When Acronyms Fight The Data Get Trampled: NEA V. TFA & TNTP

Even leaving aside the sleazy innuendo about researcher Jane Hannaway* (stay classy NEA!) this National Education Association email (below), from the organization’s executive director, is startling in its tendentiousness (in case you were wondering why there is so much misunderstanding about the research on Teach For America, here’s why…).   Other methodologically strong studies confirm what Hannaway found, for instance the Mathematica evaluation of TFA.  And, the NEA fails to mention that the studies they lean on have been challenged on non-trivial issues, even by colleagues of the researchers.   No one is saying that TFA teachers are hitting the cover off the ball, but at a minimum they’re certainly not worse than others including veterans.   Still, even if one takes the NEA assertion at face value, the proper comparison is the actual labor market in the communities TFA serves, not some hypothetical labor market that currently doesn’t exist and unfortunately won’t for the foreseeable future.   Moreover, if TFA teachers are such trouble, why are superintendents clamoring for them?   Also, I’m not sure how you’d quantify “predominate” but KIPP has an awful lot of TFAers in various roles and their schools are pretty good…

In any event, none of that is really the point here anyway.  Even with TFA’s robust recruiting, the 4,100 teachers they are preparing for this fall is a trivial number in relation to the overall teacher workforce, the natural job turnover that occurs every year in the field, or the number of teachers who might be laid off in this downturn absent government intervention.  In other words, this little crusade is ideological not substantive.  Here’s my take on the broader reason TFA matters and sparks bad behavior like this.  If the AMA acted in this fashion there would be an outcry, no?  I thought we wanted education to be like medicine…

From: Wilson, John [NEA] [mailto:JWilson@nea.org]
Sent: Wednesday, May 20, 2009 4:15 PM
To: State-Presidents [AFF]; State-Executive-Directors [AFF]; Rose, Robin [CA]; Ogles, Mary Bruce [AL]
Subject: : TFA

We are beginning to see school systems lay off teachers and then hire TFA college grads due to a contract they signed. I hope this will be helpful to you. Please let us know if this occurs in your state.

You’ll want to be aware of these studies (attached) which show that TFA recruits are significantly less effective in their first two years than beginning teachers who are fully prepared and certified – and beginning teachers in general are less effective than experienced teachers. In all of the independent studies, more than 80 percent of TFA recruits have left teaching by year 4, just as they are beginning to become effective, costing districts about $20k apiece to replace them and adding to the high turnover rates in urban districts – which itself negatively affects school performance.

The only studies that have found TFA recruits to be as effective as other teachers (including the recent Urban Institute North Carolina study they are touting – which was conducted by the mother of a TFA employee, Jane Hannaway) are those that compare TFA recruits to other teachers who are even less likely to be certified and prepared – because they are teaching in schools that have generally become dumping grounds for underprepared teachers serving low-income and minority teachers. It is a race to the bottom – which saves money but costs lives – in these schools.

There is no study that shows that schools in which TFA teachers predominate are succeeding. In fact a recent study that was done in Oakland shows that the schools with them largest numbers of 1st and 2nd year teachers (mostly TFA and New Teacher Project recruits) have a huge negative hit on achievement, wiping out the effect of all the other reforms they have tried to implement.

*Disc.   She’s a friend, colleague, and occasional co-author.  And she fly fishes…

Update:  Ed Week’s Sawchuk has more.

Update II:  Don’t miss the comments section of this AP story on TFA’s recruiting numbers.  Here’s a taste:  “these “teachers” will be hand picked socialists, and will use every moment of class room time to “teach” their rotten agenda!”

8 thoughts on “When Acronyms Fight The Data Get Trampled: NEA V. TFA & TNTP

  1. john thompson

    Hope my comment yesterday didn’t sound too self-righteous. Because today, I’d say that “our side” needs to reign in our rhetoric on TFA.

  2. Doug

    One of my former students went to a small liberal college in Portland and then became one of the select few to land a TFA job about three years ago. She made fantastic gains at a KIPP school on the East Coast. She will teach the pants of most of the teachers at my school because she has “IT.” NEA’s protectionist approach continues to hurt not help. Why are the silent majority of teachers who recognize the need for creating a real profession left to the mercy of a power hungry body like the NEA? Because they want the benefits without the hard work. TFA teachers work hard or they are removed. This is not true of the NEA which is so simple to see it hurts

  3. Liz

    Yet again, the unions’ need to protect teachers trumps the moral imperative to teach students.

