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Alt-cert stories revive online debates over TFA

In recent days, this space has carried a couple of stories concerning the state Board of Teaching’s failure to implement a 2011 law allowing teachers who earned licensed in other states after completing alternative-certification programs to win Minnesota licenses.

The shorthand version of the debate that ensued — or was revived — in the comment threads here and on a variety of education-oriented Facebook pages and websites: Teach for America teachers = gifted gap-closers headed for positions of influence, vs. Teach for America teachers = at best inferior to teachers with more experience and education, ill-prepared foot-soldiers in a conspiracy to privatize education at worst.

Neither MinnPost piece reprised this debate. As a matter of public policy, a majority of legislators decided that Minnesota students will be served best by a variety of teacher-preparation pipelines, the governor eventually concurred and some odds-beating schools are desperate to see the alt-cert pipeline primed. The agency tasked with making this happen hasn’t.

Do people like the policy? Separate question.

Two conversations

There are a number of folks who are unhappy with the resulting law — and a few who are mighty unhappy with my coverage of it. In the interest of broadening the discussion, I commend to you two links that will steer you to the harshest of the cases being made against Teach for America in particular and to a debate that’s much more detailed than the one that took place in the comments thread here.

The Public Education Justice Alliance of Minnesota (PEJAM) is “a grassroots community organization of teachers, parents, students, and community members dedicated to defending and supporting a fully funded, just, equitable, and democratic system of public education” headed by several Minneapolis Federation of Teachers leaders. TFA corps members, they argue, are the “vanguard of the corporate reformers.”

I’ll stay out of this one, except to note that I believe that the secret conspiracy is actually a stated part of the TFA philosophy. After their two-year stint, some corps members will continue to teach, some will head off to grad school or a different career, and some will take their galvanizing classroom experiences and go on to positions of leadership, either in education or public policy.

PEJAM’s blogger in chief is one of the many people lighting up the comment thread over at the Contract for Student Achievement (CSA) Facebook page, where odd educational and political bedfellows go to swap good reads and engage in cyber-nattering.

Cyber debaters: from Garofalo to Panning-Miller

Robert Panning-Miller
Robert Panning-Miller

How odd? Check out the CSA post about PEJAM’s TFA blog post by former Minneapolis School Board member and Contract organizer Chris Stewart. The first comment is from Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, about as conservative an education policy voice as this state has at the moment. Further down, MFT leader and PEJAM blogger Robert Panning-Miller describes himself as a socialist.

These last two gentlemen may have more in common than they think: Neither is shy about their dislike of MinnPost and my education reporting. If they’d like to go get a beer with each other, I’d be happy to pick up the tab.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ross Williams on 08/16/2012 - 10:06 am.

    Reporters Universal Bias

    “Neither is shy about their dislike of MinnPost and my education reporting. If they’d like to go get a beer with each other, I’d be happy to pick up the tab.”

    If everyone agrees you do a lousy job of reporting you must be doing something right? I doubt it. It is more likely that you can’t separate your own bias from your reporting.

    “I’ll stay out of this one, except to note that I believe that the secret conspiracy is actually a stated part of the TFA philosophy.”

    Yep, that’s really staying out of it. And you wonder why no one takes you seriously?

    The real question with this program is whether people with a lot of intellectual brainpower are likely to make the best teachers. I doubt it. And regardless of how bright the person is, I don’t think it is possible for them to know what works based on two years of experience. I am sure its a great experience for the teachers, but I suspect for the students they are experimenting on its a mixed result.

    And, no I am not a teacher. But I remember my 8th grade math teacher who was very innovative and popular with her students. Unfortunately, a couple years later even the students who loved her recognized that they had lost a year of their education. They were left unprepared for the next level.

    I still marvel over 40 years later at her creative teaching techniques. They really were imaginative. Unfortunately, they apparently didn’t work. Her students suffered the consequences.

    The real problem we have with education is not that we don’t understand what works. Its that there are people who are unwilling to spend the money required to deliver a quality education to every student. So we keep trying to use innovation to replace resources rather than supplement them. Its not going to work.

