This talk by Teach For America’s Elisa Villanueva Beard is a good distillation of how TFA sees itself as organization and a good compilation of some demographic data about TFA. She’s responding to the little battle that has broken out on the blogs and around education where every Teach For America alumnus who wants to talk about their bad or frustrating experience is suddenly held up as representative of why TFA is a lousy idea. What some of these people have to say has merit, TFA is hardly without its flaws. Yet others seem more enamored with just seeing their name in pixels or scoring points. But as a larger issue we would do well to remember that there are more than 30,000 Teach For America alumni now, and TFA operates all over the country. So it’s not surprising that there are alums with a variety of experiences and perspectives (and arguably more heterogeneous experiences than in the program’s early years when it was smaller). It’s also worth remembering some more basic axioms about whether the satisfied or unsatisfied are more likely to speak out.
But while anecdotes are colorful, there are data here. For almost a decade, since there was enough data to do more rigorous analyses and experiments, studies consistently show that Teach For America teachers, on average, do no harm in the classroom. These include studies by highly reputable firms such as Mathematica and AIR and states like NC, TN, and LA. Those averages obscure, of course, a lot of variance among TFA teachers. But that variance exists with all new teachers and some evidence indicates that Teach For America’s selection metrics help address it more than some other approaches.
And the ‘all new teachers’ issue matters greatly to this conversation because when you hold the experience of Teach For America teachers up to the experience of other new teachers in similar schools many of the differences melt away. Overwhelmed? Yes. Under-supported? Yes. Learning on the job. Absolutely. Given classes that more senior teachers don’t want? Often. This doesn’t mean there are not things TFA could do better or that the field doesn’t need to do better. Only that when you look at this issue overall the differences are not as a great as the combatants would like you to think. Like many education “debates” this one happens absent context.
Beard makes the point that TFA has become a proxy for everything people don’t like about education reform. That seems indisputably true at this point. In the process a lot of lessons about what works – and doesn’t work – are being ignored. TFA didn’t get to where it is without a lot of learning and a lot of evolution. Whether you like TFA or not, it’s not a good sign for the field that there is so little interest in learning from an organization that operates at this scale. The stuff on the blogs is a non-serious symptom, the underlying condition is a serious problem.