What education schools can learn from TFA

In a recent address given at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College (October 22), Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for “revolutionary change” in teacher preparation programs in colleges and universities. I agree with the Secretary that while good education schools exist, the vast majority are not pulling their weight in preparing teachers for the classrooms in which they will teach.

I am usually hesitant to pronounce my Teach For America alumni status (NYC ’04), particularly in education circles, due to the polarizing nature of the program – you love it or you hate it. I often temper any praise I have for the program with a comment regarding teacher attrition rates, “crash course” teacher education, or Pollyannaish college graduate applicants. But in light of the Secretary’s recent comments on teacher preparation, I think that traditional teacher education programs looking to make “revolutionary changes” can learn a few things from the TFA model.

Too often, colleges of education have a “take what we can get” policy of recruitment. Teacher education programs should not simply be more selective, but should work hard to draw more and “highly qualified” potential applicants to the field.

TFA spends 20 percent of its nearly $40 million budget on recruiting applicants; TFA applications were up 42% this year to 35,000 applicants for 4,000 spots (arguably due to the current economic climate). Teacher education programs are also seeing increases, but hardly of the same magnitude – Teacher’s College saw a 6% increase in applicants this year.

While TFA’s recruitment and selection process has flaws (bias towards high-achieving, white, middle-class applicants, for one), its strength is in targeting recruitment efforts at people and personalities that they believe are suited to teaching in high-needs schools.

Teacher education programs would do well to allocate more resources to actively pursuing “highly qualified” applicants that they feel fit their models for effective teachers. They might also think about new ways of offering applicants incentives to join their program, either through funding, placement, or prestige.

Most TFA corps members will tell you two things after their summer institute (“crash course”) experience: (1) they are physically and mentally exhausted, and (2) if they have to fill out another feedback survey, they might snap. TFA constantly gathers feedback (both from within and outside the organization) and takes that feedback very seriously.

If you have looked at changes in TFA’s teacher preparation materials over the past 5 years, this point is abundantly clear. Based on feedback data, TFA staff members have dedicated significant time and energy to create materials and training that are useful for new teachers, particularly for teaching in high-needs schools.

Curriculum and instruction at traditional teacher preparation programs tend to be driven by the philosophical ideals or research agendas of faculty members, with little regard to what is practical for their graduates. Gathering and using feedback not only improves the curriculum and training, but also provides a model for “using data to improve instruction,” a shortcoming cited by Secretary Duncan. In addition to teaching teachers how to do this in their classrooms, this practice should be utilized in teacher education programs.

TFA teachers are often cited as products of “trial by fire,” but this is not completely accurate. TFA has an extensive network of Program Directors (PDs) whose sole job is to provide support for teachers in their first and second years of teaching. This support is invaluable to new teachers; education schools should take on the responsibility of providing it to their graduates.

If we take seriously the Race to the Top criteria that will “reward states that publicly report and link student achievement data to the programs where teachers and principals were credentialed,” education schools will have to do more than simply administer coursework. This change might prove to be the most “revolutionary” for teacher education programs because many are not currently structured to provide extensive on-the-job support.

TFA’s Program Director model might provide guidance; recent TFA alumni are typically hired for PD positions. Education schools might consider recruiting recent alumni into paid positions where they provide support (in line with the education school’s curriculum) to the growth and development of new teachers.

While I am certain that the TFA will continue to be scrutinized for its shortcomings by teacher education experts (and rightfully so), I strongly believe that the program’s growth and relative success warrants a closer look at what TFA has to offer traditional teacher education programs.

Related links: