You’re likely going to hear a lot about Teach For America in the next few weeks as it’s a handy shorthand proxy for reform efforts. That’s why today’s WaPo front-pager on TFA was somewhat disappointing as a stage-setter.
First, it seems pretty obvious that the economic situation is fueling an increase in applicants to TFA and to teaching more generally and that’s an easy hook for an article. But, that angle overlooks how competitive TFA was long before this recession, it’s part of their model. That seems like a pretty important contextual point that is at best only implicitly mentioned in passing and not made clear for readers. More information about how the selection process works would have also been helpful as it’s a lot more than grades, school, etc…and there is some real potential learning there for the field overall.
Second, in discussing the effectiveness of TFA teachers the article states:
Research into Teach for America’s effectiveness has been inconclusive, but at least three major studies in the past several years indicate that students taught by its teachers score significantly lower on standardized tests than do their peers. A small handful of other studies, and the organization’s own research, contradict that claim.
This is the classic, pile ’em up and see which pile is higher approach to education research that too often informs educational journalism. It’s always easy to say something is inconclusive, and often things are, but not always is it the case. In fact, while there has been a lot of “research” into TFA the methodologically most solid studies have shown that TFA teachers are as good or better than other teachers, including veteran and traditionally trained teachers. Mathematica (pdf) and Urban Institute/CALDER are the two best examples — and those are independent analyses not TFA studies.
Among serious researchers and policy analysts there is a debate about how significant these impacts are in the context of the achievement gaps we face and what could amplify the impact as well as what the policy implications are. But, there is no serious debate that TFA is lowering achievement for students. At the same time, school districts and cities are clamoring to get TFA teachers, that’s an important contextual point, too. These teachers are not being forced on schools — quite the opposite.
Third, the article seems to misread the importance of TFA’s impact. While many teachers do leave classroom teaching after their two-year commitment, about two-thirds remain in education full time and more than 40 percent in the classroom. They also go on to become principals, and superintendents, start schools, launch organizations, and otherwise have impact. That compares favorably with attrition rates in the most challenging schools. In relation to the research, if TFA’ers were not, on average, helping students while they are teaching then the secondary impact would be insufficient as a justification for the program but that’s not the case.
Finally, in relation to all this it’s no secret (even at The Post) that Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor and candidate for Secretary of Education and the current policy lead for President Elect-Obama has been a pretty harsh critic of TFA since its inception. That’s, you know, interesting isn’t it? But too interesting for the story apparently!