Teachers' Union Seeks to Drive Teach for America Teachers out of Seattle Public Schools

March 19, 2012

Third grader Enrique (not his real name) eagerly describes his Teach for America teacher like this: “He let us borrow bigger books.” “I am learning English now.” “My goal is to be at fourth grade in reading by the end of the year.”

Teach for America (TFA) is a nationally-recognized training program that provides highly motivated, talented teachers to schools nationwide, especially in low-income inner city communities. TFA graduates come from highly respected colleges, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and the University of Washington.  Studies show their students typically make more progress in reading and math compared to students of other teachers, including veteran and certified instructors.

TFA educators set high goals for their students: a clear focus on math and science, 40 minutes of reading every night, and a desire to graduate and go on to college. In Seattle and other cities TFA is helping children raise their sights and reach for the stars. 

Not everyone is happy, however. The teachers’ union sees opening schools to TFA graduates as a threat to their power within the system.  Union executives did not want TFA in Seattle in the first place, and now they are doing everything they can to drive these young instructors out of local classrooms.

The issue will be decided March 21st, when Seattle School Board members will vote whether to accede to the union and bar TFA teachers from city schools, or allow them to continue educating Seattle children.

How did this happen?  How did we as a community get to a point where our own School Board may end up ousting some of the best-qualified teachers in the country where they are most needed? In October 2010, the Board invited TFA to provide trained instructors for some of the most-needy schools.  In response, six young TFA teachers have been working in Seattle classrooms for nearly a year, impressing administrators and parents with their energy, ability and professionalism. Though demanding, they are popular with students, and set high expectations for what they believe kids can achieve.

Then the School Board changed.  In the 2011 election the teachers’ union backed two candidatesMarty McLaren and Sharon Peaslee, giving thousands of dollars to their political campaigns. These candidates won, and in what some see as payback, they are now spearheading the union drive to oust TFA from Seattle schools.

There’s more. The Seattle Times reports union-inspired activists are harassing TFA teachers at Aki Kurose Middle School and South Shore K-8, hoping to get them to quit. Their personal information has been posted online.  One teacher’s home was burglarized.

TFA may be stirring up the union in Seattle, but the program is considered routine in other cities. Since 1990, nearly 33,000 TFA-trained instructors have taught more than three million students. Today, 9,000 of them educate over 600,000 students in 32 states and the District of Columbia.

The program is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but if the ban is imposed the Seattle-based charity would find it can fund TFA educators in Philadelphia or Boston, but not at John Hay Elementary up the street from their headquarters.

Over 3,000 University of Washington graduates apply to TFA each year.  If the ban is imposed these U.W. grads would find they are barred from teaching at schools in their own city.

If Seattle bans Teach for America it is not the adults who will suffer.  TFA teachers will just move to schools in other cities.  The real harm from this reactionary and mean-spirited campaign will fall on kids like Enrique, all because some grown-ups think protecting their privileged status is more important than helping children learn.


The plural of anecdote is not data

Ms Finne has written a surprising article.

First, I'm surprised that she interviewed students in a classroom. The reporter from the Seattle Times was denied the opportunity observe classes taught by Teach for America corps members and denied the opportunity to interview students or their families. Ms Finne is clearly a persuasive person if she could gain privileges denied the Seattle Times.

Her persuasive powers are significantly less effective with me. I find her article completely unconvincing. It is hampered by a number of defects which diminish its appeal, but the most damning one is the absence of any factual support for the premise.

No Factual Basis
I am troubled by a number of statements asserted as facts without any factual basis. Among these are the description of the Teach for America corps members as "talented". There is no basis whatsoever for this statement. She refers to Teach for America corps members as "some of the best-qualified teachers in the country". This is a patently false statement. What qualifies them? They are complete novices at teaching. They have only five weeks of training compared the the years of training that traditionally certificated teachers complete. I would suggest that it is our nationally board-certified teachers who are the "best-qualified teachers in the country", not a bunch of well-intentioned novices. Not only is this statement grossly false, it is insulting to those teachers who really are the best qualified. She also says that this is where they are most needed. It is not. Teach for America corps members are most needed in those communities with teacher shortages. They are not most needed in Seattle where there are about 100 applicants for each teaching job.

Ms Finne claims to know that the six corps members hired in Seattle are "impressing administrators and parents with their energy, ability and professionalism. Though demanding, they are popular with students, and set high expectations for what they believe kids can achieve." How does she know this? She cannot. It is a fabrication.

Implied Comparisons
I am equally troubled by the implied comparisons between Teach for America corps members and traditionally trained teachers. Ms Finne calls the corps members "highly motivated" and "talented", but there is no reason to believe that the corps members are any more (or less) talented than traditionally trained teachers and there is excellent reason to regard them as less motivated since their motivation would not extend to their seeking a master's degree in teaching while the traditionally trained teachers were ready to make that commitment. The traditionally trained teachers are also more motivated since they are committing to a career in teaching, not just a temporary job. Likewise, the traditionally trained teachers are just as likely to be impressing administrators and parents with their energy, ability and professionalism. They are just as likely to be popular with students. They are just as likely to set high expectations for what they believe kids can achieve. Ms Finne has no basis to assume otherwise.

