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Global Questions, Local Answers

By Daniel Friedrich

Thinking about the model proposed by Teach For All (TFAll), and present now in 33 countries, from Argentina to India, Germany, South Africa and the UK, pushes us to ask a series of important questions. This brief essay aims at addressing some of those questions with the goal not of generating a blanket critique, but of contributing to the debate about how to understand global efforts to redefine what it means to teach, to learn, and to be a teacher.

Before getting to the questions, let me first describe some of the common features of all the TFAll programs[1]:

  • Program development: It is important to note that TFAll does not literally export programs, but instead, individuals – social entrepreneurs – apply to the organization presenting a set of form and plans before they are allowed to open a program within the network. In other words, these people need to convince TFAll of the existence of a “need” and how this specific model will address it.
  • Recruitment: One of TFAll’s grounding assumptions is that the teacher is the most important factor in determining students’ success in school. Thus the importance of recruiting the best of the best for this difficult and fundamental task in social reconstruction. TFAll’s programs take pride in conducting rigorous recruitment processes, looking for high achievers who graduated from college with impressive records. Candidates that pass this first bar then write essays and are interviewed before being admitted into the programs.
  • Targeted action: In principle, TFAll is concerned with education inequities. Therefore, it aims at placing most of the corps members in high-needs schools. Though this may not always be possible due to local circumstances, the programs are designed to place recruits as full-time teachers for two years in schools where students are underperforming and good teachers tend not to stay for long.
  • Funding: While the funding scheme varies from program to program in terms of presence or absence of public monies, all programs are at least partially funded by private corporations and donors. Some companies are global partners, like DHL, while other fund only specific programs. Funding is used to run the programs but not to pay salaries to corps members, as that falls under the jurisdiction of schools and districts.
  • Teacher training: The model to train[2] teachers used by TFAll is relatively constant around the globe. Before getting into the classroom, corps members undergo an intensive 5-6 week institute, aimed at providing individuals with the basic skills needed to plan lessons, manage classrooms, and assess learning progress. Whereas some programs continue providing professional development for corps members in partnering universities during the two years of the contract, this is not the case for all programs.
  • Pedagogical model: Borrowing another page from the Teach For America book, programs within the TFAll network share the pedagogical model termed Teaching as Leadership. This model, which adapts a managerial discourse to classroom practice, breaks down teaching into discrete components that can later be assessed by an external observer and rated using a comprehensive rubric. This allows program managers to categorize corps members as “pre-novice”, “novice”, “beginning proficiency”, “advance proficiency”, “exemplary”, and act accordingly.
  • Student assessment: Finally, all programs in the network share a concern with tracking student performance by using quantifiable indicators as proxy for learning. Assessment and tracking techniques are taught at the institute and teacher effectiveness is equated with growth in student performance as measured by these assessments.

As important as these commonalities among programs are, it is vital that one look into the local specificities, histories, and politics of each individual program. How each program inserts itself into the domestic pedagogical arena, what it sets itself as an alternative to, who it is allied with as well as who/what it sets itself against, what sorts of relationships it establishes with public schools and teacher education institutions, are all questions that cannot be answered without studying the local context in depth. As an example, last year I was teaching in Singapore and I lectured on my critical work on Enseñá por Argentina (Teach For Argentina). One of the students was a Nepali woman who was on the board of the newly formed Teach For Nepal. After I finished discussing my work, she mentioned that while she did find it appealing, and while it did open up new questions for her, she found the Nepali context so different that it was hard for her to take these critiques and merely apply them to her own work. In Nepal, for instance, there is no regulation on teaching certification, and most teachers are high school graduates, according to her. Teach For Nepal would provide a venue for people that would traditionally not go into teaching to get not only the experience, but also at least some pedagogical training unavailable in most areas of the country.

This is not to say that there is nothing one can learn from looking at programs globally. As this person said to me, some questions do open up. Several of these questions stem from the commonalities I enumerated above. In order to organize some of the interrogations in a manner that is clear, I will follow the same categories I used to list common features.

While it is true that local social entrepreneurs apply, in terms of program development it is interesting to note the high number of said entrepreneurs who at some point studied in the US, and more specifically, in Ivy League institutions, yet for the most part not in the field of education. This leads me to wonder about the construction of the idea of “need”. In other words, are the information, education and advertising that these elite international students are getting in Ivy League institutions informing the ways in which they conceive of problems and solutions in education? Is there something wrong with that? I myself came to the US to pursue a graduate education. So does that disqualify me from addressing issues in my home country? Clearly not, yet I would be misguided if I took the education I got in the US and uncritically transplanted it to the issues I’m concerned about just because it came from a highly reputed American institution.