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/16/2012 - 10:42 am.

    Might I suggest a different take on this? All research shows that the first few years of a teacher’s career are his/her worst. TFA teachers only sign on for two years. Most are gone by their third or fourth year. So how can TFA be a good thing? They impose huge costs on schools and districts and shortchange both the system and their students. Why is there an argument about this? Yet – places like MinnCAN and you, Beth, refuse to acknowledge these realities. MinnCAN says “a great teacher in every classroom.” That is pure bull.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/16/2012 - 01:00 pm.

    Argh! Conflicted again!

    Hmmm. I sort of agree with Ross Williams’ conclusion, though the path to that conclusion is strewn with what seems to me unnecessary hostility, not to mention some rather broad and unsupported generalizations. Just for starters, as a regular reader, I don’t agree that Ms. Hawkins’ reporting on education is “lousy.” I’d add that, while she does have her own soapbox, she usually announces when she’s climbing up onto it. As for taking her seriously, I certainly can’t vouch for every reader, but I take her seriously, and I’m a regular reader.

    I also have to quarrel with the way the “real question” is phrased. Mr. Williams sounds as if having a lot of intellectual horsepower is some sort of impediment to good teaching. While he doubts that smart people make the best teachers, which doesn’t fit my experience over 30 classroom years in a public school, I note that he doesn’t provide any evidence to support his assertion.

    I do agree that TFA doesn’t strike me as a model upon which American education ought to be based, and both Ross and Rob Levine make what strike me as valid points about that. My own early years were not my best years in the classroom, but I stuck around for 20-something more of them, and I got quite a bit better. TFA candidates frequently don’t do that, so, as Ross and Rob suggest, a couple years with a TFA teacher may be a great experience for that TFA person, but perhaps no better than a “mixed” result for their students.

    I had several colleagues who fit to a “T” Ross’s description of the “creative but vacuous” teacher. Kids loved them, they were fun, they were engaging (and that latter point is perhaps the best point in their favor), but at the end of the semester, the kids often didn’t really know much more than when they started. Getting the students engaged in what you’re doing is one of the keys to successful instruction, and “creativity” is certainly among the ways to do that, so I don’t like to discount it out of hand, but if there’s no substance to accompany that creativity, then it’s a largely-empty exercise.

    To a degree, then, I have to go back to my tempered agreement with Ross’s final point. Cash-strapped school districts, and state legislatures that know nothing about how education works beyond the fact that it’s expensive, are likely to be prime candidates for the sales rep or the ideologue who can pad her company’s bottom line or organization’s credibility by selling “innovation” over an investment in what we know to be effective. But it’s also pretty easy to get complacent, whether in a school board meeting, the superintendent’s office, the principal’s office, or the classroom.

    I should add that, if you really want to see complacency, one of the best places to do so is at a college or university. Many a professor is lecturing from notes yellowed with age, yet, oddly enough, there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent push for alternative certification of college professors…

    • Submitted by Ross Williams on 08/17/2012 - 10:21 pm.


      ” unnecessary hostility”

      Guilty. I am frankly tired of “journalists” implying that universal complaints about their stories are evidence that they are somehow balanced. And here we have someone denying they are getting on their high horse, while making a flying leap in the same sentence. So while the hostility was unnecessary, it was provoked.

      As far as I know there is no evidence that a teachers brain power matters at all to the quality of a k-12 education. I am sure bright teachers appreciate bright colleagues, but am skeptical that it matters all that much to the students.

      I am convinced there are a broad range of other qualities that are far more important. Which is not to suggest any moron can teach, it just doesn’t require intellectual firepower to teach k-12. In fact, it may be a barrier in the sense that the teacher’s own experience doesn’t prepare them for the intellectual struggles of the typical student.

      The problem with TFA is that it is convinced of the value of intellect. Its claim to fame is attracting the “best and brightest” from elite schools to use their intellect to enrich the experience of students. It strikes me as an opportunity for them to experiment on students and communities who will suffer from their failures while the teacher/students move on to bigger and better endeavors. Enriched, no doubt, by their experience.

