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Why I Stopped Writing Recommendation Letters for Teach for America
October 9, 2013 8:23 PM   Subscribe

I understand why my students find so much hope in TFA. I empathize with them. In fact, I’m a former Teach for America corps member myself. But unless they are education majors—and most of them aren’t—I no longer write Teach for America letters of recommendation for my students. I urge my higher-ed colleagues to do the same. (SL Slate)
posted by cupcake1337 (56 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
And an earlier version. Interesting comments.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:27 PM on October 9, 2013


The Onion covered this just a couple of days ago

Point/Counterpoint: My Year Volunteering As A Teacher Helped Educate A New Generation Of Underprivileged Kids VS Can We Please, Just Once, Have A Real Teacher?
posted by CheshireCat at 8:37 PM on October 9, 2013 [48 favorites]


I got called and emailed for months by Teach for America recruiters trying to get me to sign up with them. I even accidentally had an interview with them. (Showed up to meet someone for coffee to talk about a club I was the VP of, realized after about 7 minutes that the guy was from Teach for America and just trying to get me to apply.) Straight up said to the guy, "look, I don't know how to make this any clearer, it's nice that you want me to be a part of this and all, but I do not want to be a teacher, not for you nor for anyone else. Ever. Please back off," and still got a couple phone calls and emails after that.

That they are similarly not-awesome once you're already teaching for them is...unsurprising.
posted by phunniemee at 8:41 PM on October 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


Every year, TFA installs thousands of unprepared 22-year-olds.... They are given a class of their own after only five to six weeks of training and a scant number of hours co-teaching

Oh, so it's pretty much like a standard secondary ed BA student teaching assignment.
posted by weston at 8:53 PM on October 9, 2013 [11 favorites]


When I was an English major it was assumed by everyone I mentioned that to, even people in my own program, that I wanted to be a teacher. I don't think most people are aware that people who want to be teachers can, should, and do get specialized 4-year degrees. Or if they're vaguely aware, they don't know why it's important or necessary.

It would be better if there were some other kind of paid employment/job training/stepping-stone program for English majors and other graduates who don't come out with a pre-determined career path that didn't victimize pre-victimized children. For example, there's a job called "business analyst" - why isn't there a "Business analyst for america" program.
posted by bleep at 8:55 PM on October 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


You know who else is not trained to teach but gets letters of recommendation written for them to apply for teaching jobs?

College professors.

You know which classes I took in college had the highest proportion of well-meaning but completely cotton-brained students?

My education classes.

I have a teaching degree. There was nothing taught to me that prepared me to actually manage a classroom full of junior high students on the poorer side of town.

If many of the Teach for America teachers are doing as well as Education BA students, that's great.
posted by Squeak Attack at 8:55 PM on October 9, 2013 [42 favorites]


Nearly every high school teacher I've ever had was worse at teaching than even the lamest community college professor I had. I'll take someone passionate and informed about a particular subject every time over someone who is a trained 'educator'.
posted by empath at 9:11 PM on October 9, 2013 [17 favorites]


Nearly every high school teacher I had was excellent. So there's that.
posted by rtha at 9:12 PM on October 9, 2013 [17 favorites]


I have to say I see nothing inherently wrong with TFA and I don't think those with education majors should have a monopoly in teaching.

I went to the public school system of NYC and while here and there I had great teachers most of them were no rockstars.....

I do remember however that the younger teachers were for the most part more energetic and excited about their profession than the tenured lot.
posted by The1andonly at 9:13 PM on October 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm guessing that the controversy is about sending inexperienced low paid temporary teachers out to chronically underprivileged kids, treating a poor kid's education shortcoming as someone else's learning opportunity.
posted by Brian B. at 9:18 PM on October 9, 2013 [46 favorites]


Squeak Attack: "If many of the Teach for America teachers are doing as well as Education BA students, that's great."

If you read TFA, you'd see that "An increasing amount of research shows that TFA recruits perform at best no better, and often worse, than their trained and certified counterparts," which would be ALMOST THE ENTIRE PROBLEM BROUGHT UP IN THIS POST.

The rest of the problem would be the least-prepared teachers unleashed on the most-needy students, public dollars being siphoned off into private for-profit corporations, the breaking of unions and the protections it took them decades to win, the reduction of public service into a low-paid "volunteer" service, and the totally inadequate tax funding of public schools being further reduced by an unqualified, volunteer teaching corps and corporate donors.

Of course if you don't think teaching is a highly-skilled profession, and if you don't think education is a necessary public good, I can see how none of this would be a problem.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:21 PM on October 9, 2013 [102 favorites]


At the end of the article, it links to her blog where there's a longer version.

One thing cut out of the Slate version is some stuff about No Excuses schools which I hadn't heard of. (I'm from Canada!)
posted by RobotHero at 9:23 PM on October 9, 2013


Here is the problem with schools, with as broad a brush as I can use. It's unbalanced. Extremely unbalanced. This is not the schools themselves but the societies in which those schools are situated. Poor neighborhood schools are vastly different from middle- and wealthy area neighborhood schools.

Teach for America recruits teachers to teach in these poor areas, but the challenges of teaching are legion--behavioral/class management issues, dropout and absence rates, violence, lack of parental support, among other factors. And after all that there's the performance of students on standardized tests, which is what the teacher's own livelihood is based on. It's easy to see why most teachers want to take a pass a teaching at one of those schools.

