TFA: Dr. Wardynski Responds
Q: One of the most compelling arguments that local TFA opponents make is that the TFA program was originally intended for areas where it was hard or impossible to find state-certified teachers to teach, and that Huntsville doesn’t have that problem. In fact, over the past two years the HCS system has laid off hundreds of certified teachers under its Reduction in Force (RIF) program. While some of those have been rehired, there are still plenty in the area that are out of work. Are you arguing that HCS is not receiving enough applications from certified teachers and so you need TFA volunteers to fill a gap?
A: We will be using Teach for America to address the problem of persistent low performance in several schools with high rates of poverty. Within the Huntsville system we have such schools that have been in school improvement for up to seven years. Traditional approaches to raising achievement in these schools have not worked and other approaches are required. In addition to low performance, these schools are characterized by high teacher turnover. To leverage the strengths of Teach for America teachers, namely leadership and a focus on closing the achievement gap between poverty, and non-poverty students, we intend to assign Teacher for America teachers in groups of four to six teachers in selected elementary schools, six to eight teachers in selected middle schools and eight to ten teachers within selected high schools along with new school leadership. Since Teach for America teachers will arrive in our district as a team, this approach will allow us to directly address the challenges of low performing schools which include low expectations of students and weak school culture. The traditional approach of assigning individuals teachers to schools has not proven effective in addressing issues of culture and expectations.
Q: Another complaint about TFA is that the vast majority of those who enter the program have no education training or background and that the five-week institute they complete is insufficient experience when you are placing these recent college grads in arguably the toughest teaching environment (i.e Title I schools). How do you respond to those who argue that this displays a lack of respect for the current teacher training (and state-certification) process?A: Teach for America was created to attract and prepare top college graduates from across the nation to teach in schools with high levels of poverty and low levels of student achievement. Last year Teach for America received over 48,000 applications for 5,200 teaching positions. This level of selectivity is without peer and brings unparalleled levels of talent to schools for which we have traditionally seen very few applications. Beyond being highly selective, Teach for America provides initial and ongoing professional development to new teachers focused upon the challenges of teaching in high poverty schools – a focus not found within traditional teacher preparation programs. These attributes set Teach for America apart with regard to addressing challenges we face in our high poverty schools.
Within Alabama there are several routes to teacher certification ranging from traditional teacher preparation programs to the Troops to Teachers program. These alternatives are designed to bring talented individuals into K-12 education to meet the varied needs of students. While Alabama has not conducted a review of the effectiveness of its teacher certification or preparation programs, other states have. In November 2011 the state of Tennessee published its review of teacher program effectiveness (2011 Report Card on the Effectiveness of Teacher Training Programs, Tennessee Higher Education Commission, State Board of Education, November 1, 2011). This review found that out of over twenty teacher preparation and certification programs in Tennessee, only three “tend to produce teachers (traditionally and alternatively licensed teachers combined) with higher student achievement gains than veteran teachers – Teach for America Memphis, Teach for America Nashville, and Lipscomb University.
Beyond attaining certification in Alabama as Highly Qualified teachers, Teach for America teachers will also benefit from focused ongoing professional development from Teach for America during their first two years with Huntsville City Schools. This professional development is conducted on Saturdays and is focused upon the specific challenges associated with raising student achievement in high poverty schools. Each Teach for America teacher is assigned a Manager of Teacher Leadership Development who observes them teaching, provides regular strategic feedback, collects and evaluates student data, and supports their overall professional development. Again, this focus is not found within traditional teacher preparation programs.
Our focus is upon results with regard to raising student achievement. We are measuring student achievement growth against the national common core standards every nine weeks. We will measure the results obtained by Teach for America teachers and teachers from traditional programs. We will make future teacher selections decisions with these results in view. We are not wedded to specific teacher programs or certification pathways. We are wedded to the objective of reversing years of low performance in several of our schools characterized by high rates of poverty and doing so to the betterment of children now in these schools.
Q: Recently, the hiring of teachers in the HCS system was moved from individual schools to the central office. We were told that this was done to eliminate the issue of some schools receiving an abundance of applications for one job while another school receives only a few. Teachers will now be placed where they are needed rather than where they necessarily wish to go. If that’s the case, wouldn’t that solve the issue that the contract with TFA was supposed to solve?
