March 11, 2010

Kristof and the public purpose of feel-good years

Charlie Barone is right: Nicholas Kristof's column yesterday comparing TFA and the Peace Corps shows the practical limits of TFA (as well as Kristof's ignorance about VISTA, but that's a different story). There's something important about consistently reminding reporters and other naive folks that TFA is not scalable. Regardless of what you think of it, there is a vast difference between the needs for a professional long-term teaching corps and matching up a few thousand new college graduates with positions that would be filled at best with long-term substitutes. There's nothing wrong with short-term backfilling (heck, that's what ARRA and other stimulus bills are for), but that's not a main solution for much.

Barone's point is not really about Kristof's central argument, which is more about how young Americans need to experience more of the world. Kristof is right about that, though maybe they should also see more of their own country? Nor is it about the side benefit of TFA participation in terms of giving a broader group of young adults experience in the public sector.

I think the last is the lasting impact of TFA. I look more favorably on TFA than a lot of other education researchers, not because I think there's significant evidence of great results but because a backfilling role in urban systems is acceptable and because social movements need well-off and well-positioned allies, people who had formative experiences that led them to empathize with others. In Inventing the Feeble Mind, for example, James Trent documents how WW2 conscientious objectors' experiences in state institutions helped lay the groundwork for a postwar change in attitudes towards cognitive disabilities. That's not a pre-law internship, as some accuse TFA of becoming; regardless of naivete, two or three years represents a serious commitment for someone who's 22. I don't know where TFA alums are going to be, but few of them are like Michelle Rhee either in temperament or future careers. Somewhere in 10 years, a TFA alum far outside public education is going to make a difference in a different sphere of life because of those two or three years.

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Posted in Education policy on March 11, 2010 9:20 AM |