Meanwhile, in nicer neighborhoods, the jobs are tight. A lot of Boomer teachers set to retire have changed their minds since the 2008 crash and are continuing on as long as they can. So there's a real divide, and it can almost be entirely traced back to the wealth inequality in this country.

I like to play those bridge builder flashgames, where you have some planks and you build a bridge over a river. Click a button and you can see the stress points marked out in red--that's where most of the weight is centered on. Put on too much on a stress point and the bridge collapses.

Schools are like that. In the broader context of the economic health of the nation, schools are stress points. That's why things are so ineffective--schools are expected to shoulder too much of the results of inequality, and they are bright red at this point. That is, the schools in the poor areas. Programs like Teach for America are well-meaning, but are a band-aid to the real underlying conditions that most of America isn't willing to talk about, much less change.
posted by zardoz at 9:26 PM on October 9, 2013 [22 favorites]


I can't find it now, but I saw an activist web page recently with a list of complaints about a horrible organization's impact on society, and you were led to believe that it might be BP or Bank of America or something but, surprise, it's Teach For America!
posted by Bwithh at 9:31 PM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know which classes I took in college had the highest proportion of well-meaning but completely cotton-brained students?

My education classes.


True enough. These days it often takes well-meaning but cotton-brained to want to be a teacher. Then again, that might be why TFA is successful.

If many of the Teach for America teachers are doing as well as Education BA students, that's great.

I'm Education BS, not Education BA, but that's neither here nor there.

I teach in a charter school that's about 1/4th TFA. One of those schools that shows up in the first couple of pages of the US News rankings despite its Title I status, for what small amount that's worth. I don't have an issue with the TFA'ers with whom I work. The ones I've worked with, they're sometimes quite visionary, if a bit naive. But that comes with limited age and limited worldview.

Where I do have shortcomings is that I find it difficult to invest personal time (and given that I'm not getting paid to do it, it's personal time) to improve the teaching ability of someone whom I know is filling out his med school applications when his students are testing. Long-term teachers circle the wagons with other long-term teachers on this not because of job insecurity, but because we want to make sure our limited resources are used on things that will help improve our school over the long term, not just for a couple of years.

Just like seeing a student squander the investment we have placed in her is disheartening and demotivating, so the feeling goes when the 25-year-old walks back out the door and onto the next big thing. The feeling of "they've abandoned our kids", whether fair or not, is real.

As to the article's concern about young teachers pushing out old teachers because they're willing to be on call after hours, I can't agree. I'm not young, closer to 40 than 30. But the two things at the top of my syllabus are my student-only e-mail address and my student-only Skype account, which has a phone number attached to it just in case. I don't make this available to create more work for myself now, but to create less work for myself later.

The student who was able to e-mail me a 750-word paper on one day's notice to avoid a failing grade? If I don't let her do that, I run the risk of defending the failing grade to administrators and parents. I'd rather give the kid a chance to pass by having to do three times the work she would have had to do in the first place to get a D for the six weeks. I assure you that the assignment was miserable enough that she'll never do it again. The students who forget their homework? I'd rather tell them to take a picture of it and e-mail that to me when they get home than try to deal with it four days later. (In my schedule, students I see Thursday are not in my room again until Monday).

I'm not saying that my work day runs full speed until 9PM. But if we as teachers are going to give students homework that's going to keep them up until midnight, then we owe it to them to be at least somewhat available, or it makes us hypocrites. And if you're not willing to use the tools you've been given to make your job easier, then that's your fault, not the fault of the TFA kid.
posted by parliboy at 9:43 PM on October 9, 2013 [29 favorites]


I'll take someone passionate and informed about a particular subject every time over someone who is a trained 'educator'.

You could turn this insight around and compare the student population enrolled in community colleges with the student population of challenging high schools. I don't think the difference in your comparison lies solely with the teachers.
posted by smoke at 10:13 PM on October 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don't understand what the author means by "Data-driven culture" and how it relates to the subject here. Can anyone fill me in?
posted by hellslinger at 10:26 PM on October 9, 2013


Teaching to the test is my read on "data-driven culture".
posted by Wolof at 10:43 PM on October 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Man, I can't tell you how many of my (white, privileged, mostly female) friends wound up teaching in underprivileged schools because they wanted to Make A Difference, and then wound up hating it and quitting and never teaching again. None of them had ever lived in a "bad neighborhood", and although they knew all kinds of social justice speak and probably got excellent grades in their sociology classes, they had no way of relating to the students on their own terms.

