Teach For America And The Problem Of Study Laundering

I mentioned some sloppiness around the the recent report about Teach for America (TFA) that Michael Winerip featured in his column from a few weeks ago in an effort to make the point that the research on TFA is mixed.   Since we seem to be repeating history now seems a good time to revisit that and the larger issues it raises. The report conveniently highlights two problems:  Our field’s pathetic and weaponized approach to research and the problem of “study laundering.”

Pile ‘em up: The two big takeaways of this report from the Great Lakes Center is that retention of TFA teachers is bad and the program’s results are, at best, mixed.  There are substantial problems with both findings.

On the retention issue the researchers seem to be focusing on whether Teach For America Teachers leave their schools after two years, not whether they leave teaching. Unfortunately, this is a common mistake in research on teacher attrition especially when the goal is to illustrate bigger numbers (for instance all the research about how the attrition of new teachers is so far out of line with other fields).

The Great Lakes Center report states that “(M)ore than 50 percent of TFA teachers leave after two years, and more than 80 percent leave after three years…”  The report reaches this figure by consolidating findings from previous studies that in one way or another conflated leaving a school with leaving teaching.

In fact, in a study that delineated the leaving issue more effectively, a 2008 study by Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, found that 61 percent of Teach For America corps members stay in teaching beyond the two-year commitment.  Teach For America surveys its alumni regularly and the most recent survey found that 65 percent of Teacher For America’s 20,000 alumni remain in education, with 32 percent continuing as teachers.    And remember, that’s a survey of alums going back almost two decades now so that one in three figure should be viewed in that context as well as the larger context of TFA’s mission.

On the question of aggregate TFA performance the report also falls short.   There are research methods and they’re not equal in terms of analytic leverage.  All the commentary attempting to present the case of mixed effects for Teach For America teachers succeeds only by piling up all the studies and then saying, huh, two big piles so the studies are mixed.  In fact, if you look at the studies that employ the most rigorous methodology (in other words, apples to apples, enough apples to make a reliable estimate, etc…) it’s pretty unambiguous that, as a group, Teach For America teachers perform as well or better than other teachers, not only emergency certified teachers but traditionally trained ones and veterans.  Considering that on an annual basis Teach For America is now the largest teacher prep program in the country (excluding multi-campus ventures such as the UC system) that overall level of quality is a big deal.

For instance:

A 2004 study from Mathematica Policy Research found Teach For America corps members were as good or better other teachers, including veteran teachers.  This was the only study to earn an A for its methodology in a 2008 Ed Next analysis of research into Teach For America because of its methods.

A 2009 Urban Institute study that found the impact of having a Teach For America teacher was at least twice that of having a teacher with three or more years of experience.

A 2010 study from the University of North Carolina, which concluded that students taught by corps members outperformed their peers in high school science, math, and English. At every grade level and subject studied, Teach For America corps members’ students performed as well as or better than the students of traditionally prepared UNC graduates.  This was a state study to help inform policymaking there.

Other studies here.

This doesn’t mean that TFA teachers are all outstanding.  There is high-variance amongst them, just as there is with other routes into teaching and TFA teachers struggle their first year, just as most teachers do.  But these results do mean that in the aggregate hiring a Teach For America teacher is a pretty safe bet, relative to all the other options on the table.  This is part of a larger body of research on teacher effectiveness that shows that  – outside of emergency credentials with no training at all – routes into teaching matter less than candidates.

And the secondary impact is in no small part fueling today’s reform movement (pdf).  Former corps members are all over the place.

TFA critics continue to cite the David Berliner study on TFA from 2002 as evidence of TFA’s “mixed results.”  Sorry.  Here’s a review of that study by Kosuke Imai (pdf) and here’s a more accessible review by UVA’s Paul Freedman (pdf). As both make clear, the Berliner study wants for rigorous methods: Before you even get to the statistical sleight of hand, which isn’t that complicated to ferret out, the selection problems undermine its methods.  That’s why the 2008 report card gave it a ‘D.’ Punchline:  Not all research is created equal.

Again, to date no study with what would be considered rigorous methods (meaning adequate controls) has shown that Teach for America teachers depress student achievement.   That’s noteworthy but lost in the noise. On some issues (eg charter schools) the research is mixed.  That’s really not the case with Teach For America right now.

Study laundering: I know it’s impolitic to forthrightly point this out, but here’s the deal:  In terms of mainstream media, only Winerip and, of course, Mikey bit on this study despite that it had been shopped around for some time.

That’s in part because the board of the center is made up of people with a track record of trashing Teach For America and NEA affiliates fighting to keep TFA out of various states.  That’s all fine, I’m a big fan of the five freedoms.  But, most reporters would (and did) then take a critical eye to the findings.  Perhaps ask some disinterested researchers to have a quick look at the studies being aggregated?  Yet not here.  Rather: Hook, line, sinker.   If  Winerip and Mikey covered tobacco research, we’d all still be taking cigarette breaks during the workday.

So what happens is that the Great Lakes Center puts out the study, no one serious bites.  But then it ultimately does get picked up, for whatever reason, and – voila! –  it’s clean money! In other words, suddenly it seems more legit because it earns the moniker  ‘as reported in the Washington Post’ or ‘this work was featured in the New York Times.’  This happens will all kinds of studies, pro-and anti-reform, by the way, and it’s a big problem that confuses rather than clarifies things for the casual observer or the policymaker trying to make heads or tails of an issue. In other words, the problem of the easily fooled or the agenda-driven becomes everyone’s problem because it further clouds already complicated issues.

Update: Professor Berliner responds below. He throws up some misdirection (it was peer reviewed!), attacks the reviews, but admits the criticisms have merit, and then unfortunately fails cite any specifics or say which ones.  That’s a problem because the criticisms undermine the premise of the study.   To quote from Paul Freedman’s* analysis (pdf), again the more accessible of the two reviews and only a few pages and worth reading, the three issues are:

· problems of selection and inadequate matching fundamentally undermine the validity of the study;

· the authors overstate the substantive importance of their estimates;

· the statistical approach employed is not well suited to the research question.

Rather, Professor Berliner argues that, ” But the study we did with very careful matching procedures met some of the standards of quality that the profession had for conducting non-causal designs.”  Given the growing body of research about Teach For America that meets more than “some” of the standards, and in fact allows for causal inferences, that statement is an excellent summation of the problem here.

