Gary Rubinstein, one of TFA’s most outspoken critical alumni, wrote up an interesting piece recently calling out Teach For America on its pathological lying. He takes issue with the inadequacy of the training, the myth of “high expectations,” and the myth of “miracle teacher/school/district”. It’s worth a read, however you feel about TFA. But take a quick look at the comments, and pretty soon everything descends into issues of intent – not what Gary was after as I understood it.
Basically, this group of critics of TFA claim that the vast majority of corps members are in it for the short term and just want to better themselves. They liken it to voluntourism, which itself is (rightfully) getting a beat-down in the news.
But here’s the problem: people are terrible at accurately predicting how much they will like/be good at something in the short term, especially when there are so many emotions involved. Someone who decides when they’re 18 to enter into a full-time training program to be a teacher is somehow supposed to be more “in it” for the long term than someone who signs a “contract” to teach for a minimum of two years. This feels intuitively right, but there are numerous studies from behavioral psychology that essentially negate this theory. It turns out when it comes time to assessing opportunity costs and big decisions like career choice, we’re pretty terrible at it. We’re especially terrible at it when we’re 18.
But there are a few things we do know to be true:
- Teachers hit their “stride” between years 3-4
- Teachers cite much higher job satisfaction and perform better when they have an excellent principal
- There’s not a lot of difference in student performance (at least measured by standardized tests) between “traditionally trained” and “alternatively trained” teachers in their first few years
And from a purely observational note, I see the best teachers are people who deeply care about kids – not just solving the “achievement gap” or “opportunity gap.” These are people who love their jobs because they get to spend it with kids.
The first point is a major problem – kids can’t wait 3 years for their teacher to get good. This should be the essence of what every teacher-training program is trying to solve for.
The second point brings up a larger issue – are we effectively identifying, training, and preparing principals for the incredibly difficult work ahead of them? Short answer? No, but some groups like New Leader for New Schools and Building Excellent Schools are getting closer.
The third point hints that our teacher training program isn’t really effectively doing what it’s supposed to. If I walk into a school I should be able to tell who has had an extra 3.7 years of training, but most of the time, I can’t. Simply revamping curriculum isn’t sufficient.
However, I see no solution in that pile of facts that points to more teachers spending 4 years in college dealing in theory or middle-class teaching assistant roles. I see no data that suggests longer up-front commitments lead to better retention (in fact, there’s a good deal of evidence to the contrary that’s in line with the behavioral psychology research). In fact, all I see are a lot of unanswered questions that, if we were in any other industry, we’d spend billions of dollars a year finding the answers to.
I don’t have the solution, so I want to ask a few questions that I hope my ed-curious friends will dip into:
- Do new and veteran teachers literally see the classroom in different ways? Would an fMRI of a veteran teacher watching snippets of class time look different from a novice? What would be different? Can we train to eliminate the “gap” or accelerate the learning?
- While residency models have been hit and miss (mostly miss), they seem to offer a lot of promise. Teaching is much more like medical work than flying a plane, and so our training needs to be more mentor-mentee than virtual simulator-driven. But what has and hasn’t worked from the residency programs? Are there newer models that offer more hope?
- Is the rarity of an amazing first year teacher enough of a reason to assume that our training to produce them is all wrong in both new and traditional tracts? Do we need to redefine what first-years should be responsible for until they prove themselves?
- Do test scores actually help us determine who will be effective long-term teachers? It stands up to some logic that people who were good getting test scores themselves will be able to teach others to test well, but this doesn’t necessarily translate to great or “transformational” teaching. Who is leading the pack in novel and effective teacher evaluation that actually leads to both teacher improvement and effective rating?
- What would “raising the bar” look like so that people were both more emotionally invested in kids (e.g. the classroom) from the start and carefully vetted through a selection process so that schools everywhere could find great teacher matches?