June 19, 2008

Slurs against the apparently evil Linda Darling-Hammond and what TFA is really good for

I was struck by the following vivid language used today by the usually calm Kevin Carey:

Of course, no TFA article would be complete without the requisite disparaging quote from Stanford professor and Obama advisor Linda Darling-Hammond, who has elevated TFA haterism into something of a fine art over the years.

That's pretty extreme, so I went to the New York Times article about TFA founder Wendy Kopp and her spouse Richard Barth, who runs the KIPP charter-school network. I wanted to see the hate in action. And here is the entire passage mentioning Linda Darling-Hammond:


Since the mid-1990s, prominent academics have argued that Teach for America's two-year assignment ensures that recruits leave just as they are learning to teach. "You lose them just when they are becoming effective," said Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford.

I read that paragraph twice. I read it backwards, to see if Darling-Hammond were saying that Paul was dead. I thought about that quotation and tried to figure out where the hatred was. I tried to think about how I could turn that argument into hatred. And I will confess that I just don't get it. Unless someone can point me to evidence that Darling-Hammond has truly been hateful in some venue about TFA as an organization, in future I'm going to treat this claim as a rhetorical bluff.

When I've read Darling-Hammond's work about TFA, it seems to me that she is contesting the argument that TFA is a proof of concept for alternative certification programs. Others have claimed that because TFA successfully recruits liberal-arts college graduates to serve in poor communities, that means that states can and should give up standard teacher education programs as the primary route to entry. Darling-Hammond's studies (such as an EPAA article published in 2005) reveal a more complicated picture than is often portrayed in the press. So, because Darling-Hammond contests the most positive claims, she hates TFA? Again: please point me to solid evidence of some malicious intent before you continue to make this claim.

Let me take a step back and look at the bigger picture, or rather ask how big the picture really should be. My understanding is that TFA's recruitment, selection, placement, and support has changed in the last few years, so the mixed picture of Darling-Hammond's research may not be true any longer in Houston. That's what continuing research is for, and I can't see why Darling-Hammond is being attacked for being skeptical. Isn't that the attitude we should be encouraging towards broad claims about education reform? In addition, there are several additional questions one can raise about the generalization from TFA's experience to teacher recruitment more generally:

  • Given the changes in TFA recruiting and preservice training in the past few years, how has that changed the relationship between TFA recruits and student outcomes?
  • Beyond changes in the national program, are there local TFA programs where recruits come up to speed faster than other new teachers? What factors affect local variations?
  • What are the practical consequences for teacher recruitment from the evidence of success (or failure) from the highly selective TFA recruitment, training, placement, and support process?
  • Is the primary purpose of TFA to be a proof of concept for alternative certification?

Given the highly selective nature of TFA, I think the answer to the last question is obvious: TFA would be an interesting proof of concept if you needed no more than a few thousand new teachers per year in this country. That isn't the case, and I don't think one can generalize from TFA, especially given the changes in the program over its lifetime. Credit goes to Kopp and her staff for reinventing the organization several times when it was in crisis. But by definition, that change means that it's not wise to see TFA as the champion of alternative certification.

Maybe my memory is mistaken, but I thought that Kopp's original intention was to help fill a gap in school systems with a history of persistent recruiting failures. Given the number of poor children whose classrooms are headed by long-term substitutes and a rotation of short-termers who leave within a few weeks, it's hard to see how TFA could do worse than the rotating-door experience of too many students. TFA doesn't have to change our broader picture of teacher recruitment and professional education; the modest goal of providing a few well-educated teachers who will stick with a school for two years is reason enough for its existence.

Beyond that modest central goal, I think the broader impact of TFA is far removed from debates about teaching as an occupation: it is creating a growing body of well-educated adults who have had experience teaching poor children in urban public-school systems. On the whole, it's a good thing for a broad range of people to know what happens in public school systems. There is something dynamic and unpredictable about public service, and I can point to a number of historical examples where public service opened up discussions. For example, as James Trent has explained, WW2 conscientious objectors helped spark the postwar controversies over institutionalizing individuals with mental retardation when they were placed in state institutions and saw how they ran (and abused residents). I am not saying that TFA or other public-service programs are sufficient to change systems dramatically. But there is something in public service that is both life-changing and potentially system-changing.

There is another benefit, to give young adults experience in the public sector. We've had several decades of ideological attacks on the public sphere, and it's time for that to be balanced by experience. As I wrote above, I can't argue that TFA recruits are going to be as bad as a rotating door of subs, and TFA might help change the discussion about public service and the public sphere. That possibility is also why I support the U.S. Public Service Academy proposal. But there's a catch: that potential use of public service programs does not obviate the programs' responsibilities to the clients/patrons of the target system, which in the case of TFA are the students. The experiences of TFA recruits and alumni has not been all positive, and star TFA alumna Michelle Rhee acknowledges she was a lousy teacher her first year. For this reason if for no other, to avoid allowing the children in the systems being guinea pigs and stepping stones for TFA recruits' professional careers, I wish TFA the best of luck with its support programs. Jonathan (JD2718) agrees with me on the general point of welcoming special-recruit program participants, in his case trying to fight dysfunctional responses to the NYC Teaching Fellows program.

I hope my larger point is clear: Like Popeye, TFA is what it is. It isn't a model or test of alternative certification. If anything, it is a singular public-service program and should make us think about the ethics and possibilities of public-service programs. But even there, generalizability is limited. So if you want to say Linda Darling-Hammond goes beyond a skeptical look at the broader claims about TFA, the burden's on you: show where she goes beyond hard-nosed skepticism, or stop making the claim.

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Posted in Education policy on June 19, 2008 5:15 PM |