Really, the only way to improve things is to provide a social safety net and encourage growth within the community. Probably a lot of my friends could have done some good if they'd worked at the policy level, but I suppose it's a lot more romantic to try and make a difference at a personal level.
posted by evil otto at 12:03 AM on October 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


If TFA changes course and becomes a recruitment agency for talented, certified teachers who are committed to teaching as a career, it will become an entirely different and better organization. If they do as Diane Ravitch suggests and begin placing students as paid teachers’ aids instead of teachers of record, I would support them in this work
That seems like a much better idea - placement as apprentices within the classroom first while they learn about behaviour and pedagogy.
posted by Kerasia at 12:32 AM on October 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


My GF is currently volunteering as a teacher's aid through Americorps, actually. Teaching pre-schoolers in an underpriviledged school.
posted by empath at 12:41 AM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


There were some interesting discussions here earlier this year following a couple of Jacobin Mag critiques of TFA.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:43 AM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm a teacher in a "gritty" public school in New York (Brooklyn). I support TFA because most of the workers ARE young and enthusiastic, hard-working and educated. And like it or not, many or the older, tenured teachers are ....less so. And that is largely due to the fact that the conditions are very rough and eventually if you stay long enough..you just get worn down. (and the fact it used to be much easier to get into teaching, and much less demanding once you were 'in'). Most people now who have other options leave.

And if the TFA'ers do leave, and take their white (usually) privilege (v often) with them, then at least they have seen first hand what inequality (in terms of school funding, conditions etc) and poverty can do and how they affect young kids. And when they become doctors, lawyers, politicians, or get different teaching jobs in Long Island, maybe when it comes time to vote and/or make other decisions in life, then they will have a bit of compassion and a more expanded world view. And it allows students to see people from different walks of life who are passionate about education, and for a time at least, their education.

I am writing this very early so it may be disjointed. Also 'refusing to write reference letters' because the writer doesn't like the program seems wrong to me. It's a professional courtesy in a way. It smacks a bit of pharmacists refusing to give out birth control because it goes against their beliefs. Your personal beliefs are yours, but not so much applicable in a work/professional setting.

(Anyway, with the economy as is, there aren't really any TFAs anymore, at least not where I work).
posted by bquarters at 3:40 AM on October 10, 2013 [11 favorites]


OK I'm just spitballing here (as they say in DC lately).

I wish there was a way to apply TFA teachers outside of a classroom setting.

I'd wager a TFA teacher is equally effective as most home-schooling parents. Just a guess. I know it's a numbers game, but we ought to figure out a way to make it work so failed schools are phased out or downsized by TFA learning centers.
posted by surplus at 3:50 AM on October 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've been having an interesting experience this semester teaching remedial English at a community college. I've been teaching for a few years, but this is my first remedial class.. It's what, the second month of school and in this class I've had two students flip out plus a fist fight. The latest flip out surprised me until I thought about it and realized that I had handed back exams earlier, and the flipper-outter got a D..

So I went to my boss and was all, how do I hack these outbursts? I can't not give out bad grades. And my boss didn't have an answer really but to point out a few facts: many of these students have kids who are a couple years away from wetting the bed and they are learning the same thing in school as their parents are (so how humiliating is that) plus there is a stigma attached to remedial english that isn't attached to math (essentially, if you are bad at math/science you can be from anywhere, but if you can't express yourself properly, you've outed yourself as being low-income.

I hadn't thought of either of those two points, maybe because I am stupid. But really, it is only at this point, after I've taught writing classes for a few years, that I can get away from the shakiness I get when a student starts yelling at me, have a cup of tea, and then be able to go back to my boss and say, 'how can I hack this' and start figuring out dynamics.

With the fist fight, one thing that's interesting is how polite the kids are after it. It was freaky. *VIOLENCE* and then 'Um, excuse me, could be excused to go the bathroom?' I was like, you don't need permission to go to the bathroom.
posted by angrycat at 4:09 AM on October 10, 2013 [9 favorites]


bquarters' statements open up a broader front here.

Perhaps one of the longer-term benefits of TFA is to expose 'privileged whites' to the real world, along with an understanding of what education could bring vs. what it actually manages to do today.

As those people go off to be doctors, politicians, or whatever, they have had their world-view altered by their experiences, and will have a better understanding of the actual challenges out there in the real world. I'd rather have people like that around me than people who were born on third base and think they hit a home run.

Teaching is absolutely an experienced-based profession, and good experienced teachers should be rewarded. However, experienced does not always equal good, and one of the challenges of a unionized environment is that this fact is essentially never recognized. (My own experience comes from another country with more powerful unions, where I was a school board chair involved in discussions with the teachers' union).

I have just moved back to the US, and my kids start public schools today (!) in the best school I could find. It's not the environment I'd normally choose to have them in (I'd rather it be more ethnically diverse), but that is the general dismal nature of big-city schools in the US. If I had a choice, I'd rather there be idealistic newcomers around in the form of TFA'ers rather than none, as at the very least, it would keep the more experienced teachers on their toes and exposed heavily to new ideas. As it wouldn't be considered a underprivileged school, this won't happen, unfortunately.
posted by grajohnt at 4:26 AM on October 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


My mom taught at Watts in the 70's and I don't think it radically changed her (white, upper middle class) worldview. I've heard her say shockingly racist things and cover with, "I've been there, you don't know what it's like." It's great that people want to help disadvantaged kids, but as long as they see them as Disadvantaged Kids rather than "someone I, myself, could have been through sheer chance," don't underestimate their narcissism.
posted by gorbweaver at 4:45 AM on October 10, 2013 [27 favorites]


Also 'refusing to write reference letters' because the writer doesn't like the program seems wrong to me.

