New and Improved: TFA Is Neither

New Peanuts?

You remember when you were a child going to a store, and you saw a toy you wanted? Perhaps there are just two on the shelf. Maybe two Lukes from Star Wars. They look exactly the same to you, except for two small differences. One of them, for some reason, cost thirty cents more than the other.

In those days, thirty cents made a world of difference. After all, you could get the latest Detective Comics to go along with the Luke for that. So, what kid in his right mind would buy the more expensive Luke?

Well, no one.

But we’re forgetting about the other difference between the two Lukes. And that, as Frost says, makes all the difference.

The more expensive Luke had a sticker on the package that said, “New” or “Improved,” or god help us, “New and Improved.”

And suddenly that copy of Detective Comics would just have to wait because coming home with a “New and Improved” Luke would make me the envy of all the boys on the block.

I’d just have to make sure I kept the packaging to prove to everyone that my Luke was actually newer and improved-er than their Luke.

It’s funny how little things change as we grow up.

As I was walking through the grocery today, I noticed a can of Planters peanuts that had a flag on it’s side reading “NEW.”

Honestly, new peanuts? Somehow I don’t think the peanut has changed much, do you? But I’d bet that Planters marketing department will have 10 studies showing that putting the “New” label on the can increases sales or profits or both.

And that’s what this is all about. Sales and Profits.

Today, the Birmingham News ran just such a promotional, or puff, piece on Teach for America called, “Birmingham City schools praise Teach for America” by Marie Leech.

She tells the story of history teacher Wyatt Smith who “came in one day and said he had a special guest for us, and came back in dressed as Abe Lincoln and did a rap song before the exit exam with everything we’d learned. He doesn’t care about making a fool out of himself to make you learn.”

Leech calls Smith’s style, “unquestionably non traditional, but filled with energy.”

You know, she’s right, having a teacher who dresses up as a character is a great way of teaching students about that character. I think the first time I saw it put into practice was in Vacation Bible School about forty years ago. The pastor dressed up as Jesus and walked in carrying a cross.

I’m pretty sure I saw it again in nearly every elementary classroom, middle, and even a few high school classrooms (although by that point most of the students in my classes would have thought it silly). I even had a seminary professor who regularly came to class wearing a red ascot impersonating the Devil.

I’m sorry Ms. Leech, but there’s nothing, absolutely nothing “non-traditional” about dressing up as a character to get student’s interested in a topic. Teachers have been doing this for nearly as long as there have been people wishing to teach others. You might want to take a look at Plato’s writings about Socrates on occasion to see what I’m talking about. Socrates is constantly depicted as adopting roles in his efforts to educate the youth of Athens.

Leech also talks about Audrianna Archibald, one of the few (in 2009 about 3%) TFAers who also has an education degree. Ms. Archibald says, “In the college of education, they taught us lesson plans, but there was no sense of urgency. Also, tracker are not taught in education. That’s probably the biggest thing taught in TFA, is tracking each student’s progress and letting parents know how their child is progressing.”

Honestly, she says that a college of education doesn’t teach tracking a student’s progress.


She goes on to say, “I go to their birthday parties; I go to church with them. If you want them to be completely engulfed in what you’re teaching, then you have to build those relationships or it’s hard to get them focused on what you want them to do.”

Again, there is nothing, absolutely nothing “non-traditional” about building relationships with your students in order to educate them. My children’s teachers have been to their birthday parties:

Terri CropedSusan Croped

They’ve been to church with their kids. They encourage their kids to follow their passions and celebrate their successes:


They volunteer their time, money, and sweat to support events like the Autism Walk:

Team Matthew

Getting involved in children’s lives is, frankly, standard operating procedure for every teacher than my children have ever had. And anyone who tries to tell you this isn’t the case isn’t paying attention.

Or they’re trying to sell you something.

Teaching Matters

Leech goes on to praise a French teacher named Heidi Kershner who is using an innovative method of teaching French called “immersion.”

I’ve got to just stop here for a moment. To be honest, I had a terrible time with French, Spanish, and in college, German. My inabilities to learn and speak foreign languages was legendary. My peers regularly used me to encourage others after a test: “Well at least you didn’t do as bad as Russell.”

But come on. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, “innovative” about using “immersion” as a method for teaching foreign languages. This method has been used for as long as anyone has attempted to teach a foreign language to someone. The more immersed the person, the quicker the person adopts the language.

Truthfully, the only person who would believe that any of the examples offered in this article are “innovative” or “non-traditional” would be a person who doesn’t have any idea what education is. If these examples demonstrate anything at all, they are examples that demonstrate the inexperience of the people offering them up as “innovative.”

All this article proves is that TFAers don’t have enough experience to know that their innovative methods have been in practice for, at times, thousands of years.