By the way, here’s a bit on Freedman, who doesn’t even have a dog in this fight.

91 Replies to “Teach For America And The Problem Of Study Laundering”

  1. found that 61 percent of Teach For America corps members stay in teaching beyond the two-year commitment. Teach For America surveys its alumni regularly and the most recent survey found that 65 percent of Teacher For America’s 20,000 alumni remain in education, with 32 percent continuing as teachers.
    Varying percents there.
    Please clarify:
    20 000 * .32 = 6 400
    (.65 * 20 000) * .32 = 4 160

  2. This is a topic that requires careful reading with a heavy dose of common sense. Many TFAs are dedicated individuals who have an admirable commitment to helping children in our neediest schools. On the other hand, we know that some of these people, like other teachers, are ill-equipped for the most challenging classrooms. Because research tells us that an effective teacher is especially important for at-risk youngsters, we can surmise that it is wise to hire only the best qualified for urban schools. The only way to do this is to hire fully-qualifed teachers WITH EXPERIENCE AND PROVEN TRACK RECORDS OF SUCCESS.

    As to “research” in education, for every study that says one thing, you can find another that’s contradicts it. This goes for studies our of Harvard and Stanford as well as State U. There are just so many variables that can’t be well controlled. That’s why critical reading is so important in any study that deals with human behavior or learning.

    TFAs can be hired to assist successful urban teachers or to teach in high-performing schools so that the teachers in those schools can be released to teach the neediest students.

    For many years, the least qualified and experienced teachers have been assigned to our most challenging schools. It’s time for this unconscionable practice to stop. We’ve had enough of the status quo.

  3. If Richard Barth put out a study on TFA that was funded by TFA, we would all laugh at the results/wouldn’t take them seriously, etc.

    Yet, Lou Battiglieri’s wife, Teri, is listed as the contact person on the Great Lakes Center’s press release and the last time I checked, the NEA was the only major funder to the Great Lakes Center. Lou Battiglieri is Executive Director of the Michigan Education Association, an NEA affiliate.

    Anyone think NEA doesn’t have a horse in this race?

  4. @Linda: The critique that TFA teachers are somehow supplanting more “qualified” teachers by taking positions at high needs schools is, in my opinion, a touch obtuse. It is not like the best teachers in America are clamoring to teach in the country’s worst districts. Quite the opposite: there is a mountain of research to suggest that the BEST teachers (however you choose to qualify best) are teaching in the BEST districts. To claim that, “it is wise to hire only . . . fully-qualifed (sic) teachers WITH EXPERIENCE AND PROVEN TRACK RECORDS OF SUCCESS,” ignores the rather gross problem that such teachers intentionally avoid teaching in high-poverty schools. Whether you think TFA teachers are relatively more or less successful than traditionally prepped teachers doesn’t change the fact that TFA teachers are willing to teach in schools where others won’t. Go out and talk to some of those teachers in high performing schools and see if the only reason they are not teaching in the south Bronx is because no one has volunteered to “release” them.

  5. Ed, TFA says that 32 percent of TFA alums are teachers and 33 percent are “in education” as administrators, counselors, education policy wonks, professors, etc.

  6. Raphael,

    Yes, what you say is true. However, my point is that we should make a real effort to get highly-qualified people into the most challenging schools, especially now that foundations are willing to provide the financial incentives required to attract such people.

    Although many, many teachers in low-income schools are hard-working, competent and dedicated, the fact is that too many of our best teachers refuse to teach in the schools that need them most. We need to do our best to change this.

    I admire the dedication of Teach for America recruits, but high-poverty schools are not places for neophytes, whether they are from Harvard or State U.

  7. What is there to admire about a form of dedication that last only a couple years when others last many, many years?

  8. Linda again fails at reading comprehension. The research has shown that TFA teachers, despite critiques that they are not prepared to excel on the job, indeed do perform and *succeed* frequently in teaching, on average or better than teachers she might consider as “fully-qualified”. An objective perspective should thus bring one to conclude that maybe what one considers as “fully-qualified” needs to be redefined, as teachers alternatively labeled as “under-qualified” in many respects are just as successful.

    I mirror Raphael’s comments, and also need to point out a few things about this teacher trade-in idea:

    1) A teacher that has experience and success (as indicated by student achievement, for example) in a school on the nice side of town will *not* necessarily be the panacea for a high-poverty urban school. There will be so many different needs that said teacher will not necessarily have experience with meeting at an urban school, nor will said teacher necessarily be motivated to meeting them.

    2) Even assuming financial incentives will grease the wheels of this teacher switcheroo, it may be troubling to have an influx of teachers who are more motivated about the extra pay they will be receiving than teaching their kids. After all, there was a reason that that these teachers have not already chosen to be “released” to teach in urban schools, and if money helps them make this decision, there’s a good chance that we know the reason for the change of heart.

    3) Assuming Linda’s hypothesis that TFA teachers are under-qualified and ill-prepared for teaching is correct (it’s not, as the research shows), one wonders what the communities around these nice schools will say when Linda offers to take their best and brightest teachers away in exchange for some “neophytes” that likely won’t have the same impact on their children.

    4) I’m not sure if this was implied or not, but just to be sure, there is a 0% chance that TFA will ever take on this near-sighted crusade as an alternative to their current model of placement, and the reasons for that include not just all of the research pointing to their current model as effective, not just the fact that it would implicitly accept research-disproven critiques that TFA teachers are low-tier educators, but the simple fact that their organization is not designed for such a wacky switcheroo, and it would take an enormous amount of organizational restructuring to support such an unrefined and untested idea.

    I remember there was another blogger a while back that seemed bitter that Wendy didn’t accept his proposal for how to run TFA (it was similar to the teacher trade-in idea discussed here), but were Wendy to respond in a manner that she probably should have were she not a public figure, the reply may have read something along the lines of, “Who the hell are you and why are you telling me how to run my organization?”


    TFT: Is that a pathetic attempt at trolling?

  9. No, Chris, it was a question for Linda.

    And when you cite research that you claim disproves an assertion, a good thing to do would be to link to it.

    And you might want to mention you area TFA alum yourself.

  10. Linda again fails at reading comprehension. The research has shown that TFA teachers, despite critiques that they are not prepared to excel on the job, indeed do perform and *succeed* frequently in teaching

    Quite a hedge! And smarmy, too!