This bothers me too. Suppose the author is one of the only 2 or 3 people who the student has worked with enough to write a meaningful recommendation? Their chances of success in their chosen post-bac endeavor may be badly damaged by this refusal. And why stop with this program, if you go down this paternalistic path? Grad school in the humanities and law school are both dubious choices, from a practical point of view, now. Why not refuse to write letters for those, too? It's for the students' own good, after all, and it strikes a blow against the exploitative student loan industry.
posted by thelonius at 4:49 AM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


gorbweaver: Unfortunately enough, you're probably correct.
posted by grajohnt at 4:49 AM on October 10, 2013


I support TFA because most of the workers ARE young and enthusiastic, hard-working and educated. And like it or not, many or the older, tenured teachers are ....less so. And that is largely due to the fact that the conditions are very rough and eventually if you stay long enough..you just get worn down

Rough conditions are a big part of it, but there's also incentives. As one NYC-junior-high-teaching friend of mine put it: "Being a teacher is really hard if you care, and really easy if you don't. If you just stop caring about the students, it's a job with light hours, summers off, and lots of stability." And it's very difficult to stay committed if your environment rewards caring less.

Teaching, at both the elementary and college level, has evolved into a job where you trade money for stability, and this strikes me as a terrible bargain. The pay makes us bitter, because we're all just barely making it. And the stability makes it easy to not care about doing a good job, because there's little meaningful punishment for indifference and little meaningful reward for commitment. A teacher's emotional commitment to the kids is the only backstop to total fuck-it, and that's a bad thing to depend on.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 5:31 AM on October 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'd rather work with idealistic enthusiastic privileged 20 somethings in my school (which isn't a TFA school but would fit their target demos) who are going to leave in 2 years than educators nearing retirement who wake up every morning counting the days until they get out. I would also rather have choices beyond that, and people seem to overlook the vast majority of education workers who don't fit into either of those stereotypes.

I object to the group goal of TFA placing students in an urban classroom to give them real world experience because to me that sounds dangerously close to TFA being a travel agency that doubles as a resume booster. I don't begrudge any individual who wants to do this because most of them have complex and positive reasons for joining. I don't like the article writer putting a barrier up to those people making those decisions. Good job, you just prevented someone from trying to positively impact children!
posted by lownote at 5:40 AM on October 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Nearly every high school teacher I've ever had was worse at teaching than even the lamest community college professor I had.

In the early 90s I had a "professor" who taught a class on C programming who was not a programmer, was not a teacher, said up front that he was neither of those things and considered himself a "C user".

He had a vague idea of what pointers were, but not that you could do arithmetic with them or why you would want to. He didn't understand the concept of OO enough to explain the difference between C and C++.

I bought a pocket reference book for 5 bucks that was a better teacher.
posted by Foosnark at 5:51 AM on October 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


evil otto: "Man, I can't tell you how many of my (white, privileged, mostly female) friends wound up teaching in underprivileged schools because they wanted to Make A Difference, and then wound up hating it and quitting and never teaching again. None of them had ever lived in a "bad neighborhood", and although they knew all kinds of social justice speak and probably got excellent grades in their sociology classes, they had no way of relating to the students on their own terms."

One of the things that's interesting is that you take these young, privileged, white women (almost all women) at 22 and put them in a high-need urban classroom, whether they've come through TFA or traditional education programs, and most of them wash out in around two years and are miserable and hate it and never teach again.

You take those same women in 15 or 20 years, after 3 kids or a decade in a Fortune 500 company, and put them back in the EXACT SAME CLASSROOM, whether through a teacher education program or through a career-changer program, and many of them are extremely successful teachers of diverse children in poverty. The teachers' own privilege didn't change, but a decade or two of experience in the world, some more maturity, and particularly the day-to-day work of raising children turns out to "cure" a lot of what makes it so difficult for an idealistic 22-year-old to succeed in a high-poverty classroom.

A lot of individual urban districts are trying to recruit more of these well-educated moms, many of them career women who've been mommy-tracked or at-home moms out of the workforce for a while, for whom it's traditionally been difficult to return to a full-time, full-track position in the work world. The state doesn't make it very easy -- they either want you do essentially re-do college to get a teaching degree before you can sit for certification, OR they have career-changer programs to get "highly-skilled professionals" into classrooms, but stay-at-home moms don't qualify and a lot of women who took part-time work or switched to non-profits or whatever when their kids were born don't qualify either -- because there's been no recognition on the policy level that "hey, these moms are the ones we want," but a lot of individual districts are fighting to get them into classrooms.

So ANOTHER thing that TFA could do to be a bigger part of the solution would be finding ways to recruit THE SAME WOMEN ten or twenty years down the road, when they typically become very successful teachers. It would have to include programs with guaranteed geographic limits on placements (a married woman with a working husband and two kids in school isn't going to move across the country to teach; she'll commute into the city, but that's about it), but maybe you could even admit students right at the end of college with a 15-year deferment available. Or by policy ignore all resume gaps and look at just a 34-year-old woman's college and grad school achievement and ignore that she's been out of the workforce for 10 years. Or something similar.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:19 AM on October 10, 2013 [21 favorites]


In the early 90s I had a "professor" who taught a class on C programming who was not a programmer, was not a teacher, said up front that he was neither of those things and considered himself a "C user".
I was a C user once. Those were dark days. When you start out, all your friends are doing it, so you figure, why not? Then it's all late night segfaults and dangling pointers, and you wonder where the time went.
posted by deathpanels at 6:25 AM on October 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