A: We are taking a diversified approach to meeting the instructional needs of our schools. By hiring at the district level, we anticipate raising our selectivity with regard to new hires and gaining the ability to provide all of our schools a deeper pool of new teacher talent. This approach will compliment and not supplant our focused assignment of Teach for America teachers in high poverty schools that have a history of low student achievement. These Teach for America teachers will come to us as a team and will be assigned to schools as teams to lay a foundation of high expectations and teamwork with new school leaders. We cannot replicate this capacity using individual teachers. For too long individual teachers and school leaders have been overwhelmed by the challenges they face when introduced to low performing schools in a traditional piecemeal approach.
Q: A recent nation-wide analysis of TFA teacher turnover shows that while a majority of TFA teachers stay in education beyond their two-year commitment, more than half of those teachers leave their initial placement school in the third year, and by the end of the fourth year, only 14% are still in their original school. This is a troubling statistic given the fact that those placements are made at schools most in need of a stable and experienced faculty. How are you working to guarantee that our Title I schools don’t become a revolving door of inexperienced teachers?
A: Our low performing, high-poverty schools are already characterized by high teacher turnover. For example, many of our high poverty schools already see 200 to 300 percent higher turnover than other schools. By using our Teach for America teachers in teams and by supporting their development in the education profession we anticipate reducing turnover in our high poverty schools. Additionally, we plan to provide our Teach for America teacher support not normally found in high poverty schools. This support includes direct involvement with corporations and community groups who sponsor these teachers as well as participation in Huntsville young professional organizations.
Q: There seems to be a lot of confusion over how recent college graduates without any education training (beyond the five week course) are able to teach in public schools without state-certification. Will there be allowances made for other applicants who have college degrees or even advanced degrees and are looking to teach? Perhaps some type of alternative teacher certification program similar those in states like Texas and North Carolina?
A: We seek to hire highly talented staff who can deliver results in the form of raising student achievement. Teach for America has a track record of delivering such teachers. By reviewing our student achievement data, and student growth, we will focus on hiring teachers from programs that deliver results.
Rocket City Mom is a website about raising children in and around Huntsville, Alabama. Started in late 2010 by a local mom and newcomer to Huntsville, Rocket City Mom has grown into a thriving community of local parents and now boasts a staff of four, thirteen regular contributors, and tens of thousands of Tennessee Valley readers making it the #1 Parenting Resource in North Alabama.
I don’t know very much about the HCS, but I did teach in a Title 1 School SouthEast of Washington D.C. and in a rural school in Ohio. Both schools/ districts severely lacked in providing opportunities for professional development. I wonder if professional development, specific to the experiences teachers face in low-socioeconomic environments, would help even out the turnover rate in those underperforming schools. I also wonder if certified teachers will be given the opportunities for the “support not normally found in high performing schools?”
HCS is such a small system, it is truly a shame that the superintendent does not recognize the need to employ qualified, certified teachers first and foremost. Teaching is not an easy job, and if a person decides to go through the training and years of education necessary to teach in districts with low-performing schools, then they not only deserve a job, but they deserve to be paid well for doing that job. It is obvious that HCS needs better leadership. The administrators should be trying to find ways to give teachers more support to teach in low-performing schools rather than finding ways to keep them from getting a job.
Dr. Wardynski commented that traditional approaches to raising achievement in the low performing schools have not worked. What makes him think that the teachers are the problem? Children in low performing schools typically come from homes where their parents do very little or nothing at all to prepare them to walk into a school building and be successful. Public schools have to feed children, teach children, and ensure their emotional health is in place in order to ensure that the children can achieve. All of these things are the job of the parents first and foremost. Why won’t anyone talk about the parents’ job? Teachers are paid to teach. That is it.