    Have you put in your 2 years yet Chris?

  11. TFT:

    1) It was a one sentence comment snarling for attention, contrary to the blogpost you are commenting on, but deserving little respect nor warranting a response at all.

    2) Andy just cited a handful of studies. Read those before you whine about a lack of evidence.

    3) I am not required to give any disclosures about my past teaching experience; you’re an adult, do your own link-clicking and check the background of commenters if you’re interested, but don’t pretend this is some kind of “Gotcha!” moment.

  12. Chris,

    Again, my one sentence was a question for Linda based on the comment she made right above mine.

    You cited studies and you should let us know which studies you are talking about. As a grad student you surely know about citations. The reason you didn’t cite the studies concerns me, not that I can’t read them. Besides, I have read some studies too!

    You are not required to do anything, except die and pay taxes, I suppose. But if you want to be taken seriously, you might want to disclose that you have no teaching experience to back up any claims about teaching/TFA you might make. Unless I am wrong. So?

    Everyone in this thread deserves respect. That you dole out respect piece-meal means you would probably run your classroom giving respect to only some. Glad my child won’t be in that room!

    Gotcha or not, we do not know anything about you other than what you provide. Why won’t you clarify your TFA/teaching experience? Is it because you have none?

    You are a smarmy grad student, full of vim and vigor. That’s good. But don’t talk about what you don’t know about. Give it a few years.

  13. TFT:

    1) And again, your one-sentence snarl of a comment was posted in a public space on a blog post that has orders of magnitude more respect in its analysis of TFA teachers, rather than implying they don’t have dedication. It doesn’t matter if you intended your barking fit for Linda: it was an infantile, derisive comment that deserves little more than the online equivalent for the middle finger, much less a response by anyone here.

    2) Why would I need to cite studies for you when the very blog post we are posting in cites these exact studies I am referencing?

    3) Is there a reason you’re still defending this poisoning the well fallacy? My teaching experience has absolutely no impact on my arguments here whatsoever. I am in no way able to receive any type of compensation or benefits from posting on this thread. In fact, it would behoove me to avoid the comment threads here as I’d rather be running more experiments in lab.

    4) People deserve the same respect that they dole out. With that said, I am being more than kind in my responses here.

  14. “In fact, in a study that delineated the leaving issue more effectively, a 2008 study by Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, found that 61 percent of Teach For America corps members stay in teaching beyond the two-year commitment.”

    Nice spin, Rotherham. Let’s first remind your gentle readers that the author of this study had only a 62% response rate to her study. Which way does that bias the results? The most plausible story is that non-respondents tended to be earlier leavers, since they wouldn’t be quite so proud, so this would bias persistence rates upwards.

    Second, let’s mention estimated survivor rates beyond year 2:

    Year 3: 40-45%
    Year 4: About 35%
    Year 5: 25-30%
    Year 6: About 25%

    So longterm, and noting that this estimate is probably biased upwards, we can be sure that less than 25% of TFAs stay in teaching for more than 6 years.

  15. Melody:

    Why do you assert there should be anything demeaning in a TFA teacher leaving his/her school after the 2-year commitment is completed? From what I’ve seen, many are proud for having the impact that they have had, and are excited to pursue the next leg of their careers with still the same goals in mind: to help all kids get the opportunity to have an excellent education. I don’t speak for all TFA teachers but am wondering what you are basing your opinion on.

    Consider this alternative hypothesis, then, to explain the 62% response rate:

    One of the many goals of TFA directors is to encourage their corps members to respond to official TFA surveys asking about their teaching commitments, thoughts on teaching, feedback for the corps, etc. This response rate never reaches 100%– in fact, I checked it out and saw that it hovered at ~40-50% for several groups in my area. Teachers are busy enough without said surveys, and so some forget to respond or choose not to respond usually because they don’t have time. There’s nothing sinister behind the motives of teachers that don’t reply, either; it is well known inside the corps that the organization strongly values feedback from its teachers and quickly works to respond to these survey results.

    Might a 62% response rate simply be indicative of teachers that don’t have time to fill out more surveys? It’s definitely possible, maybe probable. This would not bias the study’s results in any statistically significant way.

    And what’s more: there is a possibility that TFA alumni that do not currently teach may be *more* willing to spend time on responding to such surveys, not less. Right now, I don’t have the same strict time commitments as I did as a teacher, so I’m more likely to respond to surveys about my teaching career now than I may have been when I was teaching. I’d be surprised if this weren’t the same for others. This may indicate that the numbers from the study are *underestimates* of teacher retention rather than overestimates.

  16. Please follow me on twitter: @mppolicy

    I have read through the comments for this post. I am going to try to remain as open-minded as a possibly can as I don’t want to come off sounding like a jerk.

    To be sure, there is a lot of “data” to support and oppose Teach for America. However, as my step mom always told me, “There is always a story behind the numbers.” So my response is based on my research and discussion of those stories. My reservations with Teach For America comes from many different arenas:

    1. Career v Service (Job) – I find it troubling that TFA and its corps members go on a relentless campaign to prove that they stay in education -regardless of their role. What story does this tell me? That tells me that there is something to prove. Students who go to college and major in education (generally speaking) view teaching and education (regardless of their role) as their career and their entrance into a profession. I like to call TFA’s approach the “fry-cookisation” of education. It is the idea that you can “train” someone to be an EDUCATOR (not teacher) and by following this formula you will yield positive results. As a teacher, I think it is unfortunate that TFA attempts to quantify the intrinsic and extrinsic values that come along with teaching. Even more troubling as evidenced by this article in the Harvard Crimson http://bit.ly/9fZnss there has been an uptick in applications due to the job market and TFA “persuasive marketing” methods. Is that what we want for our children? Someone looking for a job in the tough economy?

    2. Good Teachers in Good Schools – Chris discussed quite aptly earlier that many good teachers go to go schools to teach and that money could not/should not be the catalyst for getting them to go to schools with at-risk students. How does TFA solve the problem? In my opinion it doesn’t. The “good teacher” shortage is a reflection of a systemic and HISTORIC disinvestment in urban and rural school districts. I see that work that TFA does more as a piecemeal (and largely reactionary) response to a long problem in urban and rural education in America. There needs to be a comprehensive approach to reforming education in America including all the stakeholders. Bringing in recent grads and have them teach for a couple of years doesn’t solve the problems, but allows policymakers to look at flawed anecdotal stories that ignores the larger problem.

