New Year, Same Debate

I suspect reaction to today’s NYT story on Teach For America recruiting will be a Rorschach test – especially because in an otherwise solid article we again get, “Critics of the Teach for America program say teachers, in general, aren’t at their best until they’ve been working for at least five years.”  Gosh, if only there were data on that question, from say independent research outfits like Mathematica or the Urban Institute or a few states that have done their own evaluations.  Teach For America has its problems, like all organizations, and reasonable people can disagree over theories of action about how to create a teaching profession and the role of TFA in all that, but this issue is pretty settled in the literature.  Background on common TFA issues here.

Two big issues that don’t get a lot of attention but matter a great deal are (a) While TFA teachers perform, based on standardized tests, as well or modestly better than other teachers the variance within the TFA pool is as great as it is within other routes into teaching (except emergency credentialing which produces worse results than other methods). In other words, when it comes to effectiveness the differences are greater within different routes into the field (eg traditional preparation, TFA, other alternative routes) than between them.  That has big implications for the debate about teacher preparation overall and bar exams and other barriers to entry.  And (b) TFA’s innovation is on the selection side, with better attention to selection and key attributes than any other program in the country (and they produce 5,000 teachers a year so it’s not a boutique operation and the methods are replicable.) But the training they offer isn’t radically different* than other programs and we know relatively little from the data about the compound effects of that selection process with various training strategies and various teaching environments. If anecdotes were oil we’d all be rich but that question seems like a good one for deeper dives, especially as teacher preparation becomes a big issue this year.

*Update: Chicago reader ML writes to say, “I actually think TFA’s training–at least what I’ve seen of it–is pretty unique. There’s a sharp focus on setting and attaining goals, and it’s done in the context of a summer program where newbies can be “teachers of record” with really small sets of kids with lots of scaffolding from experienced guides. They still haven’t cracked the content piece, though I know Deb Ball is working with them a bit so I’m optimistic that’ll move ahead too.”

8 Replies to “New Year, Same Debate”

  1. This article gives us the truth about TFA. Because of the economy, many graduates of elite universities are desperate for jobs. These talented individuals realize that a temporary stay in a high-poverty school is better than nothing – much better. These TFA jobs are prestigious and look good on a resume or application to a professional school that will prepare one for a “real” job.

    Here is the problem with that: In our country teaching children (as opposed to young adults at the college level) has long been seen as “women’s work” or “something to fall back on.” It is a profession that is largely reserved for the working class graduates of State U. because it is disdained by the middle and upper classes. If a middle class kid chooses K-12 teaching, his parents are likely to say, “I didn’t pay for Cornell so you could teach Second Grade.” If you, the reader, are middle class yourself, you likely know a young person who wanted to be a teacher but was counseled out of it by Dad or even his professors. I know several people like this.

    This disdain for teachers of children, strangely prevalent in English-speaking countries, has had an extremely harmful effect on our children, especially the poor. In city after city, districts have had a terrible time staffing their classrooms, especially in STEM subjects. As experienced educators know, many schools must recruit the gym teacher to teach math or the history teacher to teach physics. These are the “lucky” schools because many couldn’t find anyone to staff these classrooms and had to resort to “long-term subs” at least until this recession made that unnecessary.

    And that brings us to TFA. Without intending to, this organization has perpetuated the American belief that “you can do better” than becoming a teacher or “If you can’t get anything else you can always teach.” Has anything hurt our schools more than these damaging cultural beliefs?

    The best thing TFA can do for America is to recruit talented people to choose teaching as a CAREER, to inspire people to want to devote their lives to the service of children. It can help to strengthen the entire profession and not just the 1% that condescend to do the job until something better comes along. That attitude has hurt the profession and our schools more than anything else. It’s time for a change. Let’s put an end to the status quo of treating our teachers as second-class citizens.

    As the recession wanes, we are already beginning to see articles about an improvement in employment. Once we are back to normal, will TFA’s be able to fill the thousands of teaching jobs across the country? If not, perhaps they will care enough about children to help attract young people to devote their lives to the greatest profession, one worthy of a life’s service, and not just two years of sacrifice for graduates who can’t find something “better.”

  2. It’s great to hear that TFA teachers are at least as effective as other teachers in the current educational system. Certainly, recruiting kids who have done well on standardized tests themselves probably helps.

    However, as someone interested in reform on a broader scale, it would be interesting to see how well TFA would manage in an environment that requires more than just “teaching to the test.” With things being the way they are, I’m glad there are organizations like TFA that are producing high quality candidates suited to excelling within the system, but I just don’t see how TFA’s model would scale in a more progressive learning environment.

  3. ” I just don’t see how TFA’s model would scale in a more progressive learning environment.”

    Why not? If Deb Ball is working with them on teaching math, she’s fairly inquiry-based and student-centered, and on the fuzzy side of things. It should work out just fine.

  4. The best thing TFA can do is


    Y’all have done nothing as in, no-thing, to advance the cause of American education. Yeah I know, you will come back at me with this teacher did that great thing and this other TFA’er did that. And to that, I say, BFD. You, Wendy, have no model, no theoretical construct for why YOUR teachers are so much more able than those from accepted teacher education programs. Just saying that district rules are eschewed is not a theory of educational change. You and your minions have yet to describe a credible theory for how your kind of change matters. Sadly, you have even Ph.D’s who think your way is valid; I would say, we give out too many doctorates.

