Teach for America and Charter Schools

I am writing about this knowing that there is no way I can express the depth of my feelings about this issue, but there has been some attention paid to charter schools lately and I feel the need for some catharsis that posting here may bring.

Disclaimer: I Participated in Teach for America (but I am no cheerleader)

Some background: I participated in Teach for America (TFA) over a decade ago when I was 21 years old, fresh out of college with five weeks of teacher boot camp under my belt that I had somehow been convinced would prepare me to be a teacher.  I taught for two years, as “required” by TFA (some people quit sooner, but there’s no penalty), and taught a third year.  I left teaching because I didn’t feel adequately prepared to address the challenges my students were facing outside the classroom that were impacting their ability to learn inside the classroom.  I went to graduate school locally and continued working at my school, then in the school district office, and on various local and state education related projects.  After I graduated, I started a mentoring program at my local high school for students who would be the first in their families to go to college.

I loved teaching and even though TFA considered me (by their fuzzy metrics) an excellent teacher, I do not think that TFA does students in the classrooms of TFA teachers any great service.  I do think it does people like me a great service and we may go on to help future generations of students, but I am under no illusion that the students in my own classroom had a highly effective teacher, especially during my first year.  Did they have a teacher who cared deeply about them and their families and often worked 15 hours a day, 7 days a week?  Yes.  Is it highly problematic that the program exists because there is a tacit acceptance that students like mine are expendable – good guinea pigs for do gooder college graduates (why not try to throw smart 21 year olds in classrooms and see what happens)?  Absolutely.  The story, though, is more complicated than that.

Teach for American is a Good Bandaid, but Remember to Take it Off

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me this critique of TFA.

For the most part, I agree with the author, but there is a bigger story the article misses.  Compared to what?  If the immediate alternative is a great teacher, then of course that is better than a TFA teacher, but in reality, that’s often not the alternative.  I fully acknowledge that TFA is hindering the movement of getting great, long term (more than 2 years), well trained teachers in these classrooms, but in the immediate situation, the alternative may be a long term substitute or an ineffective teacher.  Even someone who goes through the traditional route, spending about two years to get a teaching credential, is often unprepared for the realities of teaching in the schools where TFA places teachers after a five week teacher boot camp.  There’s a lot of reform that needs to happen around teacher education, particularly for teachers planning on teaching in schools with vulnerable students – those who experience chronic trauma, who live in poverty, who are food insecure, who don’t have stable housing, etc.  No matter how good of a teacher you are, you can’t overcome challenges you don’t know anything about.  I did not truly learn the implications and effective ways to address the types of challenges my students faced until I began working with youth in the juvenile justice system after I graduated from law and public policy school.  And this is AFTER I had already earned my Masters in Education, supposedly focused on social justice in urban education!

If I was a student or parent in the school that I taught in, I would be pissed.  I think they should be pissed whether they have a TFA teacher, an inexperienced teacher, or a veteran teacher who sucks.  End of story.  Does TFA contribute to this problem?  Yes.  Without TFA, would this problem disappear?  No.  I think of TFA as a bandaid.  If everyone did this, TFA would be much less problematic.  The trouble is when your skin starts growing over the bandaid because no one figured out how to take it off.  TFA has become an integral part of many public school systems and that’s a serious problem.

You Can’t Become an Effective Teacher in Five Weeks/Two Years

A slight aside about TFA – when I was teaching, I often felt like TFA had adopted the the investment banker model – work these young, energetic, prove-yourself do-gooders to the bone for two years and then send them off to graduate school.  This recent NY TImes article confirms that feeling I had.

I find it totally offensive that Wendy Kopp, TFA’s founder, can can say this with a straight face:  “The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”  This is total BS, but I guess it’s probably what she has to tell herself so she can believe she didn’t, as a 21 year old, create an organization that hinders progress toward reforming poor schools.  Honestly, there are few professions you can get really good at in two years (or after 5 weeks of training!).  Why would teaching be any different?

Charter Schools – A Good Idea With Disastrous Execution

My general feeling about TFA is actually quite similar to how I feel about charter schools in California – they had an original mission that I agree with – remove some of the requirements of the education code to see how a capped number of schools would innovate in ways to improve students outcomes and then amend the education code so that all schools could innovate in the same way – but execution has had disastrous, unintended (by most people) consequences.  In the early years, some charter schools did great, some didn’t, but unfortunately, people mistook the popularity of charter schools with success, charter schools as a collective developed powerful lobbies that successfully eliminated the cap on charter schools, and Legislators forgot the original purpose of charter school legislation.  Now we’re left with two parallel tracks of “public” schools.