Every single teacher I know of makes use of all of these methods and many, many more because teachers, particularly teacher with experience, know that how you reach a child differs with every single child.

And so, someone must be selling us something.

The one objectively true statement in this “traditional”-teachers-are-no-damn-good puff piece is this:

The teachers earn the same salary as a first-year teacher in Birmingham city schools, roughly $36,000 plus benefits. The district also pays a $5,000-per-teacher, per-year fee to Teach for America for recruitment, placement and training.

That’s right. A TFAer costs tax-payers $10,000 (TFAers stay for two years–the total is therefore $10,000 per TFAer) more than those boring, so-called “traditional” teachers.

There’s no specific evidence that TFAers out perform traditional teachers. At best, they are about the same–and yet they cost more.

There’s no specific evidence offered in Leech’s article that TFAers approaches to teaching are “unquestionably non traditional” as she claims.

There is evidence that TFAers cost more.

There is evidence that TFA of Alabama is attempting to sell us something. The Alabama Education Trust Fund budget for FY 2012 appropriated $611,100 for Teach for America.

There is evidence that TFA’s assets have increased by 623% over the past ten years to $337,962,466.

There is evidence that the Broad Foundation has 1.6 billion dollars in assets at the end of 2010.

Wouldn’t it be nice if million dollar corporations like TFA and billion dollar foundations like the Eli Broad Foundation would celebrate teachers who do exactly the same work, but don’t cost $10,000 more?

But then those teachers couldn’t be called “new and improved” could they. Those teachers don’t grow TFA’s coffers by 623%, do they?

No. Those traditional teachers just teach.

They give their lives, not just two years, to inspiring students to learn. They give their lives, not just two years, looking for ways to connect with their students. They give their lives, not just two years, looking for ways to immerse their students in their subject matter. They give their students their lives.

“New and Improved” is just another way of separating a fool from his money.

We need not be fooled by repackaged peanuts again.

It would be nice if the Birmingham News could stop giving TFA free advertisements. I hope the Huntsville Times will avoid doing so next year when Dr. Wardynski starts singing the praises of TFAers for doing the same things that teachers have been doing for thousands of years. He certainly won’t tell us if the TFAers are failing. I hope that the Times, unlike the Birmingham News, will.

"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


  1. An awesome analysis bringing the truth to light! There are classes taught in education…Measurement and Statistics to assess students progress. It is also reviewed in other classes. What the article did not address is if a child is having learning difficulties will the TFAer be able to determine the problem and work through it.

    1. Thanks King! I’m embarrassed that I didn’t include a discussion of learning disabilities. I’m sure there are thousands of benefits to a teacher who holds a degree in education, especially in early childhood, that the article dismisses or ignores.

  2. Thank you for this wonderfully written article. Why would the superintendents waste our tax dollars on such non-sense? What kind of kickback are they getting?

    I am against TFA teachers teaching my child. I would prefer a teacher who spent 4 to 5 years learning teaching skills than one who only spent 6 weeks.

    1. I have no reason to believe that Dr. Wardynski is receiving a kickback of any kind.

      Dr. Wardynski was trained by the Broad Foundation in a program for superintendents that is modeled after the TFA training system for teachers. I’m sure he believes he is fully prepared to be a superintendent as a result of his weekend training course.

      There is also a direct connection between The Broad Foundation and TFA. http://www.geekpalaver.com/2011/10/30/eli-broads-return-on-investment/

      I completely agree that paying extra for TFAers is a waste of money. It is simply a way of funneling public funds to a private source that is at best unnecessary.

  3. You mean TFA in the predominately black\brown\poor schools, all “other” schools will have trained, certified, experienced, teachers.

  4. Yes, “traditional teachers” are a part of our children’s lives for the long-haul. All of MLB’s teachers, even from way back at MMO and Montessori, still ask about him & root for him.

    This past week his 2nd grade teacher had to be out for planned surgery. In between my involvement in a play & his upcoming 8th birthday, he has been a bit high-maintenance. I asked him who his substitute was for Thursday, and he couldn’t remember, so I said a quick prayer & sent him to school on Friday with cookies for everyone for his birthday. It worked out great! I asked if he remembered his substitute teacher’s name; nope, he still couldn’t remember Thursday’s teacher, but he remembered Friday’s teacher— Ms. Plemmons!

    Belinda Plemmons wasn’t even my son’s primary kindergarten teacher, but since all of the teachers at each grade at Challenger work as a TEAM, she knew him as well as the children in her own class. We are so blessed to have her continue, after her retirement, to be a part of our children’s lives through her substitute teaching. (MLB was so excited to see a familiar face, he gave her TWO cookies.)

    Right on, Russell, right on.

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