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Jul 26, 2012

Learning with TFA

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague and I went to NYC to attend Teach for America’s Summer Institute. We are starting a collaborative program with them and this was an attempt to learn about the experiences the Corps Members have before they will come to our classes.

The relationship between TFA and the teacher education community is anything but easy. We sometimes end up on the opposite sides of educational debates. At the same time, in many states colleges collaborate with TFA and help their members to obtain state certification.

Some in our field perceive TFA to be the main existential threat. I never thought this to be the case. Their model of teacher preparation cannot be scaled up significantly because of its cost, and the high level of idealism it requires of Corps Members. Yet it would be completely foolish to ignore the organization’s success in recruiting people who would not have consider teaching as a career, and in creating a large following amongst a large segment of school principals and superintendents. When we started working with them, part of me was just very curious about what it is they do, and what we can learn from them. So, if you think they are our friends, you agree we should learn from them. If you think they are our sworn enemies, well, it is even more important to learn from them, right?

We have been working with a local TFA in various ways for almost two years now, and I already knew quite a bit about them. Still, I was going in a bit skeptical. What can you do in five weeks training? The very phrase “five weeks training” is often repeated in our circles with sarcasm. Of course, we spent decades our lives in teacher preparation, and just know a thing or two about what goes into training a decent teacher. Well, I had to admit that I was wrong. One can actually do a lot in five weeks, and evidence was pretty undeniable.

The secret is very simple: when what you lack is time, you compensate by the intensity of the experience and by strong organization. In other words, if you make the experience super-charged, and eliminate the waste, you can achieve good results.

Yes, TFA members teach only about 20 lessons over the course of the 5 weeks to small classes of 6-15 children. But every single lesson plan is critiqued ahead of time, and every lesson is observed by at least one experienced teacher; often by two or three. Every lesson observed by a TFA mentor is analyzed and critiqued in an hour-long one-on-one session. It is a hard drill on a certain kind of thinking, not on behavior. TFA uses the Teaching as Leadership rubric. It is not that superior to what we use, but they stick to it for years, and of course, learn how to use it. Corp Members also attend seminars, right in the schools where they teach, lead by curriculum specialists. They are expected to apply directly what they learned in their classrooms within the next couple of days. The whole thing has a feel of a boot camp, and it is not just a superficial comparison. The military discovered the value of short and intensive experiences a very long time ago.

We observed a few lessons taught by the corps members. Were they perfect? Not at all, but they were darn good for someone in the second week of one’s teaching career; definitely better than my first few weeks of teaching. We could see how the Corps Members struggle, and where they need help. In this sense, there are no miracles; it takes a lot of effort to learn the craft. But it can be done faster under the right conditions.

Of course in this model one has to sacrifice something. There is no time for reading much theory, or for in-depth discussions about the dynamics of learning and relationships in classroom. There is no time to search for great creative ideas in lessons design. This is where we hopefully come in with four RIC classes, a part of the RIC-TFA collaborative program ( But I got an impression that TFA people are fully aware of what they are sacrificing, and what they are gaining.

The operational side of thing is remarkable – as an administrator, I appreciated the enormous challenge that comes with bringing 600 young people to New York City for five weeks, and trying to make teaches out of them. They also need to be fed, housed, observed, evaluated, taught, briefed, etc., etc. Because TFA has many more applicants than spots, they can afford to select candidates carefully. It helps to have bright and dedicated young people. TFA is also not skimpy on providing human resources – about 150 “adults” work to support the institute of 600 new Corps Members; it is a 1:4 ratio. It is very expensive (although TFA recruit their alums to help for relatively cheaply). The economy of scale and years of previous experience help, too. But here is my point again – if they did it for three months, the cost would become prohibitive. So the choice of the 5 weeks is not random; it is the only way to keep the cost under control. And if you have to do this, you may as well squeeze everything out of this short experience.

The lesson for me is that it is too easy to see our way of doing things as the only way. This applies to everyone, not just teacher educators. It is helpful to see alternatives, just to shake off these self-imposed blinders. It is like going to another country – you recognize the same things, but are surprised by how they can be so different. We are not going to become like TFA, for our constrains and resources are very different. But nothing prevents us from looking at shorter but more intensive field experiences – in addition to what we are doing already. I wish we learned to be less tolerant to waste and fluff, and more focused on what we believe is important.


  1. Anonymous1:25 PM


    It may be just as important to consider where they go within education.

  2. Dear Anonymous:
    To call someone failing, you;d need actual evidence beyond an opinion of one disappointed person. God knows we have those people in traditional teacher prep, too. There has been actually quite a bit of research, and in some TFA comes out a little better, in some - a little worse than traditionally certified teachers. No one was able to show any dramatic differences one way or another. So their results are about as good as ours. Failing does not describe the situation, whether you and I like it or not.

