You’re likely going to hear a lot about Teach For America in the next few weeks as it’s a handy shorthand proxy for reform efforts.   That’s why today’s WaPo front-pager on TFA was somewhat disappointing as a stage-setter.  

First, it seems pretty obvious that the economic situation is fueling an increase in applicants to TFA and to teaching more generally and that’s an easy hook for an article.  But, that angle overlooks how competitive TFA was long before this recession, it’s part of their model.   That seems like a pretty important contextual point that is at best only implicitly mentioned in passing and not made clear for readers.  More information about how the selection process works would have also been helpful as it’s a lot more than grades, school, etc…and there is some real potential learning there for the field overall.

Second, in discussing the effectiveness of TFA teachers the article states:

Research into Teach for America’s effectiveness has been inconclusive, but at least three major studies in the past several years indicate that students taught by its teachers score significantly lower on standardized tests than do their peers. A small handful of other studies, and the organization’s own research, contradict that claim.

This is the classic, pile ’em up and see which pile is higher approach to education research that too often informs educational journalism.  It’s always easy to say something is inconclusive, and often things are, but not always is it the case.    In fact, while there has been a lot of “research” into TFA the methodologically most solid studies have shown that TFA teachers are as good or better than other teachers, including veteran and traditionally trained teachers.   Mathematica (pdf) and Urban Institute/CALDER are the two best examples — and those are independent analyses not TFA studies. 

Among serious researchers and policy analysts there is a debate about how significant these impacts are in the context of the achievement gaps we face and what could amplify the impact as well as what the policy implications are.  But, there is no serious debate that TFA is lowering achievement for students.   At the same time, school districts and cities are clamoring to get TFA teachers, that’s an important contextual point, too.  These teachers are not being forced on schools — quite the opposite.

Third, the article seems to misread the importance of TFA’s impact.    While many teachers do leave classroom teaching after their two-year commitment,  about two-thirds remain in education full time and more than 40 percent in the classroom.  They also go on to become principals, and superintendents, start schools, launch organizations, and otherwise have impact.    That compares favorably with attrition rates in the most challenging schools.    In relation to the research, if TFA’ers were not, on average, helping students while they are teaching then the secondary impact would be insufficient as a justification for the program but that’s not the case.  

Finally, in relation to all this it’s no secret (even at The Post) that Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor and candidate for Secretary of Education and the current policy lead for President Elect-Obama has been a pretty harsh critic of TFA since its inception.  That’s, you know, interesting isn’t it?  But too interesting for the story apparently!  

26 Replies to “TFA-Palooza”

  1. I agree and respect your premise that there is a whole lot of knee-jerk reaction to the challenges facing education and the solutions that people are attempting.

    But we must start before the solution with the problem. America’s schools are not graduating great students by any measure. The first proof of this is that they are only graduating 75% of their students in the first place!

    In order to solve the problem, we must first define success. Until we do this, no solution has meaning.

    I have attempted to begin this discussion here:, and would welcome your participation and debate to first define success, and then bring the power and ingenuity of Americans to bear on solving it.

    Thank you

  2. thank you for writing this. I started reading that article, went to the jump, got to that graph and went back to check the byline. My thought: That’s a really bad reading of the research. No references to the actual research and no attempt to allow tfa to respond to such an assertion.

  3. >> “More information about how the selection process works would have also been helpful as it’s a lot more than grades, school, etc…and there is some real potential learning there for the field overall.”

    The TFA admissions staff appears to devote most of its recruiting efforts on high-yield campuses towards intensely driven, quantitatively gifted undergraduates who thrive in “high-impact” working environments and are willing to work ungodly hours to get the most out of them. (That is not meant as a criticism on TFA’s selection factors, but rather as a description of the professional culture at TFA. I was a corps member several years ago, and our summer training emphasized how these traits contributed to classroom success.) The same skill set characterizes the entry-level financial analyst or management consultant. A few years ago, Avi Zenilman wrote an insightful article for the Washington Monthly on this parallel from the perspective of a potential recruit, himself. It’s worth revisiting as a complement to the WaPo feature:

    It makes sense that TFA applications are up when the economy is struggling once you are aware that the culture of the organization is likely very attractive students who might otherwise pursue work in finance.

  4. Dear Eduwonk, I disagree that this article is classic “pile em up” method. It’s worse than that.

    1. Word choice. On one side, “at least 3 studies.” On the other side, “a small handful.” Not just a handful. A small handful. Pejorative, no? Um, I suppose 3 studies is waaaay more than “a small handful.”

