quoers.  And TFA is on its way.

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