Education Week - April 24, 2013 - (Page 24)

24 EDUCATION WEEK n APRIL 24, 2013 n Advice to TFA From a Former Insider By Lauren Blair Aronson U nlike most of the people who drop out of Teach For America, as I did, I really like and respect tfa. I think tfa does great and important work—but I also think it can do better. While internally tfa is a model of reflective practice, at times the organization has resisted outside criticism. This is not unreasonable, as much of the criticism leveled against it is less than constructive. But as a not-so-successful corps member who now works in education policy, I think I can offer some constructive criticism from my perspective as both a tfa insider and outsider. Here’s the deal: More than two years ago, I joined nearly 48,000 people in applying to tfa. I was head over heels for the cause and proudly accepted my offer. I remained in New Orleans, where I had attended Tulane University, to serve a community desperately in need of great teaching. I didn’t stay, though. I didn’t fulfill my two years as a corps member or as a 4th grade teacher at Nelson Charter School, where I had been assigned. In fact, I left after only nine months on the job. Unfortunately, my story is not unique. Nine percent of corps members leave before the end of their twoyear commitments, a tfa official told me. And my personal experience tells me that many more corps members struggle to adjust to their work. As an organization that serves the dual objectives of closing the achievement gap and engaging future leaders in education, Teach For America may find that my perspective—while not necessarily better, or truer—merits some consideration. That’s because, based on my experiences, I can offer two pieces of advice that could help tfa get smarter about recruiting and retaining talent in the classrooms. • First, recruit new talent honestly. Teach For America knows how to attract talent. The organization’s profile has gone viral on elite college campuses. Tulane, which does not have an undergraduate education concentration, sent 28 graduates to LETTERS to the EDITOR Inventor Calls Science Standards a First Step To the Editor: As a boy growing up in the United Kingdom, my learning often began once school was dismissed. On any given day, I could be found disassembling machines—stripping lawn mowers down to parts, then rebuilding them with the purpose of improving them (not always successfully). That was the extent of my after-school education, but it helped to shape my in-school outcomes. The Afterschool Alliance study released in January outlines three achievable outcomes for after-school programming: the development of interest in, the capacity to productively engage the organization in 2011—and many more applied. Among Ivy League institutions, 12 percent of graduating seniors applied to the corps in 2010, and the numbers keep rising. But just because students are ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the organization does not mean that they are aware of what it really means to join the tfa teaching corps. More often than not, tfa paints an idealistic, rather than realistic, picture of what life in the trenches is really like. Tfa founder Wendy Kopp’s June 2012 op-ed in the Huffington Post is a great example of this: The stories are indeed inspiring, but they are also a shiny misrepresentation of what to expect. When a corps member fails to live up That vetting strategy does not effectively weed out the weak among the Type-A, never-give-up applicants the organization attracts. Instead, that kind of truth-telling is like catnip to them. Making the process more transparent may scare some people away, but tfa will be left with corps members who are not only mentally prepared for the real deal, but who are also joining the corps with the right mission in mind. • Second, motivate, don’t indoctrinate, recruits. While tfa does its best to provide professional support for corps members, sometimes it fails on providing them with a real human connection. I do not necessarily fault tfa for this, but the “ While TFA does its best to provide professional support for corps members, sometimes it fails on providing them with a real human connection.” to these success stories, he feels like the lone wolf who simply wasn’t cut out for the program. For instance, Teach For America told me that my leadership experiences as student body president would prepare me for the hardships in the classroom. The (very persistent) recruiter said that I was the “perfect candidate for tfa”—though I had no classroom experience—because I was a campus leader. As it turns out, my extracurricular successes at Tulane did not translate to successes (by tfa standards) in the classroom. Tfa should reconsider its approach and move to a more transparent recruitment process. It should share some less-than-ideal stories of what life is like in the classroom. Show prospective or incoming corps members a struggling teacher’s classroom. Perhaps conduct a debriefing about possible pitfalls and solutions in the classroom. Don’t just talk about how tfa may be the “hardest thing a young adult will ever do.” with, and the knowledge to value the goals of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics learning activities. However, some of the findings in the report would have us believe that afterschool stem education doesn’t affect the education outcomes of students while in school. The Next Generation Science Standards are a first step in the right direction to improve inschool stem education (“Standards in Science Unveiled,” April 17, 2013). They inspire young people to explore real-world problems and find solutions through inventive thinking and the application of various scientific disciplines, like engineering, while in the classroom. I agree that we can’t pique students’ interest in class unless we dispel the myth of white lab coats, complex formulas, beakers, and calculations. Students must understand that stem education is exciting and creative—and the key to solving future problems. I started my foundation in the overarching