Driving Out Our Best Teachers

TFA Driving Out Our Best TeachersYou Can’t Improve Teacher Quality Without Treating Teachers With Respect and Putting a Priority on Teacher Retention

The latest obsession of the Education Reformers is improving the quality of the nation’s teaching force. This is the subject of the Gates Foundation’s newest initiative and it even shapes the publicity campaign accompanying the much ballyhooed new Hollywood film “We Won’t Back Down,” whose main subject is how teachers unions obstruct needed changes to urban schools.

However, the nation’s most important education reform organization “Teach for America,” whose ex Corps members provide the bulk of the staff members for groups like “Children First” and “Stand for Children,” as well as many charter school organizations and state education departments, have had little positive impact on teacher quality since it started 20 years ago.

Although TFA has recruited most of its corps members from the top academic tier of the nation’s top colleges, it gives little priority to teacher training, teacher mentoring, or teacher retention. As a result, less than 20 percent of Teach for America corps members remain as classroom teachers five years after their commitment is up.

TFA’s publicity actually encourages its recruits to become education leaders and advocates rather than teachers. As a result, its Corps members get the message that teaching is actually the LEAST desirable option of those available to them after participating in this high-profile, high-prestige program.

As for other strategies to improve teacher quality — from merit pay, to rating teachers based on student test scores and firing those who fail to make the grade — none of them have succeeded in making the teaching profession more attractive, as a long-term option, to talented people.

Indeed, such measure, promoted at the Federal as well as local level, have undermined teacher morale to the lowest it has been on record, especially since it has been accompanied by a campaign of public demonization of teachers unprecedented in American history.

How you can improve the quality of a profession by subjecting its members to public ridicule and abuse, in everything from campaign speeches, to editorials, to Hollywood films, is a mystery that I am too dense to unravel, but Education Reformers seem to see this campaign as essential to gaining the policy changes they desire.

But the damage has already been done. More and more, the brightest young people I know are seeking to leave the teaching profession because they can’t stand to see their jobs reduced to test prep in climate of constant surveillance and public abuse.

The same is true of the best veteran teachers. It takes real courage for a teacher to keep their optimism and maintain their professional standards in this poisonous climate, and even that may not be possible unless they have a courageous administrator to defend them.

So unless the reformers switch gears and bring the most talented teachers and principals into the conversation, their teacher quality initiative will fail miserably.

mark naisonYou cannot recruit and retain great teachers through coercion and intimidation. What those methods will produce is a revolving door teaching force of people who last a few years then leave, supplemented by on line teaching strategies which eliminate teachers entirely.

That is where current policies are heading. And the result will be young people who lack the human touch and mentoring that helps make students better citizens and better people, as well as better learners. If you think our society is fractured now, wait till you see where THAT outcome takes us!

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent

Posted: Tuesday, 7 August 2012


  1. Sean Ahern says

    That which is “too dense to unravel” is the Gordian Knot of the corporate reform of education. But allow me to suggest to the learned professor that he speak with greater conviction.

    I believe that he knows precisely what the corporate reformers are up to but stops short, in this article from suggesting that a knot, too dense to be unravelled, should be cut; that to shift the paradigm, to change the terms of the debate, to make that epistemological break with the class and racially biased system that labels the poor and racially oppressed as “failures” and feeds the conceit of the more well off and racially privileged by labeling their children, their schools, their teachers as “gifted”, requires a radical approach.

    Retention? Why would you want stability in the public schools if your desire is to privatize them and further undermine teacher unions? Not too dense to unravel. The education “reform” has nothing to do with education and everything to do with control and profit. Many well meaning academics, parents, teachers and union officials have been confused by the skillful masking of the core mission of the education reform by one or another pet project combined with financial rewards. Not too dense to unravel.

    In NYC, mayor Bloomberg and chancellor Klein, two rich white guys, were granted dictatorial control over a public school system whose student body is 85% Black, Latino and Asian and has a budget of over 20 billion dollars. Mayoral dictatorship was the precursor to “Put Children First” the brand accorded education “reform” in NYC. For the past ten years, with the help of Teach for America and the Teaching Fellows, “reform” has dramatically decreased the number of new Black and Latino teachers being hired and radically increased turnover overall in the teaching staff.

    In spite of a 42% decline between 2002 and 2008 in the percentage of newly hired Black and Latino teachers, there has been a much slower decline in the total percentage of Black and Latino teachers working in NYC schools. A working hypothesis to explain this paradox is that that newly hired Black and Latino teachers, though diminished in terms of the total percentage of the newly hired, have a higher rate of retention than their largely “white” cohort. Short timers from the private universities, largely young whites, are just passing through like a stint in the peace corps before resuming more lucrative careers.

    Additionally, senior Black and Latino teachers are staying on, despite a concerted effort by the Bloomberg administration to close schools in the Black and Latino communities and push out senior teachers who are disproportionately Black and Latino when compared with the pool of newly hired. If retention were even a glimmer in their eye, the ‘reformers’ would seek out young Black, Latino and Asian college graduates of which there is a large pool in the NY Metropolitan area. Teachers of color have a proven record of staying on the job, in spite of all the negatives promulgated by the “reformers.”

    Dr Naison is an expert in the field of African American studies. Here is another dense knot which I suggest he is well suited to unravel: Why are “white” led teacher unions and so called radical groups silent on the the perversely white supremacist character of education “reform” in NYC (hiring and firing in particular) and, most importantly, why is it in their interests to break this silence? I think the professor is a link to a prouder time in our past and has much to share with the younger generation regarding the role of white supremacy in US history.

    Sean Ahern
    NYC teacher

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