There are a number of these implied comparisons. "TFA educators set high goals for their students" as if traditionally trained teachers do not.

Peers into the Heart
Ms Finne also makes the error of presuming to know the motivations of others. This is dangerous business at best and it is always suspect. She writes: "The teachers' union sees opening schools to TFA graduates as a threat to their power within the system." Actually, the teachers' union has never said any such thing. National teacher organizations welcome Teach for America. Let's remember that all Teach for America corps members join the union when they are hired as teachers. In Washington, the state organization and the local organization in Seattle don't oppose Teach for America, but they do oppose the de-professionalization of teachers and teaching. Teach for America, while a wonderful and noble program that is needed in communities experiencing teacher shortages, is completely un-needed in areas like Seattle where there are plenty of certificated career teachers available. Having Teach for America here, where there are 100 applicants for every teacher job (except those requiring special qualifications), is like sending CARE packages to Bel Air.

Ms Finne also assumes that two newly elected board members are now leading the effort to cancel the contract with Teach for America as "payback" for campaign support from the teachers' union. That's an interesting conclusion to jump to. Should we also assume that four of the board members who are likely to vote to continue the contract are also providing "payback" to the Education Reform supporters who contributed four times as much to their campaigns? Do we only oppose payback when it is bought with $9,000 or $2,500 from a union instead of $40,000 from wealthy individuals with no direct interest in Seattle schools?

In her teary conclusion, Ms Finne presumes that the opposition to Teach for America corps members is based in "some grown-ups think protecting their privileged status" instead of "helping children learn". I must note that this is HILARIOUS coming from the Washington Policy Center, a group that opposed an income tax on the wealthiest citizens to provide stable funding for schools - talk about protecting privilege over students. The truth is that students will learn more and better from fully qualified experienced teachers who don't leave the school after just two years. The District should hire that kind of teacher instead of an ill-trained novice with other career plans, and they should do it specifically to help students learn.

False Statements of Fact
In addition to statements that are likely false, there are also some statements which are clearly false. Ms Finne is also incorrect when she presumes that the issue will be decided by the School Board. The superintendent is responsible for hiring decisions and she is free to hire Teach for America corps members if she chooses to do so. The Board will not interfere. Whether the Board cancels the contract or not is a separate matter.

Also, even if the contract is cancelled the teachers who were hired will keep their jobs. It is deceptive for Ms Finne to suggest that the six Teach for America corps members will be fired if the contract is cancelled. No matter how the board votes, these corps members will be allowed to continue educating Seattle children.

The reports in the Seattle Times, the report of harassment, the report of personal information on a blog, and the report of a burglary have all proven false. I'm surprised that Ms Finne didn't know that. Or maybe she did. She clearly doesn't hesitate to publish false statements.

Misplaced Irony
The irony of not being able to fund Teach for America at John Hay Elementary is silly. Teach for America has no interest in placing teachers at John Hay, located in Queen Anne, one of the most affluent communities in the state.

Anecdotes or Data
Ms Finne claims that "Studies show their students typically make more progress in reading and math compared to students of other teachers, including veteran and certified instructors." Yes, there are such studies. They were performed by Teach for America using highly questionable procedures and statistical analyses. There are, of course, lots and lots of other studies which were peer-reviewed and conducted without a bias which show, over and over again, that Teach for America corps members are about as effective as traditionally trained novice teachers. That, in itself, should be both a real source of pride for Teach for America and, at the same time, a real slap in the face for traditional teacher training programs. Of course, novice teachers are, on the whole, the least effective group of teachers. So the Teach for America corps members are shown - by real studies using legitimate methods and subject to peer review - to be the equal of the least effective teachers in the country.

While these flaws made it extraordinarily difficult for Ms Finne's article to convince me, the absence of any real positive reason for Seattle to continue the contract was the primary reason that she failed.

The contract is completely superfluous. Teach for America corps members are free to apply for teaching jobs in Seattle with or without the contract. School hiring committees are free to hire them, with or without the contract. The contract serves no real purpose for students. It only serves as a political coup for Teach for America and for billionaire-funded Education Reform groups.

Cancel the contract and hire the teachers anyway.

Campaign contributions ???

More balance would be appreciated.

Ms. Finne writes:
In the 2011 election the teachers’ union backed two candidates, Marty McLaren and Sharon Peaslee, giving thousands of dollars to their political campaigns.

She fails to point out that those two were vastly out spent by incumbent opponents Sunquist and Maier.

We Already Know What Doesn't Work

Mr. Mas would do well to focus on why we should be content with the status quo.

Estoy Listo would do well to

Estoy Listo would do well to focus on what I wrote and see that it is not a defense of the status quo.

Opposing a bad idea for change is not support for no change.

The Plural of Anecdote is not Data

Mr. Mas sure did impress me with the clarity and brevity of his rebuttal and so well substantiated with his interpretation of anecData.

