What has six balls and screws teachers?  State lotteries. Virginia is not the only state with this issue.

Seems to me the big AP story on Teach For America’s expansion and the risks missed the real questions and risks.  The story went for the easy non-committal angle – the research is “mixed” – and misread the research, too. In fact it’s not mixed, ample studies indicate that TFA teachers – on average – outperform their counterparts including veteran teachers.*  It’s why school districts are clamoring for TFA teachers – they’re a better bet than a random draw from the applicant pool. But, there are two big caveats here the AP story ignored and that are actually the crux of the TFA expansion risk question.

First, the TFA margin isn’t enormous, on average TFA teachers outperform but not by leaps and bounds.  How will expansion affect that?

Second, the debate assumes – and some TFA proponents perpetuate – an ecological fallacy when discussing the TFA program.  Just because TFA teachers outperform on average does not mean that every TFA teacher does. There is a high-degree of variance among TFA teachers, just like other teachers.  TFA is a field leader in selecting teachers likely to succeed – in my view that’s the core innovation of the program – but they get some wrong, too. How will expansion affect that?

Overall the quality of the TFA corps has increased as the program has expanded – noteworthy because quality is often inversely related to scale – but like a mutual fund past performance is not a guarantee of future success.  That’s why these two questions bear watching as the program grows further.

BTW – Also, more generally lost in the debate about TFA is the extent to which the research today reflects strong practices by TFA or weak practices by most of the field.  I think it’s a combination and the teacher training establishment has done a poor job putting forward compelling models, but that’s a question also worth some discussion.

*Here, for instance, is an analysis of prep programs in TN.

8 Replies to “Clips”

  1. With a record number of applicants and research clear that teachers continue to improve during their third and even fourth and fifth years, isn’t it time TFA looks at creating a longer commitment. The economy is right for this as well and getting potential teachers to make a three year commitment as opposed to two may weed out those who can game the admissions process and are in it only for the resume boost. A longer commitment would be a better form of expansion than just placing more corps members.

  2. Robert, you have a great point that TFA’s impact is severely limited by the commitment of corps members to stay beyond two years–however, nearly half of corps members *do* stay in their placements beyond the two years and more than half stay in teaching. Beyond that, it’s important to factor in the considerable investment that TFA is making to turn its alumni into leaders throughout the education sector, as school leaders, founders of new education initiatives like the KIPP schools, and public officials.
    There’s a recent study on % of TFA teachers that stay in the classroom after 2 years here:

  3. Valerie Strauss (Mikey in Andy Rotherham’s serious, adult like discussion mode) is at it again, hating on newbie teachers:

    The students mobbed Sandra Geddes when she showed up for the November meeting of the Aqua Eagles Ecology Club at Westbrook Elementary School in Bethesda. It wasn’t because she brought them sugar cookies in the shape of crabs.

    These kids know and value great teaching. Their appreciation of this veteran educator could offer a lesson for some of today’s school reformers.

    Geddes, 68, retired from teaching in June but remains active at Westbrook. In 44 years in the profession, she inspired thousands of students, some of whom came to love science so much that they became scientists. She mentored teachers who learned from her techniques and became so beloved that the Westbrook community is planning to dedicate a building addition to her.

    “Her enthusiasm for education, for science, for inspiring children was constant,” Principal Rebecca Jones said. “She never let up.”

    Kate Finn, a teacher at Westbrook, inspects Maddie Brown’s art project, a rainbow trout, during the after-school science club. (Jahi Chikwendiu – WASHINGTON POST) Ten-year-old Charlie Oakes, who came to the meeting wearing a hat knitted in the shape of a fish, said: “She always made her lessons fun, and you’d learn more that way. One time we were studying shad, and she brought in shad, and we got to eat it. And she’d tell us stories about her family that always had something to do with the lesson.”

    It has become almost axiomatic among some reformers to hail the virtues of young teachers, such as Teach for America’s college graduate recruits, who get five weeks of summer training before teaching at-risk students and are asked to commit to two years of teaching.

    Some reformers say that highly effective veteran teachers are vital to schools. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in August that great veteran teachers should be rewarded.

    But many veterans say that changes being promoted (some with Duncan’s encouragement) are assaults on them. In some states, reformers are trying to eliminate policies that grant teachers tenure and reward them in salary for experience and graduate degrees. Some reformers are also trying to drop last-in, first-out employment practices that require districts, when implementing layoffs, to fire the teachers most recently hired, who are often young. And some reformers say that teachers reach a plateau in skills after a certain number of years.

    By all accounts, Geddes kept getting better as the years went on. She taught in urban and rural schools before going to Westbrook 20 years ago.

    There was no dedicated science program or teacher when she arrived to teach fourth grade, and she began to build a program.

    She incorporated science themes into reading and other subjects, creating an integrated curriculum that other Westbrook teachers use. And she created opportunities for kids to actually do science and learn about taking care of the environment by taking care of the environment.

