A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 05 2010

Can We Be Content About Our Content Knowledge?

Everyone around me knows that I like to drink the TFA Kool Aid.  I sip it for breakfast, imbibe it at lunch while I’m resting and gulp it down before going to bed.  Being the nerd that I am, I’ve had the TFA Core Values up on the corkboard in my room since I arrived in DC back in August.  (Unfortunately, an unidentified and presumably intoxicated–with learning, of course–CM who was over at my place for a “teaching and learning party” defaced my sextet quintet of shibboleths and I never got around to repairing my sign.)

So let’s start with some honesty: I think Teach For America is a fantastic organization.  I’ve already talked about how I value the efficiency of TFA. Indeed, I’m always looking to squeeze the most out of every minute.  Some people comment that TFA is “too corporate” or “run like a business,” with all the negative connotations.  I say that the education sector needs the type of “hardness” that often accompanies such a mentality.

I believe, too, in the mission, of closing the achievement gap in our nation.  I am boggled by the facts that I read about everyday.  I tell my students that we are supposedly the greatest country in the world and, yet, “20 percent of high school seniors can be classified as being functionally illiterate at the time they graduate” and that “when the state of Arizona projects how many prison beds it will need, it factors in the number of kids who read well in fourth grade.”  They are just as angry as I am about these facts.

I love being a part of the movement.  Ironically, I actually look forward to spending 5 hours on a Saturday for the All-Corps Professional Development because the opening meeting helps me remember that I am not alone–in the classroom or as a person working his butt off to help our nation’s youth).  Videos like this one remind me that I am part of one big happy (but perpetually-stressed) family.  When I’m pushed to my mental, psychological and physical limits as a teacher, I always have someone I can talk to who knows almost exactly how I’m feeling.

*****

Even though I have jars upon jars of TFA Kool-Aid in my spacious pantry, there is one issue that constantly nags me and that prevents me from giving TFA an “A+” score. Put simply, I’m convinced that TFA does not value content knowledge enough.

I’ve been thinking about this issue over the past few weeks, thanks to the stimulating (surprisingly!) online discussion that I’ve been participating in for my Educational Psychology grad school class at American University.  We were asked to express our views on the following question: “is content knowledge ‘enough’ to be an effective teacher? In other words, would someone who knows everything there is to know about chemistry necessarily make a good teacher?”

Almost everyone expressed the sentiment that, “no, content knowledge is not enough to be an effective teacher.”  We talked about how there was a difference between knowing the content and being able to teach it; a physics genius may not be able to break down the concept of an atom to a struggling scholar.   Without going into much detail, we pointed out that teachers need classroom management skills (lest they be unable to have the time or attention to teach), acute spatial awareness (lest they miss out on the student in the back of the classroom swiping the teacher’s respect bell–for the fourth time), adaptability (lest they be sidetracked when, for example, real fires occur on a weekly basis) and coolness (lest they look foolish when they almost trip over a power cord).

However, not so many of my fellow CMs seemed to think that content knowledge mattered that much.  I saw anecdotal evidence about that “genius” teacher who simply could not relate to his students or could not manage the classroom well enough to teach anything.

TFA’s recruitment philosophy also reflects this orientation.  New CMs are selected based on a number of transparent criteria (for example, leadership skills, perseverance, critical thinking skills and respect for others) and not necessarily on whether or not they have deep knowledge in a particular subject or content area.

The assumption that underlies this philosophy appears to be that each CM’s “other” strengths can and will override any noticeable lack of content knowledge.  Our leadership in the classroom, our willingness to put up with ridiculousness each day, our ability to analyze problems in a disciplined manner and our deep desire to connect with our students on a personal level seem to outweigh the deficiencies that we might have as teachers of a specific subject.

