By Andrew Oxford
If students are less than energetic about returning to the classroom this month, at least a few young teachers hope to make up for that. Brandon Honore is one of them. “Teach for America brings a lot of energy to education,” Honore said. The Dallas native arrived in San Antonio with TFA two years ago. A teacher of humanities at Mark Twain Middle School who is leading a college readiness program on his campus, he exemplifies what the educational reform organization hoped to bring to the city. “I’ve always known that I was going to teach,” Honore said between classes at UTSA, where he is pursuing an advanced degree in education. “But San Antonio has intrigued me.”
The data-driven, business-oriented Boston-based nonprofit had been generating buzz in the educational community for 20 years before they arrived in San Antonio in 2010. Laid out in founder Wendy Kopp’s Princeton undergraduate thesis in 1989, TFA aims to narrow the achievement gap through superior instruction provided by a new generation of educators. As TFA enters its third year in the city, it will be deploying 125 young teachers across the San Antonio Independent School District.
Not everyone in the educational community is sold on the TFA model. In San Antonio, the organization is beginning to face some of the same problems it has encountered across the country. At an SAISD board meeting in June, some trustees aired concerns that many TFA teachers were not staying with the district or even completing their commitments. “I have concerns about the retention of these teachers,” SAISD board member James Howard told The Current. “TFA brings a whole fresh approach to education. But you have to have experience and best practices.”
TFA’s executive director in San Antonio, Laura Saldivar-Luna remains optimistic. “These first three years for us have very much been focused on delivering results within our classrooms,” she said. “Ninety-seven percent of principals say that our teachers are as good or better than other first-year teachers. Two-thirds of [the original] cohort are remaining in the teaching profession. Half will be remaining in their original school. That doesn't even take into account the percentage of folks who will be remaining in San Antonio but may be doing work outside of the classroom.”
An SAISD graduate herself, Saldivar-Luna explained the goal was not merely to get high-achieving college students into the classroom but to create leaders who would implement systemic change in America’s schools. “Teachers on the frontline make a huge difference but they can't do it alone,” Saldivar-Luna said. “We also want to support getting them into positions of leadership that may mean they go on to become a superintendent or a principal or go on to run for office.”
This business-minded attitude has resonated with enough well-heeled donors to help TFA expand across the country. TFA’s board of directors is a who’s who of American business. Executives from News Corporation, Wells Fargo, and Sony have all thrown their weight behind the group’s goal of shaking up under-performing schools with energetic educators. At the local level, prominent donors include familiar names like Butt, Greehy, and Holt.
TFA’s focus on proving results also requires striking a difficult balance between effective teaching and business-minded reform. “From a business perspective, knowing you can make an investment in something that will achieve results at the end of a single year is really appealing in terms of delivering a return on that investment,” Saldivar-Luna said.
That business perspective is exactly what concerns some in the education community. Tina Trujillo, a professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley, has been studying TFA. “It’s not merely a service organization,” Trujillo said. “TFA is an example of a broader, ideological movement.”
In focusing on improved test scores or graduation rates, Trujillo suggests TFA is promoting a very specific brand of education policy. “When you promote this model of school reform, you focus on what can easily be measured,” Trujillo said. “The focus is on one outcome measured by a standardized score. What we get are business-oriented or data-driven metrics which de-emphasize pedagogy.”
Young educators can bring new perspectives to a school but with 90 percent of San Antonio’s TFA corps lacking formal training in teaching, they still have to prove themselves. “It’s a culture shock,” SAISD's Howard said of the experience for new teachers. “Some of them can’t handle it. That’s a major reason some move on to get back into what they wanted to do when they got out of college.” He agrees with the need for change in public education, but how it is measured is less clear. “Kids don’t care about tests, they want to learn something,” Howard said. “TFA is just part of the answer to a long-standing question.
We have to bring in new teachers, but that’s a small portion of it. We need to give teachers the freedom to teach and pay them so they don’t have to work another job.”
Or — in the case of some TFA teachers — go to law school.