Blue Suede Shoes

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 30 2013

The Ideal…

I thought one of the most appealing aspects of being placed to teach in Memphis was that there was no master’s degree requirement. In fact, there was no requirement at all outside of Teach For America professional development to take any coursework toward any kind of additional certification. I had to take a couple of Praxis exams during my two years, but that was all. I thought it was wonderful at the time: I don’t know how I would have been able to handle classes on top of teaching, and I appreciated not having to pay for an M.A.T. I didn’t want or need.

But now, half a semester into an M.S.Ed. I want but really don’t need, I realize that I could and would have been a better teacher had I been reading literature and discussing pedagogy and policy like I am now. The things I’m learning about assessment, and the best practices I’m learning from other countries… they would have helped me so much as a teacher, I think. Granted, Penn has a top graduate school of education, so it’s probably to be expected that the content is meaningful and useful. There’s no point in regretting that I didn’t pursue a master’s degree in Memphis, but I recognize the value now in taking education classes, from a great school, at least.

I do believe the ideal for American teachers is that every teacher has a degree in education (an advanced degree, even), has learned about pedagogy, has learned about child development, has mastery of a content area, has student teaching experience, has the commitment to make teaching a long-term career. I don’t think that any of those things necessarily makes someone a good teacher, but each sure increases the potential for someone to become one. Without a 4-year education degree, I got by. I survived the crash courses of institute, went to every mandatory professional development, aced some standardized tests – in subjects I had never actually studied – that said I was “qualified” to continue as a licensed teacher. And I didn’t suck. Would I want my brother to have had a teacher like I had been? Not if the aforementioned ideal had been available. But had my brother gone to the school where I taught, of the handful of math teachers I would have trusted him with, all but one would have been corps members. Still, setting a low standard for the people teaching our children is a disservice to the kids, the system, and the country. I think (I hope?) Teach For America understands this; I hope traditional schools of education and policymakers understand this too.

For all the academic discourse and research presented in my classes, though, there don’t seem to be many solutions presented…

14 Responses

  1. meghank

    Are you kidding me? TFA teachers here in Memphis don’t even have to take education classes when they start teaching??

    Thank you for sharing this information. I had always assumed they had to take the same classes I had to take for my certification. This is definitely information to think about and to share with others in my city.

    • Whether or not education courses were required depends on the corps year. I think the first few corps years had to take classes at CBU. Now, I believe it’s the PD hours offered by TFA that count toward the certification.

      But alternative certification is exactly that; if the requirements were the same as those for teachers out of traditional preparation programs (as I assume you are), what would be the incentive for alternative tracks?

      This post wasn’t meant to be another weapon in anyone’s arsenal against TFA; if you want to use it that way, I can’t stop you. But I suggest you also investigate the bigger picture. TFA is not the only alternative certification body out there, especially in Memphis. Why do they exist and why would a district or state agree to accept them?

      • meghank

        I do know why they would exist and why a state would accept them. But apparently if I told you why, you’d say I was not “reasonable.” Oh, well, I’ll go ahead and do it: Lower qualifications are accepted because of lobbying efforts by certain groups who will benefit from lowering the requirements to teach.

        • Why would I say this is unreasonable?

          Do you also have a source for your statement that the numbers are fixed? Or your implication that Commissioner Huffman is fixing them?

          • meghank

            I know I did a lot of research on this in the past, and I think Gary Rubinstein might have also posted some information regarding this. I don’t think I want to go to all the trouble of locating the sites that I found again, but I will say it had to do with the teachers surveyed (only 4-8 math and reading teachers), the fact that the other programs actually produced better reading numbers than TFA and TFA led in math numbers (implying a culture of test preparation among TFA teachers which would skew the numbers), the fact that TFA teachers who did not complete their commitment were not included in the numbers, and some other factors I can’t quite remember right now. I think I got a lot of this from actually reading the report put out by the state (and linked by Serge) and drawing my own conclusions. You might do the same.

