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Learning as the Guide on the Side

August 03, 2011 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

The National Center for Education Information released a report recently that found roughly a third of new public school teachers since 2005 have come from alternative teacher preparation programs—a combination of career transfers via alternative master's in teaching programs, district-sponsored alternative certification programs, and more high profile certification programs like Teach For America or the Teaching Fellows (which are paired with alternative master's programs wherever possible; in the Twin Cities, TFA and the Teaching Fellows both partnered with Hamline University).

I am one of those teachers. I grew up in Rochester, went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and then came back to Minnesota to teach middle and high school English in the Twin Cities through Teach For America. My experience with alternative certification will inevitably color my perception of education policy, but it does so in complicated ways that don't match the current polarized struggle that pits “education reformers” against current teachers and the rest of the traditional public school system.

I don't fit the stereotype of a TFA teacher—while my parents are upper middle class, I am hardly from the economic elite; I went to a public university (the one my father attended when he was the first person in his family to go to college); I have enormous respect for the traditionally certified veteran teachers at my school—and I don't fit that stereotype for the simple reason that, like all stereotypes, it produces an inaccurate representation of the whole. The other TFAers in the Twin Cities I have known no more match that stereotype than I do.

I did leave the classroom after my two-year commitment ended, but I was the only TFAer at my school to leave teaching (though one TFAer did move out to New York to teach there). This matches the studies finding that TFAers are no more likely to leave the classroom than traditionally certified teachers. Indeed, at some schools in the Twin Cities, the two year commitment is actually a selling point; these schools struggle to retain teachers for that long on their own.

During my first year in the classroom, I had some moments of genuine satisfaction and others where I felt worse than mediocre and truly inferior to the task at hand. From other teachers, I've been told that this is often the first year experience, regardless of certification. I showed improvement during my second year, but at the end of that year, I decided that I could better serve my students by advocating for them, their families, and my fellow teachers outside the classroom.

I share this to offer context on how my background affects my understanding of today's education debates. I have learned how hard it is to be a teacher, and that during the school year, a teacher never stops thinking about his students.

I have learned that, while a teacher can overcome much of a student's outside disadvantages through skill and relentless work, everybody—students, teachers, families, and the taxpayers who foot the bill for our schools—would be better off if more was done to alleviate the myriad factors that can pull a student's focus out of the classroom (toothaches, poor vision, worries about younger siblings or parents, and so many more).

While it might be emotionally satisfying to hunt intractably incompetent teachers—and I agree that it should be a simple process to remove said teachers after they have been proven intractably incompetent—I have learned that nearly all teachers in today's public schools are heavily invested in their own competence.

I have learned that unions, while easily caricatured as obstructionist, also perform invaluable services for their members. I have seen how important administrators are to the health of a school, and I have seen how fair evaluations and non-evaluative coaching are far more helpful in driving teacher improvement than a once-a-year payment for test scores.

Where once I would have accepted the soothing fiction that encouraging competition between schools would somehow drive their innovation, I have now seen how competition between schools in an environment that values test scores above all else produces competition not just to improve instruction but to rig the student body of a school for success.

It turns out that trying to attract better students to the school and working to remove the most difficult ones is a very seductive approach to trying to raise test scores, and often less work than visiting classrooms and working to help teachers improve. Schools are competing, just not in the way the market-minded reformers wanted them to.

All of which is to say that, unlike Michelle Rhee—who taught for three years and decided she'd personally figured out the solutions to school's problems—I decided that welcoming the skill and wisdom of our professional educators and our society's willingness to invest in its lowest income communities are more likely to help all of our students succeed than trying to carrot-and-stick teachers into compliance.

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