    “The program teaches students to be real stewards and lifelong lovers of the environment,” she said.

    Geddes designed annual programs for students to raise horseshoe crabs and shad and return them to their natural habitats as part of restoration efforts. Westbrook students raised bay grasses and planted native trees in the Potomac River watershed. She created the Aqua Eagles, which helps protect the Chesapeake Bay through initiatives such as growing rain gardens, raising trout and hosting a native-seed collection program. (The book “Let the River Run Silver Again” by Sandy Burk tells the story of how Westbrook students and the Aqua Eagles helped return shad to the Potomac.)

    To provide new experiences for students, Geddes partnered with environmental organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Audubon Society, Trout Unlimited, the Maryland Association of Outdoor Education, the Potomac River Conservancy and Living Classroom.

    As a result of all of that work, Maryland named Westbrook a “green school.”

    Westbrook students color their rainbow trout during an after-school science club. The club is now learning about the Chesapeake Bay watershed and how to lessen humans’ negative impact on it. (Jahi Chikwendiu – WASHINGTON POST)
    Geddes is so well known in the science education community that when Kate Finn, a third-grade teacher, recently attended a gathering of teachers and mentioned she was from Westbrook, she was asked, “Do you know Sandra Geddes?”

    Geddes said she was lucky to have taught at Westbrook for two decades.

    “With our new principal, Miss Jones, there is a lot less focus on spending time getting ready for the [standardized] tests,” she said. “Our test scores are great, so definitely we are fortunate. I believe this program creates good thinkers, good writers and good readers. But I know I probably wouldn’t be allowed to do what I do at every school, which is too bad, because I think all children would benefit from it.”

    Geddes said she isn’t a big fan of some of the reforms favored by the Obama administration, including the notion of sending minimally trained young people to teach high-risk students.

    “I love the concept of TFA, but they are not trained teachers,” Geddes said. “You learn by doing, but it’s important that you know what you are doing when you are teaching children.”

    Evaluating teachers by the standardized test scores of students, another popular reform, is unfair, she said.

    “My [students’] test scores are fabulous,” she said. “But they come from parents who make them fabulous.”

    What she’d like to do — and might, now that she is retired — is try to build a science program like the one at Westbrook at an inner-city school.

    “Retiring doesn’t mean I’m going to stop working and teaching,” she said.

  4. Anyone who has children knows that some of the older, experienced teachers are often treasures in their communities. Children hope that they too will be in “Miss Rule’s” science class. It is just common sense that the majority of teachers get better with years of experience. Perhaps the research doesn’t support this, but a lot of educational research is based on standardized tests and we all know what that means. (I’m not certain of this, but I strongly suspect that TFA’s are encouraged to drill their students on the exact test items for the purpose of obtaining “higher” test scores.) At any rate, any and all research based on standardized tests that are not professionally handled and proctored should be considered with a grain of salt.

    At the beginning of my career, I hadn’t a clue as to how to teach reading to a slow-learning child or an English Language Learner but at the end I could “teach a rock to read” as one of my colleagues put it. The fact that the “reformers” devalue the older teacher in favor of the young person right out of college should tell us that something is not right.

  5. Linda: Well put. “The fact that the “reformers” devalue the older teacher in favor of the young person right out of college should tell us that something is not right.”

  6. I don’t know much about Westbrook elementary school (mentioned above) but I do know that TFA places Corps Members in schools that are struggling to fill positions with strong teachers, whether they are new or experienced. I’m pretty sure Bethesda isn’t a low-income community, but I’m not positive about that. My point is that it’s important to compare apples to apples.

    For instance, at my placement school, the most veteran member of the English department had 4 years of experience and students asked permission to switch out of her class into my mine – although I was a brand new teacher – because they weren’t learning and heard from their friends that my class was better. While I was certainly raw and far from a great teacher, I was teaching my kids far more than she was (based on test scores, anecdotal student comments, and even the classes and work that the school itself asked me to teach). It’s important to compare what a TFA teacher offers to what else is actually available at a given school, not to the ideal 30 year veteran who loves teaching and is reflective on her practices and growth. The non-TFA teachers at my former school entered and exited at almost the same rate, as is the case across the country for those entering the teaching profession.

    Unfortunately, those who argue against TFA are often too far removed from the students that TFA helps and instead reside in either the Ivory tower of academia or a suburban paradise.

    It’s true, as noted above, that not all TFA teachers are good. Some quit, some fail, some are just not good teachers. But that shouldn’t be an indictment of TFA since research has shown that overall corps members do outperform more veteran peers.

  7. There is variance in other teacher training programs and in the larger population of teachers as well (and in all large enough data sets…) so it’s definitely not a valid criticism. The strength of their recruitment strategies ought to be tested by comparing averages, not variance, and that has shown mainly positive things for TFA.

    Nice to hear from another alum!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.