There was a time I really admired Howard Dean. Alas...
In the debate over education, progressives have been presented with a series of false choices: I believe in collective bargaining, so I guess I’m anti-charter school. I think poverty makes it harder for kids to learn, so I’m against teacher evaluations. I think that creativity matters, so I oppose the Common Core. In each, we’re asked to look at two ideas in tension—that poverty matters, for example, and that a great education may just be the fastest possible route out of it—and accept them as diametrically opposed.
When we think harder or look more closely, the dichotomies fall away. Consider, for example, the debate over Teach for America. Launched in the early '90s to engage more Americans in the fight for educational equity, the effort took off quickly. In 2014, 50,000 people applied, each declaring his or her intention to help our nation live up to its potential in classrooms from South Dakota to the South Bronx.
Along the way, the criticisms kicked in. These days, as TFA works to ensure its 10,000 corps members in public school classrooms lead their students to better results, it must also contend with accusations of “neoliberal corporate education reform” from groups and individuals actually trying to talk people out of committing their lives to education through the program. In one ear, TFA fields calls from superintendents wondering what it would take to get just a few more teachers. In the other, they hear of social media campaigns designed to deter applicants. Let’s restrict the talent pipeline, rather than expanding it, the opponents seem to say. Fewer teachers will leave kids better off? [emphasis mine]
Let me get this straight:
- Understanding poverty's effect on learning versus test-based teacher evaluations: "False choice."
- Recruiting talented people to teaching versus questioning the efficacy of TFA: "Not a false choice"?
What do we know about TFA? (all emphases mine)
- TFA is tiny. By its own count, it fields 11,000 active corps members. In contrast, there are about 3.1 million full-time equivalent teachers in public schools. That makes TFA about one-third of one percent of the total teaching corps in America. Realistically, TFA can never be scaled up to provide a sizable numbers of America's teachers; there just aren't enough graduates from "elite" colleges to fill the demand.
- TFA is expensive. Here's former TFAer Matt Barnum:
I am ambivalent on the question of whether TFA, taken as a whole right now, is having a positive effect on schools and students. However, I am not ambivalent on the question of whether TFA is a cost-effective: it’s not.
In 2009 Teach For America spent a stunning $38,046 per incoming corps member; in 2005 that same number was just $18,811. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations—dividing TFA’s 2011 expenses (pdf) by the number of 2011 incoming corps members—TFA is now spending $42,151 for each new recruit.
[In a response to the 2010 GiveWell report, TFA writes that the additional funding is being "invested in improving corps member and alumni effectiveness" and that future efficiencies will reduce the cost per recruit.]
Even so, it’s simply impossible to fathom that it’s worth throwing this kind of money at corps members, two thirds of whom will be out of the classroom within four years, and who may or may not be more effective than the average teacher. Not to mention the reality—which I speak to in my original Washington Post piece—that for some corps members, the expensive training and continued support is largely useless.
- TFA training is inadequate. Here's Gary Rubinstein, TFA's Jiminy Cricket:
In recent years a new problem emerged in the training model. As the size of the corps grew exponentially (the first few corps were around 500 people, then it was around 1000 for a while, but now it is 6000 a year), TFA did not figure out a way to give all those trainees enough summer school students to practice teaching. Now we routinely see people training for less than 12 hours in front of a class for the entire summer with less than 12 students in each class.
In the pre-institute reading that new CMs got this year, they explain why the readings are focused on big ideas surrounding education rather than much about how to teach:
If any trainees actually empower their “summer school students to make incredible academic strides,” I’m sure that it will have a lot more to do with the tiny class sizes of often single digit numbers of students than any “nuts and bolts” (maybe thumb tacks) that the teachers picked up at institute.
- TFA has high attrition rates. Here's Julian Vasquez Heilig, who has studied TFA more than just about anyone:
While the debate about the impact of TFA teachers on student achievement continues, there is little disagreement across the research literature regarding the attrition of TFA teachers. We previously reported that, based on TFA’s longitudinal national survey of alumni, Miner49 suggests that “all one can say with certainty is that . . . at least 16.6 percent of those recruited by TFA were teaching in a K-12 setting beyond their two-year commitment.” A number of research studies examining TFA in localities nationwide have looked more closely at the retention rate using state and district administrative data. For example, a recent national study by Donaldson and Moore Johnson (2011) provides more information about the proportion of TFA teachers in the classroom.50 TFA claims about 50% of its alumnae remain in the “education field.” This vague assertion avoids noting the much smaller percentage of TFA teachers who actually stay teaching in public education and the even smaller percentage of TFA teachers who stay in their initial placement.Donaldson and Moore Johnson found that while the majority of TFA teachers leave their assignments after two years, 28% of TFA teachers do remain public school teachers after five years—compared with about 50% of non-TFA teachers.51 After seven years, only 5% are still teaching in their initial TFA placement.
