The Deprofessionalization of the Teaching Force

29 Jan

Last semester, I had the pleasure of teaching an undergraduate course at my college, Public Purposes of Education in a Democracy.  To my horror, one of my students expressed her desire to go into Teach for America rather than our teacher education program (one of the top ranked teacher preparation programs in the country). While certainly university-based teacher education programs are not created equal across the US, TFA and other “alternate route” programs contribute to a deprofessionalization of the teaching force and is part of a systematic agenda to dismantle university-based teacher preparation- as well as contributing to the perpetuation of a stratified education system in our country.  In case anyone else in my class was considering TFA, I prepared the following presentation that outlined the research and scholarly critiques of alternate routes and Teach for America.   To be clear, although it is not explicitly addressed below, alternate routes and Teach for America (TFA in particular) are part of the larger “corporate education” agenda (for more on this, see Stan Karp’s “Primer on Corporate School Reform” on The Answer Sheet).


—Because teacher quality is so difficult to assess, and therefore the effects of teacher preparation are difficult to measure, some argue that teacher preparation is not necessary—”Anyone can teach.”  —The idea that no professional preparation for teaching is needed has many possible contributing causes:
  • —Teaching is historically a feminized profession and has historically been one of low status/respect/pay- some regard it as ”glorified babysitting.”
  • —Everyone spends approximately 13,000 hours in school, leading them to think they know what teachers do.
  • —Due to their low status (and, some argue, the fact that it is a female-dominated profession), educators aren’t considered the “experts” in their field and are not the decision-makers in their profession; so those with policy-making power aren’t aware of what teaching really entails.

Alternate Routes and TFA

—“Alternate certification” was created to address teacher shortage in the early 90s, and, some researchers argue, is a result of the widespread “Anyone can teach” mentality.  Today every state has some form of alternate route teaching program.  To be eligible for an alternate teaching certification, usually candidates must possess a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and work experience related to the subject.  Such programs —overwhelmingly place teachers in “high needs” areas (as these are where teacher shortages exist).  Although alternate route programs vary in quality, generally they offer little coursework and no clinical preparation, which amounts to a “sink or swim” situation once in the classroom.
Started as a program for corporate-bound college grads to provide community service and build character, —Teach for America (TFA) is probably the best known alternate route program in the US.    —TFA requires a 2-year commitment in a “high needs” school  and provides 5 weeks of training in a summer institute.
What Does the Research Say about Alternate Routes and TFA?
  • —Multiple studies have shown that alternate route teachers have extremely high attrition rates (up to 70% leave the teaching force by year 3, by Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond’s estimate); program quality varies widely in terms of coursework and mentorship.
  • Beginning alternate route teachers are not as effective as university-prepared teachers in years 1-3.   While studies do show that the ones that stay generally “catch up” to traditionally prepared teachers within a few years, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a small proportion of overall alternately prepared teachers (since most of them leave by year 3).
  • Actual —TFA research has been mixed: i.e., TFA recruits are better at math than some teachers in some cases but are not better in other subjects; or they are better than other alternate route teachers, but not better than those that have had clinical preservice preparation. A huge issue with the research that TFA has produced is that data is solely based on students’ test scores using statistical measures that the research community recognizes as hugely flawed (and some claim to be invalid).
  • — The data on TFA grads that stay in teaching is also mixed (and somewhat fishy on TFA’s part).  While TFA claims that nearly half their grads stay beyond their 2 year commitment, non-TFA sources show the figure is MUCH lower; for example, Tennessee’s DOE data showed that 8% of TFA teachers stayed in the classroom, and researchers Heilig & Jez (2010) found that 80% of TFA grads were not in teaching positions by year three.

