Teach For America Alums Not Becoming Astronauts! And Other Articles…

Proving that no good deed goes unpunished this new study on Teach For America (TFA) Teachers is proving to be catnip for the program’s detractors.   In short, a forthcoming Stanford study finds lower levels of civic activity for Teach For America program completers than for non-completers or applicantswho where accepted but chose not to join the TFA Corps (non-matriculants).  I’m pretty sure you could hear the cackling from the AACTE office’s as far away as southern parts of Pennsylvania.   The Times writes the study up here.  Stanford’s Rob Reich responds with his thoughts here. 

But if TFA has anything to be bothered about here, it’s the spin rather than the underlying study itself – and that’s a potential problem in its own right.  The Times account does a nice job of laying out the data on the sample for the study but provides less data about the, you know, findings. In the data a few big trends jump out. First, everyone in the study, TFA completers, non-completers, and non-matriculants have substantially higher levels of civic participation relative to the baseline. Second, while some of the differences in participation observed, the “lagging” effect that is getting the attention, are statistically significant, it’s debatable how substantively significant they are. For instance, while 92 percent of the sample overall voted in the last presidential election, only 89 percent of TFA completers did. You decide how much of a problem this is given that these rates are about double the averages for the age-cohort overall. Likewise, completers give to, on average, only 2.2 charitable organizations while dropouts give to 2.6. And it does appear that a small percentage of outliers may be skewing some of the data.

On the other hand, there are some differences between non-matriculators and graduates that are worthy of deeper investigation, particularly as it may relate to the intensity of the TFA experience. In fact, the question battery had 100+ items measuring civic attitudes and TFA completers scored higher on 62 percent of them relative to the other groups. Where they “lagged” is on certain measures of actual civic participation.  Learning more about why is important.  Obvious explanations include fatigue or a desire for a break, but it could be something else, too.

So the punchline is not anything negative about TFA per se but rather that it’s unclear if the TFA experience increases civic participation (from an already abnormally high level) based on this study. That’s a legitimate question relative to the service movement overall. But it’s not central to TFA’s mission, which is to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students and create a cadre of alums with a firsthand understanding of the educational challenges facing low-income students. In other words, while the civic question is hardly irrelevant, let’s hold TFA accountable for what the organization wants to do via its mission. And please let’s not discourage them from transparency and cooperating on various studies where researchers can glean important pieces of knowledge by taking the results out of context.

By the way, TFA is basically the largest teacher preparation program in the country today. That, among other things, makes it a target. In a new Atlantic article Amanda Ripley looks at the organization’s learning and knowledge base about teacher effectiveness – something too often ignored in all the back and forth.

11 thoughts on “Teach For America Alums Not Becoming Astronauts! And Other Articles…

  1. Nashville Jefferson

    Thanks for the perspective — there has been, indeed, a lot of cackling out there, but I think you’ve got it right. TFA has always had as a goal post-teaching civic engagement (i.e. being an advocate for a better educational system during the rest of one’s career), but it’s not the central mission. As well, you’re right on about the baseline vs. the actual comparison made in the study. The “control” group, so to speak, already has abnormally high levels of participation, so any small difference between them and the TFA folks gets magnified.

  2. Alum

    Also consider, re: “lower” charitable contributions, that TFA alums had loans deferred for their 2-year commitment, but begin repayment upon exiting the program regardless of whether or not they remain in education. Non-matriculants essentially have a 2-year head start on dealing with loans and may have a financial plan that allows them to become donors earlier. Then there’s the reality that corps members (like most teachers, of course) supported their own classroom with personal financial resources, which I’m not sure is captured in the “charitable giving” figure. Pure speculation, of course, without anything but anecdotal experience to back it up.

  3. j

    As a new teacher who entered through a TFA-type program (TNTP), I find civic engagement difficult. This is especially so because I have a family waiting at the end of the day. But it’s also difficult for any new teacher to find time civic participation.

    That said, isn’t teaching itself a form of civic engagement, especially if it’s a form of giving back?

  4. PhillipMarlowe

    Has anyone ever pimped “easy answers” in the ridiculous way Kopp does? She seems to know nothing about low-income classrooms—unsurprising, since she’s never taught. She keeps making grandiose claims for her program—claims the studies don’t seem to support. But so what? Ever since the 1960s, our elites have favored pleasing, non-answer answers to the problem of low-income schools. They’ve always loved the music men who come along with their magic solutions. This new music man is especially helpful, since her program can be used to take silly shots at teachers unions, which simply aren’t the cause of this problem. But whatever! Manhattan elites have settled on Kopp. She provides the latest version of the pleasing, high-minded tale.