    3. Teach for Whose America? – Part of my masters thesis research was to track the placement of TFA corps members. While it is the mission of TFA to go to underserved communities I was curious to see if you could find current TFA teachers in “good” school districts. Needless to say, I was hard pressed. TFA utilizes underserved communities as guinea pigs and charity cases. (I am sure that the sentence rubbed someone raw.) Even if that statement is empirically true, that is the sentiment that many people in the communities I talked to got. I had one parent who flat out said, “those rich kids come into our neighbourhoods telling us what’s good for us….who the hell do they think they are?” In my opinion that’s a valid point. Again as evidenced by the Harvard Article from earlier the idea of “paying it forward” should not be a reason to teach underserved children. Despite what many think, many of those children don’t see their lives as a problem. It may look different from a Harvard graduate, but in their minds certainly isn’t hopeless. It is arrogant to believe that you can come into someones community and tell them what they want/need/or feel. It was a prevailing theme throughout the conversations I had with parents, and frankly there is no TFA marketing that would make me feel any differently.

    4. Inherent Superiority – One of my friends who teaches second grade said: “In my school, the TFA teachers get better treatment simply because they are TFA. I went to school for four years and studied education and that means nothing.” It was troubling for me to hear that sentiment from her. I thought about it, and there is some level of truth to her statement, however I am going to go one step forward. I believe that the marketing, design, and advocates for TFA (including its corps/alumni) traditional educators are seen as the problem. The marketing that TFA uses to show support their program points to the paradigms discussed in point number three. The idea that their traditional teacher “failed” them or a good teacher “doesn’t want them” and TFA is going to “save” them. The design of TFA spews superiority. A five-week “intensive” training program versus four years of study on the same level. Seems on its face quite inequitable to me. However, the advocates will point to data (largely test scores) that will support that TFA first year teachers are just as effective as traditional college graduated first year teachers. If that is true, then why do we even need a teacher’s college? If this model works so perfectly. It would save a lot of time, money, and effort and would do wonders to fill the teacher shortage. Some may say that it is ridiculous for me to say that. However, following the logic of TFA advocates this is the conclusion I come up with.

    An important cavet before I am maligned through the comment portion of this blog archive. Similar to the troops in our military I will never diminish the work that TFA Corps members do in their classroom and for the communities. However, I merely advocating for further scrutiny in the role is/can play on the educational landscape. Similar to my thesis I decided to focus on the “story behind the numbers” to make my point. I welcome any comments to my post.

    Follow me on twitter @mppolicy

  17. We can continue to discuss this ad nauseum. Let me add one more fact to the discussion. We prepare 150 teachers a year at George Washington University in Washington D.C. About 1/3 of them secure there first teaching position in an urban school. The hire rate for our grads is 98% over the last ten years. Our attrition rate is 11% after five years. Solid graduate teacher training beats TFA every time. We should be focusing on improving the quality of our teacher education programs across the board, not putting band aids on what threaten to be fatal wounds.

  18. Jay – your program “beats TFA every time.” Can you give some data on the impact your teachers have on student achievement? Maybe the most recent studies about the effectiveness of your teachers (not how long they stay – how good they are)?

    We should support any program (TFA, GWU, doesn’t matter) that puts teachers in urban schools – if the teachers are good. But it seems like most ed schools tend to talk about how their teachers are theoretically good without bothering to track their impact. Any ed school tracking this and showing their teachers are good should get lots of support and funding.

    Does GWU track the student achievement results of kids taught by its graduates?

  19. While the study I did with Lazko-Kerr has its weaknesses, as do virtually all research studies, it also had many strengths. One of which was that it passed serious review by independent scholars, was revised to meet their criticisms, and then published in a prestigious and blind peer reviewed journal. The criticisms Rotherham cites to show how weak our study is are one by Imai, not published in any journal, but circulated as a Department of Government memo, and another by Freedman that is apparently a letter to the director of TFA from a statistician, also never appearing in the research literature. Talk about study shopping! Wow!
    Let’s be clear: I will be the first to admit that these criticisms have some merit. But the study we did with very careful matching procedures met some of the standards of quality that the profession had for conducting non-causal designs. The results are entirely credible but not as credible as they might have been if we did a different study. So what? That is true of virtually every study in every journal. These unpublished critiques are fine, but they do not deal with the fact that the results are what they are: TFA came out looking weak in a study had enough quality to be published in a high-quality journal.

    Imai, K., “Comments on Laczko-Kerr, I. and Berliner, D. C. The Effectiveness of Teach for America and Other Under-certified Teachers on Student Academic Achievement: A Case of Harmful Public Policy,” Harvard University, Department of Government, 2002.

    Letter To: Wendy Kopp, President, Teach For America
    From Paul Freedman, Assistant Professor, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
    Date: September 17, 2002

  20. Here’s something we can all (hopefully) agree with:

    Let’s end the practice of placing the least experienced and least prepared teachers in our most challenging schools.

  21. Linda – here’s something I’m sure we can all agree with: let’s end the practice of placing – and maintaining – low-performing teachers in our most challenging schools. By low-performing, I mean teachers who do not advance their students’ achievement levels.

    So let’s agree that new teachers should only be hired from the programs that get the best results (which means they have to actually be able to SHOW results – still waiting to hear more about GWU). And experienced teachers should only be retained if their students learn. Surely we can all agree with that, right?

    By the way, the original post here is actually about research and the fact that NEA is funding and pushing out research in an effort to politicize the process of evaluating programs.

  22. For all the namecalling going on here, only Linda proposed an alternative program of teacher recruitment/re-placement. I don’t agree with her idea, but I think this debate could be more productive with more ideas and less venom. TFT, Melody, and Jay: what program would you propose to address the challenges that TFA is attempting to address? Martin, did you publish your research or make your thesis otherwise available so we can read your suggestions? Let’s disagree creatively to maximize our impact on learning.

    Full disclosure: I am a TFA alum (GNO ’03).

