Washington Post Story Overly Generous About Harvard, Overly Critical Of TFA

image from www.gse.harvard.edu

At first glance, there’s not much reason to pay attention to this recent Washington Post story about a new Harvard teacher preparation program: To build a better teacher, Harvard launches program aimed at quality.

Published over the Thanksgiving weekend, the piece describes the new program, called Harvard Teacher Fellows, that the school of education “hopes will serve as a national model.” Starting next month, we learn, roughly two dozen Harvard College seniors will begin a three-year process thanks to an $18 million grant to Harvard’s school of education (my alma mater).

Sounds promising, sure. But if you’re like me, the questions will start to build up not too long into the piece – none of which is answered:  How many Harvard seniors have applied to the program this first year? Where are the fellows going to be placed? Why are the funders being kept anonymous?

Last but not least, why is the new program set up in the Post story as a competition with TFA?

A couple of conversations with the folks who are featured in the piece – but, alas, no response from Washington Post reporter Lyndsey Layton — suggests that the Post story might have oversold the fledgling new Harvard program (which attracted not many more applicants than open spots) and also might have overstated the ways in which it should be thought of as a rebuke to TFA’s fast-track program.

According to two HGSE folks involved, the new program is as much a testament to the appeal TFA has generated among Ivy League students for teaching as anything else.

Why does the second half of the Washington Post story spend as much if not more time rehashing familiar critiques of TFA rather than giving readers much-needed information about why the new Harvard program is so promising. One answer to that last question may come from the Harvard Crimson. The Crimson seems to have broken the story about the new program a few weeks earlier, on 10/9/15, in an article which presents the new program as an alternative to TFA.

So the Washington Post might have simply been picking up on the Crimson’s angle. 

Interviewed after the Post story was published, HGSE folks were ambivalent about the comparison to TFA:

“I personally would have avoided pitting this program against Teach For America,” said Katherine K. Merseth, an HGSE professor who is quoted in the Post article in a recent phone interview.  According to Merseth, Layton didn’t ask her about TFA in their interview. Her reaction to the focus on TFA in the Washington Post was “Oh, gee, I wish they hadn’t done that.”

“We all recognize that TFA had done in many ways a great job of elevating the job of of teaching,” said HGSE’s Stephen Mahoney in a phone interview. “TFA has been a big part of making that conversation happen.”  However, the TFA comparison might be inevitable. “Anyone who does anything different in teacher education in the next ten years is going to be compared to Teach For America,” according to Mahoney. It was “the inevitable comparison.”

Indeed, HGSE’s new teacher preparation program is building on the popularity of teaching that TFA and other programs have engendered over the past couple of decades. “These kids are right here under our noses,” said Merseth, who teaches a popular course to Harvard undergraduates.

Merseth credits TFA “for raising awareness on this campus and other places about the importance of teaching.” A pre-existing program for teaching candidates, called UTEP, leads to a BA and a teaching certificate but requires students to begin working on coursework early in their college education. With the new program, HGSE is “right there in the mix” with other options seniors may be considering.

TFA’s Massie Ritsch wrote in an emails that “We could have ten TFAs and a thousand university-run fellowship programs and still not fully meet the need for teaching talent and leadership in high-need schools… The noisy education debate features enough false choices already, so framing this as another either/or doesn’t do anything to address the inequities of our education system and the need for strong leaders, grounded in the classroom, to take on a very real problem for our country.”

As to the broader issue of questions left unaddressed in the Washington Post story, it’s less clear. Basically, we’re being told that the graduate education school at an elite Ivy League university has gotten a mystery donation to start a small teacher preparation program and that’s a good thing.

No real surprise, then, that the Harvard folks quoted in the Washington Post seemed pleased with the coverage:

A nice article on HTF in the Wash Post: To build a better teacher, Harvard launches program aimed at quality http://wpo.st/3Qls0 

Not everyone was so optimistic about the program’s chances of making a real difference. A Twitter account listed as belonging to Jim Forde (@stemnetwork) commented “I am insulted by the presumptions of this program.”

As for filling in some of the program specifics: 

*The Crimson article notes that Yale, Brown, Stanford, and the University of Texas have teacher preparation programs for interested undergraduates.

*The Crimson also notes the existence of two other programs — the Undergraduate Teacher Education Program and the Cambridge-Harvard Summer Academy — for Harvard undergraduates and recent grads. 

 *A single anonymous donor came in with a $15 million commitment, according to Merseth, who admits that the anonymity is unusual (and denies that the Emerson Collective is a funder).

*The district and program will split the costs of paying the first-year teachers’ salaries, according to Merseth.

*Graduates of the program will have a master’s degree from HGSE (worth roughly $50,000 these days).  They will be placed in the East Bay, Denver, NYC, Boston, and Dallas according to Mahoney, though agreements have not yet been finalized (and could be with districts or charter networks).

*The program will take bits and pieces from existing programs at Stanford, Brown, University of Michigan, MathForAmerica, Relay, and the teacher preparation revamp effort being headed by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, according to Mahoney.

*According to Merseth, HGSE has hired five new staffers to administer the program. Recruitment was delayed, however, and program staff are “a little panicked about” the first-year application numbers, she said. 

*Roughly 30 Harvard seniors applied before the deadline, according to Mahoney.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.