What am I really saying here?  TFA needs to do a better job ensuring that incoming CMs are placed in content areas in which they are sincerely knowledgeable or, at the very least, “comfortable.” I know too many friends who are teaching way outside of their “comfort zones.”  Here in DC, there are English majors teaching Social Studies and Social Studies majors teaching English.  One close friend, though a social science major and avoider of science in college, was initially placed as a chemistry teacher. Later, he failed his certification test and was made a special education teacher (still, he taught chemistry at Philly Institute).  I know that there are teachers who have education degrees in one content area but are placed in a seemingly random other area.

Our pre-Institute, Induction, Institute and Round Zero preparations, too, did not seem to offer enough content-specific training.  From my perspective, yes, literacy is a hugely important area, but I do not feel that that is where the boundary for an English teacher lies.

So, here are my curious cat questions: what sort of algorithm does TFA use to place corps members?  Why don’t we see better match-ups between CMs and content areas?  I understand that sometimes there are just some hard-to-fill subject areas (i.e. math and science).  Yet, I’ve seen enough examples that have nothing to do with that problem to know that TFA could do a better job.

*****

If my general interpretation of the TFA philosophy is correct (read: “content knowledge will take a back seat to other valuable predictors of good teaching”), why do I think that TFA and others who de-emphasize content knowledge should ensure that teachers are teaching subjects in which they are not merely qualified, but actually competent in?  How, in other words, does content knowledge help make teachers effective?  I have three main reasons:

  • Efficiency.  When teachers know “the stuff,” they have to spend less time out of their jam-packed days reviewing and recalling old content (e.g. “what was synecdoche again?”).  Less time fumbling through old textbooks means more time to allocate to other important teacher tasks (grading, calling parents, modifying lesson plans, etc).
  • Confidence.  I’ve discovered that teaching is a lot like acting.  You have to be confident in what you are doing and you have to act like you know at all times, even when you don’t.  A teacher well-versed in content will be less likely to fumble over words than an unlearned teacher.  Students are extremely perceptive; if they notice a teacher who is wavering, they will be less likely to pay attention to what’s being taught.
  • Passion.  A teacher well-versed in content will be more likely to be passionate about it too. Could John Keating have been as passionate as he was here if, instead of poetry, he were teaching chemistry?

Although I would ultimately place most of my eggs in the “other category” basket, I do think that we cannot underestimate the importance of deep and effective content knowledge.  I think TFA is currently underestimating this.  Let’s do a better job matching CMs with placements.  Let’s make sure that the English major actually teaches English and not math.  Finally, let’s provide more rigorous content-specific training.

Here ends my mini-critique of one aspect of TFA (coincidentally, just this week I taught my students what critiques are).  If anyone can speak to any of my concerns, I’d be grateful, since this is a big puzzle to me.

In the meantime, of course, I will continue to refill my Kool Aid. Three cheers for a “Snomgasm“-induced half day tomorrow in DCPS.

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5 Responses

  1. Anna

    *Great* post. I can’t provide any insight into the CM-content matching process, unfortunately. I just wanted to add that having to repeat qualifying exams for a subject area with which an incoming CM is less-than-comfortable likely adds to his/her frustration and stress levels and general dissatisfaction with the program. A more nuanced matching process would alleviate this, and it is in Teach For America’s best interest, but the actual implementation… easier said than done, I guess.

    At the same time, applicants can “protect” themselves and only check off the subject areas with which they feel very very comfortable teaching and not check off subjects just because they think it will give them a better shot of getting in (when, in fact, I believe it has nothing to do with acceptance) and also think, “Oh, they’ll never place me in this anyway.” Personally, while I had a number of chemistry courses under my belt that would, on paper, qualify me to teach secondary chemistry, I avoided selecting it as a subject because I knew that my content knowledge was not strong enough that I could get up in front of a class every day and explain the concepts adequately.

  2. I have been told that what content you can teach varies by region…since different states require certain college coursework. I initially wanted to teach HS in New Orleans, but because my transcript didn’t meet certain benchmarks (I never found exactly what), I can only teach K-5.

