In T. Jameson Brewer’s criticism of Teach For America for not being able to take criticism, he links to a Vox story by Dana Goldstein that he apparently didn’t read, um, critically. In fact, it seems like he didn’t even read the headline: “Teach For America has faced criticism for years. Now it’s listening—and changing.”
So, now we’ve got two dramatically divergent takes on TFA’s self-reflection. Which one should we trust?
We’ve got an account written by an esteemed journalist who spent months observing the organization, its training and its culture, with an intense focus on how it handles criticism, as part of her research on her groundbreaking book, “The Teacher Wars.”
Then we’ve got the Brewer piece, written by a Ph.D student three years removed from TFA and trying to make a name for himself by blasting his former employer at every turn. Brewer tries to convince us with a few recycled expatriate anecdotes that TFA has its head in the sand.
If Brewer had read Goldstein’s article, here’s what he would’ve learned (emphasis added):
Teach For America did evolve over the years, improving how it trains corps members to teach. But the core quick-prep, short-commitment model did not budge. Until now.
From the outside, Teach For America looked defensive, but internally, it was engaged in profound self-exploration and self-critique. In response to many of the arguments against Teach For America—that it is white and elitist, short on pedagogical seriousness, and disdainful of career educators—the organization, under new leadership for the first time in its history, was considering a significant policy change.
Everything about Teach For America is being subjected to internal debate, from the length of the five-week training and two-year placements to the very language it uses to describe its mission and impact.
Since Kopp had stepped down three months earlier to launch a new organization bringing the Teach For America model to the developing world, the new CEOs had hosted dozens of these listening sessions across the country. The purpose of the tour was to open up a more honest conversation about TFA’s mission; about its shortcomings as well as its successes; and about its future.
Then Villanueva Beard took over. ‘Are we destabilizing communities?’ she asked. ‘That is one question we’ve got to take and really critically examine. And the culturally competent piece is very real. Are we bringing teachers into the classroom who deeply understand themselves and are educating kids so they understand their role in society? Not just sticking them into white middle-class aspirations? I want it to be impossible for people to say, “TFA? They’re just cultural tourists.”’
In March, Villanueva Beard and Kramer began to publicly share the soul-searching that had been taking place behind closed doors within Teach For America. They announced two pilot programs that seemed to question the group’s quick-prep, high-turnover model. The first will provide a full year of pre-service training to select corps members. Called the Education for Justice Pre-Corps Pilot Program, it rolls out this year to 50 to 100 college seniors who applied early-decision to TFA and were accepted during their junior years.
It was a conceptual shift—from five weeks of training to a full year, and from two years in the classroom to five.
Last month, TFA announced that its latest class of 5,300 recruits is far more diverse than the American teaching profession as a whole. Only 17 percent of American teachers are non-white, but in 2014, 22 percent of TFA’s corps is black, 13 percent are Latino, and a third identify as first-generation college students. One hundred of the new teachers are armed services veterans, and a third are recent graduate students or career-changers, not undergrads.
But at least on curricular content and special-ed training, TFA is taking the research evidence seriously. In another pilot program, new recruits in the Chicago region will receive training tailored to the subject area in which they will teach. In March, co-CEO Matt Kramer announced that Teach For America would launch a Special Education and Ability Initiative to provide corps members with additional training on working with these students.
According to Winfield, the TFA spokesperson, if the pilot programs are successful, the organization may expand them to reach many more, eventually maybe all, of their recruits. If so, the Teach For America of tomorrow could look almost nothing like the Teach For America of yesterday or today.
The Vox piece concludes with this:
Teach For America helped build today’s no-excuses, high turnover, standards-and-accountability driven school reform movement. Now it might help to revise it, to transform it, and—yes—to reform it.
So, I ask again, which headline do you believe? As a longtime education journalist, I’m betting on Goldstein.