  3. Anonymous6:22 PM

    I hope not to come off as to confrontational here but I'm just wondering if by the conclusion to this post in which you say, "I wish we learned to be less tolerant to waste and fluff, and more focused on what we believe is important," are you implicating theory as fluff?!

    If not then please do elaborate on what you are contextualize as 'fluff'?

    1. No, I don't think theory is fluff; in fact there is nothing more practical than a good theory. By fluff I mean instructors telling stories from their youth, instructors coming to class unprepared and disorganized, lecturing what can be read or viewed online, wasting 10 minutes of each class to take attendance, courses that overlap in their content, courses and programs that have not been revised for decades, meaningless homework, field experiences that are not focused, etc. Perhaps the institutions you know do not have any of that, but all those I know have some of it. Student time is a precious commodity, and we must learn to be respectful of its scarcity.

    2. Anonymous7:43 PM

      I agree that there is fluff within the educational system from organization super structure down to the classroom but I must be honest in my experience it is most damaging and wasteful not when a teachers takes the time to connect and humanize themselves with students through personal stories but rather when a curriculum is inflexible and discipline is emphasized over camaraderie. I'll be honest I'm not fan of TFA, I am one of those who see this as a corporate funded effort at creating a corporate-style organization of training teachers. As a emphatic advocate of education I feel the est critique of TFA's theory was written in the 1920's in a prison by Antonio Gramsci. His theory of the organic intellectual stands as the counter-thesis to the path of TFA. Placing ivy league grads into struggling communities whose social realities are inconceivable to a large swath of these grads is as far from fostering organic intellectuals as could be imagined. Instead why are teacher education programs not pushing to recruit teachers from under represented demographics? Your own program has historically elevated its testing requirements for admission, a step which leverages an entire sub-section of candidates above those who through personal and social factors fail to test well in a standardized format. Why are teacher education programs not fighting for funded student teachers stipends so that young students from poor communities can see teaching as a means of taking direct action in improving the lives of their families and neighbors while still being able to sustain themselves during the trails of student teaching? This funding could be found by doing as you say, cutting the fluff. However, I interpret the fluff to be a bloated education bureaucracy, micromanaged districts each of which accounting to various administrators who do very little for daily student interaction and learning, militarized public schools public for police officers to occupy their building, salary funding spent on detention and in house suspensions rather than after school programs. Fluff exists but in the daily grind it can be found at the top more so than in the classroom were a teacher dares to experiment with a new course or program.

    3. Well, I can think of a theoretical critique of TFA and of teacher preparation, too, but it should go beyond pure labeling. Corporate, organic... These do not replace argument or evidence.

      As for basic testing requirements, we fought a good and fairly public fight against it, for the reasons you describe, and we lost it. I did not see the Anonymous in the battle ground next to me though. Where were you?

      And the irony is - the only place where we were able to pay student teaching stipends was a charter school with extensive ties to TFA. Not one of the traditional districts was interested. Again, if you know of a better way - do let us know. We have very little power over school bureaucracies.

    4. Anonymous8:38 AM

      We have the power of our hands and our pockets’; placing the former in the latter gives us all the power of the working world. I was too young at the time FSED was discussing the implementation of the testing requirements. However, when the time came when Providence teachers faced mass layoffs and attacks on their unions I was there, on the front lines organizing fellow students and other union workers to stand in solidarity.
      In fact part of your power is to do as you called for, research and aggregate data on the abuse and wastefulness of ed. bureaucracy at the top. I don't see the theories of organic intellectuals or the concept of school corporatization as mere labels. To do so would be to write off immense historical trends. I also admit that I don't have a massive breadth of data to provide off hand on these theses. I see them as starting points for understanding the larger trends; points with which I and other rank-and-file educators wish those in the higher echelons would run with and begin to research.
      What is disappointing in the argument that you have little power in addressing Education Bureaucracy is that the curriculum of teachers’ ed. never even addresses this tension as an issue. In fact vary little is presented as tenuous circumstances or multifaceted arguments in teacher ed. Instead what was presented (at least in my experience) was a perpetual barrage of rights versus wrongs with little room for innovation and weak ties to theory.
      I'm also assuming that there was a jab in there about posting anonymously; part of the problem with so few folks speaking out against the centralization of power at the top not just in departments of ed. but in school systems and departments of teacher ed. is that the concern over bureaucratic revenge and blacklisting is omnipresent. This is something I've already had to deal with before and have learned to protect myself against.
      As I stated in my first comment my intention is not to be overly confrontational but to argue the counter-thesis that in fact much of the discourse around ed reform and programs like TFA are based on a perspective which ignores the larger flaws of the super-structure and of those in higher positions and instead focuses on micro-management of the rank and file at the expense of those humanizing and theoretical structures later deemed to be "fluff"