I used to think education was about, uh, educating, but that's, at best, a side effect. It's more about teaching submission to authority and cultural imperialism. The kids mostly don't want to be there and don't see the point of the curriculum. It's easier when they get a little older and have given up. The ultimate goal of the system is to produce unthinking consumers and people who re-elect out leaders.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:30 AM on October 10, 2013


One problem with programs like TFA is that every college student thinks teaching is their 'backup' career. E.g.:

"Well, I want to go into macropaleontology, so I'm applying to twenty PhD programs, but if I don't get in, I think I'll just teach for a while. If my overly ambitious dreams don't pan out exactly right, I guess I can be entrusted with the future of our youth."

This attitude is massively infuriating to people who actually want to teach and who have invested years of their lives into developing pedagogy skills. Imagine if someone told you your job was their backup plan for when the bottom drops out.
posted by deathpanels at 6:36 AM on October 10, 2013 [9 favorites]


The thing is TFA happened because the teacher-training system isn't very good. I went through it at a fancy private school that boasted about how special and rigorous its program was, and it was one of the worst mistakes of my life*.

The argument always goes "TFA does a bad job and feeds union-busting and privatization" "Well, yeah, regular teacher training programs are full of stupid people and they don't prepare you to teach either, so TFA is just fine". But the issue is that the weakness of the teacher-training programs gave TFA its moment. TFA is an ideologically bad, privatizing corporate mess - and all you have to do is look at how big corporations act when they've finally gotten rid of the competition to realize how TFA/TFA charters will probably offer even less if they're the only game in town. Undercutting TFA probably does require better teacher-training.

There are wonderful teachers out there who have been through teacher-training programs. I assume that there are at least some wonderful teacher training programs. But in general, teaching is a craft - and teacher-training ought to emphasize classroom time. Coursework should be structured around work in the classroom - trainees should be working as teachers' assistants and doing reading, discussion and reflection at the same time, with at least half the time being active classroom work. This is not impossible at all, it just requires some planning.


*The students and the faculty were certainly smart - there was none of this "C students become teachers" stuff. And several of my cohort were natural teachers who were clearly destined for success right from the start. But the program itself was a disaster. You want to talk about TFA students getting thrown into the classroom with five weeks of training and a summer of co-teaching? Hell, I was thrown into the classroom with a few semesters of theory (and it was very theory theory too - not much practical stuff at all) and NO practice teaching or co-teaching. My supervising teacher refused to help me - he pointed at some shelves full of boxes and said that I would find some stuff that might help me structure lessons in there. I was in a program for students who had been thrown out of every other school in the city - I liked the kids fine, some were very bright but all were troubled well beyond my ability to teach. I had no clue what I was doing, really messed things up for my students and quite seriously was tipped into a period of clinical depression that lasted several years and nearly caused me to kill myself. The program did not support me in any way. How did I end up with such a shitty supervising teacher? Well, that was because the teacher who had specifically requested to work with me - a guy who focused on gifted social studies education, which would have been a dream for me and a great intro to classroom management - was turned down by the program since they felt that I needed more of a challenge.
posted by Frowner at 6:40 AM on October 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


Refusing to write rec letters for jobs you disagree with is really dangerous ground.
posted by miyabo at 6:42 AM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Imagine if someone told you your job was their backup plan for when the bottom drops out.

People are on their backup plan jobs all the time. I am. I'm one of the few English majors who never became a teacher, but that is pretty much the one job we're told that anyone WANTS us for in life. Wanna move to a foreign country? Teach English when you have no idea how to do it. Want to have a job at all? Teach For America! There's some kind of assumption we have that English = natural born teacher, presumably one that doesn't need tons of even more expensive training you will never be able to pay off as a pathetic non-STEM human being. It's hard to find other options that don't involve fast food these days, since nobody actually wants writers for anything (hence my backup career) either.

But I second miyabo: refusing to write the rec letter for a job you disagree with is just....silly and probably not going to fix the problem any either.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:48 AM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also 'refusing to write reference letters' because the writer doesn't like the program seems wrong to me.

THIS. You are not writing a letter of recommendation for Teach for America. You are writing a letter of recommendation for your student. The respectful, courteous, responsible thing to do is to write the letter, which is furthermore part of your job. Refusing to write a student a letter of recommendation because of some kind of personal grudge against an organization is just... ugh. What an unprofessional, paternalistic attitude.
posted by oulipian at 6:51 AM on October 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


Of course if you don't think teaching is a highly-skilled profession, and if you don't think education is a necessary public good, I can see how none of this would be a problem.

It's good you used the "and" conjunction there, because I believe in the second, but would probably disagree with you about what you mean by the first.

Education is not a "highly-skilled profession" in the same way that law or medicine are. Education, as such, does not require a specialized body of knowledge independent of any particular subject matter. The attempts by the education academy to make it that way are, to put it bluntly, kind of embarrassing. The rigor that goes on in education classes on both the undergraduate and graduate level is pathetic when compared even to what goes on in most history departments, let alone what happens in law school and medical school. Reading is trivial, writing requirements minimal, and projects a joke. I've now been involved in four different colleges/universities, all private, from an Ivy down to a Christian college with less than 1,500 students, and the reputation of the Education Department in every single one was basically the same: completely lacking in substantive academic weight. I've had two good friends go through M.Ed. programs, and they've both described them as frustratingly useless, despite the high workload.