If you are a parent and your child enters kindergarten without knowing his/her ABC’s, how to write their name, and how to read at least on a beginning level, then you are not doing a very good job of parenting. Are teachers really expected to care more about student achievement that the student’s parents? Ridiculous. I taught in the ESL program in Memphis, Tennessee for 4 years. There were parents of students in our program who could not even speak English, but they made sure that their children came to school well-rested, well-fed, dressed properly, and ready to learn with their homework completed. Public schools are trying to do too much. A child’s home life is a much greater indicator of whether or not they will achieve academically than what their teacher is doing in the classroom. So to the leaders at HCS, either find a way to deal with what goes on (or what does not go on) at home, or get okay with student achievement not being where you would like for it to be. But for God’s sake leave the teachers alone. Pay them, appreciate them for what they deal with each day, and be glad that you are lucky enough to just sit around and make ridiculous decisions rather than having to suffer the consequences of those decisions.
Oh and by the way, maybe if you would stop building all of these schools that you don’t need, you would have the funds necessary to pay certified teachers rather than having to depend on the subsidies that you receive from hiring Teach for America teachers to solve your budget issues.
Maryellen, that’s a very good question. If I’m a traditionally certified teacher in my second or third year at an underperforming school, I would certainly hope I’d have the same access to training that the TFA teachers have.
Just because a teacher has a degree in Education does not mean they are effective. Degrees do not mean they are successful in reaching students in the classroom. Degrees do not mean that they care remotely about whether people learn or not. It just means they were able to complete the curriculum to the satisfaction of the professor (who might also be a terrible teacher). The one thing TFA has is that the people who go into it fully know what they’re getting into and WANT to teach in that environment. They’re not doing it just because “this is the degree they have and they have to get A job so any job will do till I can move to a different school.” I have had students come through my college courses who are education majors who seem to even hate people, much less dealing with students who live in turmoil. The talent and ability to captivate a classroom, motivate students to learn, and create change in people is, in no way, limited. Many students realize half way through their Junior year that they don’t want to be teachers any more, but because there is such pressure to get a degree and get out they go into schools unmotivated and leave the profession very quickly. You don’t choose to be a teacher. Being a teacher chooses YOU. I am from a family of teachers, principals, and am a teacher myself and I do not believe that somehow a degree in education will, in any way, actually make you an effective teacher. Passion is what changes lives and learning, and at least we know that the TFA people have a passion for that.
I absolutely agree with you that passion is important and that you need it to be a good teacher. However, do you feel the same about your doctor? I have a passion to be a doctor. Does that mean I’m going to be a good doctor? I’m going to take a five week course on Obstetrics because I’m passionate about babies. Would you let me deliver your baby when the time comes? Probably not…
If TFA members are so passionate, then why do 80% of them leave after year two? The answer is that most of them go into the job knowing that they can get through their two years and then will have a great line on their resume for their career. Their passion and enthusiasm may be admirable, but that’s not what kids in Title I schools need. They need qualified, competent, and certified teachers who have made a long term committment to education.
When I have students (I am an education professor at UAH) who are not doing well in their courses or who lack the “professional disposition” to teach, we counsel them out of the profession. I have personally failed a student in the middle of her student teaching because she was unprofessional and wasn’t good enough to be a teacher. The litmus test for us professors is “Would I be comfortable letting this person teach my child?” If the answer is “no” then they DO NOT pass their student teaching.
TFA is part of a broad attack on the teaching profession. Are there bad teachers all over the place? Absolutely. But bringing in “cultural tourists” for two years to “Save the poor kids” is not the solution. I have five children in HCS and will not allow any of them to be taught by TFA participants who are undertrained and who were not willing to put in the committment to spend 200 hours in classrooms performing observations and another 16 weeks of full time UNPAID hours learning to teach from a mentor teacher and univsersity supervisor.
By the way, as a professor of education, I can tell you that the faculty of my department are held to higher standards of pedagogy than professors in other departments and that all of us are committed to preparing excellent teachers. We do this by modeling teaching and by showing our students that we care for their well being and success.
The 1.7 million dollars which HCS is paying to TFA could be better spent on high quality professional development under the supervision of the central office.
Jason, you make good points. I don’t disagree with you that TFA is not the solution to the problem. I personally think that better pay is the solution to the problem as there are many people out there who would be excellent teachers, however wont go into a profession where the pay is so low. And I agree with the “cultural tourist” comment 100%!!
You’re right on point with that. But the public has historically perceived education as “social work” and as the major which people enter because it’s one of the easiest to complete. Sadly, teachers are paid by tax dollars and to ask for higher taxes is ALWAYS problematic.
