Arizona Legislators think spending $2 million on Teach for America (TFA) recruits is a solution for “supporting our teachers?” Get real. You don’t support teachers by bringing in “scabs” to take their jobs or, by claiming that young college graduates, with five weeks of training are “highly qualified teachers.” You support teachers by providing them what they need to do their jobs and paying them equitably.
I get that politicians want quick wins to show their constituents. But as the saying goes, politicians think of the next election, leaders think of the next generation. We need more leaders who understand sound bites don’t equal solutions. Using TFA corps members to supplant much more qualified teachers in an attempt to save long-term costs (such as earned retirement entitlements) is a short-term outlook that only hurts our children in the long run.
TFA recruits have shown some slightly higher gains on students’ assessments over comparable new teachers, but these “wunderkids” are far from the solution to our teacher shortage. Turnover, always a challenge with new teachers, is much higher with TFA recruits with 56% of them leaving after their initial commitment is up and a full 85% leaving by their fifth year.[i] TFA founder Wendy Kopp’s description of the organization as a “leadership development organization, not a teaching organization” is likely part of the problem.[ii] Corps members aren’t usually drawn to the program because they want to become teaching professionals. Their “gig” in the classroom is a jumping stone to more.
The real problem with using TFA corps members in place of teaching professionals though, is that it reinforces the thought that “if you can, you do…if you can’t, you teach.” Until we recognize that teaching is a critically important profession and invest in the education and retention of these valuable professionals, our country will never move the needle forward on education achievement. I wouldn’t consider five weeks of training sufficient for my doctor, lawyer, or accountant and I don’t consider it enough for our teachers.
Helping our schools succeed isn’t rocket science, but neither will it be easy. Money isn’t the total answer, but it is part of the equation. Yes, we have a teacher shortage in Arizona, but we can’t succumb to the quick fix. The solution lies in: 1) paying our teachers equitably so we can attract and retain the best, 2) keeping classroom sizes moderate so teachers can give each child the attention they deserve, 3) providing well-rounded curriculums that allow our children to explore their interests and fortify their strengths (since we never know where the next Einstein or Maya Angelou will come from) and 4) providing stability for our schools, staffs and students so they can focus on quality and growth, not churn and burn.
Diane Ravitch, our nations’ leading public education advocate, said recently at Lehigh University that: “public schools are the people’s schools, their doors are open to all…public education must be, as we once hoped, a bastion of equal opportunity. Public education is a public trust. It is not a business opportunity.”[iii] When a politician claims they support education, listen for the word “public” as part of their claim. If they don’t say it, they don’t mean it and don’t truly support quality education for everyone. It really is that simple.