During the first years of the Obama administration, Secretary Arne Duncan has risen to the forefront of public debates about education reform, paralleling the growing public nature of that debate that includes the entrepreneur reformers such as Bill Gates and Geoffrey Canada along with a harbinger of things to come with the popularity of the documentary Waiting for “Superman.”
At the center of the reform debate has been a growing endorsement of two reforms that work against traditional views of teacher preparation, Teach for America (TFA), and public schools, Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools.
One of the teachers raising a voice of protest against the new reformers has been Anthony Cody, specifically through his Education Week/Teacher Magazine blog, Living in Dialogue. Recently, he has posted one blog confronting the “highly qualified” designation of TFA teachers, and then in a second post, he concludes:
“In my view, it is our job to seek the best possible solution for our students. I do not believe we have that with the status quo of high turnover, and the band-aid offered by Teach For America and other programs playing this role.”
While I support and agree with Cody’s concerns about endorsing TFA, I think we need to go one step further, notably acknowledging that TFA shares some important characteristics with KIPP.
First, both TFA and KIPP are targeting student populations primarily composed of high-poverty children, children of color, and children speaking home languages other than English. TFA and KIPP are also both philosophically and theoretically controversial in terms of how to best prepare teachers and how best to teach challenging populations of students.
Most importantly, however, is that the new reformers who are endorsing TFA and KIPP—such as Duncan, Gates, and Michelle Rhee—either had school experiences unlike what TFA and KIPP offer or their children are in schools unlike what TFA and KIPP offer or both.
In short, those people endorsing TFA and KIPP are doing so to promote how other people’s children should be educated.
What We Know about School Equity, Class, Race, and Native Languages
The education reform debate is being driven by the elite in U.S. society, people who themselves have benefited from selective private schools at all levels—private schools that gain part of their status from characteristics unlike what TFA and KIPP offer. These private schools emphasize teacher experience and certification, promise low student-teacher ratios, and offer individualized programs and rich curriculums, often absent the intense focus on testing and standards found in public schools.
Along with the rising tension related to school reform under Obama, I have identified a disturbing refrain of concern about public schools cheating our top students. At the center of both support for TFA/ KIPP and claims that top students are being ill-served is a masking of the realities about educational inequity in the U.S.
Peske and Haycock (2006) have identified the stratified school system common in the U.S. that disproportionately benefits elite students and cheats students coming from poverty, students of color, and students speaking home languages other than English:
“Certainly, there are fine, dedicated teachers who have devoted their lives to low-income and minority children, but they are the exception. Overall, the patterns are unequivocal. Regardless of how teacher quality is measured, poor and minority children get fewer than their fair share of high-quality teachers.
“For example, despite clear evidence that brand-new teachers are not as effective as they will eventually become, students in high-poverty and high-minority schools are disproportionately assigned to teachers who are new to the profession. Children in the highest-poverty schools are assigned to novice teachers almost twice as often as children in low-poverty schools. Similarly, students in high-minority schools are assigned to novice teachers at twice the rate as students in schools without many minority students.
“Students in high-poverty and high-minority schools also are shortchanged when it comes to getting teachers with a strong background in the subjects they are teaching. Classes in high-poverty and high-minority secondary schools are more likely to be taught by ‘out-of-field teachers’ – those without a major or minor in the subject they teach.”
Darling-Hammond, Holtzman, Gatlin, and Heilig (2005) have identified that same inequity, but also include how that inequity is perpetuated by TFA:
“We found that teachers without standard certification, including TFA teachers, were disproportionately likely to be teaching African American and Latino students and low-income students. Although the percentages of Houston students being taught by standard-certified teachers rose substantially over the years covered by this study, the racial/ethnic and economic disparities associated with students’ access to certified teachers also increased substantially.”
Further, Darling-Hammond, Holtzman, Gatlin, and Heilig show that teacher certification does matter:
“Overall, teachers without certification or with non-standard certification were found to be less effective in raising student test scores than teachers with standard certification in 22 of 36 estimates (p<.10). In general, relative to teachers with standard certification, teachers lacking full certification slowed student progress over the course of a year by about 1/2 to 1 month in grade equivalent terms on most achievement tests. However, some categories of teachers with substandard certification (those who had not passed the certification tests or who had no record of being certified) had an even larger negative effect on the Spanish-speaking students who took the Aprenda, slowing their progress by 2 to 3 months within a year in comparison to the progress they would be expected to make with a fully certified teacher. The effects of certification status were generally much stronger than the effects of teacher experience. For example, on the SAT-9 and Aprenda tests, the positive effect of an additional year of teacher experience was about one-tenth the size of the effect of having a fully certified teacher.”
If we put all of this in context, then, top students are currently receiving inequitable access to the best teachers, and TFA along with KIPP is not addressing that inequity, but increasing it by funneling underprepared, young teachers who leave the profession quickly to the students who need top teachers the most and by re-segregating schools and trapping students from challenging backgrounds in the narrowest possible opportunities to learn.
Testing Support for TFA and KIPP
With these facts in mind, I suggest that we test the new reformers’ commitment to TFA and KIPP. How?
Let’s fully fund TFA and KIPP initiatives, but only if TFA and KIPP serve top students, releasing the most experienced and well-qualified teachers to teach students living in poverty, students of color, and students speaking home languages other than English.
Currently, the new reformers support TFA and KIPP as long as they serve other people’s children. I suspect if TFA and KIPP suddenly become the norm for a different population of children, the tune from the top will change.
Darling-Hammond, L., Holtzman, D. J., Gatlin, S. J., & Heilig, J. V. (2005). Does
teacher preparation matter? Evidence about teacher certification, Teach for America, and
teacher effectiveness. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 13(42). Retrieved 23 October 2011 from http://epaa.asu.edu/...
Peske, H. G., & Haycock, K. (2006, June). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington DC: The Education Trust, Inc. Retrieved 7 September 2009 from http://www.edtrust.org/...