Teach For America (TFA) is a program that recruits and trains graduates of some of the country’s best universities to become teachers in some of the poorest parts of this country. Since 1990, more than 10,000 TFA teachers have gone to work in urban and rural areas, teaching in situations that are far worse than most suburban schools. But are they making a difference? Do their students learn more, especially compared to those in classrooms with non-TFA teachers? According to a new study from Mathematica Policy Research the answer is yes but not by much.
As Jay Mathews discusses in his Class Struggle column this week, there are many factors to be taken into account in assessing this study. The most striking, however, is that anyone in their right mind expected major changes in teaching and learning simply by placing well-educated but relatively untrained teachers in the same old situations. Most of these schools are not working because they are not organized to address the needs of the kids coming through the door. They can’t continue to run a standardized cookie-cutter educational system that was appropriate sixty years ago.
That does not mean privatizing public education. We also don’t need one-size-fits-all testing programs like No Child Left Behind which pressure schools into regressing back to a drill-and-kill approach to teaching. And we also don’t need any money on new research or program development. There are plenty of examples out there of schools that work, where the kids learn and thrive – and many teachers who know how to make it happen in their classrooms. The problem is that none of these programs can be replicated for every child in the country. They can’t be used to create a new cookie cutter.
We need to break these large public school systems (even the "good" ones like the overly large district I work for) into smaller units with schools that feature these different approaches to teaching and learning. Teachers and administrators would be hired based on how well their style and philosophy fit into the school’s approach. On the other end of things, parents would select a school based on how well it fit the needs of their kids. Charter schools are a start to this idea but we need to go way beyond the chaotic randomness of most charter programs. It’s time to tear the whole thing down and start again.