    2. Choice of quotes. You cite her lack of a TFA response. What about the reporter quoting a wack job blogger. Did you see her post today? About how “several” doctors she recently saw turned out to be totally incompetent. When was the last time anyone had that experience?

    3. Elicits a sneering quote Tufts from a professor, one who doesn’t study ed reform, talking about TFA-ers “getting on the public payroll.”

  5. It would have been good of the reporter to cite the studies. However, using the CALDER study is somewhat disingenuous because the sample size was quite small and Jane Hannaway actually pointed this out in her AERA presentation and cautioned about people making hard and fast conclusions from teh study.

    It is also very interesting to me that people who cite the CALDER study fail to mention the companion study using the same NC data set that found that alternatively certified teachers had a negative effect on achievement and traditionally trained teachers had a positive impact.

  6. But, there is no serious debate that TFA is lowering achievement for students.

    A very ambiguous sentence. Could mean either “TFA is lowering achievement, and this fact cannot be seriously disputed,” or “no one can seriously contend that TFA is lowering achievement.” Opposites.

  7. Thanks! As a former TFAer, I can say that it wasn’t much of a challenge being “better” than my rural NC colleagues. Two had failed the PRAXIS (which I could have passed in my sleep), a few were so bad at teaching that they gave up and turned their classroom into a social hour with movies twice a week (from Blockbuster, not educational flicks).

    And many talented teachers were simply overwhelmed with discipline issues that teaching was an afterthought.

    My exposure to teaching in this rural school was NOT a resume builder—at 10 hours/day for $18,500/year !!!!—but a further, meaningful attempt at fighting social injustice and, perhaps, improving my students’ lives through education. I think I was able to do both. And while I am not teaching today, I view the 2 years in TFA were an invaluable experience.

  8. This entry points up so many quarrels I have with the education field I love. Yes, the TFA teachers are bright, sharp, energetic–and leave teaching at a higher rate than the already high rates of other new teachers. So who stays to hone the craft of teaching now? Many of TFA teachers I have worked with leave shortly after they complete their short stint of two to three years. But as you point out, they don’t leave education; they enter leadership programs that, like TFA, develop principals quickly. Or, as I saw in graduate school, enter top schools of education for graduate degrees in ed policy and become policymakers or work in foundations and governmental agencies. What gets lost in this quick-bake cycle is a deep and practiced knowledge of the basic unit of education–interactions of teacher and student and content. And policy decisions and leadership decisions then are made by people without this crucial knowledge.

    As to ed research, like many other forms of research it becomes an ideological tool–what you see depends on where you stand.

    Sigh…….back to class.

  9. Julie,
    I have to respond to this:
    “As to ed research, like many other forms of research it becomes an ideological tool–what you see depends on where you stand.”

    .. with a definitive NO! At least not in this case. The research on TFA is pretty clear and this amateur reporter simply did not do her homework. Otherwise she would have learned that there is basically a consensus that TFA teachers do not _lower_ student achievement relative to other teachers in the same schools. There’s debate about whether they raise it. That was Andy’s point.

    The shame here is that people like you have to trust reporters like this one who just fell down on the job. If it weren’t for blogs, you might never have known. And how many other readers of the Washington Post did not also read Andy’s commentary to get the full context? I shudder to think.

  10. Darling-Hammond has been a harsh critic of TFA for very good reasons. First, she helped lead the best study of TFA and found that the more vulnerable the student, the more harm TFA “corps members” did. That study also found really awful classroom control practices in TFA classrooms, largely because these are untrained people interested in their own resumes and advancement, not children.

    “Crucial Knowledge” is important – as the commenter above says, and two or three years of teaching, with no actual training in education, suggests that a person lacks that crucial knowledge. Real evidence, at best, suggests that TFA teachers are “better than other unqualified teachers.” Yup, those are the people we’d want fast-tracked into educational leadership.

    Here’s my offer. Let’s do a real test. Let’s replace the teaching staffs of the schools attended by the children and grandchildren of the TFA Board – in Scarsdale, NY, Greenwich, CT, Toms River, NJ, et al – with TFA teachers. If it is a great educational strategy, we’ll see the improvement. If not, well, we’ll prove that the solution is redistribution of resources, not education that’s “good enough for those kids.”

  11. In response to Ed F:
    Jane Hannaway and co-authors apparently recently presented the results of the study at the APPAM conference with a larger sample and the results were the same. In addition, I think that your statement about other CALDER work refuting this claim is incorrect – in their Oct 2007 study, Clotfelder et al find that teacher credentials matter but credentials as a bundle of measurable factors such as teacher test scores and selectivity of undergraduate institution – variables that would likely suggest that TFA teachers do not make up the average alternatively certified teachers in the comparison you suggest between poorly performing alt cert teachers and traditional teachers. I think that one of the authors even suggested at a recent conference that TFA teachers might be the exception to that finding.