    Our elites have tended toward this sort of thing since (soon after) Day One. They’ve always loved the pleasing tale in which our finest children, from our finest schools, solve this nagging problem with ease. That helps explain a tragicomical fact: Our finest children have been solving this problem for the bulk of the last forty years! Kopp’s just the latest pseudo-influential—the latest music man.

    The problem lies in Kopp’s “most influential” status. As long as we pretend she knows what to do, others won’t bother to search.

  5. Sarah

    For someone who seemingly disagrees with Wendy Kopp specifically and “elites” generally, Phillip, you have pointed to nothing specific about her response or TFA as a program that would indicate that either the program or she is misguided in any way.

    I think there are a lot of critiques of Teach For America that potentially makes sense, but this nebulous idea of elitism as the reason for her lack of credibility is absurd.

    To address the post, it’s an interesting and positive take on the mission of TFA. I think “Alum” has it right…if you look any of the information TFA posts about itself–this study doesn’t suggest that they aren’t reaching their goals.

    And, in terms of transparency, asking for organization to conduct studies on your own (primarily donor-funded) organization’s effectiveness is decidedly the opposite of elitist behavior.

  6. RPOA

    I’m not totally sure if I buy the loans arguement as much Alum. Don’t forget, TFA CMs also get that AmeriCorps money to help pay down those loans, and depending on your region/school, can qualify for outright loan forgiveness. I wouldn’t be surprised if your example plays a role, but I personally would be skeptical of it being the primary reason.

    As for the OP, I agree…the study itself isn’t really the troubling aspect…its the “spin”.

  7. Marktropolis

    TFA’s stated mission is “to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our nation’s most promising future leaders in the effort.” The stated intent of McAdam’s work is “to assess the longer-term effect of youth service on participants’ current civic attitudes and behaviors.” Presumably, to “build the movement,” individuals actually have to stay in the movement. McAdams apparently has some data that indicates that drop-outs and nonmatriculants actually evidence those behaviors – and the graduates predominantly only evidence the attitude.

    And “j”, the issue isn’t that folks *in* TFA aren’t currently engaged (when they’re teaching, of course they are), it’s that when they leave TFA they aren’t. At least not to the extent that the drop-outs and nonmatriculants are. Which begs the question: what’s the actual impact of TFA on individuals who probably would have gone into public service anyway?

  8. hrm.

    Does anyone know if there is a study which breaks down what exactly it is TFA completers are doing once they have completed their year(s) teaching in these afflicted regions? The majority of people I know who’ve completed TFA have gone on to be teachers (remaining in title 1 schools), professors, doctors, and lawyers (education policy). Obviously these jobs may not be representative of the whole–and it would be unjust to assume so–but I feel as though this is something to be taken into consideration before passing judgment—whether it be in the form of criticism or praise. What do TFA completers pursue? What is the average amount of time they invest in these jobs? Do these jobs result in greater societal wellbeing—and if so, to what degree? I want to know what it looks like, very specifically. In reference to this article, we have to remember that media is often full of biases, and is sometimes driven by personal motive. Would schools be better off without any TFA Corps Members? It is my understanding that TFA Corps Members often fill jobs that no other teachers want—and when they are filled, that the turnover rate is high, which often affects students negatively.

    Tangent: I think it is very interesting to talk to TFA completers, Corps Members, and drop-outs to find out about their experiences. What did their experiences mean to their students, to their students’ families, to their own lives? Where were their students at the beginning of the year—and at the end of the year? WHO are the students? WHAT are the students facing? HOW do you repair generational poverty? Does your quantitative data show results? What are the results? Qualitatively, how did you feel about the work? What was it like teaching in your placement region? How were you shaped by the work? What are you doing now to ameliorate the effects of poverty? What are your goals in the future?

    We want for this argument to be clear—to be able to determine “what does TFA really DO?”—and the answer just is not as simple as anyone would like for it to be. To me, it means that there are thousands of bright, ambitious individuals who are trying to do make a difference—and maybe they aren’t sure what that even means, or looks like at the beginning of their years teaching–but that it’s more than a lot of people can say about their lives.

  9. Eric

    One thing about TFA I have not seen examined in enough detail is the cult like nature of it’s so called training. I assume that any examination would start with it’s selection/filtering process for deciding who gets to join. Then one would examine in detail the methods and beliefs the corps members are required to adopt.

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