Scholarly Critiques of Teach for America

Educational researchers have presented the following critiques regarding Teach for America:

  • —“High Needs” schools (i.e., those with large populations of English language learner/special needs/high poverty/minority students) need teachers who plan to spend a career in the classroom.
  • —The two-year commitment only adds to the already heavy revolving door of teachers in our “high needs” schools, which creates instability and financial burden.
  • —What little preparation TFA offers is based on the “no-excuses” rhetoric rather than culturally/linguistically responsive, socio-culturally aware pedagogy.
  • —TFA emphasizes data driven, test-focused instruction over constructivist pedagogy that fosters critical thinking.

Social Justice Critiques of Teach for America

While some of these certainly overlap with scholarly critiques, the following are noted by social-justice focused educational groups, including grassroots community organizations.

  • —TFA is a cheap staffing solution for low-income schools: young, fresh, enthusiastic teachers who get low pay/no benefits and do their two years and leave before burnout sets in, to be replaced by another fresh face.
  • —TFA is more evidence for the stratification of our school system: in higher income schools, teachers are almost always “traditionally” prepared and properly credentialed; but young kids with no experience are “good enough” for our high needs schools.
  • —TFA provides character & resume building for affluent, (mostly) white college grads on the backs of our high poverty, kids of color, ELLs and special needs and promotes a “white savior” mentality.  This has led to the nicknames “Teach for Awhile” and “Teachers for African-Americans.”
I leave you with these questions to ask (yourself, your students, or anyone who will listen):
  • —Would you go to see a doctor who has only had five weeks of training?
  • —Would you drive across a bridge built by an engineer with 5 weeks of training?
  • —Would you let an attorney take a case for you that only had 5 weeks of training?

4 Responses to “The Deprofessionalization of the Teaching Force”

  1. DCG Mentor January 29, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    May I also add this from my blog and my talks on TFA at SOS and OCCUPY DOE 1:

  2. Terry Waltz, Ph.D. January 29, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    However, “alternative route” is the only way to get experienced professionals into a classroom. Using alternative routes on wet-behind-the-ears grads with no experience in anything is one thing, and no thinking person would expect a high rate of success in that situation, but tarring accomplished professionals who choose to share their knowledge with students with the same brush is ignorant. A quick example: as a qualified conference interpreter with longterm overseas residence, I have better command of my languages than the average LOTE teacher, and can also provide some reason to learn them other than “you could be a language teacher”. None of my students seem to suffer from my not having spent years doing a “real” education degree. Real-world experience and thorough mastery of material should be invited into the classroom, not kept out of it by the imposition of a lengthy and expensive program of often impractical classes.

    • Teachers as Change Agents January 29, 2013 at 9:06 pm #

      Hi Terry–thanks for your comment. However, the research on ALL alternate route programs–not just Teach for America– show that novice university-prepared teachers out-perform novice alternate route teachers, regardless of their degrees or experience. Your post confirms one of the points I make with regard to the beliefs undergirding the proliferation of alternate route programs in the first place: that people believe (including you) that anyone can teach. Just because you believe that you “have a better command of languages” than a foreign language teacher doesn’t mean that 1)you know anything about pedagogy, 2)can support the simultaneous learning of 30 students with high proportions of English language learners and special needs students (characteristic of a classroom an alt route teacher will find herself in) or 3) that you are qualified to be placed in a classroom without the requisite period of clinical practice that traditionally prepared teachers complete. What you have done is called yourself a professional (I assume you are referring to yourself when you use the term “accomplished professionals”) while denigrating teaching as a profession (since you think it’s perfectly all right to skip the professional training that goes along with it). And I’m not “tarring accomplished professionals” with the “same brush” as the TFA’ers (although I do want to point out that you are mixing your metaphors there). I’m referring to research: when it comes to teaching, advanced degrees do not matter; pedagogical preparation does (see multiple works of Linda Darling-Hammond, an extremely distinguished researcher from Stanford). And think about this: in what other professional field would you ever imagine that you could walk in without professional training and begin practicing? Just because you felt you had knowledge to share? As a former government teacher and political science major, I think I have a pretty good handle on our judicial system; where can I sign up for an alternate route program to skip law school and become a judge? Oh, but wait…

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