I’ve thought about the effects of higher pay a lot and I have come to this conclusion. If we raised teacher pay to 90K per year and started making entrance requirements to teacher education programs much higher, would we really want those people teaching? The truth is (in my opinion) people who have a natural proclivity (or talent, or whatever you want to call it) to teach go into the profession because they are motivated to help kids learn. I’m not sure raising the pay would attrack the types of people we want to teach. BUT (and this strengthens your point) paying teachers more money would keep at least some of the good teachers from leaving the profession because they can’t afford to support their families.
I really like some of the things that Dr. Wardinski is doing (getting rid of half days) and firing teachers who are slackers (“what do you mean I can’t take the first week of school off?”) but my opinion is that TFA is going to have the opposite effect on kids in high poverty schools. What I also find sad is that UAH and HCS don’t have a closer relationship to ameliorate the achievement gap. University Place elementary is ON OUR CAMPUS and it’s not a professional development school. I would gladly move my office over there to be a part of that school to offer any and all support that the principal would ask of me through demonstrating lessons, professional development to work with ELLs (which is my research area)…sadly we don’t have a strong relationship with University Place. It pains me every morning to drive by that school and know that we’re not part of the solution to helping those kids, many of whom live in abject poverty.
Thanks for reading my post Kristin…I hope Dr. Wardinski reads it and contacts my department chair to ask if UAH would like to partner with University Place, because I would love to help.
Dr. Wardynski suggests that anyone can teach. Such a suggestion is as wrong as it is offensive. Just as some individuals are particularly gifted writers, artists, designers, doctors, lawyers, military leaders and ministers, some individuals are particularly gifted teachers.
The central issue facing student achievement is not that they don’t have the right technology, home life, or even clothes (as much as my daughter would disagree), the central issue facing achievement is student motivation.
Good students are motivated students. Weak students aren’t.
And time and again, we have learned that the single best way to improve student motivation is through direct, personal interaction with a teacher who is committed to connecting to a child and pulling them, kicking and screaming if necessary, into a world that stimulates and captures their interest. In short, a child who wants to learn will do so regardless of the obstacles that stand in that child’s way. A child who doesn’t can rarely be taught anything regardless of how excellent their technology or building are. (An excellent technology blogger, Bob Cringely, is writing about this very point in connection to technology right now. Go take a look at his argument.)
And so finding, keeping and rewarding teachers who have the experience to understand that finding a way to motivate a child to learn is the first and most difficult step of education is central to improving student achievement.
But as any parent, and particular a SPED parent can tell you, motivating students to learn is often the single most difficult job on the planet. The fact that anyone manages to consistently find ways to motivate and encourage curiosity is clearly miraculous, and it should be celebrated as such. Finding, developing and implementing motivational techniques requires time and experience.
Dr. Wardynski ignores this truth in his support of hiring TFA in the article entitled, “TFA: Dr. Wardynski Responds.”
Since he was kind enough to offer his responses to the Editor’s questions, I would also like to offer a rebuttal to some of his more egregious claims.
Dr. Wardynski wrote:
“We will be using Teach for America to address the problem of persistent low performance in several schools with high rates of poverty. Within the Huntsville system we have such schools that have been in school improvement for up to seven years. Traditional approaches to raising achievement in these schools have not worked and other approaches are required. In addition to low performance, these schools are characterized by high teacher turnover.”
It is certainly appears to be true that there is an “achievement gap” in Huntsville City Schools and that gap absolutely must be addressed, but once again, Dr. Wardynski is laying out ideas, hinting at reports and statistics without offering any direct evidence. Were he a student in my English 101 class, I would send his argument back to him with the suggestion that he offer specific evidence. Show us, Dr. Wardynski, exactly how bad the “persistent low performance” is and has been. Perhaps he was referring to a 2010 report in the Huntsville times that stated that thirteen Huntsville schools were “persistently low-achieving.”
But who knows.
He offers no evidence supporting his claim that “traditional approaches to raising achievement in these schools have not worked” either. What does he consider a “traditional approach?” When were these approaches tried? How effective were these approaches? If they failed, why did they fail? All of these are questions that should be considered and answered before making a decision to move in a radical new direction, shouldn’t they? Especially if the goal is indeed to address the achievement gap?