  4. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 08/16/2012 - 02:08 pm.

    Your reporting

    I personally think you do a great job bringing to the fore topics of interest, and great value. I think you do have a bias against unionized teachers. Some subtle and not so subtle examples:

    1) In your most recent story, you described candidates for school board who did not make it.

    When it was not union endorsed candidates, they were “blocked”, which implies some nefarious, democracy crushing. When union endorsed candidates didn’t make it, they simply “failed to make it through”.

    When non-union candidates fail, it is because they are blocked. When union candidates fail it is just because they failed.

    2) You do a wonderful job of focusing on ALEC. Better than most in the area. However, you seem to neglect the obvious and almost one-for-one connection between the ALEC education agenda and groups like Students First/50Can/etc.

    3) You continuously boast of “beat the odds” schools, but I don’t think you have ever critically looked or investigated why even the best ones like KIPP/Havest have single digit science scores. Without further investigating I can only assume they focus so exclusively on math and reading to reject the eduction of the whole child. Their science scores are far worse than even the worst traditional schools, yet they are called bet the odds.

    4) I honestly think you are a good reporter and I appreciate your work. It feels as if you struggle with looking critically at Michelle Rhee/Gates Foundation/Students First, and even TFA.

    thank you for your work.

  5. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 08/16/2012 - 04:45 pm.

    Beth Hawkins

    There are pieces Beth has written that have been just excellent, and there have been other things that are just infuriating. My criticisms echo those raised above regarding the struggle to look critically at education “reformers.” That being said, she is responsive to criticism on these points – her last piece on Michelle Rhee was on the cheating on tests in the DC schools, and she certainly has acknowledged the controversy surrounding Rhee.

    Whether I agree with her or not, she does raise interesting topics and I do take her seriously. If the reason everyone disagreed with her was simply because the reporting is just lousy, then no one would be reading and commenting, and that obviously is not the case. If she has a new column, its usually the first thing I read when I log onto Minnpost.

  6. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 08/16/2012 - 08:56 pm.

    Would you take a look at the most recent long term NAEP trends?

    I realize we always need to get better, especially for my students. However, the current narrative that education is dismal and doomed, and that we are all lazy failures is not good for teachers, and therefore not good for kids. Being told you suck over and over, and then having every piece of education legislation predicated on the idea that you suck, is not a way to help teachers help kids.

    That being said, according to NAEP long term trends, we are just as smart if not smarter than we were forty years ago. Blacks have closed the achievement GAP over those last 40 years.

    We have a long way to go, but if we are just as smart as we were forty years ago, the things Rhee says are purely propaganda for a privatization agenda.

    The executive summary is short, to the point, and full of chart-ie goodness.

  7. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 08/17/2012 - 11:39 am.

    Another interesting discussion

    Beth is the best on MinnPost, at least as far as I am concerned.

    As an old codger now, who has taught mostly at the college/university level, Ray, I want to make a few comments.

    Yellowed notes used by old profs are a reason why I and many of my colleagues re-write, update, and try to keep fresh our materials. Students pay a lot of money to go to college and this is what they deserve. A high quality public education, at all levels, is a prerequisite to a good society.

    It is noteworthy that there is essentially no teacher training in college teaching. Some of us are good teachers and some lousy. So it isn’t training that is responsible, alone. I think this has relevance to the TFA discussion.

    It is absolutely true that a teacher can make the students happy, be creative – whatever that means – and yet teach students very little or nothing.

    The trick is that enthusiasm for a subject, and getting students interested in it, has to be coupled with teaching them the material. And older, more experienced, teachers know what works and what doesn’t. We want our students, at the end of the day, to be able to compete with anyone and not to handicap them for having sat in our classes and learning nothing.

    To put it bluntly, there is a big difference between the University of Minnesota and Carleton. And I don’t see a lot of smoke coming out of Northfield about on-line learning, not that I am anti-technology.

    Public education at the K-12 or college level has to use a hybrid model where some parts of the instructional mission can use technology. But in the end it is the person sitting in front of the class and running the show who is most important.

    EOR – end of rant.

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