So you know what? I call shenanigans big time. And not because I think there's a conflict of interest or some sort of insecure protectionism going on. I may, but that's not the point. It's that the author is writing from a position of inherent contradiction. On one hand, she loudly decries the "data obsessed approach to education," but on the other hand, she's really insisting that the only people who get to teach in public schools are products of the very system that leads to this "data obsessed" approach! The people who are the most interested in data in education are academics in Education Departments! How else are they supposed to justify their existences? Everyone else in the academy except the English department deals with data, especially the other professional schools like medicine, law, and business, so if they want to even pretend to be playing with the big boys, they've got to make this a question of data.

This is not to say that teaching does not involve a high level of skill, or that it's easy. It does, and it's not. It's to say that teaching is not a "profession," but a craft, one that matures with experience and practice, and not one that is based primarily on data and book learning. In that sense it is more like carpentry, glazing, or masonry, all of which require skill and practice, but none of which particularly lend themselves to post-secondary degrees. It's the people who keep trying to say that all teachers need to have Education degrees that are the ones making this "data obsessed approach" possible in the first place. You don't see that same kind of thing in the trades, because that'd be silly, but you do see it in education, probably because we've got a whole bunch of academics out there who have spent the last fifty years trying to make education amenable to data-based investigation.

The author is trying to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to limit access to the classroom to people who have gone through Education Departments, but she doesn't like the fact that the existence of Education Departments is probably what's caused a lot of the problems in the first place.

Regardless, the current setup means that people like myself, an attorney who has taught literature, math, and logic to primary and secondary students, or my father, a physician with thirty-years experience in teaching medical students, resident physicians, and fellows,* cannot teach in public schools. But you know who can? A twenty-two year old with a teaching certificate. Because obviously, that person knows more about teaching kids than we do.

*Not to mention taking an active role in the homeschooling of myself and my siblings.
posted by valkyryn at 6:58 AM on October 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


Grad school in the humanities and law school are both dubious choices, from a practical point of view, now. Why not refuse to write letters for those, too?

I've seen calls for these things too. (Just not in Slate.)

I can't speak for TFA overall, but one of my husband's high school friends got involved with TFA when he was in grad school at Georgetown, discovered he loved it, and 20-ish years later he's an award-winning high school history and government teacher in Tulsa. Some of the folks who get into teaching through these outside programs love it.

And I went almost all the way through teacher ed at a good school and washed out from spending a semester in suburban schools, so there's no guarantee either way. (Though I maintain that most of the "classroom management" we were taught wasn't that useful in managing actual classroom discipline problems. But what made me quit was dealing with the administrative bureaucracy.)
posted by immlass at 7:51 AM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was thrown into the classroom with a few semesters of theory (and it was very theory theory too - not much practical stuff at all) and NO practice teaching or co-teaching.

I'm curious about what state this was in. I suspect state requirements for teachers may have a lot to do with how education programs work in that state's higher ed institutions. In Connecticut, you CAN'T get an elementary or secondary school certificate without practice teaching, even in Alternate Route to Certification or master's programs with certification.

(I pretty much think this is a good thing, although it does make things very difficult for folks who are trying to change careers and don't have a whole lot of financial support. My husband is currently in a master's program with certification for early childhood ed, and he will probably need to stop working his day job to student teach for a semester, AND pay for the privilege while we're losing that income! Fortunately he's been an aide for seven years so we just found out that he may be able to get some of this requirement waived because of his direct experience--also as it should be, I think, because in the long run the classroom experience really is what counts.)
posted by dlugoczaj at 8:25 AM on October 10, 2013


Came here to second almost exactly what Squeak Attack said.

It baffles me that there's no extensive "how to teach" component required for becoming a university professor. Is it just assumed that knowledge of subject matter implies skill in conveying that knowledge to others? I'm not a teacher (librarian here), but in grad school, I focused on bibliographic instruction--the art and science of formally teaching people how to do library research--and we used a lot of pedagogical literature in our classes. It illuminated for me that teaching is simply a different animal from knowing, and I can't believe more universities don't emphasize it for their teaching faculty-- the brilliant minds you employ to teach are only as good as their delivery systems, no? Or are they only as good as the research dollars they bring in?

Also, along with my experience in academic libraries came lots of contact with students of all majors. Hands down, the absolute dumbest students I encountered were the ed majors. Yes, there were plenty of obvious, amazing exceptions, and Lord knows my field's got its half-wits too. But it does seem ironic.
posted by Rykey at 9:41 AM on October 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


It baffles me that there's no extensive "how to teach" component required for becoming a university professor. Is it just assumed that knowledge of subject matter implies skill in conveying that knowledge to others? I'm not a teacher (librarian here), but in grad school, I focused on bibliographic instruction--the art and science of formally teaching people how to do library research--and we used a lot of pedagogical literature in our classes. It illuminated for me that teaching is simply a different animal from knowing, and I can't believe more universities don't emphasize it for their teaching faculty-- the brilliant minds you employ to teach are only as good as their delivery systems, no? Or are they only as good as the research dollars they bring in?