  23. edconsumer,

    re: politicizing the process

    which national party is supporting the plans of the NEA right now?

    to an outside observer it might seem like their political muscle isn’t what those on the “nonpartisan” side of the matter might have one believe.

    and, education is political, always has been and always will be. we can’t whitewash the politics out. transparency might work, but there may be too many Bushes and Friends Of Bush schemes in the reformers closet.

  24. Since poverty is the disease we are fighting, a disease that begins affecting kids prior to birth, TFA can’t really cure it. Indeed, no teacher/school can cure it. Poor school performance is merely a symptom of the disease.

    Therefore, I propose free early childhood education for everyone and universal healthcare. These 2 things would do more to help the impoverished (and all of us) than all the Ivy League grads clamoring to put in 2 years in one of our most symptomatic schools.

    Trying to get the very thing folks disparage (teacher/schools) to be the solution seems confused at best.

  25. I agree with TFT. Just these two changes would make an enormous difference in the lives of poor children and in their performance at school. We’ve known this for a long time.

  26. Martin:

    There’s a lot to reply to there…

    1) You’ve not yet clarified why it would be undesirable for TFA to “quantify the values of teaching” to would-be applicants, or for TFA teachers to not always view teaching as a long-term profession (many actually do). Also, it is rather foolish to assert that an increase in the TFA applicant pool is indicative of teachers who are not motivated for the right reasons. The burden of proof is on you to justify that claim. An increase in applicants does *not* lead to lowered expectations and requirements of TFA for the teachers it selects and trains.

    2) Feel free to put your money where your mouth is and start your own better teacher prep program, but it is just plain ignorant to argue that TFA teachers are not helping address educational inequities.

    3) “TFA utilizes underserved communities as guinea pigs and charity cases. (I am sure that the sentence rubbed someone raw.)”

    It’s not that I’m rubbed raw, but rather it’s that I’m astonished you could write something so stupid and actually believe it to be true.

    You then give a hasty generalization to justify your argument, and claim that “despite what many think, many of those children don’t see their lives as a problem.”

    Well, if that’s the case, to hell with trying to close the achievement gap, since Martin has assured us that children don’t have a problem with fewer opportunities to learn and become successful.

    4) Another fallacy of sampling, and then this:

    “However, the advocates will point to data (largely test scores) that will support that TFA first year teachers are just as effective as traditional college graduated first year teachers. If that is true, then why do we even need a teacher’s college?”

    You’re begging the question here about the importance of longer teacher prep programs. Considering that TFA teachers succeed without years and years of prior training, perhaps you need to rethink your premises.



    You are also begging the question of how important teaching experience actually is with regards to making a good teacher, and in fact the research has answered this question for you: long-winded education programs and extensive teacher experience are not necessary for TFA teachers to be successful.



    “I propose free early childhood education for everyone and universal healthcare.”

    So go out and get the ball rolling on that one. Nowhere has anyone argued that anything can supersede the positive effects for our kids that these two not-so-simple proposals will have.

    However, educators do have a lot of control over the rigor of education their students receive, and we’ve seen examples of students and schools beating the odds afforded them by society. Up until (and ever after) we get those above two proposals finalized, we have to keep a focus on hiring and training effective teachers and placing them where they are most needed.

  27. For all of the venom here, I think there are some really interesting kernels.

    A few thoughts to add to the mix from a traditionally certified ex-teacher:

    1) The problems of urban (and rural) education are severe. The current results in those neighborhoods are terrible. For people to dedicate themselves to the problem is admirable.

    2) I like the idea of getting our best teachers into our toughest schools. But how do we do it? I think monetary incentives make sense, but you also need to give principals (the district) more power to place teachers, move them, dismiss them, etc. or else we will have the status quo, where good teachers consistently move to “better” schools. If you agree with the goal, but not the tactics, what do you think will do the trick? Why do you think it will work?

    3) Poverty is a problem, but it can be overcome. I get pretty annoyed with hearing that poor kids (or minority kids) can’t learn until we fix poverty. Really? then why are there numerous examples of schools succeeding with those kids? Charter schools in NYC come to mind or KIPP, or Cristo Rey (not a charter), or certain traditional public schools, or KIPP, YES Prep, Noble, etc. No not all charters are good, but many have proven that you can succeed with poor, minority kids. Yes it is harder, but it isn’t an excuse to give up. Lets stop lower expectations.

    4) I like the idea of universal healthcare and free early education. Lets push for those, but lets not give up on other reforms that we can push like better teachers.

    5) Teachers tend to come from the bottom third of our college ranks, isn’t it a good thing to get some more of the best and brightest in the mix?

    6) To have great teachers we need to know what is successful. Measurement is critical – this is another area we need to get much, much better on.


    There has never been a published study to see if fluency at writing the alphabet in K-1 facilitates the acquisition of literacy and prevents reading problems. Neither has there been a published study to see if fluency in delivering correct answers to simple addition facts in second-grade leads to subsequent mastery of arithmetic and science. I personally have ample evidence that both of these possibilities are true.

    The “establishment” doesn’t want to see such studies, because they believe the brains of problem students are “different”. Journalists don’t want to upset education professors, school psychologists, or teachers’ unions because of circulation. Politicians don’t want to “go there” because of votes. However, such studies are simple, cheap and easy. The problems with our schools are immense and of over-riding importance. It is time to think of our country, and not of personal gain.

    Please read the following carefully, and act responsibly!


    Bob Rose
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    12/05/2010 00:27:00 EducationNews.org
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    Maria Montessori
    5.12.10 – Bob Rose, MD – I started a yahoogroups listserv and recruiting a number of “whole language” teachers to help test Maria Montessori’s 1912 postulate that making young children “expert” at writing the alphabet would make them “spontaneous” readers


    During the school year of 2002-2003 I started a yahoogroups listserv and recruiting a number of “whole language” teachers to help test Maria Montessori’s 1912 postulate that making young children “expert” at writing the alphabet would make them “spontaneous” readers.

    To my delight, there turned out to be a very strong correlation between how many letters of the alphabet first-graders could write in a timed, 20-second period of time and how good their reading skills were. To my delight, there was a very strong correlation. However, the Whole Language Teachers did not believe in “setting specific achievement goals”, and I was asked to unsubscribe from the list.

    During the following school year (2003-2004) I created my own yahoogroups listserv and recruited another group of five kindergarten teachers willing to submit correlation data between alphabet-letter writing fluency and reading skills. Children were identified by ID numbers, rather than by names, to keep the study ethical.