  5. The litmus test question I always ask for any reform being hailed as something wonderful is would that reform be allowed in my alma mater, New Trier High School on the affluent North Shore of Chicago? And the answer for TFA is a resounding “no”. Affluent white parents demand fully-certified teachers with experience and higher degrees like M.Ed/PhDs in Education. They would not stand to have an uncertified, poorly-trained TFA novice teach their children, whatever the TFAers’ intentions. TFA is for low-income children of color. We know it is inhernetly inferior to fully-trained, professional educators. There is no study out there that can refute the savage inequality that TFA represents.

  6. The proof is in the teaching and learning, not on a fancy piece of paper with BA, MA, PHD or BS printed after your name. We need a world where teachers derive their sense of self worth from how much their students learn not from their degrees and credentials. Policy needs to change or our children will continue to be educated by the same folks who brought us the emperor’s new clothes. Ability and performance matters most for our kids, not paper.

    TFA was invented because most of the best teachers wanted to teach at places like New Trier and not in the inner city. TFA recruits young idealist, talented, never say die 22 year olds to teach low income children of color as you put it because of the lack of good teachers willing to teach in those schools. Most of the good teachers unwilling to teach in low income communities are only partly deterred by the issues of violence and community acceptance. They are mostly deterred by their experiences with the two butt cheeks of the American public school system: asinine union leaders and asinine district leadership (lousy principals, sour bureaucrats, and corrupt school board members). TFA teachers wade through all this BS and often succeed and admittedly often fail to make a difference. Yet, it is a fact that they many succeed and stay in education. They don’t rank up their seniority points and then transfer to the high income schools either like most of your kind. Ya, I know your world.

    And btw parents in affluent communities don’t give a fig for a teacher’s credential, perhaps the most worthless piece of paper since an 1865 Confederate Dollar. A Ph.D or M.Ed in Education? Wow. You must have one of those and spent a fortune on today’s version of a degree in Phrenology.

    Haven’t you heard? School’s of Ed have been denounced by their own leadership. Did you not read Arthur Levine’s (Past President of Columbia Teacher’s College) Flexnor Report? I think it was a pretty big deal – Gorbachev big. If his consistent and coherent presentation of the evidence that ed schools are ineffectual does not convince you, then maybe the fact that every charter school a school of Education has ever run has been an unmitigated disaster will – Stanford’s charter school run by LDH for example. The SEEDS school at UCLA is one lab school with a good reputation among parents, but mostly rich kids go there.

    It’s little wonder ed schools are such a travesty – most Ed professors have never taught in a K-12 classroom. It’s as if there were people who research and write about dentistry were training our dentists how to do a root canal or extract wisdom teeth. Ouch.

    So teachers have credentials at New Trier because they are required by a law passed by the teacher’s unions in cahoots with universities and there is no shortage of teachers wanting to teach at the New Trier’s of the world.

    How do I know affluent parents could care less about credentials and degrees in Ed? Because I taught the richest kids in the world for five years at a private school. The administration deliberately never hired anyone with a degree in education, and not one teacher in the building had a teacher’s credential. A Master’s degrees in subject matter content were encouraged, but not required. In fact, they have a fund to pay for teachers their tuition and expenses to get a master’s degree in their subject matter only. Our school by the way always had first, second, or third highest pass rates in the nation on every Advanced Placement Test offered at our school. We offered over 20. Overall, the highest performing school in the nation.

  7. They still haven’t cracked the content piece, though

    Imagine if my sailors had “not cracked the content piece” on operating an LWR?

    What else needs to be said.

    To Reality Check:

    I agree with you. Credentialing, education departments, phoney education research, economics, social science, and the soft liberal arts are worthless.

    We might as well add TFA to that list: They over promise and under deliver.
    You apply a clever twist. You article is NOT so much a condemnation of unions and credentialed teachers, as a sly way to DIMINISH the promises and expectations of the TFA product

    I will not forget that they were PROMISED to be THE solution. The knights on white horses that would provide SUPERIOR results. That DID NOT happen. So, now the new campaign: We are in some cases just as good.

    TFA admits that their original data of their superiority was based upon their OWN measurements on SELF administered tests to students.

    Can those of us who remain circumspect about TFA now be convinced that they are JUST AS GOOD? Let’s see.

    IN the interest of clarity we must look at TFA as a NEW product with certain attributes being SOLD to the public. TFA is a product with a glossy marketing campaign. Check their language. It is all there.

  8. Reality check;

    The physics students I tutor do not come from the richest, most exclusive privates in the world. And they rise to the top and become the elite.

    So……what does that say about your argument?

    We in the sciences refuse to buy the claim that the essential element in science is self esteem and rich exclusivity.

    We believe it is hard work, setbacks, and an intellectual suffering. Failure produces renewed effort and bone crunching humility.

    This mechanism is lacking from the entire edu-wars. Honesty is not the common currency.

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