There’s lots of talk today about this ProPublica story on Teach For America. To put it bluntly, I don’t think it’s a very fair or nuanced piece of journalism, and it’s missing two major pieces of context.
One, Teach For America is probably the largest provider of new teachers in the U.S.
This is hard to prove definitively given our fragmented data systems, but I’m quite confident it’s true. Consider our largest teacher preparation programs, in terms of total graduates. I pulled the latest data on all 2016-17 graduates with a bachelor’s or Master’s degree in education. The list of the largest teacher preparation programs may surprise some people, but here’s the top ten:
||Total Education Graduates (2016-17)
|Grand Canyon University
|Western Governors University
|University of Phoenix-Arizona
|University of Central Florida
|Ball State University
These are big numbers, but they reflect graduates, not teachers, let alone new teachers. These are important distinctions. We know based on state and national numbers that many graduates with education degrees do not actually become teachers. Depending on the year and region, 25-40 percent of people who earn degrees in education never use that degree as a teacher.
Moreover, these numbers include bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. it’s impossible to know from the data, but it’s likely that the totals are padded by active teachers pursuing a Master’s degree to boost their salaries.
Let’s use Grand Canyon University as an example. It granted the most bachelor’s and the most Master’s degrees in education, but only 1,564 of those were bachelor’s degrees. If we assume that only those attaining a bachelor’s were truly new, and those graduates went on to teach at the national averages, Grand Canyon might have been responsible for somewhere around 1,000 new teachers that year.
The Cal State system provides another example. While no single institution made the list above, the Cal State system as a whole produced about 2,100 bachelor’s degrees and about 3,100 Master’s degrees in education that year. But in order for those teachers to qualify for a full-time license, California requires teachers to go through their preparation program after completing their bachelor’s degree. So again, these totals are deceptively high in terms of the total new teachers placed by the Cal State system.
In contrast, Teach For America currently has about 7,000 corps members, and they regularly churn out cohorts of 3,000 to 4,000 teachers.* Granted, TFA corps members are spread out all across the country, so it may not be the largest provider in any one state or region, but, collectively, TFA is larger than any other provider of new teachers.
Two, Teach For America may be the best teacher preparation program in the country.
Again, this is a hard statement to prove definitively, but TFA is certainly the most studied, and it reliably produces results that are at least as good if not better than its peers. TFA corps members outperform other incoming teachers in states like North Carolina and Tennessee and they even perform as well as other veteran teachers working in their same schools. TFA teachers do have higher turnover rates than other new teachers, but, on balance, students are still better off. This research mainly focuses on student growth in terms of achievement scores, but TFA teachers may also help boost student attendance.
However, there’s a much larger difference across TFA corps members than between TFA and other preparation programs. (If you want to see what this looks like visually, Figures 2-3 here illustrate that point nicely.) That finding alone should make us stop and pause.
In fact, this variance issue plagues much of the journalism about TFA. Given the enormous size of TFA and the wide variety of outcomes of its teachers, it’s easy to find corps members who fit whatever narrative you might want to apply to it.
So I get why TFA is such a lightning rod. It’s huge, and it provides a stark contrast to the traditional teacher preparation programs. But I don’t find the politics around TFA all that interesting or illuminating. I’m much more interested in how this enormous, diffuse, short-term training program manages to produce new teachers who are still roughly on par with their peers.
*TFA often partners with higher education institutions, and when their corps members complete a degree, those completions would be counted toward the host college or university, not TFA.
Disclosure: Bellwether has worked with TFA in the past.
–Guest post by Chad Aldeman