Teach For America Trees And Forests

This talk by Teach For America’s Elisa Villanueva Beard is a good distillation of how TFA sees itself as organization and a good compilation of some demographic data about TFA.  She’s responding to the little battle that has broken out on the blogs and around education where every Teach For America alumnus who wants to talk about their bad or frustrating experience is suddenly held up as representative of why TFA is a lousy idea. What some of these people have to say has merit, TFA is hardly without its flaws. Yet others seem more enamored with just seeing their name in pixels or scoring points. But as a larger issue we would do well to remember that there are more than 30,000 Teach For America alumni now, and TFA operates all over the country.  So it’s not surprising that there are alums with a variety of experiences and perspectives (and arguably more heterogeneous experiences than in the program’s early years when it was smaller).  It’s also worth remembering some more basic axioms about whether the satisfied or unsatisfied are more likely to speak out.

But while anecdotes are colorful, there are data here.  For almost a decade, since there was enough data to do more rigorous analyses and experiments, studies consistently show that Teach For America teachers, on average, do no harm in the classroom.  These include studies by highly reputable firms such as Mathematica and AIR and states like NC, TN, and LA. Those averages obscure, of course, a lot of variance among TFA teachers.  But that variance exists with all new teachers and some evidence indicates that Teach For America’s selection metrics help address it more than some other approaches.

And the ‘all new teachers’ issue matters greatly to this conversation because when you hold the experience of Teach For America teachers up to the experience of other new teachers in similar schools many of the differences melt away.  Overwhelmed? Yes. Under-supported? Yes. Learning on the job. Absolutely. Given classes that more senior teachers don’t want? Often. This doesn’t mean there are not things TFA could do better or that the field doesn’t need to do better.  Only that when you look at this issue overall the differences are not as a great as the combatants would like you to think. Like many education “debates” this one happens absent context.

Beard makes the point that TFA has become a proxy for everything people don’t like about education reform. That seems indisputably true at this point.  In the process a lot of lessons about what works – and doesn’t work – are being ignored.  TFA didn’t get to where it is without a lot of learning and a lot of evolution. Whether you like TFA or not, it’s not a good sign for the field that there is so little interest in learning from an organization that operates at this scale.  The stuff on the blogs is a non-serious symptom, the underlying condition is a serious problem.

My take on a few common TFA myths here.

7 Replies to “Teach For America Trees And Forests”

  1. Yet others seem more enamored with just seeing their name in pixels or scoring points.
    SOP here.
    No names given.

  2. Some perfectly respectable studies – I can think of two off the top of my head – did fine that TfA teachers underperform somewhat compared to traditionally-prepared teachers. An accurate description of the overall research literature is probably “TfA teachers are probably not much worse”.

    Of course, that’s still easy to overstate as an argument. But even if we suppose TfA teachers are, on average, as effective as traditionally prepared teachers, as long as they have greater turnover – which is costly and has negative achievement effects over and above teacher quality per se – and as long as TfA commands substantial resources – and thus entails substantial opportunity costs – what’s the point of operating the program?

    Give the size of TfA, its continued operation probably demands an affirmative argument.

  3. Agree with @MrPABruno

    It also becomes a problem when legislators see TFA as a “magic bullet”, like they have in NC. We now have a legislature that is willing to fund TFA (which already has an enormous endowment) while defunding our NC Teaching Fellows Program. Both programs are equally effective (though the study compared far more NCTFP to TFA teachers = selection bias), but 73% of NCTFP are still in the classroom after 5 years, TFA 7% over the same time period. http://bit.ly/XeTZRK

  4. Well, as is to be expected, Andrew Rotherham can’t back up his words and name names. That seems to be SOP for the Professional Education Reform Crew.
    Anyway, Gary Rubinstein, a TFA who skews the “TFA still in the classroom” stats, responds to Elisa.


    This is by one of the co-CEOs of TFA, Matt Kramer, quoting something that the other CEO Elisa Villanueva-Beard said in a speech at an alumni award event in Detroit. This line surely got Villanueva-Beard a large ‘applause break’ (as indicated by the 100 retweets — that is a lot). But if I were there I certainly would not be applauding.

    One thing I can definitely say about the Kramer and Villanueva-Beard is that they are certainly ‘accessible.’ They routinely respond to twitter messages from supporters and critics, alike. And as I wrote about recently, I was even invited to meet them on their TFA listens tour. They seem nice enough. Kramer reminds me of some of the guys I used to play chess with back in my days of serious chess study. But as much as I might like them as people so far, I can’t say that I really respect them yet. My sense is that they are not really ‘authorized’ to make any big sweeping decisions without approval from the old CEO, Wendy Kopp.

    So when I saw this tweet I had this small exchange with Kramer:

    If I seem more frustrated than usual in this post it is because I am getting somewhat tired of explaining something so fundamental to someone who should be informed enough not to have this explained to him.

  5. It doesn’t really matter whether or not I “like” TFA or not. That the best you can say about it is that it “does no harm” would be hysterical if not so sad. The program is at best a cipher. It’s NOT WORKING. TFA is someone’s IDEA of how to SELL something. Koop is in the business of 1) selling herself and 2) selling a vision for training teachers that sounds good and makes for good copy of heroic teachers in crappy classrooms and 3) selling all this lot to a class of people who like to meddle in high-concept, do-gooder projects.

    “it’s not a good sign for the field that there is so little interest in learning from an organization that operates at this scale.”

    Listen Andrew, I’ll tell you what’s not good: Conning millionaires and other wealthy do-gooders into spending their wealth on a program that pays no attention to real educational and cognitive research from real research institutions. Their money could be much better spent on a thousand other things like making sure every household has connectivity and every kid has an iPad.

    I read most of Elisa’s comments but between the MLK treacle and the predictable saccharine tone of the entirety of her remarks, I had to stop before I got to the end as I could feel my blood sugar spike.

  6. I may be mistaken, but the definition of effective teacher in all of this debate comes down to standardized test scores only. Yeah, it’s the only objective way to compare, but it’s so very limited it seems silly.

  7. I agree that in some folks eyes TFA has become a proxy for everything that’s wrong in the education system. There are a lot of people making really good points about what’s wrong with TFA, but beyond Chicago and Philadelphia, they cannot make very good arguments as to why they’re calling on corps members to quit.

    I personally think that these folks should be courting TFA corps members as allies against some of the things that truly are making it difficult to teach in America (e.g. massive budget cuts in favor of big business tax breaks in Michigan, Pennsylvania, etc). Attacking corps members doesn’t engage them in that dialogue and may turn new corps members into foes.

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