Mr. Mas. It is good to see

Mr. Mas.
It is good to see that you know everything about teaching. Unfortunately what you don't mention is the placement of these teachers is in response to the failure of your veteran teachers to accomplish the various metrics that have been provided to measure your progress. I can understand that living in your walled garden, free from competition is nice, you owe it to the children to seek out what is best.


Mr. Mas. It is good to see

Thank you, Coleman Timothyy, for setting a standard for civil discourse that is sure to make the Washington Policy Center proud. I am really impressed by how well you focused on the issues and supported your statements with facts and reason.

I'm afraid that you did make a couple of errors - small ones. Please allow me to correct you.

First, I think you're wrong when you say that I know everything about teaching. Teaching is a creative and improvisational art form which is highly dependent on the unique traits of both the teacher and the student. Consequently, it would be impossible for anyone to know everything about teaching. Still, I'm very flattered, of course, that you regard me as such an authority.

Second, I don't think you understand my relationship with the "veteran teachers" you mention. I do not keep them as pets as your comment suggests. They are not mine.

Third, the teachers now working in our schools to educate our children have not failed to accomplish any metrics to measure my progress. My progress has been excellent, thank you for your concern, but I have not relied on Seattle Public School teachers for that progress. I have been out of school for many years now.

Fourth, the teachers have not failed to meet any other metrics either. I'm not entirely sure what you intended, but you can be sure that the teachers are working hard and helping students to make progress. As you know, not all of our students are working at grade level, but there are a number of other factors that contribute to student progress and it would be horribly misguided to place all of the responsibility for student progress on the teachers. Still, Seattle Public Schools outperforms the state averages on nearly all of the statewide academic achievement tests. If I were to look for underperforming students I would look in other districts first, districts that are not scoring higher than the state average, like the Kennewick School District.

I don't live in a walled garden - honestly I don't know of anyone who does. I live in a house in Seattle. I live in southeast Seattle on Beacon Hill. There is a low fence between my backyard and the alley, nothing I would call a wall, and my backyard isn't much of a garden - not that I live in the yard. Do you have me mistaken for someone else - someone who does live in a garden?

I don't live free from competition either. I am striving right along with everyone else. Again, perhaps you have me confused with someone else.

Despite all of these mistakes in your comment, you did get it right that we owe it to the children to seek out what is best. All of the data indicates that what is best for them is to be taught by a highly qualified teacher. The most effective teachers are those who have made a career of it. That's what the data shows. I will, however, be looking forward to your leadership as we try to raise taxes to fully fund an expanded definition of basic education since, as you wrote, we owe it to the children to seek out what is best.

Thank you for your kind words.

Coleman's assessment inaccurate

It is hardly appropriate to Blame Seattle teachers. Check the actions by administrative leaders and the School Board.

The original justification for this TFA contract was as a Strategy to close achievement gaps. WAC 181-79A-231 provides for conditional certificates to be issued only after a careful review of all other options to using conditionally certificated teachers. ... Here is my letter to the State Auditor in this regard =>

The District never conducted a careful review. In fact the District has never conducted a careful review of options for closing achievement gaps.

In regard to math ... look here =>

The district uses textbooks not recommended by the State and pushes practices known to be inefficient and ineffective.

The district listens to the UW Math Education Project folks and things get worse =>

The idea that TFA in Seattle is a solution to any existing problem is hardly realistic. Look at the data referenced in this letter =>

Seattle has an ample supply of fully certificated teachers and replacing teachers with 5-week newbies and expecting better results is absurd. TFA is simply a glorified TEMP agency in this situation. It will contribute to increased Teacher Churn as rarely does a TFA teacher remain at their placement school for 4 years.

If the district had any interest in closing achievement gaps, it would learn a lesson from the largest study in the history of education Project Follow Through =>

But instead of the materials and practices known to produce positive results, the district uses those known to be least effective.

John Hattie's monumental work "Visible Learning" show results from interventions used on millions of students worldwide. Again I find the SPS prefers to use practices and materials that are inefficient and ineffective.

Hattie states "Project Follow Through" clearly demonstrated what worked, the result was education decision makers decided to throw increasingly large amounts of money into practices they would like to have work. You guessed it those practices still do not work and certainly have NOT in Seattle.

[effect sizes from "Visible Learning" by Hattie : the hinge effect value of 0.40 or greater indicates an intervention is likely to bring success]

Seattle's current direction is centered on:
a. Inquiry based teaching (0.31)
b. Problem based learning (0.15)
c. Differentiated Instruction (no empirical evidence)

Consider the effective practices Seattle chooses not to use:
a. Direct Instruction (0.59).
b. Problem Solving teaching (0.61),
c. Mastery Learning (0.58), and
d. Worked Examples (0.57).

These four innovations are not only effective but could be easily combined into a deliverable package. Instead Seattle chooses to buy expensive to deliver programs that do not work.

TO BLAME teachers is absurd.

Look at the data and the research and DO NOT be sucked in by propaganda.

Info on what works is also available here =>

See: Putting Students on the Path to Learning:
The case for fully guided instruction.