The emphasis on recruitment raises several questions that can be asked at a global level. Two of them are linked to the assumptions that ground this practice. One assumption is that the people that regularly go into teaching are low achievers, and not the best society has to offer. In a sense, this could be an empirical question to be responded by looking at data in each country, in regards to the academic performance of prospective teachers. This is what TFAll programs claim to have done. For now, I will not question this, as it may be true in many places that high achievers tend to go into higher paying jobs. What I am not sure about, and I think we should wonder, is the correlation between high academic achievement as measured by GPAs and the potential to be a good teacher. For instance, if we are not satisfied with the school system we have, are people that succeed in it necessarily qualified to change it? They are definitely not disqualified, but I am not sure we should take this relationship for granted. Another issue – one that has become prominent in studies about Teach For America – is that, due to the inequities of the system, high achievers tend to come from the dominant groups, not from the groups high-needs schools tend to serve. If one thinks, as I do, that understanding the communities one works with is an important factor in being a good teacher, then at least this issue merits the question.

This last point is related to TFAll’s targeted action, which of course has the best of intentions. Everyone I have met in the organization is truly, deeply concerned with education inequities, as anyone should be. My question here has to do with the other underlying assumption for emphasizing recruitment: that the teacher is the most important factor in determining students’ educational outcomes. I would contend here that this is simply not true, and that plenty of studies have demonstrated that socio-economic level is a much better predictor of student outcomes than teacher quality. If students come to school hungry, or traumatized by everyday violence, they will have a much harder time learning regardless of teaching strategies. These are not “excuses” but the reality of the injustices of our socio-political and economic system. Unless these basic inequalities are addressed in a serious manner, even the best teachers will fail.  I realize that the point is not necessarily unique to TFAll, although it does interrogate the purpose of such an organization, as well as the commonsense ideas it spreads about the power and responsibility of teachers. And this is not even getting into the issue of sending teachers trained in 5 weeks to the schools that need the better prepared teachers, with a contract for two years. I’ll leave that whole point for another post.

Although the funding structure varies from program to program, I think it is important to think about why corporations such as DHL, IBM or Microsoft have decided to invest in the network, instead of, for example, in traditional teacher education structures. Depending on where one stands in the debate about the public nature of education, this may or may not be a problem. If one believes that the interests of the for-profit sector are usually not aligned with the aims of education seen as a public good, the question becomes quite relevant. The fact that the vast majority of corps members are not unionized may give us a hint of why the model is appealing to certain sectors, and the ways in which it conceives of teaching and learning may be more in line with particular aspects of the enterprising world.

Believing that 5-6 weeks in enough time to prepare someone to teach, especially in a high-needs school, basically assumes that teacher education tends to be a waste of time. The teacher training model embraced by the network begs the question about whether just coming from the dominant groups and having had a successful experience as a learner is enough to be a successful teacher. I am clearly not an unbiased spectator here (as if there could be one). My life is devoted to taking teacher education seriously, to consider teachers as intellectuals in need of a strong theoretical basis that supports questioning one’s own assumptions and seeing teaching as a constant process of inquiry. Teaching, in my view, is not a technical job, but an intellectual endeavour.

Finally, looking at both the pedagogical model and the student assessment model leads one to examine the idea that teaching and learning can be disaggregated into discrete components, which can then be measured, rated, ranked, and used for effective decision-making; that these components are universal (a good teacher is a good teacher, from Buenos Aires to Delhi) and transferable; and that a good education is one that leads students to compete with each other for the top spots and teachers to compete with one another not to get fired. Is this what teaching and learning are all about? Is this what we, as a society, want them to be about?

I want to end this brief essay with one last remark. A common mistake that people critiquing the TFAll model have made has been to become defensive of their own practices and traditions. As I have argued somewhere else, I believe that we, university-based teacher educators, have brought this upon ourselves. I will not go into the reasons here. It is enough to say that we need to look at our own practices and histories to understand why models such as the one espoused by TFAll exist. And we need to apply that same mirror to think of new possibilities that will address some of the questions I have posed here, and imagine a different present for our teachers and students.

Author:

Daniel Friedrich is Assistant Professor of Curriculum at Teachers College, Columbia University. Prof. Friedrich is currently interested in the system of thought behind the travelling of teacher education reforms around the world. He has published in the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, Education Policy Analysis Archives, and the Comparative Education Review among others. His book Democratic Education as a Curricular Problem was published by Routledge in 2014.

[1] Except for Teach For China, which has a different history and follows somewhat different patterns.

[2] I consciously use the term train instead of educate here to point to the difference between a focus on techniques to be learned and mastered versus a set of conversations to be opened and assumptions to be questioned.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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