A Defense of Teach For America

When I joined TFA I was told that I would get a lot of criticism from traditional teachers. I’m part of the Nashville Corps and the city has little union activity and a lot of support for charter networks. In addition to that, most of the state and district leadership comes from TFA. So, I didn’t receive much animosity at first, but just in the last month-or-so I’ve had multiple encounters with veteran teachers where I was called things like a “tokenizing resume builder”. That’s a hard thing to hear at the end of a long week of teaching, grad school, late nights, preventing fights, lesson planning, and constant grading. But the animosity goes a lot deeper and has gone all the way to teacher’s unions successfully lobbying to ban TFA from California schools.

There is a bit of a cottage industry for past TFA members publishing critical articles about the organization. But I haven’t really found many articles that, I believe, do a decent job of using evidence to evaluate the effectiveness of TFA. Most of the critical articles don’t even attempt to address the questions with research, instead they end up mostly being anecdotes about how Corpsmembers felt unprepared, ineffective, and on the wrong side of reform. Or they are just angry hit pieces by teachers, policymakers, or union activists. Either way I don’t feel like many people fairly assess the actual data, so, I’d like to do my best to systematically defend TFA’s effectiveness.

Background

The main concern is whether Teach For America improves the education system. There’s of course a lot of nuance to that, but a lot of the disagreements about TFA come down to a disconnect between what people assume TFA is about and what TFA actually is about.

The traditional version of TFA is that it attempts to improve education by putting “highly skilled” teachers into the classroom who will supposedly teach well during their 2 years. In this version, TFA is supposed to improve education through quality instruction during the 2-year commitment. To be fair, that did seem to be close to the original idea of the founder Wendy Kopp. The trouble is that TFA doesn’t place enough teachers to even begin to make big positive impacts on education through the revolving 2-year teaching commitments alone.

This traditional view is drastically different than the story that typically goes around the organization. There’s of course the assumption that Corpsmembers must strive to be excellent teachers who commit to serving the communities they enter. But when we are presented with exemplar former Corpsmembers, we are rarely shown existing teachers who get high test scores. Instead we are shown charter school founders, school system superintendents, policymakers, EdTech executives, and state secretaries of education. This shows what seems to be the main objective of the organization →take highly motivated and intelligent college students and then give them education experience so that they can improve the education system through leadership positions in businesses, nonprofits, and public education institutions.

If you want to meet TFA on it’s own terms you sort of need to assess it’s effectiveness at this second objective as basically an incubator for education and policy leadership…but that task is, I think, pretty difficult. You could try to compare the educational effectiveness of different regions according to the number of TFA members in policy and school leadership. Or you could look at whether TFA dominant states or TFA run schools perform better than demographically comparable schools and school districts without TFA.

It’s understandable how this disconnect in messaging could be frustrating for some people. But you can also easily see how someone could still criticize TFA with this mission. In particular, many public charter school networks have been founded by former TFA members and many Corpsmembers will spend their 2-year commitment at a public charter school. You could argue that TFA’s leadership is particularly friendly to public charter schools, so, if you were against public charter schools, TFA’s association with them could give you reason to oppose it (it should be noted that TFA is not a “pro-charter” organization, many Corpsmembers still work in traditional public schools and many Corpsmembers oppose public charter schools). But that is a separate issue and it is almost never the subject of the criticisms you read.

The majority of criticisms are about assessing the original, traditional picture of TFA as an organization bent on improving education by putting high potential college students into the classroom for 2 years. Teach for America places around 8–9,000 teachers a year which means that active Corpsmembers comprise only around .5% of all public school teachers. It’s unbelievably hard to argue that TFA’s active teaching alone could be considered a high impact aid to problems in the education system when only 1 in 200 teachers is in TFA. The only way to argue for that, in my opinion, is to argue for TFA’s efficacy in bringing about effective policymakers and school leaders who implement best practices. And like I already said, that’s difficult to quantify. So the rest of this article will be focused on whether TFA’s traditional model has a net positive effect on the education. I’m going to structure it around the typical arguments you see made against TFA teachers.


Are TFA teachers good?

In bad faith, TFA is very easy to hate. The notion of it sounds very elitist and a bit degrading to teachers–“these social climbing college kids from good universities are going to come and educate kids better than long-term professionals.” That is unbelievably frustrating to many people, especially those who went through the traditional avenues to become a teacher: spend 4 years studying it in college, student teach for years, then finally get your own classroom. But once again, this is isn’t about the feeling of the organization, this is about whether our best, honest estimates show that TFA members are competent teachers.

And, for the most part, the results are mixed.

The most cited research is the Darling-Hammond six-year study on 5th and 6th graders in Houston. It found that after controlling for experience, degrees, and student characteristics, TFA members underperformed certified, veteran teachers. The trouble is that TFA has changed significantly since 2006 and the study focused mainly on certification. Back then TFA teachers did not always get certified or go to grad school, now most do. On top of that, each TFA region is radically different in effectiveness and the Houston region is just not straightforwardly representative of the program as a whole.

The biggest problem though, that makes me extremely skeptical of this article, is that TFA members are going into the most underserved schools in the country. These schools are very difficult to work in and very dysfunctional. They almost always have awful teacher turnover rates. The Darling-Hammond article compared TFA teachers to all teachers in Houston including more affluent suburbs without, some say, sufficient controls for administrative and student characteristics.

