Tag Archives: Teach For America

Teach for America/Australia is the equivalent of rice and fresh water.

I try not to be controversial. Today I will fail.

I have just read this in one of the more respected Australian newspapers:

“The government is also planning to increase the number of Victorians in the Teach for Australia program, which accelerates non-teaching graduates into disadvantaged schools.”

This is a spin off from the American program “Teach For America” and it has siblings in other countries around the world including the UK.

This initiative takes high performing graduates from pretty much any discipline and places them in disadvantaged schools after a six week orientation course during the summer. The idea is that they will teach from the beginning, but under the guidance and support of more experienced and highly skilled teachers.

We all know that disadvantaged schools could benefit from more teachers, smaller classes and more individual attention, so what’s the problem?

Well, look at it this way. We have long waiting lines in many hospitals for orthopaedic surgery, so maybe we need to fast track some surgeons. Give a high flying archaeology graduate a six week crash course in hip replacement and a mentor to provide a bit of pre and post op advice and we’re hunky dory. In some communities there is a lack of police, so let’s get an A grade English student, giver her six week’s training, a gun, a set of handcuffs and a police car and the community will be safe. Can’t find a mechanic to fix the electrics on your car? We need to fast track a few Fine Arts graduates. And so it goes.

If this sounds crazy in each of these professions, why is it OK for teaching?

To make matters worse, these graduates are placed in disadvantaged schools, where teachers are already under extreme pressure simply trying to keep up with the academic, social and emotional needs of their students. Additionally these schools are often under resourced with top notch teachers. The best teachers have the choice of the best schools. I have had first hand experience of how hard it is to attract first rate teachers into a super challenging school environment.

We know from experience in the USA that Teach for America graduates tend to burn out fast. Their initial contract is for only two years and there is frequently a high turnover as they return to their original career paths, fortified by the experiences they have gained in these low income, disadvantaged, struggling schools. One of the greatest advantages of this fast turn over is that school districts save money because they avoid the salary increases that come as employees attain greater seniority.

Teach for America, Teach for Australia and all the other manifestations of this short cut to teaching are dismal examples of our lack of understanding about what quality teaching needs. They demean and undermine the profession of teaching in a way that would never be countenanced by any other profession. It grows out of the misapprehension that since everyone has been to school, everyone can teach, as long as they are smart enough.

If a six week trained teacher in a disadvantaged school is getting better results than a fully trained teacher then I suggest we need to look closely at the fully trained teachers. A starving child may do better on some rice and fresh water, but that doesn’t comprise a balanced, healthy diet. A balanced healthy education needs teachers with the full range of skills and knowledge, just as a balanced healthy diet needs the full range of proteins, fats and carbohydrates.

Teach for America/Australia is the equivalent of rice and fresh water.

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Filed under Behavior management, Teacher education, Thinking

It’s new and it’s shiny. The ADHD of educational policy

When will our educational policy makers learn to think in the deep end? It’s as though there is a kind of systemic ADHD at work where attention is grabbed by every bright and shiny new thing.

Let’s look at Finland again. I know, we keep doing this, but they have got a lot of things right!

Having highly qualified teachers is correlated with successful educational outcomes in nations such as Finland. So let’s sprinkle our schools with sparkling, academically gifted graduates, sit back and watch the transformation. That’s the idea behind Teach For America and Teach for Australia.

After six weeks intensive training these bright and shiny exceptional graduates are sent to some of our most disadvantaged schools where they will work with teacher mentors for around two years, transforming themselves and their students into educational successes.

Of course, the teacher mentors in these highly challenging schools have plenty of time to devote to their new chums, supporting them, guiding them, and providing them with the wisdom and strategies needed to survive and prosper in these environments. They have plenty of spare time for this.

The shallowness of this thinking is distressing. Teachers in Finland are highly qualified because of the selection processes BEFORE they graduate, not after. This is no crude “My word, you got a high GPA/ straight A/High Distinction degree, you will make a great teacher” decision.

“It’s more difficult to get into primary school teacher education in Finnish universities than medicine”

according to Dr Pasi Sahlberg (ABC Lateline, February 28th, 2012.)

Dr Sahlberg describes one student with aspirations to be a primary school teacher. She was a straight A student. She had read the required books on pedagogy before going through the application process. Yep. You heard it right. She was assumed to have thoughtfully completed required reading as a part of the application process. She took the entrance exam based on these books. Next she was required to engage in an observed clinical activity, replicating a school setting and focusing on social and communication skills.

Finally, she was invited to an interview where the most challenging question she was asked was “Why do you want to become a teacher when you could become a lawyer or a doctor?” Notice that there was no suggestion at all that she might be choosing teaching because she couldn’t get into law or medical schools. They would have been realistic options for her – maybe easier options!

She didn’t make it.

Dr Sahlberg tells us that in Finland they have practically no unsatisfactory teachers. I think you can see why.

If we continue to believe that we can take the high achievers from one environment (academic learning) and think they will continue to shine in a completely different environment (teaching) we will never improve educational outcomes for our kids.

It’s all about the teaching, and the teaching is all about the teachers.

Fiddling with curriculum, fiddling with assessments – these are all just fiddling while Rome burns if we don’t do something to ensure that we have selected the best potential teachers and given them the best pedagogical preparation we can provide. Only then are they ready to go into classrooms and educate our children.

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Filed under Teacher education, Testing, Thinking