Education Reform

TFA Pursues a New Mission After 30 Years of Making Little Difference in the Classroom

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Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote recently about Teach for America’s changing focus. Founded in 1990 to recruit college graduates to teach in urban and rural schools for a minimum of two years, TFA made bold claims about the success of its teachers in closing achievement gaps and raising test scores. For many years, they attracted hundreds of millions from corporate sponsors, foundations like Walton, Broad Gates, based on their certainty that their young teachers were better than experienced teachers.

Messenger wrote that teachers were leaving the profession because of demanding parents and school politics.

He thought that might explain why TFA was headed in a new direction.

He wrote:

It’s also a reason why a nonprofit organization that has been providing teachers to several area school districts is changing its focus with a bit of a twist that at first seems disconnected from the problem. Despite the teacher shortage, New York-based Teach for America is no longer providing teachers to the St. Louis Public Schools and other districts. Instead, it will work on training school leaders, like principals, administrators and school board members.

It’s a change that to some degree comes from a place of failure. Teach for America was founded in 1990 as an education reform organization, to try to boost academic achievement of students in urban settings and reduce the learning gap between white and Black students. But the numbers haven’t budged much after 20 years of training young teachers who make a two-year commitment to come to places like St. Louis and teach in public or charter schools.

“As a whole, student achievement is not growing the way we intended it to,” says Elizabeth Bleier, the interim executive director of Teach for America in St. Louis. Bleier came to St. Louis from Chicago. She taught in the St. Louis Public Schools for a few years, and then worked at charter school KIPP in the city for a few more, before going to work at TFA.

With 600 similar alumni in St. Louis, TFA plans to help mentor those teachers and former teachers. This week it announced its latest class of Aspiring School Leaders Fellowship, in which 15 existing public school or charter educators, many of them people of color, will be trained and mentored for a year while earning a principal certification through St. Louis University.

In turning the focus to training principals and other school leaders, Bleier says the goal is to improve school cultures so that teacher retention eventually improves. “There is a lot of teacher and principal turnover in St. Louis,” she says. “When there is a strong school leader, teachers are happier and stay longer. We want our people to be able to go into the schools and have an influence.”

It’s a demonstration of hubris on the part of TFA to believe that they can ”train” TFA teachers to be principals.

How will a staff of teachers, ranging in age from their early 20s to their early 60s react to the announcement that their new principal is 24-25 years old, with two years of teaching experience? It is hard to imagine that the insertion of a young, inexperienced TFA principal would raise morale and stop the exodus of teachers. It seems likely that they would prefer a veteran whom they can turn to for help with teaching problems.

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