When TFA teachers are compared to teachers who are “less likely to be certified or traditionally prepared” and work in the same school, it appears that “novice TFA teachers perform equivalently, and experienced TFA teachers perform comparably in raising reading scores and a bit better in raising math scores.” The same 2010 review, however, found that “students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers.” However, the majority of the literature that the review covered was from the early 2000s when TFA teachers were not as likely to become credentialed. In the last 10 years the corps has changed considerably.

A 2011 longitudinal study examined the effects of TFA on high school performance in North Carolina. They found that “TFA teachers tend to have a positive effect on high school student test scores relative to non-TFA teachers, including those who are certified in the field. Such effects offset or exceed the impact of additional years of experience and are particularly strong in science.”

On top of this 2011 longitudinal study, there have been multiple studies corroborating TFA’s strength. This one showed that TFA members met the standards of and, in some cases, slightly exceeded the value of traditional teachers in New York City. This study found that TFA teachers met the quality of other Reading teachers and increased student achievement by about one month of instruction in Math. This recent 2017 study found that TFA teachers increased elementary student understanding by about one month in both Math and Reading. And, finally, this meta-analysis (woo!) “concluded that there is no significant effect on reading from teaching by TFA corps members in their first or second year of teaching elementary-grade students (PreK-grade 5) compared to non-TFA teachers who are also in their first or second year of teaching elementary-grade students. There is a small positive effect for early elementary-grade students (PreK to grade 2) in reading but not in math.”

The most recent research I could find on this, cued to me by this excellent Brooking article, “ found no difference in classroom performance” along with some solid improvements in smaller case studies in Miami and Atlanta (shown below).

https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2015/10/27/losing-its-luster-new-evidence-on-teach-for-americas-impact-on-student-learning/

I should also say that I was surprised about the amount of bad-faith papers on the organization from that barely even masked themselves as hit pieces. Right from the introduction, some of these articles seemed entirely focused on criticizing the organization.

The results are mixed and complicated. The literature is full of well cited studies that find negative performance from TFA during their early years. When compared to teachers in the same schools, the majority of recent results find that TFA members meet or exceed the performance of traditional teachers with studies replicating this in both elementary education and secondary education with some variation depending on region. This makes sense. If you’re familiar with the organization you will know that the recruiting strategies have changed significantly over the last two decades. It looks like they have improved at identifying and training competent teachers. I should say again that when the improvements are there, they are minor.

Do TFA Corpsmembers take a spot that could be filled by traditional teachers?

One of the other big criticisms I’ve heard is that TFA teachers are filling positions that otherwise would be filled by traditional teachers who will stay in the classroom longer. Given my last two years working in education I’ve seen a tremendous amount of teacher turnover. In most urban schools it can often feel like half of the teachers are gone mid-year, leaving students with long-term substitutes who are often uncertified. At least anecdotally, TFA teachers seem to be staying in schools longer than most traditional teachers even despite the fact that it is only two years. The idea that there is some huge supply of extremely patient, competent, and experienced teachers lining up to fill spots that are swiped away by TFA members is laughable. But, at least, we should try to look at the data.

I could not find any systematic studies trying to review this specific question. I was told by TFA recruiters that the average turnover of a traditional teacher in schools that TFA serves is 6 months, so in other other words there’s no chance that TFA teachers are filling competitive spots (look at the job board of any urban school district mid-year for some evidence of this). However I couldn’t find the direct research to corroborate this. The closest I could come to research on this question was this recent study that found that “Teach For America corps members are much less likely and teachers from out-of-state much more likely to turnover during the school year than traditionally prepared teachers.” I am going to add more to this as I think about it but my money is on the argument not standing up to any close examination.


Conclusion

A significant majority of criticisms of TFA are bad faith arguments made by disgruntled former Corpsmembers, traditionally trained teachers, and education professors. The frustration from all three sides is understandable. The whole organization is premised on inexperienced, elite college students performing as well as teachers who have significantly more training and experience. But popular criticisms frequently neglect both the empirical evidence and the actual objectives of the organization.

As a staffing organization, TFA is too small to make a major impact on US education from teaching alone. It places about 8–9000 teachers a year out of around 3–3.5 million teachers total. But even so, the evidence shows that TFA teachers perform as well as traditionally trained teachers and in many cases outperform traditional teachers. And for all that we now know, there is little evidence that TFA teachers frequently fill teaching spots that would otherwise be filled by experienced, traditionally trained teachers. TFA teachers most often fill jobs that would be covered by a series of long-term substitutes.

(Edit: It has been pointed out to me by many other Corpsmembers that TFA’s role as a staffing org for schools that can’t otherwise fill teaching positions means that TFA’s teaching impact is more significant than I give it credit for. At any time TFA teachers are serving roughly 100,000 low-income students who would arguably not have any instruction without TFA.)

In some ways TFA de-professionalizes teaching. That doesn’t seem like a ridiculous criticism. If barely trained college students with little experience are able to perform as well as traditionally trained teachers, that could give good reason to downgrade the status of the profession and the effectiveness of the Education training. But even if TFA does de-professionalize teaching, they place competent teachers into teaching positions that are otherwise filled by uncertified substitutes. There is no doubt that the students they serve are better off when compared to a year of revolving substitutes who only babysit the students.

Even more importantly, TFA’s actual role as an organization is to train the next generation of Education leadership and it seems to do this fairly well. If you want to fairly assess whether the organization is filling its mission, you need to address and measure this objective before anything else.

originally at https://medium.com/age-of-awareness/a-defense-of-teach-for-america-b40a219a7682

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