  12. Ed Pol. Because that is what academics do, they question, they challenge, they doubt. Especially when a campus is as ideologically split as Stanford is – and TFA is an ideological idea, not an educational one – you will get debate. Which is always good.

    When I look at studies in education I really never look at the “large quantitative evaluations” which can either be accurate or meaningful (as Campbell and Stanley suggest) but not both. OK, TFA teachers produce 0.02% better “results” than other uncertified teachers, or they produce 0.03% worse “results” – group aggregations like this are meaningless. What was most important for me in Darling-Hammond’s study was the treatment of special needs students and the insights into classroom discipline.

    But it is still “best” overall, because it was not a product of self-interested researchers, because it looked most widely, because its methodology accounted for the big issues.

  13. Any information on what TFA recruits are taught in the way of math teaching? Some of the TFA graduates seem awfully enamored of the fuzzy math programs. What kind of Kool-Aid do they serve at TFA basic training?

  14. Ed Researcher…people like me? Who would that be–the lost, deluded, and misinformed? I just disagree and think there are many questions about TFA’s “effectiveness” that need to be explored. And I remain convinced that a lot — certainly not all–of the ed research I’ve read proceeds from a formed opinion to validation. My disagreement is based on much research I’ve read and done and from what I have observed in universities, research firms, and schools. Ira raises a good point about a good “test” for TFA. Why does so much ed reform stop at the poverty level?

  15. You know, the largest group within the TFA alumni base is classroom teachers, about a third of all their alumni. Their web site says they have 14,000 alumni, so that’s 4,000 teachers. Not bad considering most weren’t considering teaching as a career before being approached by TFA.

  16. It must be a messaging thing, but I always find the negative reaction to what some TFA alumni are now up to puzzling. As a former classroom teacher who now works on the Hill with education committee staffers who never taught school, I would be thrilled if more Hill staffers actually had spent time doing the extremely difficult work of teaching, particularly in a high-needs school. I think they would make better policy decisions.

  17. Sugaree:

    The people you – and the rest of your “Hill” buddies – need to be speaking with is students. Real, actual, diverse, not picked-by-their-principals, students.

    Then, you might actually be able to start to find better policy decisions.

    Right now, you’re arguing which group of entitled, power holding groups to listen to – and when you do that, you won’t get much range in “answers” you get,

  18. Sugaree,

    I’d apologize for my profession but that would sound too presumptious. I don’t know enough to judge the research, but I heard good things about TFA from my daughter who is from generational poverty. She says that the TFAers started out thinking she was too much of a disciplinarian. But being a Black woman from Little Dixie, she loved having a school with highly educated young Black TFA teachers adding energy to her middle school in Bed Stuy.

    But I know this firsthand. We don’t accompllish anything when we prejudge and too many veteran teachers are too critical of TFA.

    What happens if the TFA model creates large numbers of TFA alums in powerful educational positions, and traditional teachers have antagonized them by knee jerk resentment?

    If you think a TFAer or a traditional teacher is a jerk, then criticize that individual. If you think that too many TFAers are following mistaken policies, then criticize those policies.

    But just because I’m being reasonable here, don’t think I’m going soft on Charlie Barone, Kevin Carey, or Michelle Rhee. just kidding.

  19. “it was not a product of self-interested researchers”

    The study was the product of Teach For America’s biggest critic who works at a school of education at a university. If THAT is not self interested what is?

  20. “What kind of Kool-Aid do they serve at TFA basic training?”

    I think they serve the kind that helps you work on your lacrosse stick handling on the quad at grad school and allows you to believe that there is such things as Michelle Rhee liberalism—believing you can bring the poor into the middle class by tearing down the institutions that created it.

  21. Of course Get Real, schools of education are against education, just as schools of medicine are against medicine, and schools of law are against law.

    OK, I’m with you. I’m firmly against “credentialism.” I’m all in favor of alternative routes to teaching, to law, to medical careers. But, you see, I believe that those alternative routes should support everyone, should raise up those at the bottom, not entitle those at the top.

    TFA, interestingly, in describing what their alumni come away with – never mention becoming great teachers. Why? Because that is not what the program is about. It is “leadership training” for a self-declared elite.