tfa culture makes new teachers feel guilty for saying—or even feeling— anything that would go against the organizational grain. At one regional meeting during training, the Greater New Orleans team addressed the need for some corps members to give up their urban placements and take jobs in the Louisiana Delta, a new addition to the region four hours north of the city. Most corps members had already been placed in schools in the city, and the corps members who did not yet have placements did not want to uproot the lives that they had just started to build. The conversation stalled until a new corps member said: “Those kids need us in the Delta just as much as they need us in the city.” Definitely true. But the comments devolved into: “I already have a placement in New Orleans, but if I didn’t, I know I’d move to the Delta. We should be sacrificing everything for our kids,” and “I’m putting my students before my friends, my family, my health, and my sanity.” United Kingdom in 2002 (and later in the United States) to encourage young minds to use their hands as well as their heads to solve problems and pursue engineering as a career. We do this through after-school clubs and engineering workshops, and by providing our Engineering Box to schools so that students can disassemble a vacuum cleaner to learn how the mechanics work. If we want to excite children and create a culture of students equipped to tackle the problems of the 21st century, learningthrough-doing must be the model, not just the example—in or outside the classroom. James Dyson Founder and Chief Engineer Dyson Inc. Malmesbury, Wiltshire United Kingdom The writer founded the James Dyson Foundation in the United States in 2011 to support design and engineering education. iStockphoto/Doodlemachine To me, this showed an irrational lack of perspective. It’s the kind of mindset that leads to unhealthy behaviors that could be harmful both to teachers and those they are supposed to teach. What if tfa adjusted its motivational culture to change that perspective? What if the organization provided a safe space for dialogue and even dissent? It could give reasonable people room to doubt and question tfa norms. This would mean not responding with one-size-fits-all, big-picture-driven responses when corps members express real concerns about the corps and their students. If tfa fails to do this, the organization will risk alienating great teachers—teachers upon whom tfa depends to continue a strong movement. If tfa could start to engage with corps members as people—not cogs in the organizational machine—it would see a jump in retention, teacher performance, and, ultimately, student achievement. There is a bright side, and I want to be clear: I believe in Teach For America. My shortcomings as a corps member were as much my fault as the organization’s. But, I hope that tfa, after reading my story, can find some value in the lessons learned by those who left the corps early. With some careful reflection, the organization could better attract and retain the high-quality individuals it—and many, many students— so desperately need. n LAUREN BLAIR ARONSON oversees external relations for education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington. She previously served as a Teach For America 4th grade teacher in New Orleans. Nationalizing Education Would Be a Mistake To the Editor: In the 19th century, Horace Mann wanted to establish a national education system in the United States. But he realized that such a system would never work, because of the political pressures of the various religious groups found throughout the country. Even today, our science curricula are under attack from those who want their children to learn creationism as opposed to other views about how Earth began. In looking at countries where education is nationalized, one must stop and examine the characteristics of these countries. When looking at South Korea and Finland, for example, are there substantial minority ethnic groups as there are in the United States? Is instruction carried out in more than one language for the benefit of those students whose home language is something other than the national language? How do countries with nationalized educational programs handle instruction for those students who have learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, physical impairments, or any other affliction that might have an effect on their ability to learn in mainstream fashion? It would seem that a national curriculum would produce a more “student-centric” educational strategy only for the mainstreamed student, while possibly ignoring the needs of those students on the educational fringes. I am sorry that Beth Rabbitt, who wrote the Commentary “On Behalf of the Student Nomads” (Feb. 20, 2013), missed out on the opportunity to explore the history and culture of the many places in which she lived during her school years. Had she done so, she might have come to

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - April 24, 2013

Education Week - April 24, 2013
Union Sues Over Basis of Appraisal
In San Antonio, Pre-K Initiative Sets Steep Goals
New Teachers Search for Place in New Orleans
FOCUS ON: CAREER READINESS: States Seek High School Pathways Weaving Academic, Career Options
News in Brief
Report Roundup
PARCC Proposes Common-Core Test Accommodations
Some States Seek GED Alternative as Test Price Spikes
Blogs of the Week
DIGITAL DIRECTIONS: Online Socialization Is Hot Topic Among Researchers
Overhaul of the E-Rate Seen as a High Priority by FCC Commissioner
Comments Weighed on Vending Machine, ‘A La Carte’ Proposals
Corralling Local Support Still a Challenge
FOCUS ON: CAREER READINESS: Swiss Academic, Career Paths Designed to Cross
Obama’s Proposed Fix on Student Loans Ruffles Allies
Head Start Officials Tight-Lipped on Which Centers to Lose Aid
Policy Brief
Legislative Briefs
School Safety Legislation: A Tally by State
LAUREN BLAIR ARONSON: Advice to TFA From a Former Insider
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace

Education Week - April 24, 2013