    Not sure which regions Wilson’s email was referring to, but in Los Angeles, the layoffs are hitting TFA harder than anyone. Thanks to UTLA’s ironclad contract, every corps member teaching English or elementary school in LAUSD (including many second-years who were planning on staying at their schools) has been laid off; TFA will place few, if any, corps members in LAUSD next year. It’s a tremendous loss for the district, not to mention for those of us who worked 18-hour days for our students only to watch our sheltered and intervention classes (the ones nobody wants– the ones we live for) signed away to displaced bureaucrats who have spent years outside the classroom.

    What a shame, Mr. Wilson, that this hasn’t happened everywhere.

  4. Doug

    Liz, your comments are so on target. Just being outside the classroom isn’t bad because like teachers there are admins that get it. LAUSD is just a piece of the problem here in California the CALSTRS and CALPERS systems are crushing our budget. The framers of the constitution never planned on mega unions slurping up all the public money and then demanding more and more.

    What kills me is that the union has allowed teachers to be viewed like a DMV worker in the first place. I mean I’m sure there are good DMV emplyees but do they have the skills great teachers have? So many people I talk to equate the budget issues to teachers and DMV workers…It kills me.

    BTW my district is letting go of one of the most qualified young teachers I have had the pleasure to work with (Biology, AP Biology, Chem, Avid) and we are forced to keep an old teacher who is moved from assignment to assignment because he is sooo misguided. The teacher has a hire date of 2002!

  5. Steve Peha

    From your article…

    “Such attitudes may be at odds with common sense and the evidence but are nonetheless indicative of the political challenges that Teach For America continues to face. These attitudes mean that rather than learning from Teach For America, for example its screening methods, the field remains largely shuttered to fresh thinking and new approaches.”

    Alas, TFA remains fairly shuttered, too, especially when it comes to the training and support of their young teachers in the field. I have worked with many TFA teachers and find them not just woefully prepared for school but seriously hungry for good information about how to get better – information they don’t seem to be able to get from TFA even when they ask for it. TFA does not seem interested in providing high quality professional development to its teachers — at least not up to this point. No TFA teacher that I have worked with knows about good sources of professional literature (like Heinemann or Stenhouse) or good methods of teaching like Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop or great teacher leaders like Donald Graves, Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, or Regie Routman. I agree with you and the research that TFA teachers are just as good as traditional teachers. But that’s not saying much when you look at who these kids are and how hungry they are to get better.

  6. Barnett Berry

    Let’s get clear: Some studies have found that some highly selected entrants — from routes such as Teach for America, who receive most of their university training while they teach in high-needs schools — do as well or better than other teachers who teach in the same schools, where those teachers are not highly selected or well-prepared themselves. Researchers have noted, however, that new TFA recruits are less effective when compared to fully prepared teachers, until they themselves gain experience and certification. Furthermore, more than 80 percent of TFA recruits are gone from the classroom after their third year, just as they are becoming more effective.

    Other studies have found that entrants from strong teacher education programs both stay in teaching significantly longer and achieve stronger student achievement gains that those of either alternative route entrants or weak traditional programs. Check out the teacher education effects data in Louisiana where graduates of NE Louisiana-Monroe outperform other recruits, including TFA, those from the New Teacher Project, and traditional graduates from the state’s R1 institution – LSU. The researchers, however, found (like others elsewhere) that there is more variation within different types of routes into teaching than between them. But preparation (and in the case of LA, certification in the content) matters for student achievement.

    One fact is certain: Poorly prepared teachers (from whatever source) who exit the profession quickly leave their students to be taught by the next round of ill-trained novices who routinely replace them. This does not mean high quality alternative certification should not be part of a long-term strategy to recruit and retain effective teachers for high needs schools. Not at all. But it is time to cease the either-or debate over TFA versus traditional teacher education.

    It is time for some fresh thinking, including rethinking FTE and how we organize teacher leadership in schools so that less prepared TFA-types who may not stay very long in teaching, can work under the tutelage of experts who will. See my recent Ed Week commentary at http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/05/20/32berry_ep.h28.html – and “end the battles over teaching.”

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