Voices in Education

Is Teach For America a Learning Organization?
I applaud Dick Murnane’s focus on how we can foster the growth of schools as learning organizations. Murnane reminds us that tackling the improvement of the K–12 education of America’s most disadvantaged children will require that we see the multiple pieces of the puzzle. Instead of relying on one simple approach, we need to step back and frame some large research questions.

Conceiving of schools as learning organizations seems like a very positive step to me. I would, however, suggest that using bifocal lenses to study what is happening both inside and outside of the school would be even more productive than focusing only on what is occurring inside the school.

As noted in the article sidebar on the Minneapolis Cystic Fibrosis Clinic, the solutions for the disparities of practice (collegiality and systemic internal review) have to do with internal practice. Using a similar perspective, Murnane finds it puzzling that the students of the “smart, well educated, and committed” Teach For America (TFA) grads “had a little higher achievement in mathematics, but no higher reading achievement, than students taught by the other teachers in the same schools, who were among the least-well-prepared teachers in the nation.” He then speculates that, “One potential explanation is that TFA participants are typically placed in schools with very weak teaching staffs. As a result they obtain little guidance about how to do well the difficult work of teaching children born into poverty.”

The lack of “skilled senior colleagues committed to working together” could indeed have a negative impact on the amount of academic progress that these teachers’ students make. But wouldn’t it make sense for researchers to inquire whether TFA—in addition to the schools—is also a learning organization?

For example, TFA has posited that if it could recruit only the best and the brightest, these grads would not need to have much teacher education preparation to have a major impact on urban classrooms. TFA is so strongly committed to this model that the organization is now researching how to strengthen its recruiting so that it can identify prospective superstar teachers (A. Ripley, “What Makes a Great Teacher,” The Atlantic, January/February 2010). Oh, if we could only hire and keep superstars teaching 24/7 in every urban, suburban, and rural classroom!

TFA has been unbelievably effective in marketing and recruiting, which has made teaching (at least for two years) a more prestigious career option for some of our most talented college students. I also respect that the organization has recently strengthened professional development for its first-year teachers, who struggle so much to be effective. But what TFA won’t change is its deep commitment to the model of TFA students being placed full-time in the classroom after only one summer of instruction and teaching in summer school. Shouldn’t we ask how much better TFA teachers would perform if they had a semester or year of intensive preparation that included rigorous coursework and a well-designed internship that allowed them to develop their practice?

Given this refusal to reconsider whether its model might have a less-than-positive effect on the children TFA teachers are educating, it might just be the urban Teacher Residency programs that are more effective learning organizations! (In the Boston and Philadelphia Teacher Residencies, prospective teachers spend a summer and full year coteaching in apprenticeships with strong urban mentor teachers and taking graduate courses that prepare them for urban teaching. They are also expected to stay in urban teaching for more than two years.) Or researchers might examine the model of how the undergraduate and graduate teacher education programs in the Consortium for Excellence in Teacher Education—which educate a group of young people very similar to those who enter TFA—prepare educators whose students do well on standardized assessments while also exploring critical thinking and inquiry.

As Dick Murnane urges us, we need to foster the growth of schools (and, I would urge, the organizations that work with them) as learning organizations.

About the Author: Marya R. Levenson* is Professor of the Practice in Education and The Harry S. Levitan Director of the Education Program at Brandeis University.

*With help from Sam Intrator.