  3. MJL

    The fact about prison beds/reading levels is actually completely bunk. It is usually cited as being from California, but no one has ever tracked down the origin of the rumor, and every municipality it has ever been traced to as stated that not only would they not do something so immoral, but that it wouldn’t actually be a good predictor. Prison beds are actually calculated based on 3-year arrest trends, which makes a lot more sense.
    I brought this up with my LS at Institute, and her eyes glazed over, and she responded with something like, “Well, I still feel like it’s a good way to convey the reality our students face.” Actually, no, it isn’t, if it’s not reality! I wish TFA would stop using it to indoctrinate corps members.
    *End of rant*
    I think that, as a Classics major teaching Geometry, I can say a resounding AMEN to this post. I am teaching tessellations on Tuesday. I do not know what they are, except that they involve M.C. Escher. I have now read the textbook on them twice today, and I still have no fricking clue. After extensive squinting, I have determined that they belong in this unit and not the next one, which is a good thing to realize since I was about to give a unit quiz BEFORE I got to tessellations.
    The more serious problem, though, is that I am totally unable to counter my kids’ claims about how boring and unexciting math is. I realize that our kids do this in every subject, but they tell me constantly how much they hate math, and my reaction is usually a long-winded explanation about how life isn’t a damn amusement park. I’ve noticed, though, that the days when I fake enthusiasm about point-slope form, even absent any “hook” or real-world tie in, my kids really are more on-point. The problem is, faking that is exhausting every day, and I usually manage only general businesslike optimism, which is less than inspiring.
    On the other hand, grading for math is the easiest, for which I am thankful, because grading is by far my least favorite part of the job.

  4. MJL

    The fact about prison beds/reading levels is actually completely bunk. It is usually cited as being from California, but no one has ever tracked down the origin of the rumor, and every municipality it has ever been traced to as stated that not only would they not do something so immoral, but that it wouldn’t actually be a good predictor. Prison beds are actually calculated based on 3-year arrest trends, which makes a lot more sense.
    I brought this up with my LS at Institute, and her eyes glazed over, and she responded with something like, “Well, I still feel like it’s a good way to convey the reality our students face.” Actually, no, it isn’t, if it’s not reality! I wish TFA would stop using it to indoctrinate corps members.
    *End of rant*
    I think that, as a Classics major teaching Geometry, I can say a resounding AMEN to this post. I am teaching tessellations on Tuesday. I do not know what they are, except that they involve M.C. Escher. I have now read the textbook on them twice today, and I still have no fricking clue. After extensive squinting, I have determined that they belong in this unit and not the next one, which is a good thing to realize since I was about to give a unit quiz BEFORE I got to tessellations.
    The more serious problem, though, is that I am totally unable to counter my kids’ claims about how boring and unexciting math is. I realize that our kids do this in every subject, but they tell me constantly how much they hate math, and my reaction is usually a long-winded explanation about how life isn’t a damn amusement park. I’ve noticed, though, that the days when I fake enthusiasm about point-slope form, even absent any “hook” or real-world tie in, my kids really are more on-point. The problem is, faking that is exhausting every day, and I usually manage only general businesslike optimism, which is less than inspiring.
    On the other hand, grading for math is the easiest, for which I am thankful, because grading is by far my least favorite part of the job.
    I think part of my TFA put me in math is the same reason it put me in the Delta: I said I was willing to do it. Math teachers are in such critical short supply. I don’t understand, though, why some of my numbers-oriented friends who prefer math got stuck with English, so I agree that TFA needs to reform this part of its placement process.

  5. abcde

    Thanks for the feedback, Anna and Matt.

    MJL, you make some good points–about the “prison bed” statistic; about TFA’s odd placement mechanism; about how this system sets you up for extra challenges; and about why you think you were given such challenges. I’m still just as perplexed as you.

    Thanks for confirming that I’m not the only one who thinks that the placement process appears to perform “sub-optimally.”

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…


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