Teach For America haters, go ahead and crow all you like about the San Francisco School Board’s decision to bow to union pressure and suspend TFA’s district contract for the coming school year.
Because it’s got to feel like a pretty hollow victory for you who claim to want nothing more than a well-trained, stable teaching force. (That would be you, Diane Ravitch, Julian Vasquez Heilig and the United Educators of San Francisco.)
The 15 San Francisco classrooms that would have been staffed by TFA corps members—yep, only 15—are now going to be filled by either long-term subs or untrained college grads with emergency certification.
San Francisco has a dire teaching shortage—district administrators predicted the district will not be able to fill its 500 vacancies by August and many of these will be in areas that TFA specializes in recruiting—special education, bilingual classrooms and STEM.
The shortage is a statewide issue in California, but it is exacerbated by the fact that San Francisco teachers aren’t paid enough to live in the Bay Area—a fact that the union protested at the very same meeting where the San Francisco superintendent reluctantly agreed to pull the TFA contract because he knew he didn’t have enough votes from his board.
But the San Francisco teachers union didn’t bother mentioning this inconvenient truth in their statement complaining about TFA’s model:
While we celebrate and respect TFA teachers who commit themselves to our schools, the reality is that the program has a retention rate of just 17%. With the teachers often placed in high needs schools, TFA essentially institutionalizes turnover in these schools, robbing our school communities of the stability and continuity that we desperately need.
San Francisco Superintendent Richard Carranza doesn’t share the union’s or the board’s concerns, as he told the San Francisco Chronicle:
I’ve seen enough TFA teachers, and some are phenomenal and some need work. That’s no different from any first- or second-year teacher in classrooms I’ve seen.
He’s also seen the real data (not the union’s unsubstantiated data) about teacher retention, which demonstrates that TFA corps members in San Francisco actually stay longer than the typical new teacher. About 90 percent of TFA’s teachers come back after their first year of teaching, compared with 56 percent of those who are new to the teaching profession in general. And almost two-thirds of TFA teachers stay for a third year after their two-year commitment, compared to 47 percent of other novice teachers in San Francisco. An estimated 90 TFA alums are working in San Francisco Unified School District schools for an average of six years.
The fact that the board members are micromanaging personnel decisions and overruling the wishes of their own staff leaders to make a political point about 15 teaching positions should raise red flags to anyone who understands what good district governance looks like.
One teacher leader at a San Francisco middle school (a traditionally-trained veteran, I might add) raised this flag in a letter to the board, urging them to approve the contract. Shipley Salewski, an instructional dean at Everett Middle School, wrote:
I have had the chance to work with incredible teachers and leaders who came to teaching through both conventional and nontraditional pipelines, and I have been singularly impressed by the people who have come through TFA.
But even if I were not impressed with TFA, I would still argue to support their new contract, because for me this issue is one of trust in principals’ competence to select their staff.
Certainly my hope each year is that we find experienced and skillful candidates whose life experiences and perhaps skin color mirrors that of our students, but our current pipeline of candidates can only be described as anemic. In this context, it makes no sense to tie principals’ hands and keep them from hiring the best possible people to put in front of our children.
Some board members didn’t even try to pretend their pushback was in the best interest of children.
Board member Jill Wynns’ opposition was based on Teach For America’s “financial connections to supporters of charter schools and market-based education reform.”
It makes you wonder how she’d vote if she had children in one of those schools forced to hire a sub for special education or science class.
Another board member, Rachel Norton, wrote in her blog that she just got tired of infighting around TFA, which she acknowledged was a “drop in the bucket” when it came to their staffing needs.
Last year I passionately defended the Teach For America contract. This year, I’m wondering if it’s worth all of the fighting. Even though I’m loath to limit the staff’s ability to recruit new teachers, it has begun to seem pointless to go through a very divisive debate every year for 15 intern teachers. It’s clear that the teachers union is very opposed to this program…
If TFA opponents were hoping this contract suspension would be a black eye for TFA, well, that turned out to be wishful thinking, too. The corps members recruited will end up working for other traditional and charter schools in San Francisco—because their school leaders have the wisdom to realize that it doesn’t make sense to turn away a committed and diverse group of new teachers when they are crippled by a teacher shortage. Richmond and Oakland schools are sticking with corps members too.
As I’ve argued before, TFA isn’t a panacea for fixing all that ails hard-to-staff urban schools. But to push out TFA from a district that desperately needs it isn’t just cravenly political, it’s dangerously disrespectful to the children and families in San Francisco.