Tuesday, July 12, 2011

TFA Set to Displace Qualified Teachers

Because of severe budget problems facing most states, thousands of certified and qualified teachers are expected to be laid off this fall. CNN reported last week that California is expected to lay off up to 36,000 teachers and New York state is expected to lay off approximately 20,000 teachers. All states combined are expected to lay off over 100,000 teachers. At the same time Teach for America plans to place between five and six thousand non-education major college graduates as teachers in public schools this coming year. In Louisiana, the Recovery District provides employment for a large number of TFA teachers each year.

So why would major charitable contributors continue to fund the Teach For America organization with up to 50 million dollars this year to recruit 5,000 new unqualified college graduates to teach in states that are laying off up to 100,000 certified teachers? These insane statistics tell us a lot about how cynical influential people in this country have become about the teaching profession. TFA recruits are given about six weeks summer training in teaching methods before being allowed to fill teaching positions in mostly urban schools. Schools that should be getting the most expert experienced teachers possible. No wonder the NEA passed a resolution recently opposing the hiring of TFA recruits for positions where qualified teachers are available.

I just finished reading the book Relentless Pursuit; A year in the trenches with Teach for America by Donna Foote. One of the 4 teachers followed for one year by Ms Foote is a new Psychology major with no training in education who is assigned to teach Biology to special education students at a large inner city school in Los Angeles.
It is obvious from the description of her teaching efforts that this well intentioned young person has no clue about what to do, much less how to teach handicapped students. Other TFA members profiled seemed at least to have a good grasp of the subject matter they were expected to teach. All seemed to be idealistic and dedicated to their students. But so are most of the many thousands of qualified, certified teachers out there who will soon be laid off. As Lance Hill of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University asks: "Why not a 'learn as you go' program for prosecuting attorneys or legal aid attorneys? A bright person can learn the law as they go—what does it matter that their mistakes result in freeing guilty violent criminals or imprisoning innocent people? Why not a TFA program for fire fighters? Law enforcement officials? Tax assessors? Bridge engineers? EMTs?"

Yet influential leaders such as Senator Mary Landrieu, Bill Gates, and many others seem to have written off the education profession just at the time we should be working to improve the professional status of teachers. Finland, the country with the most successful public education system in the western world, has done just the opposite in building its education leadership position. Instead of putting new teachers in the classroom with only 6 weeks of training, Finland requires all new teachers to have a masters degree in education before entering the classroom.

Teach for America does attempt to attract top academic students to TFA. The organization claims that only one of 5 applicants is accepted into the program. But the problem is that these recruits are only expected to commit 2 years to teaching before moving on to their true profession where most will earn many times what average teachers do in public education. The main TFA drawing card for their recruits is that two years of TFA experience will look good on their resume in applying for their next real job. In Finland, the drawing card is that teachers there will be among the highest paid professional workers in the country and unlike American teachers, they will be given a high degree of autonomy in the classroom. In other words they train like professionals then they are treated like professionals in their employment. In Finland the educator unions are not bashed and blamed for every problem in education.

Are American teachers really that bad? Do they deserve the punishing indictment made last week by Senator Mary Landrieu? (see my post of last week below) If you look at the education attainment of non-poverty American students compared to similar students in other countries, the U.S. students score at the top of the rankings. U.S. teachers are doing an excellent job of educating students who come to school ready and willing to learn. Readiness to learn is a condition most other educational systems take for granted.

Our problem is in educating the large percentage of high poverty students we have in this country. Our teachers are being blamed because of the low performance of students who have the poorest school attendance rates, who routinely fight at school, who behave in a disrespectful manner to teachers and other students, who use profane language in school, who sleep in class, who never do homework, and who generally have little motivation to make good grades. Teachers are now expected to take the role that should have been assumed by parents in motivating students to do well in school and in teaching them to control their unacceptable behavior. 

Yet the pressure on teachers and administrators from the LA State Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education is to discourage both in-school and out-of-school suspension for even the most disruptive behavior. What do you think happens when teachers attempt to use counseling, peer mediation, positive behavior methods or the assignment of punish work instead of suspension? Many of these hardened cases, often as young as age 13 laugh at positive behavior measures. Punish work is a joke to them, and they not only refuse to do such assignments but usually insult the teacher who attempts to implement such lesser measures.  Such students do not show up at detention and dare the school administration to do anything further about it. There is no question in my mind that much of the difficulty of teaching in some public schools occurs because of the lack of authority of teachers to enforce simple discipline in their classrooms. Constant disruptions and general lack of respect for teachers by relatively few students in some schools prevents all students (even the truly dedicated ones) from getting the education they need.

An Evolving Privatization Strategy
While state and national authorities systematically interfere in a way that prevents effective discipline in public schools, there are some schools that are allowed to enforce strict discipline. Charter schools in Louisiana and in most other states have generally been given the go-ahead to remove students who interfere with or who disrupt school operations. Such schools either expel or "counsel out" students who are disruptive, who do not have proper parental support, or who do not seem interested in meeting academic standards. State officials generally take a "hands off" attitude in enforcing state laws and policies governing suspensions and expulsions of students in charter schools. BESE member Chas Roemer recently incorrectly stated that charter schools are exempt from discipline laws and BESE discipline policy. Such quasi-private schools feel free to use the regular public schools as a dumping ground for incorrigible, disruptive and disinterested students. After using this culling process to remove the lowest performers, charter operators proudly announce success in improving performance of at-risk students and set themselves up as a model for reform of schools.

In the book, Relentless Pursuit, the TFA teachers profiled are assigned to a large, mostly dysfunctional urban school where discipline rules are not consistently enforced. Teachers seem to accept daily disruptive and disrespectful behavior as par for the course. Nearby however, the Green Dot charter schools have set up several small competing high schools that insist on strict discipline, intense parental involvement and a strong work ethic by students and teachers. These schools are seen as successful because they are providing a solid education to those students who are motivated to do well in school. The regular public schools, in attempting to educate all students are seen as failures no matter how hard the teachers work. It's no wonder that the Green Dot schools are able to pick and choose the teachers they want from the regular public schools. The Green Dot schools by the way, are supportive of and hire unionized teachers. While they work hard in attracting good teachers, I believe their success is primarily because of their policies that are selective in the enrollment and retention of students.

This cannibalization of public schools by both charter schools and private school voucher programs is certain to perpetuate the deterioration of public schools and further erode public support. Yet there are groups that are organizing right now to elect only pro-charter and pro-voucher candidates to BESE in the elections this fall (more on this next week). If they are successful, I believe they will greatly increase the number of charter schools statewide and continue the practice of letting such schools pick and choose the students with the most potential while dumping the rest back into regular public schools. The same strategy will be used with expanded voucher programs for private schools.
I hope my readers will consider participating in the Save Our Schools march in Washington DC on July 30. After that, educators will need to get involved in supporting pro-public education BESE candidates this fall and in the election of legislators who truly support public schools and a new governor who believes in public education.