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Q&A: Teach for America's place in ‘The Teacher Wars’

Dana Goldstein
Dana Goldstein

Q&A: Teach for America's place in ‘The Teacher Wars’

Dana Goldstein, author of a new political history on the teaching profession, discusses a section in her book on how TFA is changing its program.

A recent article in Vox offers insightful analysis and deep reporting on how Teach for America, after achieving notable success, is re-thinking its approach. The story by Dana Goldstein is an adaptation from a chapter in her new book, The Teacher Wars: The History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, which was published this month to wide acclaim from across the political spectrum. Goldstein, a staff writer for the Marshall Project, has been doing interviews over the last two weeks on NPR’s Fresh Air, KALW’s Your Call and WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show, so the GSE’s Jonathan Rabinovitz emailed her several questions. Here they are, with her answers.

Q: What drew you to writing about Teach for America?

Goldstein: I have always been fascinated by TFA, dating back to witnessing their incredibly aggressive recruiting on Brown University’s campus when I was an undergrad. I am the daughter and granddaughter of traditionally trained career educators, and I attended public schools that had strong relationships with our local teachers’ colleges, so I have to admit, I was always somewhat discomfited by the notion of preparing a teacher in just five weeks. When I began reporting on education professionally in 2007, and then, in 2011, started researching this book on the political history of teaching, one of the questions I constantly got at parties was, “What do you think of Teach For America?” TFA has become an important institution in our culture. So I knew I wanted to include the organization’s story in my book, and I also knew I wanted to challenge my own preconceptions by reporting on them deeply.

Q: Your article describes how Teach for America is rethinking its approach, embracing more the idea that teaching needs to be a long-term professional career and that teachers need more in-depth preparation. How is this shift being greeted by its supporters?

Goldstein: After the Vox piece was published, I got a flood of messages from TFA staffers all across the country, saying that they support these changes and are really proud of the new co-CEOs for leading this process of inquiry, self-exploration, and evolution. Interestingly, it was other voices in the education reform community — voices from outside TFA — who expressed the most skepticism toward the narrative in the piece, and who offered the strongest defense of TFA’s traditional quick-prep, short-commitment model. 

Q: The story mentions a study by Matthew Ronfeldt, Susanna Loeb (a GSE professor) and James Wyckoff as contributing to TFA's decision to revisit its model of two-year stints for its participants. How did this research play a role?

Goldstein: As I explain in the piece, this study looked at schools as communities, and found that when many teachers leave a school each year, the negative effects seep through classroom walls, impacting the performance even of kids whose own teachers are not new. Teacher turnover affects student achievement negatively even when overall teacher quality at a school remains constant. I am not sure to what extent TFA executives are aware of this particular study, but there has certainly been a culture shift within TFA of acknowledging that teacher turnover can impact children in negative ways.

Q: TFA has been something of a lightning rod for attitudes about teachers. Your article, however, seems to rise above the conflict. Was this a difficult story to report? Did people expect you to line up in one camp or the other?

Goldstein: Yes, this was a challenging story to report. I began the reporting at a time when TFA was feeling defensive and exhausted by a series of negative articles about them in the media. They were initially skeptical of me, yet also acknowledged that my journalism cannot be easily categorized into either the “pro-accountability reform” or “pro-union” camps. I have strived (imperfectly at times, for sure) to fairly consider the ideas and initiatives of all these players.

In the end, I think the access TFA offered me is a testament to the more open culture the new co-CEOs are building. I’m happy with the response to the piece, because people who both love and detest TFA have told me they learned a lot from it. My goal was to try and demystify this lightning-rod organization.

Q: Are the changes under way at TFA indicative of a broader shift in how the nation views teaching?

Goldstein: I hope so. I think there is some movement the past several years out of these entrenched camps and toward a consensus that effective classroom practice and deep skills building for teachers matter. You see this with Arne Duncan and Bill Gates warning about pushing too hard, too fast on teacher accountability tied to student test scores. Elizabeth Green’s excellent new book, Building a Better Teacher, also discusses this evolution.

Q: The piece in Vox is so great that I think I’ve learned all I need to know. Why read the book?

Goldstein: Oh no! Please read the book! It begins in 1830 and ends in early 2014. The tale of Teach For America takes up about half of one chapter toward the very end. I hope readers will be motivated to learn the longer political history of teaching in the United States. For example, the book tells the story of two programs that were sort of prototypes for TFA, the Great Society-era Teacher Corps and the Board of National Popular Education in the 19th century. This idea of recruiting elite young people to teach for a short time, with almost no pre-service training, is a very old one. 

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