Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Good Idea for Teach for America

Joanne Jacobs gives us the story of an idea from Robert Pondiscio to change the way Teach for America works a little:
So here’s how we solve the “two and out” problem and kick TFA’s impact into the stratosphere: Instead of throwing TFAers into the worst teaching situations in the cities you serve, place them in some of the best, highest-performing schools. (Stick with me, Wendy, here’s the beauty part.) Place them in that high-functioning school for two years as pinch-hitters for some of our best, most experienced teachers, and send those master teachers to the same schools to which you’re sending TFA corps members now. We can call it the Teach For America Fellowship, and throw in a nice extra chunk of change to incentivize those master teachers without worrying about whether it’s merit pay.
In short send the TFA members into high performing schools where perhaps the intial impact is less, but gives them the chance to improve their teaching skills without the high pressure to perform. Put veteran teachers into the lower performing schools to see two things:

1. Whether it is the teacher that is successful or the students in teh affluent schools they teach.

2. Whether the experience of teaching is better than the core knowledge of the teacher.

I am not suggesting that it is an either or situation for either question, but it would help redefine the teaching question I think.

TFA Founder Wendy Kopp responded in part:
The most important thing for kids in low-income communities is that we recruit as many people as possible — whether new or experienced — who have the personal characteristics that differentiate successful teachers in high-poverty communities, and that we train and support them to be effective in meeting the extra needs of their students. The individuals who come to Teach For America are coming because they want to work with the nation’s most disadvantaged children (and it is unlikely that most of them would decide to channel their energy toward teaching in more privileged contexts), and in fact their motivation to level the playing field for them is one reason for their success.
Perhaps Kopp is right, I don't know the particular mindset of TFA's applicants.

However, TFA has done something that no other outside reform organization can really point to--they have made a difference. Although a non-profit, TFA has proven that an entity outside the Educational Establishment can make a difference with highly motivated applicants.

But this opportunity is a wonderful chance at taking TFA's reach and giving it an opportunity to turn the educational community on its ear once again.

Before TFA, everyone in education insisted that the best teachers come through education schools. After TFA, we have learned that such a contention is not necessarily true. That is the power of what if?

So here is teh next what if? Do years of teaching experience really matter more than motivation and subject matter knowledge? TFA data would suggest not, but TFA has the ability to provide education researchers with a real world experiment. TFA corps members could be paired against experienced teachers in the same school or similarly situated schools with similar demographics and achievement levels. The hypothesis would be that teachers with 20 years of experience in classrooms with successful students should do better at improving the grades and test scores of low income, disadvantaged school kids than some rookie teacher from TFA?

If the hypothesis is true, what has TFA lost--nothing. If the hypothesis turns out to be false then TFA will have achieved something new again--radically altering the concept of teacher training and the value of credentials and experience. Think of the possibilities.

This is a brilliant idea that doesn't have to be adopted wholesale, just on a large enough scale to provide reliable data.

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