It’s hard to make informed decisions when the top educator of the city refuses to take opportunities to teach and support his case. (Refusing to support your claims with data is however a common characteristic of the Broad Foundation’s disciples.)
But setting that aside for a moment, let’s consider his claim that using untrained, uncertified, TFAers (80% of whom will be gone after the third year, I doubt that these “persistent[ly] low performing” have a turnover rate that high), will actually close the achievement gap. Somehow that seems to shout in the face of logic, doesn’t it? What it really means is that Huntsville City Schools will spend at least 1.9 million dollars over the next five years to help an organization whose own tax returns from 2010 show that they have over $309,115,182.00 in NET assets.
Perhaps instead of sending $1.9 million out of city and state, we would be better served using some of these funds to address the “high teacher turnover” rate at these schools?
I’m certain that we will find that the “traditional approaches” he claims have failed does not include offering a financial incentive, or additional costly professional development to the teachers who are already teaching at these “persistent[ly] low performing” schools? Anyone willing to offer me odds on that one?
Dr. Wardynski continues:
“Last year Teach for America received over 48,000 applications for 5,200 teaching positions. This level of selectivity is without peer and brings unparalleled levels of talent to schools for which we have traditionally seen very few applications.”
Once again, our top educator has failed to offer any evidence supporting his claim that the “persistent[ly] low performing” schools do indeed receive “very few applications.”
Where’s the evidence of this? I know that it’s considered to be conventional wisdom that this is true, but we’re dealing with our students’ lives here. Give us something to base these decisions on other than conventional wisdom. Show us the actual numbers. Show us the “traditional approaches” that have failed. Surely this information is sitting in a folder on Dr. Wardynski’s desk. Publish it. Prove it to us.
Furthermore, what exactly is the TFA measure of this “talent?” Is this based on GPA’s? Communication skills? Connectedness of their parents? Since TFA refuses to share their selection criteria with the public, (gosh, I wonder where they learned that?) it is impossible to assess or evaluate the actual level of this “unparalleled” talent by any objective standard.
How helpful are good grades in engineering classes when attempting to teach an unmotivated student to read? Last time I checked, the basic skills required to instruct and motivate a student to read were not standard curricula in those classes.
But, now we move on to a BIG claim:
“Beyond being highly selective, Teach for America provides initial and ongoing professional development to new teachers focused upon the challenges of teaching in high poverty schools – a focus not found within traditional teacher preparation programs.”
You’ll have to forgive Dr. Wardynski for this one. His lack of time in Alabama and lack of experience in education has meant that he likely is unaware that this statement just simply isn’t true. He claims that “traditional teacher preparation programs” don’t train their students for the challenges of teaching in high poverty schools.
The truth is that they certainly can, do and will if they are asked. You see, unlike TFA which charges extra for their “training,” traditional teacher preparation programs at the “teacher colleges” that Wardynski is so quick to dismiss actually provide the following Teacher Warranty:
“Teacher warranty. According to regulations mandated by the Alabama State Board of Education, the College of Education ensures that “a candidate’s competency to begin his or her professional role in schools is assessed prior to completion of the program and/or recommendation for certification” and establishes, publishes, and implements “policies to guarantee the success of individuals who complete its approved programs and are employed in their area(s) of specialization.” The College of Education provides “remediation at no cost to such individuals who are recommended . . . and are deemed to be unsatisfactory based on performance evaluations established by the State Board of Education and within two years after program completion.” (University of Alabama 2010-2012 Undergraduate Catalog)
In other words, these “traditional teacher” colleges and universities actually provide a three year warranty for the teachers they produce. If within three years of graduation, a candidate’s competency to serve his or her school’s particular needs is questioned due to a need for additional training, such as how to teach in high poverty schools, the “traditional teacher” colleges and universities here in Alabama will provide that training “at no cost to such individuals who are recommended.”
Traditional Teachers come with a warranty, cost less, and have full certification. And yet, Dr. Wardynski is unaware of this. Perhaps this will help him in the future.
He continues to press his point:
“Within Alabama there are several routes to teacher certification ranging from traditional teacher preparation programs to the Troops to Teachers program. These alternatives are designed to bring talented individuals into K-12 education to meet the varied needs of students.”
