Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The TFA of journalism.

One day not long ago, I met up, separately, with reporters from two very different publications that cover the same city school system. One is a big, traditional newspaper, and the other is a small, young website. Competition is something all journalists are familiar with and to some extent thrive on, but talking to these two types of reporters, new issues revealed themselves.

Let’s call the paper Brand X and the website Brand Y. Brand X and Brand Y both run blogs and longer pieces, but items that may be deemed newsworthy for Y often don’t make the cut for X. The education reporters at X are choosier about what they publish and write at greater length, while Y demands a faster, constant stream of news. Ideally, both models can flourish. But here’s the tricky thing: If you have a news tip, would you go to X, which might address it more deeply, or Y, which is far likelier to address it at all? If you are operating in a school news environment that is localized, balkanized and all about spreading your word quickly to a targeted, hyper-interested audience, my guess is that you will go to Y.

For Brand X to compete for that level of connection, in addition to modifying its mission it would have to speed the hell up and produce constantly. What does that look like at Brand Y? Its four staffers work pretty much all the time. I don’t think any of them have children, they are young, and I cannot imagine they will be able to do this forever.

Sound familiar? Now, I am not a Teach for America hater. If I knew about it when I graduated college, I definitely would have applied (even though my parents once told me they didn’t pay for a Wesleyan education so I could be a teacher). But I disagree with those who say it wouldn’t matter if schools were entirely staffed by young teachers who turned over every two years, as long as they were smart and good. Because while it may not matter for the students—and that is still an open question—I don’t think the profession of teaching should be the sole domain of people who are willing to work 70 hours a week. Journalism either.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this one plays out.


  1. This is a great post, but it leaves out one huge looming aspect of the whole Teach for America culture: its vehement, ongoing disdain for the notion that there's any value to experience and traditional professional training. In fact, the TFA culture promotes the notion that experience and traditional professional training are despicable things and that the lack thereof is far superior.

    Teach for America is a huge contributor to the massive antipathy and contempt toward veteran teachers that we see regularly all around us, including -- emphatically including -- in the mainstream press. (Though it's mostly editorial writers, I think.)

    As my husband wonders sardonically, when will we see Brain Surgeons for America? The public might decide that experience and traditional professional training were contemptible characteristics in a brain surgeon -- those fusty old medical schools? Oh, please. The new view would be that it was preferable to have a fresh-faced, bright-eyed beginner (ideally a rich kid newly graduated from a prestige university) with a few weeks of training cutting into your cranium.

  2. As a teacher who did not go through TFA, but has worked directly with TFA in DCPS, I can tell you (no matter what research you can find to prove me otherwise) that TFA turnover DOES directly affect the students and our inner-city schools are seriously suffering as a result. What I am unsure of is whether TFA is merely the lesser of two evils. If our only other option is to allow completely ineffective (and I mean read-a-newspaper-all-day ineffective) teachers work in these districts, then perhaps TFA is the better of the two evils, but either way there's a lot wrong with our system. I've posted significantly more about this on my blog.

    Also, I can see the connection in journalism, and I think it's unfortunate. Our high-paced world seems to have less and less room for professionals who need time to do their jobs well.

  3. good post, linda.

    gothamschools and the times, right?

    thing is, gothamschools hasn't seemed nearly as well funded as TFA has been.

    and -- linking back to TFA -- two of the founders of gothamschools have already switched roles / time commitments by going to grad school.

    as with TFA, attrition may be an issue even in the short run.

    / alexander

  4. Alexander,

    I think the founder of Gotham is a money manager whose goal is open information transfer and democratic governance. So education is just a topic in that theme, rather than the specific interest. At least as I understand it. I do not think he has moved on.

    Some of the writers have, but I imagine that is not different than in the traditional media. Elizabeth Green joined GS after the Sun folded, so that was attrition in its own way, no?

    As for funding, I imagine any journalist for a big city paper would challenge the belief that they are better funded than the blogs these days, no?