Miner52 cites Barnett Barry, founder, partner, and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality, aptly summarizes the retention picture: “TFA gets its recruits ready for a sprint, not a 10K or a marathon.” The weight of the empirical literature consistently finds high rates of attrition for TFA teachers out of the classroom. The high attrition rates of TFA teachers are predictable. TFA teachers have not made an explicit long-term commitment to teaching, in contrast to individuals who complete college-recommended teacher education programs. TFA has traditionally made the two-year commitment clear—validating the conception of teaching not as a profession but a short-term stopover before graduate school or employment in the “real” world.
And if this wasn't the case, why would TFA itself tell recruits their time in the corps is attractive to employers outside of education?
As a Teach For America corps member, you’ll develop strengths that are critical to being a successful teacher in a low-income community. These skills are also essential to leadership across many other professions and sectors. Many exceptional graduate schools and employers value corps members’ talent, resolve, and commitment to educational equity, and actively recruit corps members and alumni and offer them special benefits to recognize their experience in the corps.
- TFA teachers are not especially effective. Vasquez Heilig again:
A plethora of non-peer-reviewed “studies” or “evaluations” can be found to support any position on the effectiveness of TFA. However, a review of all of the peer-reviewed research examining the impact of TFA on student achievement over the past decade—outlined in this brief and our prior one—clearly shows that TFA teachers are not decidedly or substantially better than non-TFA teachers. Secondary math TFA teachers are statistically significantly “better” than non-TFA secondary math teachers, but the importance is negligible, especially when one considers the methodological challenges of the studies that posit this result and the small percentage of TFA teachers who teach secondary math. As such, policymakers and educational leadership should focus less on which pathway is best and instead focus on what features from each pathway result in the best outcomes for students and on other educational reforms that have consistently proven to have a much greater impact on student achievement.
- TFA has become a political organization. As I reported back in 2012, TFA alumni—many with the bare minimum of two years teaching experience that TFA requires—occupy many positions of political influence. Stephanie Simon's 2013 piece for Politico goes into even more detail. TFA is also closely linked to funding of campaigns for local school board and statewide legislative seats.
If Howard Dean doesn't know all this, he should—at least, he should before he puts sanctimonious pablum like this into digital print:
I became an advocate for Teach for America and public not-for-profit charter schools in 2008. My son was teaching at a high school in the Ninth Ward New Orleans and gave me a tour of the school on a Saturday morning in the late fall. I picked up a bunch of the kids’ papers from his desk in his ninth grade classroom. Scanning through, it dawned on me that nearly every young person in his classroom was functionally illiterate. Without a major change, they would never have the opportunity to work in the jobs that would allow them to reach their full potential.
I was enraged. I was in college during the civil rights struggle, and now 40 years later it was obvious to me that all of us—Republicans and Democrats; whites, Hispanics and African Americans; school boards and politicians at every level—we’d all broken our promises of equal opportunity under the law to two generations of poor kids. Right there, I vowed that whatever we did, we could not continue to do what we had been doing for the previous four decades. There could be no more excuses—not poverty, not money, not union rights, not political deals on school boards. Everything with real, reasonable potential had to be tried, and everything had to change.
If you are someone who cares about breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty, you need to play close attention to this next point. This year, one in every three TFA members is the very first in his or her family to graduate from college. Many of these individuals were themselves taught by TFA members in our hardest-to-staff classrooms before going on to graduate from college then go back to teach in those very classrooms. Want to see what meaningful, systemic, community-level change looks like? Keep an eye on these people. Better yet, join them.
"Systemic"? 0.3 percent of the teaching work force is "systemic"? Please.
If Howard Dean really wants to try "everything with real, reasonable potential," how about he start standing up for equitable and adequate school funding, which we know improves educational outcomes? Why not advocate for reducing class sizes, a policy with reams of evidence to support it? Why not work to make teaching a more attractive profession, especially in urban schools populated with many students in economic disadvantage?
Why is Howard Dean wasting his time advocating for a costly, tiny, minimally effective education program when our schools aren't getting the funding they need, even as America's wealthiest citizens pay historically low tax rates while making historically high incomes?
Let's give Gary Rubinstein, who bucked the TFA trend and remains a math teacher, the last word on TFA:
If I were ‘America’ I would have this to say to TFA: While I appreciate your offer to ‘teach’ for me, I’ve already got enough untrained teachers for my poorest kids. And if teaching is just a stepping stone, for you, on the path to becoming an influential education ‘leader,’ thanks, but no thanks to that too. I don’t need the kind of leaders you spawn—leaders who think education ‘reform’ is done by threats of school closings and teacher firings. These leaders celebrate school closings rather than see them as their own failures to help them. These leaders deny any proof that their reforms are failing and instead continue to use P.R. to inflate their own claims of success. We’re having enough trouble swatting the number of that type of leader you’ve already given us. If you want to think of a new way to harness the brain power and energy of the ‘best and brightest,’ please do, but if you’re just going to give us a scaled up version of the program that tries to fill a need that no longer exists, please go and teach for someone else.
Amen. Howard, if you really want to help America's schools, you can do a lot better than shilling for TFA.
ADDING: Just in case you thought Dean's son was still in the classroom...
ADDING MORE: TFA endorses junk science teacher evaluations. Hey, what do they care, most of them won't stay long enough to get more than two evaluations anyway...
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