Under alternative certification programs, candidates are usually required to successfully complete a 16 week, split placement internship. Under the tutelage of experienced mentor teachers (and university supervisors who teach pedagogy), student teachers learn the “craft” of teaching. When newly hired teachers enter the classroom without this experience, they end up “learning on the job.” For a detailed description of this, please see Dr. Veltri’s book, “Learning On Other People’s Kids: Becoming a Teach For America Teacher” which details the struggles of TFA participants who consistently report feeling “overwhelmed” and “under prepared” for their initial classroom experiences.
As Dr. Veltri concludes:
“I wondered, “Who’s America is Teach for America really teaching for? Why is it tolerable for education to be less than for other people’s kids? And, what are we, as a nation, really prepared to do about it?”
I have asked Dr. Robinson for a specific detailed listing of which schools the TFAers are going to be placed. The contract calls for their placement to be restricted to schools where at least “70% of attending students are eligible for free or reduced lunch unless mutually agreed upon by School District and Teach for America,” but the discussion that Dr. Wardynski has had with Rocket City Mom implies that the placement of these teachers could be much broader than anticipated. Dr. Robinson, for example, told me November 3rd that all of the TFAers were going to be placed at “secondary schools.”
It seems that I must have misheard her because when I asked why TFA were now going to be placed at elementary schools she responded:
A small number of the TFA teachers will go in elementary schools. The vast majority will go to middle and high schools. That’s always been the plan. (February 2, 2012)
I apologize for my misunderstanding. I suppose that I merely assumed that when Dr. Robinson was critiquing the Heilig and Jez study as having focused on elementary eduction, and that our TFAers were going to be placed at the “secondary” level that she meant that there wouldn’t be any TFAers in the elementary schools.
Unfortunately, Dr. Robinson hasn’t responded yet to my request for a listing of the schools where TFAers will be used. Since these candidates are so excellent, I have to wonder why they aren’t being placed at every school in the system and why Dr. Robinson and Dr. Wardynski aren’t screaming from the rooftops the names of the lucky schools selected to participate.
“We will measure the results obtained by Teach for America teachers and teachers from traditional programs. We will make future teacher selections decisions with these results in view. We are not wedded to specific teacher programs or certification pathways.”
This is excellent news. Well, except that Dr. Wardynski has demonstrated a stubborn refusal to actually produce one scintilla of actual evidence supporting his claims so far. I’m sure, however, that a Broad Foundation trained superintendent, evaluating a Broad Foundation teacher training program will be completely objective in his evaluation.
For example, many of our high poverty schools already see 200 to 300 percent higher turnover than other schools. By using our Teach for America teachers in teams and by supporting their development in the education profession we anticipate reducing turnover in our high poverty schools.
Higher than average turnover in “persistent[ly] low performing” schools is a problem nationwide. It is still a problem in areas where TFAers have been placed because, as cited above, TFA does nothing but perpetuate the problem of rapid turnover.
Wardynski wraps up:
“We seek to hire highly talented staff who can deliver results in the form of raising student achievement. Teach for America has a track record of delivering such teachers.”
Actually, as has been demonstrated time after time after time, TFAers do not out perform traditionally trained teachers. They in particular, cannot compete with experienced teachers in raising student achievement.
In conclusion, this push to replace traditionally trained teachers who are certified, warrantied, and experienced has little to nothing to do with a desire on Dr. Wardynski’s part to “raise student achievement.” It is, instead, a desire to control a school system from top to bottom and to remake it into the Broad Foundation’s image regardless of the studies that show it won’t work, regardless of the cries from teachers and administrators who have been begging for the resources and support to effect change at our struggling schools, and regardless of the parents who are concerned that their children are being used a pawns in a national game.
This is about control, pure and simple. And unfortunately for us, our elected representatives are falling over themselves to let him take over and take our limited funds out of our schools and into the coffers of a multi-million dollar corporation that has a history of ignoring the public’s calls for transparency.
Our city deserves better. Our schools, administrators, and teachers deserve better. And by god our kids absolutely do.
Ask Wardynski about Teasch for America and the Atlanta cheating scandal.