I suspect reaction to today’s NYT story on Teach For America recruiting will be a Rorschach test – especially because in an otherwise solid article we again get, “Critics of the Teach for America program say teachers, in general, aren’t at their best until they’ve been working for at least five years.” Gosh, if only there were data on that question, from say independent research outfits like Mathematica or the Urban Institute or a few states that have done their own evaluations. Teach For America has its problems, like all organizations, and reasonable people can disagree over theories of action about how to create a teaching profession and the role of TFA in all that, but this issue is pretty settled in the literature. Background on common TFA issues here.
Two big issues that don’t get a lot of attention but matter a great deal are (a) While TFA teachers perform, based on standardized tests, as well or modestly better than other teachers the variance within the TFA pool is as great as it is within other routes into teaching (except emergency credentialing which produces worse results than other methods). In other words, when it comes to effectiveness the differences are greater within different routes into the field (eg traditional preparation, TFA, other alternative routes) than between them. That has big implications for the debate about teacher preparation overall and bar exams and other barriers to entry. And (b) TFA’s innovation is on the selection side, with better attention to selection and key attributes than any other program in the country (and they produce 5,000 teachers a year so it’s not a boutique operation and the methods are replicable.) But the training they offer isn’t radically different* than other programs and we know relatively little from the data about the compound effects of that selection process with various training strategies and various teaching environments. If anecdotes were oil we’d all be rich but that question seems like a good one for deeper dives, especially as teacher preparation becomes a big issue this year.
*Update: Chicago reader ML writes to say, “I actually think TFA’s training–at least what I’ve seen of it–is pretty unique. There’s a sharp focus on setting and attaining goals, and it’s done in the context of a summer program where newbies can be “teachers of record” with really small sets of kids with lots of scaffolding from experienced guides. They still haven’t cracked the content piece, though I know Deb Ball is working with them a bit so I’m optimistic that’ll move ahead too.”