    There had been 94 students in the Whole Language “control” group, and I got a total of 106 student correlations from the five “experimental” kindergarten teachers, all of whom had also gotten very strong correlations between writing fluency and reading skill.

    I immediately emailed the editorial offices of over a dozen well-known education journals, asking if they would be interested in me submitting a write-up of our study for possible publication. I got only two responses: one said, “That couldn’t possibly be true”, but the editor of the Harvard Educational Review enthusiastically invited my submission. I wrote up our study and had it sent in three days later. (In March, 2004). A few months later I received a standard letter of rejection from them.

    Since then I have emailed copies of “my manuscript” to HUNDREDS of educational psychologists, journalists, education professors, politicians and school superintendents. Though I received a few informal polite replies, no one seemed to take my idea seriously.

    During the second half of the 2008-2009 school year I recruited a number of different kindergarten and first-grade teachers to my listserv. All who participated again saw positive correlations, but it was decided to wait until this present (2009-2010) school year to repeat the study and see if we could get enough data to publish a meaningful meta-analysis onto the internet.

    So far (5/5/10) we have data from three first-grade teachers at a Catholic private school in an upper middle-class Midwestern city. The data from these three teachers involve a total of 60 first-graders. Not only is there a correlation between alphabet-writing fluency and literacy, BUT EVERY ONE OF THESE CHILDREN IS NOW ABLE TO READ. (We got baseline data last year from a first-grade in one of the most affluent and academically successful elementary schools in the state of Pennsylvania. NOT ALL of their first graders were readers, though there was indeed a correlation between writing fluency and reading skill).

    At this Catholic school teacher # 1 wrote she had the children practice writing the alphabet three days a week. (We had recommended five minutes each school day). Her class’s writing fluency rates ranged between 63 and 123 letters-per-minute (LPM), and her median student wrote at a rate of 72 LPM. Teacher # 2’s median rate was 75 LPM, and the median rate for teacher # 3 was 84 LPM.

    A kindergarten teacher in our study wishes to be identified as “Mary Jane from rural South Carolina”. She tells us that 93% of the children in her school receive subsidized lunches, and as of early May, 2010, only two of the children in her kindergarten are not yet readers. The principal of a highly successful elementary school in Atlanta had once told me on the telephone that children should learn to read in kindergarten, not in the first-grade.

    Some years ago the retired archivist of the Calvert School (a private elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland), sent me a copy of a privately published booklet published in 1996, the centennial of the founding of the school. The original headmaster, G. Vernon Hillyer, wrote that, “If you teach children to write, you needn’t bother teaching them to read”. In his first-grade (the school had no kindergarten), children simply learned to write the sentence, “I see a tree”. Thereafter they learned to write, “The tree is green”. After about three months, all the children were literate, and then began to study a formal curriculum and to write meaningful essays. Twenty years later, he wrote that the school had never failed to teach a normal child to read and write.

    In traditional Russia, children were taught literacy at home, before they began school. In Russian, as in English, various letters are pronounced differently in normal colloquial speech than they are written. As a matter of fact, there is not word for “to spell” in Russian. Instead, if one wishes to ask how a word is written, one just asks, “How is that written by syllables”. For example, the word “govorit” (he speaks) is colloquially pronounced “guvareet”. When asked how it is written, one answers: “Goh-Voh-REET”.

    In other words, one basically doesn’t learn to read in Russian, one learns simply to write. And anyone can read anything anyone can successfully write! (I studied Russian for three years in college, and this way of learning to write in Russia is confirmed by several people educated in Russia whom I have known in the past.

    We appreciate this May 1st, 20101data from Ardis, which we’ll consider “end-of-the-year” data, even though a nice lady at the Michigan Board of Education just told me on the telephone that the children in Macomb Count, Michigan, adjacent to Detroit, will actually probably be attending school into sometime in June.

    In the past Ardis, a kindergarten teacher, has told us her school has a high number of the children of immigrants in her class. I’m waiting to hear by direct email from Ardis whether she wants any particular restrictions placed on her identify and location, and/or can she give us any more graphics about her class.

    Ardis included two interesting remarks in her report. One is “I have to admit I haven’t kept up with the fluency training during this second semester as much as I did last year.” The other important comment is “Every single person [i.e., kindergartner} is a reader – there are no struggling or non-readers this year”.

    At any rate, Ardis’ data of May first indicate there were 26 kids in her kindergarten. One has moved away, and of the remaining:

    Four students wrote the alphabet more rapidly than 40 LPM. There reading levels were, respectively, high, average, high and high.

    Eight students wrote at between 30 and 39 LPM. In descending LPM order, their reading levels were high, high, high, high, very high (3rd grade level), low average, low average and average.

    Eleven students scored between 21 and 27 LPM. Again, in decreasing order of LPM, their reading levels were: medium, high, high, low average, low average, medium, average, low average, high, very very high [3rd grade level; autistic], (this student’s LPM was 21) and average.

    Two students scored only 18 LPM. Their reading levels were high and low average.

    Nancy, an Ed.D kindergarten teacher, also from Macomb county (part of metropolitan Detroit), just provided us with the following data:

    Two of our 26 students scored better than 40 LPM and both rated as “above grade level” in reading skill.

    Two students scored 39 LPM, and that are also “above grade level”.

    Five students scored between 30 and 36 LPM. In decreasing order of LPM rates, they were rated

    “above grade level”, “below grade level”, “above grade level”, “above grade level” and “at grade level” respectively.

    Eight students wrote at between 21 and 27 LPM. Each of these eight were rated as “at grade level”, in my opinion of their reading ability.

    Five students wrote at 15 LPM. Of these, one was “at grade level” and the other four were “below grade level”.

    In the fall of 2009 the average LPM rate in my class was 7 LPM. At present it is 28 LPM.

    Historically, many authorities on the subject of literacy instruction have stressed the importance of adequate practice in printing alphabet letters. The first-century Roman writer and rhetorician, Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (ca A.D. 35-98?) wrote that with regard to becoming literate, “Too slow a hand impedes the mind”.

    In 1912, Maria Montessori wrote, in effect, that teaching young children to print letters is easy, that it is easy to teach children to read after they have practiced printing alphabet letters, but that it is difficult to teach children to read if they have not practiced writing them.

