Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Barking up the wrong tree

This is the fourth post in this series. It has a different title, well, because Tom Dooher is probably tired of calls to have him shot. You can read part one, part two, and part three.

It all started with an ugly little blast in the StarTribune last week from Minneapolis council member Don Samuels, taking aim specifically at Mr. Dooher and Education Minnesota for opposing what I call the “ninety-day” wonder bill to permit alternate teacher certification in Minnesota. According to Samuels, alternate teacher certification and programs like “Teach for America” were a key to closing the achievement gap.

I commented that Samuels was just trying to find a convenient scapegoat for the achievement gap, and that public employees are always about as convenient as you can get.

The real problem lies in the persistent, and in fact increasing, racial segregation in the Twin Cities. I linked to an article about the work of a University of Minnesota Law School professor, Myron Orfield explaining the effects of this continuing segregation. The article was titled Segregated . . . Again, and it appears in the Spring 2010 issue of the University of Minnesota Alumni Magazine. Professor Orfield comments specifically on the effects of segregation on schools and student performance.

Tom Dooher also responded directly to Don Samuels today. Dooher says that the alternate teacher certification bill is like a second marriage: the triumph of hope over experience.

Well he didn’t say that. I did. But Dooher did counter Samuels’ “belief” that less prepared teachers, like those from Teach for America, were a key to closing the achievement gap between whites and minorities in Minnesota.

That was all the windup; here’s the pitch. Dooher has a Stanford study on his side. (Follow the link and look for the study in the section called “Related resources.”) Here are just a few sentences from the abstract to the article:

Controlling for teacher experience, degrees, and student characteristics, uncertified TFA recruits are less effective than certified teachers, and perform about as well as other uncertified teachers.  TFA recruits who become certified after 2 or 3 years do about as well as other certified teachers in supporting student achievement gains; however, nearly all of them leave within three years. Teachers’ effectiveness appears strongly related to the preparation they have received for teaching. [italics are mine]

In other words, Teach for America recruits are mostly marking time until something else — and better in their view — comes along.

Don’t we want teachers to become better educated and more experienced? How is turning them over every three years going to help? It won’t.

And why would we want to invest scarce teacher development money and mentorship in a cadre of short timers? We don’t.

Wouldn’t we prefer to have teachers who had a more long term commitment to the profession? We do.

To paraphrase Cassius, “The fault, dear Don Samuels, is not in our teachers, but in ourselves.” As Myron Orfield says, we won’t solve the achievement gap problem until we solve the segregation problem. Blaming the teaching profession is both unfair and a distraction.

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