Not waiting for Superman

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  December 15, 2010

To contend that a college graduate with no formal training is qualified to teach, he suggests, is to contend that teaching is something less than a profession; a task worthy of amateurs. It is an attitude, he says, that would seem absurd in other fields.

"I know how to use a knife and I went to college," he says. "That doesn't mean I can be a surgeon."

The critique attaches to much of the larger reform movement. Critics see something deeply presumptuous in New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent choice of Cathie Black, a publishing magnate with no experience in education, as his schools chief.

And Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University and leading critic of the market-driven reform movement, has labeled philanthropists like Gates and Eli Broad — both supporters of TFA — members of a "billionaires boys club," self-appointed saviors of public education accountable to no one.

But if education should be the province of professionals, it is far from clear that the traditional hallmarks of the professional teacher — advanced degrees and long experience in the classroom — really mean all that much. Indeed, research suggests they are poor predictors of effectiveness.

And Teach for America, after a long study of the question, has its own ideas about what makes for an excellent instructor. Earlier this year the organization's primary researcher, Steven Farr, published TFA's findings in Teaching As Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher's Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap.

The best teachers, the book suggests, share six qualities. They set big goals. They are in a state of constant re-evaluation — unafraid to blow up a math or reading module that falls short. They encourage family involvement and plan methodically. They make informed adjustments in class. And they work, relentlessly, to overcome the hurdles of bureaucracy and poverty.

The findings, for critics, are hardly revelatory. What good teacher doesn't know about the importance of planning and hard work? But supporters say TFA has made its mark with a methodical implementation of its ideas.

The organization has invested heavily in screening recruits for leadership qualities; it drills sound practices into new hires with a highly structured five-week summer boot camp; and it reinforces those practices with a continuous cycle of classroom observation and advice — a cycle on display on a recent Thursday afternoon at Alvarez High School in Providence.


TFA program director Kiel McQueen sits at the back of an algebra class observing one of his first-year instructors, Brian Swanson.

"Clap once if you can hear me," the teacher says, settling the assembled. "Clap twice if you can hear me."

Most TFA instructors come straight out of college. But Swanson spent three years in the working world, serving as a financial analyst for a major oil company in Houston. And he has a personality to match his previous occupation — calm, analytical, driven; the TFA prototype.

His affect makes for a comfortable fit with the tightly scheduled pedagogy favored by his school. On the whiteboard at the front of the room, large laminated numbers spell out the sequence for each class. First, five minutes for the "do now" portion of the class, a single math problem designed to provide focus. And then the 10-minute "launch" of a new lesson.

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