Reality Check for TFA

A meditation on respect for the Teaching Profession
I’ve talked a lot about respect for students in some of my recent blog posts, but today I’d like to address one aspect of respect for TEACHERS that I think needs to be examined.
McCoy Elementary in the KCMO School District was closed in 2010.
I recently talked with a friend who is one of the few remaining veteran teachers in a Kansas City, MO elementary school. Such seasoned veterans are actually somewhat rare, because of recent moves by the district to close approximately half of their schools, and to lay off hundreds of  teachers.
I asked my friend how things were going.  She sighed deeply, and said that this year much of the staff in her school is drawn from the ranks of Teach For America
TFA is the darling of the hour, but if you look closely you may not like what you see.
We both knew what that meant–much of the staff is recruited from college graduates who plan careers in other fields, but have taken an intensive course in one summer, and committed to working as a teacher for a couple of years, before they get on with their “real” careers.  
This also means that they are much cheaper to hire than fully certified teachers–but also that they are less thoroughly prepared. I know that’s a controversial statement in the current political climate. And I also know that schools of education are not doing an overly awesome job of preparing new graduates for the rigors of urban teaching, either.  
But my friend’s report genuinely shocked me.  She said that the “TFA kids” in her school have been given basically no support or mentoring, now that they actually are assigned to classrooms. That’s insane, I thought: Once a person is actually in the classroom, that’s when MOST of the practical questions arise.
Wendy S. Kopp, founder of  TFA,
frequently speaks about its benefits.
According to my friend’s report of what the TFA group has told her, they did their practice workshop in a private school in California that was nothing like the urban elementary where they are now. As one of the very few veterans left in her school, she finds herself not only struggling to keep her own “head above water” with an overlarge class of boisterous second-graders, but she is the go-to “wiser head” for all of the TFA kids who, in her words, have been “thrown to the wolves” with no mentoring or support.
As someone who has taught in urban schools myself, I know very well how it can devour someone alive, if one is not properly prepared and supported. Urban teaching offers rich rewards, but it is not for the faint of heart or the ill-prepared. What my friend described is unconscionable. If this is truly the TFA approach, then it deserves NONE of the kudos it so frequently receives!
Actual, certified teachers with urban experience were let go again this year to make room for the new TFA group. This serves neither the children of the district, nor the idealistic kids who signed up for TFA and now come to my friend in tears on a daily basis. It is a classic case of the bureaucracy serving its own interests before those of the students in the district, because of budget cuts that force wrenching decisions.
And it is precisely this kind of situation that we must avoid if we are serious about an ascendant future for the United States.

Pushback from the Education-Industrial Compex

Textbook publishers resist the digital trend.

“Bye-Bye”? Maybe not yet.

Apparently, some industries insist on replaying their own version of the 1990s music industry’s resistance to digital music–and the major publishers of textbooks are totally there.

In my last update I talked about the potential of e-textbooks as opposed to traditional, printed and bound “dead trees” textbooks. My post focused on the versatility and vastly-expanded possibilities e-textbooks could offer.

Unfortunately, that kind of versatility and useability do not describe the way things are right now.

Just like the old record companies, textbook companies are doing their best to resist the new realities of the digital landscape. Some of their techniques make digital textbooks a very bad “deal” for students.

They persist in charging high prices, yet often make their books “expire” after 6 months–making them more of an overpriced rental than a purchase. Sometimes they embed copyright enforcement measures that make digital textbooks impossible to sell, and they place stiff restrictions on sharing, as well.

All of these measures hinder accessibility, jack up expenses, and hinder the use of the book. (And in spite of all this, textbooks still get pirated anyway.)

Add to these problems the unpredictability of platform options, and you begin to understand why such an apparent “no-brainer” hasn’t really taken off yet.

Reading textbooks on laptops, with their backlit screens, is hard on the eyes. But other options are unpredictable.

Cautious districts are sticking with paper versions for now.

Will the Kindle fizzle out or take off, as a textbook platform? Will more people adopt the Nook, the iPad, or some other platform for textbooks? Will the book for any given course be available in the right format? Will any of these suffer the same fate as the HP Tablet?

To continue with the music industry comparisons, no school in this age of shrinking budgets wants to be caught with a storage closet full of expensive “8-tracks” in a world that has settled on something different.

 In spite of all this, I think grassroots demand is likely to turn the tide eventually. Especially on the college level, we’re beginning to see it rather strongly. Some colleges are pushing for all e-text adoption, or e-textbook rental. I know of more and more professors who are beginning to eschew single, or even multiple “dead-trees” textbooks in favor of online resources. Most scholarly journals are available online, and have been for some time.

The world as a whole is going digital. How long can the textbook companies resist?

PHOTO CREDITS: 
The “Bye-Bye Textbooks” graphic is from the Schools.com website. 
Many thanks to The Beaumont Enterprise newspaper for the image of piled-up “dead trees” books.