          • meghank

            I apologize if I got some information in that last comment wrong (perhaps high school was included or maybe even science), I just don’t have time right now to read the report again.

          • It’s fine to say “the numbers are invalid,” if that’s the conclusion you drew. When you say “the numbers are fixed,” you implicate wrongdoing, in a legal sense, and I think that’s just off-base.

            I also find it interesting that you think TFA leading in math numbers necessarily implies a culture of test preparation. Could it not also imply that TFA corps members have a stronger background in math? Or that TFA PD is stronger in math? Or any number of things? It seems by your view that TFA is damned if it does [lead in math numbers] and damned if it doesn’t.

          • meghank

            I used the word imply because that is a conclusion that could be drawn from that evidence. The evidence by no means proves a culture of test prep; that is why I used the word imply.

            If you like, read the report yourself, and draw your own conclusions. I was just telling you the ones I drew.

            The conclusion I drew was not that the numbers were invalid, but that they were fixed by the methodology chosen by the state. I believe this methodology was purposefully chosen because the state DOE is highly influenced by TFA, since its commissioner is an alum. So that is what I said.

            Since I view them as having a great deal of power, I am biased against TFA, so in that sense they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. That is why I invite you to read the report yourself (trying not to be biased TOWARDS them, as you are an alum) and draw your own conclusions.

          • I understand you have a beef with the methodology, but all you present is your own “Huffman = TFA, TFA = fix, thus Huffman = fix” transitive logic to back up your conclusion. Perhaps there is another, non-DOE study from TN that refutes the state report? That would certainly be more compelling.

            You’re right, I am biased toward TFA, but I also try to be open-minded. I see value in TFA, but I also recognize many areas for improvement. I wish critics like you (who are already set that TFA is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t) would not completely close yourselves off to the possibility that TFA might not be all bad.

          • Serge Vartanov

            If you accept the conclusion that TFA’s Professional Development is as effective as the traditional programs in the state of Tennessee (which you certainly don’t have to, it’s a big jump) there are three possible conclusions (or a mix of the 3)

            1) TFA professional development (not just institute, but the curriculum we get before institute and the coaching and support we get over the course of the two years) is actually pretty good.

            2) Because TFA is so selective (in terms of which universities it recruits from, high average GPA and SAT of corps members, corps members having leadership experience, multiple rounds of interviews), TFA CMs are able to perform at the same level as 1st year teachers who have gone through a significantly less selective but more robust traditional certification program. (Yes, I’m aware of how extremely arrogant this sounds)

            3) Traditional certification programs (those offered by education schools) are actually not very effective. So much so that there is no noticeable difference b/t someone who has gone through a 4-yr program and someone who has a non-education major and a significantly condensed version of that program.

            I’m curious how open you are to the idea of any one of these 3 things being true?

            Unrelated, but I do feel it’s a little unfair for both me and AQ to be discussing from (roughly) the same perspective so I’m going to duck out of commenting here moving forward unless you’d like me to.

  2. Serge Vartanov

    It varies a lot from region to region.

    Actually, a lot of things about TFA vary a lot from region to region. The organization is a lot more decentralized (with different approaches in different regions) than people assume.

    In any case, there are 44 teacher training programs in the state of Tennessee (including traditional and alternative). TFA-Memphis and TFA-Nashville have consistently been ranked by the state as the two of the top three programs in terms of effectiveness – whatever that means.

    (Summary of results:

    • meghank

      Yeah, exactly — “whatever that means.” The commissioner of education in the state is a TFA alum. The numbers are fixed.

      • Oh, come on. If you’re going to be a critic of TFA, at least be a reasonable one.

    • Yes, certification requirements definitely vary by region. And certainly corps members could choose to pursue a master’s if they wanted. Also, as I commented above, they varied in Memphis by corps year as well.

      I also agree that “effectiveness” is loaded. Here, the rankings are based only on student achievement gains, which is certainly one way to define effectiveness. But, of course, there are many others.

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