Teach for America in Seattle: Tracing the big push from a UW dean

Emails show the UW's Dean of Education Tom Stritikus moved quickly and diligently to bring Teach for America to Seattle Public Schools. But should an area with plenty of fully trained teachers (including UW graduates) be reaching for barely trained college graduates?

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Wendy Kopp, founder and chief executive officer of Teach for America (2008).

Emails show the UW's Dean of Education Tom Stritikus moved quickly and diligently to bring Teach for America to Seattle Public Schools. But should an area with plenty of fully trained teachers (including UW graduates) be reaching for barely trained college graduates?

In public education today, there are enduring mysteries like how to narrow the achievement gap, and there are newer mysteries like the enthusiasm for education reform.

There is so much momentum behind education reform that the movement sometimes seems like a train barreling through the country. Teach for America is one of the many cars on that train.   

Teach for America (TFA) screens thousands of recent grads from the best colleges and universities, and trains the ones it has selected for about five weeks in the summer. The recruits are then assigned a K-12 classroom, usually in a struggling school. This was TFA’s original mission: to find the best and the brightest for hard-to-fill teaching positions.

This is a two-year commitment and the recruits are paid by their districts a regular teacher’s salary (except that they come with extra expenses like a finder's fee paid to TFA and the costs of having a mentor teacher available, especially for TFA recruits teaching special education students). These recruits are not interns; each is the teacher of record in a classroom. 

TFA recruits come in with a conditional teaching certificate and must complete a certification program during their two-year stint. TFA’s head, Wendy Kopp, has written about being "baffled" as to why teachers need campus-based graduate programs akin to medical or law school.

TFA, armed with $50 million from the feds, is now spreading more rapidly throughout the country, placing TFA recruits in districts with no shortage of qualified teachers. Some districts are protecting TFA jobs even as they lay off veteran teachers.  

Into the TFA fray comes Tom Stritikus, the dean of the University of Washington's College of Education and a former TFAer himself, with the creation of a partnership between the college and TFA for the recruits to earn their teaching certificate.

A timeline is helpful to tell the UW-TFA story, which has been assembled in part from emails that were received in response to a public documents request as well as from attendance at recent College of Education meetings with students:

Aug. 18, 2010: Not waiting for the official UW announcement that he is to be made dean, Stritikus sends an e-mail to TFA founder and Chief Executive Officer Kopp telling her the news. He says that he would like to create a national on-line endorsement program for TFA at UW, and asks if she would be willing to do press for his deanship announcement. 

She replies, "Let’s absolutely see what we can cook up in terms of ways of working together."

Aug. 19: Stritikus presses forward on the TFA press release, writing that "the quote could address that I am first TFA alum to be a Dean of a COE [college of education], what this means for TFA and that she is eager to watch my innovative progress to move the College forward as a leader in innovation."

During the month of September, the UW announces Stritikus as the dean of the College of Education. The Gates Foundation also announces a grant for $2.5 million to establish a TFA Puget Sound office. 

Sept. 13: Stritikus emails TFA again about the certification program and says by the end of the month he will have things organized.

Sept. 30: The Seattle Times publishes an op-ed by Stritikus advocating for charters schools and TFA teachers. 

Viewing the emails and his op-ed, it seems like, at this point, job one for the new dean was to figure out how to help TFA come to Seattle. But was TFA even coming to Seattle? TFA had already signed a contract with Federal Way but it wasn't a big enough cohort for TFA to place recruits.

Oct. 15: Stritikus lets TFA head Kopp know that Teach for America had been placed on the Seattle School Board agenda in November.

Oct. 26: He sends an email to the regional TFA director, Janis Ortega, and says, "Great work on securing the SPS [Seattle Public Schools] vote."

In November, Seattle Public Schools signs an agreement with TFA.  It says only that Seattle will consider interviewing TFA recruits with no hiring guarantees.  It also says a "private donor" will pay the TFA fee of $4,000 per recruit per year. 

Dec. 6: In an e-mail to the dean, a TFA staffer, Justin Yan, states, "…I thought I'd reach out to you regarding our recruitment efforts considering it's a fairly controversial topic, considering that TFA applicants will now be competing for spots against your MIT [master's in teaching] grads."

