Detroit's Teach For America Recruits Stuck In Middle Of Broader Battle
When Brenda Belcher, principal of the new Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, interviewed Mo Torres this past summer for a position teaching Spanish, he seemed like a good fit.
"It was a match," Belcher recalled in a phone interview on a recent busy Friday. "I just felt it."
What Belcher found out only later is that Torres is no ordinary teacher. He's a corps member with Teach for America, a nationwide alternate certification program that has drawn 200 young teachers with mostly no experience and little training to Detroit over the past year and a half as part of the organization's second shot at success in the Motor City.
TFA Detroit members teach both in traditional public schools and in charter schools. They are the face of the latest wave of Detroit education reform -- one that draws much skepticism from Detroiters who see it as yet another outside intervention that takes decision-making power away from citizens.
The Detroit Federation of Teachers, for one, is not as thrilled about TFA returning to Detroit. The union's president, Keith Johnson, filed a grievance to drive the TFA teachers in Detroit Public Schools -- who are all dues-paying union members -- out of his district. And though TFA teachers generally downplay their affiliation with the program (they don't wear TFA t-shirts to school) some face resentment from veteran teachers.
But for her part, Belcher doesn't really care about the broader critiques of TFA or the organization's naysayers. "I've felt no pushback," she said.
Torres is the only corps member on Belcher's staff, and he has proven a success in the classroom. Belcher says Torres assured her that he plans to teach in Detroit beyond TFA's two-year requirement.
"He's built a wonderful culture of community," Belcher said. "He has wonderful instructional practices, he gets the students engaged, the parents are pleased and his lessons are effective."
Yet not all principals are as uniformly happy with TFA teachers as Belcher is with Torres.
Brenda Lyons is the principal of DPS's Schulze Elementary School, and says she supports TFA's mission. But her current corps members have shown mixed results.
"I have one TFA teacher that is dynamite, excellent, outgoing," Lyons said. "I have another where it's not going very well. There's no classroom management skills."
Since the Detroit TFA program is just over a year old, few performance metrics are available on current corps members' effectiveness. Despite TFA's strong reliance on data to measure its own teachers, representatives from the organization declined to release its internal diagnostic data, making it harder to answer the fundamental question of whether the small infusion of TFA blood is helping Detroit students overcome intractable problems.
Only 35 percent of TFA Detroit's teachers are teaching within Detroit Public Schools. The majority are placed in charter schools in the city, like the 15 TFA recruits working at University Preparatory Charter School, a network run by Detroit charter-school office chair Doug Ross. He says the TFA teachers at UPrep have mostly fared well. "With the exception of two, everyone performed very well. They started with the classroom management issues as they came in."
Ross admits it was challenging for TFA teachers, but "by the end of the year, principals felt TFA had improved greatly and contributed a lot." One of those two underperforming TFA teachers, Ross said, "turned out to not be very teachable," and was not asked back the next year.
Mike Addonizio, a Wayne State University education professor, said the charter-school affiliates he talks to laud TFA members' work so far -- but that different issues arise in the public schools.
"My students here at Wayne who are DPS employees are rather negative," Addonizio said.
Teaching in DPS comes with unique challenges that some say TFA members aren't necessarily prepared to face. As Lyons put it, "You have to be more than a teacher in our schools. You have to be a counselor and a social worker and a mom and a dad."
"Admittedly, we had a couple of TFAs who did a pretty good job," Johnson, the union leader, said. "The vast majority struggled mightily."
That struggle, Johnson says, is often born of inexperience. "Many of them have never been in an urban setting at all. Many are white suburbanites who this is their first contact with adolescents in a city like Detroit."
When former DPS emergency financial manager Robert Bobb brought TFA into the district for the 2010-2011 school year, the local philanthropic community lauded the development as a step in augmenting Detroit's new teacher talent pipeline. It was the first major accomplishment of a coalition of local education funders known as "Excellent Schools Detroit," which comprises the Skillman Foundation, United Way, Cornerstone Schools, Detroit Parent Network and the Kellogg Foundation, among others. National education-reform giants such as the Broad, Gates and Walton foundations have also shelled out significant amounts of cash to TFA's national organization.
These groups were particularly excited by the development because TFA had already tried open to up shop in Detroit once before, in 2002 -- and was booted out just a year later.
When asked why the first attempt failed, stakeholders provide different answers: The teaching market was saturated. Enrollment was decreasing. The 2002 teachers were only assigned to DPS schools, and not charters. Teachers were moved from school to school, hampering their success. The sponsoring partnership with Wayne State University deteriorated. The union pushed TFA out.
Nate Walker, who now works as an organizer for the American Federation of Teachers, was one of the 37 original TFA Detroit corps members in 2002. He recalls the district's declining student enrollment made it difficult to place some of the corps members before the school year started, and the organization continued to face challenges largely because Detroit was "the first site of [TFA] expansion where they tried to bring people into an educational labor market that was already saturated."
Ryan Gall was also in that first TFA Detroit corps class. He, too, points to labor concerns that cropped up that first year.
"In Michigan, the teachers' union ran everything," said Gall, who now works as principal of an Indianapolis charter school.
"There wasn't open hostility between TFA teachers and the union; there was hostility between the union and TFA nationally. They felt jobs were being taken away from experienced union teachers for untested new teachers."
Toward the end of that first year, TFA Detroit's director quit, and it became clear that placement would be difficult for the second year. At the end of the year, TFA's founder and national director Wendy Kopp herself went to the home of a corps member and gave Detroit TFA teachers the chance to transfer regions. "That was not a light-hearted dinner," Gall recalled.
But over the last decade, TFA has ballooned. Nationwide there are 5,200 new corps members this year, and 92 percent of 2010-2011 corps members returned for their second year. For Detroit TFA corps members, the retention rate is 93 percent. Annis Brown, TFA Detroit's current director, says the organization has plans to expand through 2015, bringing in 200-250 new members to Detroit each year.
And with its expansion, the parameters of TFA's mission have been re-framed. "It's become a question of teacher quality, not teacher placement," Walker, the former TFA teacher, said.
Things have also changed locally in Detroit. The teachers' union has much less power, and the district's central administration has much more. Under Michigan's Public Act 4, the Detroit Public Schools' emergency financial manager -- now Roy Roberts -- has near carte blanche power over the district.
Roberts could shred the DFT's collective bargaining contract at any given moment. And a recent bargaining agreement struck for "priority schools" gives principals of low-performing schools more flexibility with seniority rules, allowing them to hire more freely. And since 2001, charter schools, which are largely unencumbered by union rules, have exploded in Detroit, now happily absorbing 130 TFA teachers.
Graphic by Chris Spurlock.