    Marilyn Jager Adams noted that prior to the onset of the twentieth century the “spelling drill” was the principal means of inducing literacy for several millennia.

    I believe that the cumulative suggestion of our repeated on-line meta-analyses supports the idea that making children fluent at writing the alphabet during the first two years of school will be an important advance in the teaching of literacy throughout the world. We hope this summary will be relayed to K-1 teachers everywhere via the internet.

    I think the importance of our findings is not in the strength of this on-line research. To be scientifically valid, studies must not only be reproducible, but reproducible by different experimenters.

    The most outstanding result of our research is having learned that no one, in spite of vast sums being spent on “literacy research”, has ever done and published a study to see if Maria Montessori’s postulate holds true for Anglophone children, or whether it does not!

    Bob Rose, MD (retired)

    Jasper, Georgia

    email: rovarose@aol.com

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    Comments (1 posted):
    Patrick Groff on 14/05/2010 07:52:10

    Dear Dr. Rose:

    I was pleased to see your revelation of the fact that most young children in the U.S. are denied an effective manner in which to develop their reading abilities. This practice is so notorious that I call it a form of academic child abuse.

    Your comments also lead me to the conclusion that the public needs to be informed that professors of reading education are the major cause of the failure of American children to read commpetently. I hope in the future that you will add that truism to your other pertinent remarks.

    Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus, San Diego State University.

    [For commentary on this essay on the Houston Examiner, please go to http://www.examiner.com/examiner/x-11062-Houston-Gifted-Education-Examiner~y2010m6d3-Progressive-education-has-destroyed-our-school-writing-alphabet-makes-young-children-expert-readers

    Yesterday I got an enquiry from a PhD educator in Scarsdale, NY. I think this is going to turn out to be very newsworthy!

    Bob (rovarose@aol.com)

  29. *Nowhere has anyone argued that anything can supersede the positive effects for our kids that these two not-so-simple proposals will have.*

    Yet nobody seems to be advocating for it (I disagree is “not-so-simple”–even if it’s hard, though, we should do it). Most teachers I know advocate for it. Linda DH advocated for it. Obama advocated for it. And on and on.

    But the reformers remain silent on it. Funding is absent for it, as is the gumption, evidenced by the lack of serious talk about it.

    Educators have less control over their students’ education than their parents. Either be clear that you want teachers to do 2 jobs–teach AND parent–or start advocating for policies that will actually do something.

    Chris, did you put in your 2 years yet?

  30. TFT:

    You are tossing us a red herring and hoping people bite. This entire thread has been a discussion about TFA and teacher experience. TFA as an organization is focused on the hiring, training and placement of teachers– not on political advocacy. There *ARE* TFA alumni that do advocate for these sorts of necessary political changes (and they often work within networks of other TFA alumni), but it’s disingenuous to imply that TFA as an organization is not doing it’s job with advocacy when it’s purpose is not advocacy.

    And cease with your petulant attempts to change the discourse here into one about my experience. Stop being lazy and look it up if you’re curious, but focus on the arguments at hand if you want to be taken seriously.

  31. Chris:

    Perhaps I did not make this clear: I do not accept the research on TFAs because so much of it is contradictory. Also, much of this research is based on test scores, which may or may not be valid. When it comes to judging teacher success, I’d prefer to go with the judgment of parents, students, and professionals. These people can usually tell you who the best teachers are. In my experience these excellent teachers almost always have at least five years of teaching behind them.

    I DO think that testing can tell us much about the effectiveness of a teacher, but this testing would have to be done individually and be administered by a trained teacher or psychologist. The test would have to be administered in the fall and again in the spring and it would have to be designed to measure progress made in school (as opposed to school and home).

    Much of what we are all saying is opinion and not fact, so there are no “wrong” answers.

  32. Chris,

    To keep the discussion about TFA and teacher experience:

    Why did you leave teaching after two years? I couldn’t find the answer on your blog.

    And, how much did your students’ scores improve? Would you have been rated ‘effective’? Again, I couldn’t find this answer on your blog.

  33. Chris,

    You say “This entire thread has been a discussion about TFA and teacher experience” and then you go on to say that your TFA teaching experience (or lack thereof) is immaterial.

    Will (who comment above) was confident enough to disclose his affiliation with TFA.

    I have taught in Title 1 schools for 13 years. My son goes to one.

    Providing some background on who we are gives our comments some much needed context.

    I care more that you seem reluctant to give details about your TFA experience than I do about knowing what your TFA experience actually is. Your secrecy about your experience, as well as your disdain for my curiosity scream defensiveness.

  34. a major flaw in the TFA studies is that they primarily measure standardized test scores. This isn’t a complete measure of closing the achievement gap to me. (although it is a large one) measuring soft and psycho-social, post secondary achievements, and career integration are just a few other identifying social factors that must be included when measuring the achievement gap.

    i often think tfa is too narrow in their focus when it comes to the achievement gap, and sometimes think they think they are the ones who define what the achievement gap is. as a tfa alum i do sometimes find this to be an annoying idea they drill into your head.

    i will say, though, that tfa has figured out a way to recruit the top echelon of college students into education. something higher ed programs struggle with every year. until schools figure out a way to do this, i will continue to be ok with the top tier college students taking the TFA route into education. (when they might not have before)

  35. Linda:

    You are not entitled to your own facts, nor are you entitled to disregard the science that disagrees with your preconceptions. You’ve got the science all horribly backwards: good science means starting with a falsifiable idea that you are willing to throw out if the data rejects it. Instead, you question the scientific data because it disagrees with your initial hypothesis. The very blogpost you are commenting on now lays out the reasons why you cannot assume all studies were made equal, and shows that many highly regarded studies support TFA teachers as effective, yet all of that seems to be lost on you.

    You instead are concerned that test scores are invalid, yet give no reason why we should consider these specific studies’ test scores as possibly invalidated. You suggest we focus on “the judgment of parents, students, and professionals”, but there are numerous more problems associated with using solely these data, namely the fact that you are incorrectly conflating the “praise given to teacher by community” variable with the “student achievement” variable, not to mention the fact that you offer no examples of sound studies utilizing these supposed superior data to suggest that TFA teachers are lesser teachers.

    Your preconceived ideas are stronger than science, apparently, and that is what’s “wrong”.