It depends on the program and the person. Some people want to be teachers, some people want to be researchers, and most programs require a little bit of both. Increasingly the teaching is being done by underpaid adjuncts who are desperate for any job at all. Sometimes you have professors who are only there to bring in research grants and prestige (I'm not saying this is a bad thing) who are forced to teach a certain number of classes and largely pawn off this duty on their TAs and GAs. Most of the practical experience comes from the TA and GA work you do for your adviser and, hypothetically, continuing professional development.
posted by codacorolla at 9:48 AM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Education is not a "highly-skilled profession" in the same way that law or medicine are. Education, as such, does not require a specialized body of knowledge independent of any particular subject matter. The attempts by the education academy to make it that way are, to put it bluntly, kind of embarrassing. The rigor that goes on in education classes on both the undergraduate and graduate level is pathetic when compared even to what goes on in most history departments, let alone what happens in law school and medical school.

Let's separate some things: the state of the academy and its potential (not to mention the demands of the work). The above statement seems to mix them up pretty well.

When it comes to the state of the academy, I tend to agree. At least, my experience with the BA/Secondary Ed program was generally pretty fluffy (hence my earlier comment in the thread), particularly in comparison to the BS in Math that I'd all but completed before deciding to add the BA. I felt like I was in fact back in high school at times, both in terms of a lot of the content and in the way the professors treated us. I would guess that about 1/5 of the coursework there turned out to be useful.

But that 1/5th hinted at an awful lot of potential. There was some classroom management psych that I found to be useful not only in the context of my subsequent student teaching experience, but also outside of it. Education philosophy that I've found useful in thinking about general communications skills. Social science introductions I would have loved to see more of.

So while I agree the rigor wasn't there in my program (and as my school was pretty good academically, I have no reason to believe most are better), I'd take issue with any claim that this is the way things have to be -- that there's neither a need for or possibility of a strong curriculum for professional educators.
posted by weston at 9:50 AM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


So while I agree the rigor wasn't there in my program (and as my school was pretty good academically, I have no reason to believe most are better), I'd take issue with any claim that this is the way things have to be -- that there's neither a need for or possibility of a strong curriculum for professional educators.

I mean, okay, but I think I'm going to stick with my assessment. Most of the material you're talking about? That's a year of classes, maybe two at the most. I'd like to see Education transformed from the undergraduate- and increasingly graduate-level degree that it's becoming into more of a trade-type credential, with apprentices, journeymen, and masters. You do in fact need to sit down and do a year or two of study before we let you loose, but you don't just chuck a brand-new would-be carpenter in the workshop and tell him to go nuts either. Give 'em a year or two of classwork, then apprentice them to a more experienced teacher.

Again, I really want to double down on the idea that this is a craft, not a profession. The trades have incredibly rigorous training programs for their members, and there's no reason that education shouldn't either. But it's practical knowledge, for the most part, and not really the kind of thing you do longitudinal studies about.
posted by valkyryn at 9:55 AM on October 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


One of the things I appreciated about the education program at the university I recently worked for was that you could NOT get an undergrad degree in "education." You had to have an academic major and enroll in the education program for the pedagogy courses and student teaching placement required for state certification. For the secondary ed students that meant math, English, a science, or whatever other specific subject matter would be taught. For elementary ed students that could be a specific subject matter, it could be child development or psych, what have you. I think that lent a lot more weight to the education that those students got, and probably trickled down to their own students as well.
posted by dlugoczaj at 10:01 AM on October 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


One of the things I appreciated about the education program at the university I recently worked for was that you could NOT get an undergrad degree in "education." You had to have an academic major and enroll in the education program for the pedagogy courses and student teaching placement required for state certification.

I am totally okay with that model.
posted by valkyryn at 10:13 AM on October 10, 2013


One of the problems with talking about education is that it is something that everyone thinks they know about because they went to school, but because of the complexity of the U.S. school system and the issues surrounding it few actually know as much as they think they do. For example, Valkyrn it sounds to me like you know a little about the subject, but I am afraid that you don't know enough of the specifics to make any valid points.

For example, the push for data based decision making comes from a combination of the special education departments of the schools/departments of education (which are generally more behaviorally/scientifically oriented than general ed) and business schools affiliated with outside organizations trying to "reform" education. Both groups have their own reasons for pushing data based decision making, and even within both groups there are heterogeneous organizations with varying motivations (especially on the business side). For special ed, the drive serves two main purposes: to identify struggling students early enough so that help can be provided before their problems become too severe and to identify interventions that actually help struggling students learn. For business schools and reformers, the drive is generally an attempt to quantify teacher performance to make employment related decisions and to identify under-performing schools.

Many academics associated with general education (the mainstream of education departments and schools) actually oppose these drives, again for various reasons. It doesn't have anything to do with "justifying their existence." Personally, I'm not commenting about what I think about any of this. I'm just offering some background. I will say that I am not going to defend the school of ed curriculum too heavily. I agree with the commenter who says that the potential is there, but at the moment I don't think the potential is being actualized. Part of the problem is the complexity of the phenomenon under study; another part of the problem is the relative youth of the field.