Jan. 12, 2011: Stritikus sends an e-mail to Ortega, the regional TFA director, saying, "We are having one more round of faculty conversations (more of a way to get buy-in than any real worry bout whether we do this or not)."

Jan. 18: There is an official TFA announcement of expansion to the Puget Sound area.

Jan. 25: Ortega says, "The minimum number of corps members is 35, but we continue to work towards our goal of 50 and see an immediate path to 40-45 at this point."

Feb. 15: Ortega sends Stritikus a chart of districts (Seattle and Federal Way and, now, Kent), with grade level/subject placements for TFA recruits. The range is from 39-70 teaching slots.

March 2: College of Education faculty member Charles "Cap" Peck writes to Stritikus about the program between UW and TFA and worries about TFA's “prescribed curriculum” and that “this will tend to marginalize” UW’s role. Peck continues, "They clearly do not expect us to have much of value to contribute to this process."

March 4: Stritikus floats the idea of going to UW interim President Phyllis Wise about "tuition flexibility" for TFA recruits. He says, "Since it is an odd time in the University, anything might be possible."

April 18: Wendy Kopp appears on KUOW saying that there "will be" about 35 TFA recruits in Seattle Public Schools by fall.

So how do the head of TFA, the dean of the College of Education, and the Gates Foundation all seem to know TFA recruits will be teaching in Seattle Public Schools in the fall of 2011, even though the district's agreement doesn't guarantee places for them and the issue remains controversial? 

May 11: UW announces that the College of Education has created a credentialing program for TFA recruits. The Seattle Times notes the dean's personal association with TFA but he tells the paper that creating the credentialing program is not "an endorsement" of TFA.  

It should be noted that at a recent meeting with UW Education faculty, a student stated that the partnership indicated endorsement of TFA and no faculty disagreed. In a recent statement, the dean said, "This is a partnership, not an endorsement."

Unfortunately, the College of Education didn’t let its students know about the new credentialing program with TFA.  They learned about it when they read the news accounts.

May 18: The dean calls a meeting with College of Education students and faculty. In the meeting announcement he stated, "I want to assure you that this new partnership will not result in a reduction in the commitment of the college to prove our current and future MIT students with a high-quality, cutting edge teacher education program." He also told his grad students that creating the TFA program had been "a goal" of his for a long time. 

Consider this: You are enrolled in what is considered a top college of education in the nation. It is a rigorous master's program where you take a year of courses and a year of in-school teaching. It could take longer than two years and, of course, it's going to cost you thousands of dollars. You learn that the dean has set up a partnership with a group that "trains" recruits for five weeks and then sets them loose in their own classrooms. It seems at odds with your program and you wonder what is going on.

At the meeting, Stritikus said that he would pick one of his own UW-trained grads over a TFA-trained recruit. He further said that his own grads had a "moral obligation" to help students in TFA classrooms because TFA teachers aren’t as well-trained as UW College of Education grads.

A student asked about money and Stritikus said, "We did look at the debt load area."

But the students’ main question was the viability of their own program vis a vis the new TFA one. There were no clear answers.

What about that issue of "debt load” and "tuition flexibility” for TFA recruits? According to the partnership agreement between UW and TFA, total fees and tuition for the TFA program will be about $11,000 per year, which is about the same as in-state grad students pay. However, the majority of TFA recruits will be out-of-state students.

The normal tuition for out-of-state graduate students would be between $24,000 to $26,000. TFA recruits receive a government grant from the Americorps program for more than $10,000 over two years. They also are allowed to postpone making regular payments on student loans during the two years of service.

This all comes as UW recently announced that it was taking fewer in-state residents next year because they need the tuition money that out-of-state students bring. That likely means fewer Seattle Public Schools’ 2011 grads entering UW. 

In these hard fiscal times when UW is admitting fewer in-state students, why is it giving tuition breaks to out-of-state TFA recruits? Is it right for any district to be bringing in out-of-state college grads for teaching jobs when there is no shortage of certificated teachers in Washington?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Westbrook

Melissa Westbrook is a public education advocate and writer/moderator of the Seattle Schools Community Forum.