Which TFA gig is harder?

On Friday I went to hear TFA Founder Wendy Kopp speak at Harvard. This is an older photo of her. It captures the moment where President Bush says, "Rarely is the questioned asked: Is our children learning?" Har. Okay, Wendy has a new book. What she's learned in 20 years. Co-written with Steve Farr. He's a tall man with a deep, quiet voice.

I haven't read the book yet. Jay Mathews' review is here.

Chris Gabrieli introduced her properly. Something along the lines of without Kopp, there really wouldn't be Ed Reform. Yup. Our own MATCH Corps program is only possible because TFA has blazed the way. They've educated college seniors across the nation about the Achievement Gap. Little orgs like ours backdraft off TFA's work; our whole recruiting operation is a single, hard-working, suave hombre named Colin.

From an interview with Kopp:

...Immense energy is being drawn into distracting debates over various "silver bullets" or "silver scapegoats." Charters, technology, curricula, funding, vouchers, union reform, teacher effectiveness -- all are debated as the answer, and yet the success of those interventions is entirely dependent on more fundamental issues of leadership and effective organizations.

Some of the things we talk a lot about can be significant parts of the solution, but it's important they be understood and implemented in their proper context. Vouchers can give parents choices, but they only help if we invest the energy and discipline to create options. More funding can be a huge enabler, but only if we have the leadership and capacity to spend it on the things that matter most.

As an example, Kopp described her visit to the $100 million Microsoft School For The Future in Philly. (I blogged about here). She found it excruciating. She was allowed to see one classroom (because the school is so crappy*). Kids were either a) instant messaging or on Facebook, or b) trying to fix their laptops so they could instant message or get on Facebook. Zero kids tracked the teacher, who was literally shouting to get attention.

The example is supposed to undergird her argument that technology is not a silver bullet, and probably useless without an effective organization. (Agreed).

Yes: without strong leadership, all other efforts are diminished. However, I need to read her section about teacher effectiveness. It seems from the brief quote, and her Harvard remarks, that she posits teacher effectiveness as less fundamental than school leadership.

I wonder. Which matters more? Would you expect better results from a new school with C-caliber principal and B-caliber teachers (based on their previous performances at various other schools), or a new school with B-caliber principal and C-caliber teachers?

* * *

Now that I've typed all that, I'm not sure how to answer that question. So I will attack a different question. TFA deploys their teachers into both environments. Traditional high-poverty schools, with generally low academic outcomes. And certain high-performing charter schools. So: How much easier is it to teach in the latter?

I asked a senior TFA guy. He challenged my assumption:

TFA corps members in high-performing charter schools usually don't think they have it easier at all. They're smart enough to be grateful for being in a real learning environment. They realize classroom management challenges are less (because often all the teachers in the school agree to consistently enforce the same rules with similar rewards/consequences).

But they are pretty articulate about other challenges they face:

1) Unusually high expectations for a first year teacher,

2) Feelings of inadequacy relative to other teachers (lots of strong peers)

3) Significantly longer hours (that often make it hard for them to balance all of their other Teach For America obligations).

My line to all corps members is: "This is hard wherever you are. Many challenges are the same; some are different -- get over it, focus on your locus of control."

I actually believe my own line. Go figure.


*I can understand anyone starting a school and getting a lot wrong. I did! Thankfully Charlie and others steered us through.

I can't understand Microsoft failing to fix it, though. Last week they put out a press release. They're not improving it. They're promoting it!