The new evaluation of Boston Teacher Residency* ($) is worth checking out, Sawchuk has a solid write-up here. The Boston Teacher Residency, a flagship teacher preparation program, is a residency-based teacher preparation program where teachers learn in a job-embedded setting. Punchline on the results: The program’s candidates struggle the first couple of years and then start to outpace other teachers, on average. It’s pretty small n stuff but nonetheless interesting. The study raises a host of questions and issues, here are a few.
First, and I’m reading between the lines just a bit here because I’ve seen more data on this, it seems like diversity is a sleeper issue here. BTR seeks to improve diversity in the teaching force – a worthy goal to be sure – yet the performance-trends indicate that efforts to do so must be coupled with intensive support. Looking holistically at teacher preparation it may well be that selectivity and intensity of training can be inversely related, at least to a point, across various programs. That idea would obviously be at odds with the common notion that we need task forces, commissions, etc…to divine the one best way or system for training teachers.
Second, on the performance issue, the Ed Week headline is interesting, “Teacher Residents Seen Outpacing Peers in Later Years.” That’s quite right but it’s not how Teach For America research – which clearly shows that TFA teachers outpace in the early years – is generally presented. Perhaps editors just don’t dig into the data but I actually think it’s something else. And I don’t mean to pit the two programs against one another but I think this illustrates a prevalent bias in our field – rooting against the upstarts. There is a deeply seeded desire to believe that things from within the system can work – and sometimes they do, of course, and sometimes ideas from outside the system don’t. But this sentiment and concern about the more disruptive things going on can cloud how we look at various pieces of information in a pretty basic glass half-full/glass half-empty sort of way. Put more plainly, if this study was about Teach For America teachers I suspect the headline in many papers would have been – “Teach For America teachers struggle in their first two years.”
There is also a more substantive issue here. I think Teach For America works because – despite all the crazy rhetoric about the program – the evidence (to be clear by which I mean actual studies with actual quantitative research methods) makes it pretty plain that on average TFA teachers do no harm in the classroom and are a good choice relative to other options. I think the secondary impacts of TFA are tremendous but classroom impact has to be paramount. The other day in a meeting someone noted that Wendy Kopp was sitting atop the most powerful human capital pipeline of the last quarter-century. It’s not an overstatement, it’s 20K alums are all over the place and in cities around the country you see them playing instrumental roles in all sorts of high-velocity education projects (Bellwether is crawling with them). Complaints that TFA devalues the teaching profession, could be made better with various changes, and other long term impact questions etc…are all legitimate points to argue, even if you don’t agree – I don’t, but TFA is not harming students. In this case BTR, however, raises the exact same question. In the first two years its teachers struggle relative to other teachers. To its credit BTR is seeking to address this but while I may have missed it I didn’t see a lot of concern about this issue in the wake of the evaluation. Double standard? Sure. But that’s the easy part. The harder issue is the question of just how much adverse impact are we willing to tolerate in the service of other goals? Right now the answer is situational although ironically TFA doesn’t put that on the table, BTR does, at least based on the data available now. No one is picking it up though. At least thus far.
Finally, enormous cost-benefit questions embedded in all this. The preparation/training conversation can’t happen in a fiscal vacuum. I favor a variety of routes into the field with common high bars, and am comfortable with investing more to achieve other goals, for instance diversity, because education is not a purely utilitarian or economic undertaking. But that doesn’t mean cost-benefit considerations should not enter into the public policy conversation – and today they generally don’t when it comes to teacher preparation. Hard to look around and conclude that’s not going to have to change.
*Disc - BW worked with BTR earlier this year.