Open for questions

Teach For America, Boulder researchers trade volleys over program’s approach

PHOTO: CU-Boulder/ Kristen Davidson
At a panel discussion at the University of Colorado Boulder. From left: Raegen Miller, Teach For America; Jennie Whitcomb, University of Colorado; Terrenda White, University of Colorado

A panel discussion at the University of Colorado Boulder today highlighted tensions between Teach For America and traditional teacher preparation programs that persist even as TFA’s priorities and practices evolve.

As part of an effort to build relationships between Teach For America and academic researchers, Raegen Miller, TFA’s vice president of research partnerships, told a room full of doctoral students and faculty that the organization is hoping to dig into a set of questions that is broader and deeper than just asking whether corps members help students’ test scores improve.

“It’s boring to talk about how much better teachers score,” Miller said. “TFA has got to be a valuable lens into getting into some of these bigger questions.”

“If you’re interested in having the U.S. be more selective about teachers…if you’re looking at whether diversity among those serving low-income students matters…policymakers can’t lean in without good evidence,” he said.

Teach For America is a 25-year-old nonprofit that recruits teachers-to-be and places them in high-needs schools for a two-year commitment, after a six-week-long summer training. TFA has been in Colorado since 2007, and currently has 235 teachers in Colorado schools.

Miller was joined by Jennie Whitcomb, Associate Dean of Teacher Education at CU’s School of Education, and Terrenda White, an assistant professor at the school and a Teach For America alumna who describes herself as a “critical friend” of TFA. The conversation was hosted by Kevin Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center, a national research center housed at the school.

Miller said that there has been a perception that TFA is most interested in publishing research that casts it in a favorable light.

“There’s some kernel of truth to the observation. But it’s not the way things work now going forward,” he said.

But the conversation at today’s event surfaced a continued skepticism among much of the audience about TFA’s approach to teacher recruitment, training, and placement—and about what kinds of projects TFA would want to work with researchers on.

Miller said that over time, TFA has increased its focus on recruiting teachers from low-income backgrounds and teachers of color; beefed up its training; given its local offices more decision-making power; and, perhaps most significantly, taken the official stance that it is good for teachers to stay in the classroom for longer than their two-year commitment through TFA, he said.

He also noted that the organization has for the first time begun to take stances on political issues. TFA recently announced its support for the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) which would grant permanent residency status to certain immigrants who arrived in the country illegally as minors.

Still, White said she wondered if the organization would welcome research about whether it was recruiting educators with different attitudes toward teaching, and whether it would change its training model now that it aims to keep more teachers in the classroom.

An audience member asked how committed TFA is to keeping teachers in the classroom for longer than two years, pointing out that the short commitment is still a prominent part of TFA’s advertising.

Miller said he thought the two-year commitment was likely to be part of the program for the foreseeable future, but that TFA still sees part of its mission as creating change in education systems through people who go on to become leaders in systems as well as through those who remain in classrooms.

The pointed questions directed at Miller were likely not a surprise to anyone: NEPC is often skeptical about current education reform efforts, and last year released a piece questioning Teach For America‘s claims that corps members are more effective than other new teachers.

The brevity of the program’s training, the fees districts pay to bring in TFA recruits, the cultural competency and temporary commitment of recruits, and TFA’s marketing of teaching as a stepping stone to graduate school or a higher-paid profession have all been called into question as TFA has grown. The program has also garnered attention for having an admissions rate comparable to elite colleges.

In general, TFA has been fielding more criticism in recent years, some from its own alumni, as a report released earlier this week highlighted.

“In terms of partnering with critical friends, I don’t think there’s really a choice,” Miller said. “This is how you’re going to address questions that relate to the deepest issues around eliminating education inequity.”

This article was updated to clarify Ms. White’s comments and TFA’s current Colorado membership. 

Talk to us: What types of research projects would you like to see focused on Teach For America? Let us know in the comment section, on Facebook, or on Twitter @chalkbeatco.


In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach.

They’re conducting a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse. The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” Elisha Holmes said Friday as he worked with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the $400,000 price tag of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater that hasn’t been functional for years.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

In the Classroom

When students at an Indianapolis high school weren’t talking about Charlottesville, this teacher started the conversation.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Delvonte Arnold started a conversation about Charlottesville in his world history class.

When teacher Delvonte Arnold came to school after a weekend of racist violence, he expected students to have questions. But to his shock, Charlottesville didn’t come up.

“No one asked me any type of questions about it,” said Arnold, who teachers world history at Arlington High School, a far east side school that could close as part of an Indianapolis Public Schools reconfiguration proposal.

But Arnold thought it was important for his students to talk about the white supremacist rally and the car that plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters — a day that ended in tragedy with three dead and dozens more injured.

So Thursday afternoon, in the 20 minutes before the bell rang at the end of the day, Arnold decided to start the conversion. He and two other teachers brought together about 15 students, most of them African American, to talk about the rally.

“They are growing up black in America,” said Arnold, who is black. “You have to know what racism looks like, and we have to figure out a way to do things that will make a change in our communities.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teaun Paige is a sophomore at Arlington High School.

Teaun Paige, a sophomore in the world history class, said that she learned about Charlottesville from her mother last weekend. Teachers have occasionally brought it up this week, she said, but students haven’t spoken much about it.

But even though she hasn’t spent much time talking about the violence with her friends, she said “it feels like a big deal.”

“I mean, if it happened here it would be way more of a big deal,” Paige added, “but it’s still a big deal.”

One reason Arnold likes to discuss issues in the news is because it gives students a chance to pause the reading and writing they are usually focused on and think about the world.

Because not all of them are paying attention to national news, he needs to start by giving students background information. Thursday, the class started by watching a short clip from “Vice News Tonight.”

“They are engaged, but first they have to find out about these things,” he said. “I have to stimulate the conversation.”

The class also talked about racism and terrorism last week, Paige said.

“It turned into something really serious,” she said. “We started actually putting our feelings out there about racism.”