To improve teacher retention, NYC should drop Teach for America
This post is part of an intermittent series about improving teacher retention in New York City. See also
- Lots of winners when teachers stay. What can we do to help? and
- Advice for old teachers about new teachers (guest post by teachin’)
For years now, the New York City Teaching Fellows and Teach for America have supplied large numbers of untrained teachers to the New York City public schools.
What would you say if someone offered you a stream of untrained teachers who promised to destabilize the system?
But now we have budget problems. There will be fewer new teachers. And this summer the Teaching Fellows have a greatly reduced program, and Teach for America is sending its recruits elsewhere.
Teach for America vs the New York City Teaching Fellows
Teach for America and the Teaching Fellows are both new teacher recruitment programs. They both provide minimal training to put bodies in classrooms. Teachers in either program end up with a Masters. But the differences are greater than the similarities.
NYC Teaching Fellows recruit a mix of younger people and career-changers. Teach for America draws largely from top universities, including many from Ivies. TfAers come from around the country. Teaching Fellows are far more likely to be from New York or the greater metropolitan area.
The NYCTF gets its participants Masters degrees in 2 years (sometimes slips to 3). Not enough Teaching Fellows stay in teaching past their masters. But many of them do. And it is possible to convince more to stay.
Teach for America looks for a two year commitment to teaching. Two years and out is the rule. TfA discourages its members from staying in teaching past 2 years [update: discouragement may be implicit, not explicit]. It is training leaders, not teachers, giving them a ground-level view of the system they are being trained to run. In their own words:
We believe that the best hope for ending educational inequity is to build a massive force of leaders in all fields who have the perspective and conviction that come from teaching successfully in low-income communities.
…Beyond these two years, Teach For America alumni bring strong leadership to all levels of the school system and every professional sector, addressing the extra challenges facing children growing up in low-income communities, building the capacity of schools and districts, and changing the prevailing ideology through their examples and advocacy.
It’s like the once upon a time story of the rich guy sending his kid to work a year in the factory before running it; or the British Lord sending his son to India for a few years before managing the family fortune.
Now, some TfAers do stay in teaching. [But they are actively discouraged from doing so – may not be accurate] . And those that stay are fairly likely to bounce around, to move to charters, etc. Once they are in, it is worth trying to convince them to stay. But it is far harder than with Teaching Fellows, as they remain part of an organization that pushes them to be leaders, not teachers.
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Why is this bad?
In New York City, we have enough applicants for teaching positions. But keeping teachers is tough. Retention is a far greater challenge than recruitment. Getting a few hundred TfA bodies into schools in September is a help, but not a huge help. However, having a few hundred TfAers leave each June is a drag on the system.
Teach for America works to increase teacher turnover, to keep the poorest kids in classes run by the least experienced teachers, to deny neighborhoods a small piece of attainable stability. It increases training costs to the system, and decreases collegiality. It also, incidentally, decreases the chance that students are taught by Black or Hispanic teachers, and decreases the chance that they are taught by New Yorkers.
The amount of resource that goes into training new teachers is huge. It is not only university classes (in fact, they are a small part), but administrator time, effort from colleagues, etc. The cost of high turnover is real, and should not be ignored.
Poor communities pay a higher cost. Schools can offer some stability, some continuity in the lives of children. But Teach for America actively denies them that stability by trickling in temporary teachers, teachers who will not develop relationships or bonds that will last past two school years. When a parent returns to school with their second kid, shouldn’t they already know the school personnel?
And how can school culture grow positively and be transmitted with high staff turnover? It is a constant struggle in bad schools. Should we make it worse by hiring teachers we know in advance will not last? An advantage of small schools is that a group of adults really gets to know a group of kids. TfA destroys that. There are internal relationships, shared habits, that grow as a team works together. TfA disrupts them.
Teachers improve with experience. Poor schools should not be saddled with a program designed to deny them experienced teachers.
Stop Recruiting TfA
This year New York City did not need recruit through TfA. We should not next year, either. Between the New York City Teaching Fellows and traditionally trained teachers there are enough new teachers to meet our needs. Also, recall that there are teachers already in the system who may need placement.
We should work hard on keeping Fellows teaching past their initial commitment. What about TfAers who are already in the system? Of course we should work hard on keeping them teaching past their two-year commitment as well.
Stability, shared culture, relationships, experience
We all benefit — children, schools, colleagues, parents, neighborhoods — when schools are stable, familiar places. And experienced teachers are better teachers. Improving teacher retention is good for all involved.