Still, no matter how developed the science of education becomes, it won't matter a wit if it doesn't attract students who are willing and able to learn and apply it to their craft. At the moment, I would say there are some students of education who are capable of deriving benefit from their curriculum, but there are also many who really don't benefit from what they learn in their "theoretical" classes. What won't help is pushing the idea that education is little more than an unskilled "trade" (as if tradespeople lack skills!) only fit for people who are essentially volunteers for a few years at the start of their career.

I'll also add that such views are a little "rich" coming from a lawyer. I'm pretty sure there are still places where one can "read" for the law without any formal schooling, not to mention the dubious state of legal education in general.
posted by eagles123 at 12:58 PM on October 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


One of the most-used criticisms of TFA (as in the Onion article) is that it sends untrained teachers into the toughest schools with the poorest, least prepared students. This is true, and a problem.

In many school systems, though, that's exactly what happened anyway. The teachers lowest on the seniority ladder get thrown at those schools. yes, they have a degree, but not much more than that. The effect is similar.

Anti-union folks will now jump in and blame this all on union seniority rules, which may be sometimes true, but if you look at non-union workplaces, the same kind of thing tends to happen. You need a concerted effort to route the best people to the toughest jobs. Like paying them a LOT more, for example.
posted by feckless at 1:25 PM on October 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have volunteered a few times with Habitat for Humanity's Global Village program. In some ways, I think that it's vaguely comparable to TFA - people who never put together Ikea furniture head to a different country to help build a house.

I got a lot out of Global Village and would like to do it again. I think that the people with whom we worked also got something out of it. I think they saw that not all Americans are jerks. There was one family who would not let volunteers into her house the morning we came over. By the end of the day, she didn't want them to leave. And the volunteers make a not-insignificant monetary contribution to the program to help support home building efforts long after we leave.

My concern with TFA is that I think the teachers get a lot out of it. I don't think that the students get a lot out of it. And the students should come first.
posted by kat518 at 3:24 PM on October 10, 2013


I'm pretty sure there are still places where one can "read" for the law without any formal schooling

Not that I'm aware of. To be sure, law isn't a graduate degree everywhere--I'm okay with that, actually--but the days when one could "read law" have been gone for quite some time.
posted by valkyryn at 4:45 PM on October 10, 2013


Nope, there are still several US jurisdictions in which one can read the law, Virginia and Washington among them.
posted by katemonster at 5:25 PM on October 10, 2013


empath: "Nearly every high school teacher I've ever had was worse at teaching than even the lamest community college professor I had. I'll take someone passionate and informed about a particular subject every time over someone who is a trained 'educator'."

Well, you have to think about what's important in education. I was in a college course in international law and we had an expert come in and talk about it rather than our normal lecturer because he was the expert. He talked for around an hour on the subject. It was an interesting lecture, with the expected "you don't need to know this, I'm just showing off what I know" type stuff thrown in. A week later, she's summing up some of her earlier lectures and she says something along the lines of, "And then you have the laws of the sea, which was when governments realized for the first time that there needed to be laws that applied when you weren't actually in a state." Boom, there, in one sentence, was the meaty gem of why the law of the sea was significant. Before air travel, in the absence of sea travel you were always in the territory of *some* political body's jurisdiction (even if it was disputed). The need to come up with shared, agreed upon laws that did not fall under any one nation's jurisdiction but rather applied universally was a milestone in the development of International Law. At no point during his lecturer did the expert touch on this. Good teachers (not *all* of whom have a background in Education, to be fair) are good at extracting the usefulness of information in a way that gives meaning to the students they are teaching. An expert will definitely be unimpeachable in their ability to speak at length on a subject but they may or may not actually teach someone something when doing so.

I'll add that the worst, worst teacher I probably ever had apart from one unforgivably bad PE teacher in HS was a community college professor (I took his "Intro to business" class and may as well have just photocopied the assigned textbook onto transparencies, projected it on the wall, and read it out loud to myself).
posted by Deathalicious at 8:13 PM on October 13, 2013


Eyebrows McGee: "The rest of the problem would be the least-prepared teachers unleashed on the most-needy students… the reduction of public service into a low-paid "volunteer" service, and the totally inadequate tax funding of public schools being further reduced by an unqualified, volunteer teaching corps and corporate donors.

Of course if you don't think teaching is a highly-skilled profession, and if you don't think education is a necessary public good, I can see how none of this would be a problem.
"

Well of course this practice has insidious effects. If you unleash an army of volunteers you're going to reduce the demander for teacher hours, which dilutes the salary, which makes it less appealing as an occupation (who would go through the kind of crap teachers have to go through for *less* money?)

And then of course what happens is you end up with a less talented grouping of individuals labeled a teachers, people come to think that teachers, as a whole, aren't very good and by extension the profession must not be highly skilled.

Personally I wonder about pedagogy and class management. Seems like these would be the bread-and-butter of being an educator, almost more important than the core material being taught. It's not like you have to have a degree in Mathematics to teach high school students intermediate algebraic concepts. But if you know everything there is to know about, say, early Colonial history but can't make the kids shut up, or can't format a useful lesson plan for that info, how on earth would they learn it?
posted by Deathalicious at 8:19 PM on October 13, 2013


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