    The reason I feel absolutely no need to discuss my teaching experience here is because the arguments at hand do not necessitate any type of disclosure of personal experience to be considered right or wrong, honest or dishonest. Given the fallacious arguments I’ve seen thus far– and a couple attempts at poisoning the well– I’ve no interest in fielding questions about my experience at the increased risk of further sleazy argumentation, particularly when the discussion can easily be had without it.

  36. Chris,

    I don’t think Steve asked you why you won’t discuss your past. I think he asked you to clarify it.

    Again, your silence on the issue is deafening.

    From your blog I can only figure that you taught one year teaching science. If that is correct, well, I don’t know what to say. Isn’t there a 2-year commitment?

    You also mention you had some failures. We all have. Maybe you TFAers aren’t so different.

    Here is a relevant blogpost from Schools Matter asking why Rotherham did exactly what he is complaining about in the post we are commenting on: http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2010/07/hypocrisy-of-andrew-rotherham.html

  37. TFT:

    Steve (like you) asked about my experience, and I responded. As before, you continue to slither around for sources of ad hominem. Your fact-finding mission seems to have been in vain if you still can’t figure out how long I taught for (again, not that it has anything to do with this discussion), so now I can’t figure out if you’re the biggest troll here or just incredibly obtuse.

  38. Chris:

    I wish I were young again so I could know everything the way I used to.

  39. We didn’t ask you generally about your experience, we asked very specific questions that you seem very reluctant to answer. But you already know that.

    You seem so smart. Why can’t you figure out my motivation? And why do you limit yourself to just 2 choices?

    And what do you have to say about the hypocrisy of Rotherham?

    Your responses are classic non-responses, and you know it.

    Best to you.

  40. Linda:

    I can tell that was tongue-in-cheek, but if said honestly it does assume older folks don’t have the prowess for scientific reasoning, and of course that’s not right.


    You either can’t read what I’m typing or choose not to, so either way good day to you as well.

    p.s.: I was waiting for that tu quoque. I feel like my day is now complete.

  41. The fact remains that Chris has not answered one question regarding his TFA experience.

    You gave yourself 2 choices. Perhaps I am here as an education blogger, teacher, and interested participant. That is a third, and more likely alternative for my presence.

    You are what we real teachers call an overeducated punk. No disrespect!

  42. Christ Smyr

    “Melody: Why do you assert there should be anything demeaning in a TFA teacher leaving his/her school after the 2-year commitment is completed? ”

    I did not assert that. Rotherham is the one who appears to think is a problem. (Remember, it was he who offered statistics indicating that more stayed longer.) I was merely questioning his spin.

    “Consider this alternative hypothesis, then, to explain the 62% response rate.”

    No doubt you can come up with an alternative story suggesting a different bias. This is a old game that economists play. At any rate, the plain fact is that a 62% survey response rate is pretty bad, and one should be exceedingy cautious about making ANY inferences to a population based on it.

  43. Melody:

    1) “I did not assert that.”

    Yes, you did:

    “the most plausible story is that non-respondents tended to be earlier leavers, since they wouldn’t be quite so proud, so this would bias persistence rates upwards. ”

    2) “No doubt you can come up with an alternative story suggesting a different bias.”

    This seems to avoid the fact that my “alternative story” makes more sense than your claim that TFAers who left teaching after their 2-year commitment wouldn’t feel “proud” enough to respond.

    “At any rate, the plain fact is that a 62% survey response rate is pretty bad”

    Why? You need to justify this claim for me to take you seriously. I’ve shared with you that the average response rate you might see from a group of TFA teachers would be ~50%, and so it seems hardly concerning that “only” 62% returned their surveys for this study.

  44. Melody response rate is related to the underlying population you are surveying. In this case given the number being surveyed 62 percent is fine and you could do a reliable survey with even less response.

    The issue that should concern us is bias in *who* responded and none of us have any way to know that without Teach for America sharing more data.

    Nevertheless, can someone explain why – even assuming that only 25 percent of former Teach for America teachers remain teaching after 4 or 6 or 8 years – if they are good teachers and would not have been teaching without Teach For America, why is that bad?

  45. tft and chris smyr have become a waste of space on this comment board. take it outside people.

  46. eteach:

    Open your eyes and realize that much of TFT’s arguments have had nothing to do with the topic at hand and everything to do with some deranged fixation on my past. I had to engage the troll a bit to clarify what is so glaringly wrong about the logic behind it. If this somehow offends your delicate sensibilities, I am not sorry.


    If you want to ever be taken seriously on an internet forum (my instruments detect a negative on that one), I would strongly suggest you stop linking to a discussion where, after running out anything to say resembling a logical argument, you referred to the other person as a ‘creationist’.

  47. Hi Chris,

    Yes, I didn’t ask about your personal experience to try to make a judgement about you or your experience. I just thought your experience as a TFA alum could add some valuable insight into our discussion of why TFAers leave teaching (since that is what Andy’s post is about) – and add a human narrative to color our discussion of these cold, dry statistics and surveys. It seems to have had a profound effect on your thoughts about education policy. That’s important to me, as I believe our conversations about education in this country can only be enriched when those like you share your story and your struggles.

    Could you imagine education without narratives or stories? I know, I would have dropped out of school.

  48. Steve:

    I didn’t say you were trying to do such, but other commenters here have already tried their darndest to do just that. If one only glances at the comment thread, one will see that in reply to many of my arguments, all anyone seems interested in asking is, “Who’s this guy??” and making terrible guesses about my experience, and it’s laughable because they think it’s a valid counterargument.

    Another reason I will not acquiesce to the request that we discuss my background is that I am not TFA. I was a TFA teacher but I do not speak for all TFA teachers. Human narratives can be misleading in that regard, which is why a focus on all those cold data from the studies (I think they’re rather warm, actually, since they’re helping us see what gets kids to learn better) is important.

    What I have done, though, is responded to certain claims using what I know from my colleagues and I, such as why it’s likely foolish to think that TFA teachers who leave the profession after their commitment will feel so insecure as to not respond to surveys about their experience (and why the response rate for said survey seems quite normal), or to think that TFA teachers only see teaching as a stepping stone to their future careers.

    Any time TFA is mentioned on this blog, the trolls come out of the woodwork to sully its name, and it’s quite annoying. Let’s see if they can defend their claims against a passing critical eye, without the chance to divert attention elsewhere.

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