    What Darling-Hammond’s study found was not a flaw in the idea of alternative certification, but a flaw in TFA’s complete lack of teacher training. We really shouldn’t be surprised, it takes much longer to become a McDonald’s grillmaster than a TFA teacher. You have to believe that teaching is either “easy” or “unimportant” to see it as a skill which can be perfected in five weeks.

    And so the study found that the most vulnerable were most victimized. I doubt, based on the previous work of this group of researchers, that this was a pre-conception. I think the evidence led them there.

  22. Lou–this is from the TFA Web site:

    Hundreds of alumni have been honored as teachers of the year at the national, state, district, and school levels. In the 2007-2008 school year, just a few of them include:

    Shannon Brady (South Dakota ’06), 2008 South Dakota Middle School Teacher of the Year
    Carrie Holmes (Baltimore ’03) and Mekia Love (Mississippi Delta ’01), 2007 American Stars of Teaching (a national award given by the U.S. Department of Education)
    Laura Hoover (Phoenix ’00), 2007 Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award (by The Washington Post)
    Robert Kelty (New Mexico ’01), 2008 Arizona Teacher of the Year
    Ann Quarles (Eastern North Carolina ’01), 2008 Wake County Teacher of the Year (North Carolina)
    Scott Wolf (Bay Area ’04), 2007/2008 Silicon Valley Teacher of the Year

  23. TFA is really another Peach Corp. Nearly all TFAers do short time and move on to higher paying work with better working conditions. Having taught in New Orleans for three years I know that most TFAer will not stay in innercity and poor rural areas for very long. Why not make teaching a profession that is respected, has pay high enough to make a career of it and working conditions equal to other professions. Until we do this we will need programs like TFA to fill the leaks in the levees.

  24. I am veteran teacher from Houston seeking a dialogue with current and past Teach for America teachers regarding what appears to be a pattern of TFA leaders and alumni in school district leadership positions espousing conservative ideas and profiting from close relationships with reactionary corporations, while self-righteously proclaiming they are the new civil rights movement. I first became aware of this when a former local TFA Director, now a school board member, recently proposed to fire teachers based on test scores and opposed allowing us to vote to have a single union.

    The conservative-TFA nexus began at the beginning, when Union Carbide sponsored Wendy Kopp’s initial efforts to create Teach for America. A few years before, Union Carbide’s negligence had caused the worst industrial accident in history, in Bhopal, India. The number of casualties was as large as 100,000, and Union Carbide did everything possible to minimize taking responsibility for the event. Not only did Union Carbide provide financial support for Ms. Kopp, it provided her with other corporate contacts and office space for her and her staff.

    A few years later, when TFA faced severe financial difficulties, Ms. Kopp wrote in her book she nearly went to work for the Edison Project, and was all but saved by their managerial assistance. The Edison Project, founded by a Tennessee entrepreneur, was an effort to replace public schools run by elected school boards with for-profit, corporate-run schools.

    In 2000, two brilliant TFA alumni, the founders of KIPP Academy, then joined the Bush’s at the Republican National Convention in 2000. This was vital to Bush, since as Governor he did not really have any genuine education achievements, and he was trying to prove he was a different kind of Republican. And everyone knows about Michelle Rhee’s prescription for improving education, close schools rather than improving them, and fire teachers rather than inspiring them.

    Wendy Kopp’s idea for Teach for America was a good one. TFA teachers do great work. But its leaders often seem to blame teachers, public schools and teachers’ organizations for the achievement gap. By blaming teachers for some deep-seated social problems this nation has, they are not only providing an inaccurate critique, they feed conservatives more ammunition to use in their twenty-eight year war against using government as a problem solver.

    Our achievement gap mirrors our country’s level of economic inequality, the greatest among affluent nations. Better schools are only part of the solution. Stable families are more able to be ambitious for their children than insecure, overworked and struggling ones. Our society has failed our schools by permitting the middle class to shrink.(It’s not the other way around.) As more people are starting to recognize, we need national health care, a stronger union movement, long-term unemployment benefits, generous college funding, trade policy and reductions in military spending to bolster the middle class.

    Ms. Kopp claims to be in the tradition of the civil rights movement, but Martin Luther King would take principled positions—against the Vietnam War and for the Poor Peoples March—even when it pissed off powerful people. His final speech, the night of his assassination, was on behalf of striking Memphis sanitation workers. In his last book, he argued for modifying American capitalism to include some measure of wealth distribution. I would like a dialogue about what I have written here. My e-mail is You as an individual TFA teacher has a responsibility here because your work alone gives TFA leaders credibility (its not the other way around.)

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