Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Alfuth applies MPA training in classroom, Memphis policy arena


Jon Alfuth

Jon Alfuth is approaching education from two angles: as a geometry teacher and as a policy analyst for elected officials.

After graduating from the La Follette School in 2011, Alfuth joined Teach for America and headed to Memphis, Tennessee, to teach high school. After two years in a traditional public school, he joined the staff at a charter school housed in the campus that used to house Stax Records, known for recording Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding.

"My students were all randomly selected to attend the charter school, and almost all come from low income backgrounds," Alfuth says.

In addition to explaining congruence and planes, Alfuth helps to coach the high school's debate team. The varsity team advanced to the national competition held by the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues in Washington, D.C. "My partner acts as the strategist, and I use my writing experience and policy knowledge to act as the research person and case writer," Alfuth says. "I wrote one of the cases that our students ran a previous tournament. They won three of the debates they used it in. I was very proud of this case as I think it really drew upon my abilities as a La Follette researcher to construct a solid case using analytical policy skills and my abilities as a teacher to communicate it to 16- and 17-year-old students."

Outside school, Alfuth uses his writing and policy analysis skills to contribute to debates about education policy. "Another aspect of my job is promoting the teacher voice and constructive commentary on education policy in the city and state," he says. "To that end I volunteer as a leader in the local Stand for Children chapter and help out with strategy and campaigns. I also am a Teach Plus Policy Fellow. Teach Plus recruits teachers to critically analyze policy and give constructive feedback to district and state policy makers from a teacher perspective."

Alfuth's blog, Bluff City Education, has drawn attention across the country. He says he strives to maintain a constructive dialogue about education policy while examines policy from a cost-benefit point of view. "I've been fortunate to have some interest in my work and I now cross publish regularly with several other blogs around the state and country such as Teacher Pop, the Educators Room, Classroom Chronicle and the Tennessee Education Report," he says.

In the political arena, Alfuth has volunteered for the county mayoral campaign of Deidre Malone in Shelby County. "She asked me for a paper outlining strategies to fund education at the county level from around the country," Alfuth says. "I wrote a 10-page policy analysis outlining a potential policy framework for her to use in the campaign."

"I've found that elected officials are always interested in engaging with teachers who can speak to them on a critical policy level about the merits of a specific policy," Alfuth says.

Alfuth says having the Master of Public Affairs degree makes possible many of these activities. "The MPA enables me to respond to new and controversial policies with a critical eye rather than a strong emotional response," he says.

Teacher evaluations and the use of measures to determine the value teachers add to education is one policy debate to which Alfuth contributes. "Many teachers do not understand value-added measurement and are afraid of it," he says. "The backlash against value-added measurement is huge, but I see some benefits. While I have some concerns, I can look at value-added measures from more of a critical eye because I understand the concept from my days in graduate school and view the policy through an intellectual lens and analyze it based on its merits."

Alfuth notes that his La Follette School training to examine everything from a critical perspective related to policy goals and costs and benefits is essential. "For example, when new policies such as school vouchers or school cuts are proposed in Tennessee, I have the training to look at them from an analytical perspective and render a judgment based on the equitable and effective distribution of resources that the policy would generate," he says. "For example, in my research I find that vouchers don't raise student achievement and aren't worth the money we spend on them."

When Alfuth started at La Follette, he did not have a specific career goal in mind. He enrolled through the school's accelerated program that enables admitted University of Wisconsin–Madison undergraduates to complete a master's degree with a fifth year of study.

"About halfway through the program, I wanted to work in the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, but that changed when I started job shadowing and realized I preferred to work on the front lines of policy," he says. "Looking back, I am not surprised that I've ended up where I am. I get to do something I love during the day (teach) and something I love after school (advocate for good public policy). Even though I may not be directly using the skills I applied in public policy school during my paid work, I use it each and every day as I examine the way education policy works here in Tennessee."

"Regardless of where you go from La Follette, the skills and knowledge you learn there will forever change the way you look at our system of governance," Alfuth says. "You'll be empowered to look at policy coolly and rationally and make recommendations based on the pros and cons of a specific policy."