Charter Schools and Traditional Public Schools Don’t Play by the Same Rules

Some charter school proponents claim that charter schools create competition that makes traditional public schools drive to perform better, conveniently ignoring that charter schools and traditional public schools aren’t constrained/regulated in the same way.  (There is also a lot of research showing that the existence of charter schools doesn’t improve traditional public schools.  Here’s a Rand report and a google search will turn up many others.)  Also, students in charter schools are often not the same students as students in traditional public schools.  (More on this later.)

Traditional public schools in CA have to abide by the CA Education Code.  In some cases, charter schools voluntary adopt a majority of the CA education code and operate largely the same as traditional public schools, but this is rare since one great benefit to someone running a charter school is freedom from almost all of these constraints.  Charter schools are exempt from almost the entire, massive CA education code.  (See the legislation here.)  This was because the original purpose of charter schools was to figure out what parts of the code were hindering school innovation and student achievement.  It makes total sense in that context, but no longer makes sense in today’s context where few deny that charter schools are here to stay.

One example of how these different “rules” play out is with charter schools who do not adopt suspension/expulsion protections afforded to students in traditional public schools.  This results in charter schools having the freedom and right to expel our most vulnerable students for any number of reasons (they truly did something expulsion-worthy, they are dragging test scores down, they have demanding parents, etc) with few, if any, due process protections for the students.  Does that sound unbelievable to you?  I wish I could point to some great data for CA schools to prove my point, but unfortunately many charter schools operate completely differently from each other and accurate, comprehensive data is hard to come by.  (CA Department of Education collects this data, but many charter schools fail to report with no ramifications.  A quick calculation from Dataquest data reveals that in Alameda County in 2011-12, charter schools expelled about 35% more students than students in the unified schools.  This is admittedly a rough comparison since there isn’t perfect data.)  In DC, the evidence is absolutely clear that charter schools expel far more students than traditional public schools (see chart).  Anecdotally, however, I have represented students from CA charter schools in expulsion hearings and there is almost nothing you can do if the school that hasn’t adopted the protections in the education code wants a student gone.  Does that seem like those schools are playing by the same rules?

Charter Schools and Traditional Public Schools Don’t Teach the Same Kids

Charter schools also control the front door despite being “public” schools.  They do this in a variety of ways, some innocuous, but with the same consequence of “skimming from the top” (I apologize for perpetuating this ridiculous analogy!)  (See this article for a brief summary of the main issues and here’s a GAO report showing that charter schools in CA enroll fewer (or possibly keep fewer/expel more) students with disabilities who are, incidentally, overrepresented among students who are suspended/expelled.)  I do empathize with the majority of charter school operators.  I believe the majority of them are trying to provide good educational opportunities for the students in their communities, but with the major excuse/caveat that they can’t teach any students well if there are some disruptive “unteachable” students.

Charter schools have much more leeway to create enrollment requirements that screen for motivated students from families who care deeply about their students’ education and are willing to participate, whether at home or in school.  The problem is that in traditional public schools, you don’t get to pick who enrolls and you can’t get rid of students with the freedom you can in a charter school.  If you are the principal of a traditional public school, the more charter schools there are near you, the more likely you are to end up with a disproportionate number of students with higher needs.  So when pro-charter school advocates cite the positive outcomes of their schools, there’s no denying that that is positive for the students in those schools and their families, but let’s not forget the students who don’t go to or aren’t allowed to stay in those schools and what this does to the system as a whole.

Building Your Own Dream is Easier Than Fitting Your Dream Over Someone Else’s

It’s much easier (I’m not at all saying it’s easy!) to start your own charter school from scratch, being able to hire the teachers you want, rent/renovate a building before you open your doors, spend time thinking about all your policies before you enroll a single student, etc, instead of trying to turn around a “failing” school that already has students, families, and teachers in it.  As districts approve more and more of these “new” schools, free to experiment, what happens to our most vulnerable students left behind in truly public schools?

Charter Schools Aren’t All Sunshine and Rainbows for Charter School Students

Even though charter schools can result in traditional public schools facing more challenges, it doesn’t mean that charter school students are all doing well either.  As more and more people get into the charter school “game”, there are inevitably ones that fail and hopefully close, but the students in those schools too become part of the guinea pig generation.  Why do we accept a system that is willing to sacrifice generations of students like this?  Why don’t we invest the resources necessary to reform the current public education system, linking it to other service providers, to provide quality education, excellent teachers, and necessary services to all students?  (I know, call me Pollyanna.)

So there you have it, my brain dump on TFA and charter schools.  Thanks for indulging me.

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