Teach for America: Doing More Harm Than Good?
Somewhat coincidentally, I’ve come across two interesting pieces on Teach for America, both in the last week , which I’ve found illuminating, yet also mind-boggling. The first was this 2010 study on TFA teacher effectiveness. This is an extensive, peer-reviewed study that compares TFA teachers to a number of other teacher groups, comparing their success by the academic gains of their students as measured by certain standard assessments.
The groups compared include novice TFA teachers, novice untrained teachers and novice certified teachers. They also look at more experienced teachers. The conclusion was that TFA teachers performed about the same as novice teachers with no or minimal training (though they did marginally better in math), worse than new teachers who came out of a recognized teacher certification program, and worse than more experienced teachers.
This isn’t really a knock on TFA teachers, per se. They are, after all, non-certified and minimally-trained and ought to compare to other teachers with that kind of background. And I expect many of them really feel they are doing a good thing and not merely padding their curriculum vitaes with the prestige that comes with all exclusive clubs. But it is a knock on Teach for America itself, since it calls into question the fundamental ideas with which the organization was founded.
The basic idea of this non-profit, now more than 20 years old, was to fill teacher shortages in low-income, urban school districts, with the brightest, most ambitious recent graduates that could be found.
It sounds laudable. And it wasn’t long before Teach for America had developed such prestige that top-quartile graduates were routinely putting off their applications to Harvard Law in order to do their two-year stint in the educational trenches, theoretically giving these kids the kind of inspirational, dynamic educational experiences they’ve never had before.
But there are a number of facts that I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around:
The very concept of a non-certified teacher. In Canada, where I underwent my teacher training, post-graduate education programs are enormously competitive. A friend of mine is now taking her PhD in history on a full scholarship; it’s her back-up plan, after her education program application was rejected, twice.
As an overwrought working student, my undergrad B+ average was amongst the lowest of anyone I knew in my education program cohort. My only saving grace was the low number of applicants with a physics major. The general acceptance rate for the program has been below 10% for the last few years. It’s always filled to capacity.
How is it that American schools find themselves forced to hire individuals with virtually no training or experience to teach?
The audacious privilege of the elite. Teach for America began as the cause of a very particular kind of liberal. The kind of person that has everything and feels bad about it. How can I make such a claim? It’s in the very idea that “America’s future leaders” will step in to failing schools and fix everything, and don’t need to undergo the same training as traditional teachers in order to outperform them. The assumption is that the problem with America’s schools today is that the teachers just aren’t smart enough.
There may be just the smallest grain of truth there. TFA teachers did outperform other untrained teachers in one subject: mathematics. Though the difference was slight, it does suggest room for improvement in college-level math education. But with that bare exception, elite TFA grads performed no better than other non-certified teachers.
And real teachers, those who actually deigned to prepare for their career in a recognized educational faculty program, clearly outperform both non-certified groups. The elite are offering to postpone lucrative careers in law or business in order to help our failing schools, but what our schools actually need are qualified teachers.
The disdain for experience. The idea that TFA’s highly-selective application process simply comes up with a better class of people than normally go into teaching doesn’t just allow them to forgo training. It’s also assumed that TFA teachers are so much better than regular teachers, it doesn’t matter if they leave after their two-year commitment (only one-third stay longer and some others don’t even stay the full two years).
But this study tells us what every teacher already knows. Even with significant training beforehand, the first year or two are always a challenge. A school stocked with nothing but inexperienced TFA teachers will always perform unfavorably compared to a school which retains its teachers and benefits from their accrued wisdom. Now that most districts are experiencing teacher surpluses rather than shortages, contracts requiring a certain number of TFA hires are actually pushing out career teachers who are prepared to stick around more than two years.
PR is everything. I was mulling a lot of these things over when a few days later I came across this anti-TFA screed from Andrew Hartman. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but like me, Hartman hates the union-busting, teacher-bashing behavior that has become a Republican pastime of late. Like me, he feels that American schools are getting something wrong, but doesn’t blame lazy or greedy teachers.
Yet he’s not happy about TFA, an ostensibly liberal initiative, either, and in explaining why, he managed to put his finger on just what it was that was bothering me most about this Teach for America study the last week.
I must have read half a dozen articles in 2011 about TFA, and all were glowing, though the evidence is almost exclusively anecdotal, quotes from school board members, principals, superintendents and rarely some data from TFA itself. Without any actual evidence, one gets the definite impression that smart, exuberant young TFAers beat out traditional teachers — those who have chosen the profession, trained for it and made a life-time commitment to it — every time.
It isn’t true. But the impression is pervasive. As Hartman says, organizations like TFA and the charter school system provide endless ammunition for Republican reformers and union-busters: they imply that the nation’s public school teachers are incompetent and stupid, and that non-traditional teachers need to swoop in and save the day.
TFA teachers are likely to be so well-connected already, and the TFA program has itself become so prestigious, they have a better chance after their two-year stint of ending up writing educational policy a few years later than actual trained teachers who spend decades in the classroom. The program has proven a great stepping-stone for those with political aspirations. But what do the schools get out of it?
TFA teachers cost about $5,000 more per person, apparently to offset their five-week training program, though others say it is a sort of signing bonus to help them pay off their student loans. Is it worth it? Instead of attracting, retaining and supporting career teachers, Teach for America marginalizes them further by perpetuating the belief (trumpeted by politicians on the Right) that their professional training is irrelevant. Meanwhile, teaching as a career becomes a little less attractive. Is this how we will save the day?
Photo credit: woodleywonderworks