Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Does "Teach for America" Suck?

Given the fury directed at Linda Darling-Hammond, who has dared to question the effectiveness of "Teach for America", I thought it was worth looking under the hood. Teach for America's website led me to this article from the Hoover Institute's publication, Education Next - in lauding itself, Teach for America presents only the graphic, and not the text of the article. The commentary by Arthur Wise, a proponent of the professionalization of the teaching profession, is what you should expect. He gives a pretty good synopsis of why Teach for America "works" - and what that actually means for students:
At least five studies include data on TFA. The 2004 Mathematica study says that “TFA teachers did not have an impact on average reading achievement. Students in TFA and control classrooms experienced the same growth rate in reading achievement—an increase equivalent to one percentile” [from the 14th to the 15th percentile]. In addition, many of the TFA teachers were actually more prepared than over half in the novice control group: “All TFA teachers had at least 4 weeks of student teaching, while many of the control teachers (and over half the novice control teachers) had no student teaching experience at all.” The abysmally low percentage of students at the proficiency level in both reading and math in this study demonstrates the results of the current policy of having inexperienced, untrained recruits teaching the most-needy students.
Teach for the Kids
Is it truly possible for a certified teacher to be dumped into the most difficult inner city classroom with absolutely no student teaching experience? That's appalling. I wasn't aware that any states permitted teachers to be fully certified without any student teaching experience.
As a group, the studies tend to show that the students of uncertified TFA recruits underachieve when compared to students of new certified teachers, but this gap tends to disappear as the TFA recruits obtain professional knowledge through coursework and certification. Like similar studies in other areas of educational controversy, however, these results are indicative but not uniformly regarded as conclusive.
Thus, as you would expect, as TFA participants get to the point of having two years of experience and benefit from additional training, they are better able to control their classrooms and to teach their students as compared to newly certified teachers. Then, for the most part, they quit.
Whatever the relative performance of the two groups of new teachers, I know of no school or district that has made a conscious choice to hire TFA recruits instead of certified teachers. And the districts do not retain any substantial number of them long enough for the recruits to catch up to their peers. TFA recruits are placeholders in troubled schools where an adult must staff the classroom and no one else volunteers. They are hired because of the lack of certified applicants, not because they are considered more desirable.
At the same time,
Whether TFA has in fact “improved the caliber of candidates,” however, depends on the criterion used to make the judgment. TFA was designed to help solve the “teacher shortage” in “under-resourced” urban and rural schools and should be measured against this objective.
I agree. And within that context, I find Teach for America's exaggeration and triumphalism off-putting. TFA appears to be marketing itself as résumé fodder, and seems to believe that the best way to do so is to diminish the profession of teaching. It may well introduce future policy makers to the genuine problems of inner city schools, and it may well inspire a modest number of its alumni to remain in teaching professions or become school administrators. But it's not comfortable admitting that its most important service is helping to overcome teacher shortages with what, by the design of its program, amount to a succession of temps - intelligent, motivated temps, for the most part, but temps nonetheless. I expect that a lot of TFA participants get a rude awakening their first day of class.

If TFA tried to pitch itself to my local school board, it would be told that its services weren't needed. If TFA tried to convince parents in my town that they should happily have their children taught by one of its participants instead of a certified, experienced teacher, they would be laughed out of the room. If TFA tried to pitch its programs to private schools, it might be told to send over its graduates - but not its novices. It's exceptionally important that enough teachers be available to serve inner city kids, and it's wonderful that TFA helps that happen, but please, let's not pretend that this is the ideal, or even on par with having those same schools staffed with qualified, dedicated, experienced, professional teachers.


  1. Interesting post.
    It's refreshing that we are finally starting to see people look at this program with a critical eye.
    A few years ago, a group of parents had a lawsuit against TFA alleging that it violated NCLB and its demand for certified teachers.
    I haven't heard anything about it since.
    TFA claims that they are filling jobs that no one else wants and that poor school districts cannot recruit good teachers, but as a long term inner city teacher, I can attest that the problem is not recruitment but retention-teachers do not stay.
    I've watched as hundreds of qualified, dedicated teachers have left in frustration over having to battle corrupt systems which do nothing to address the real problems which affect the children and which impede their ability to teach.

    The true shame about the program, other than the fact that it allows poor, minority children to receive untrained temporary teachers, is that it deliberately overlooks all social conditions affecting children in low income neighborhoods-denial to basic healthcare, overcrowded classrooms, cutting of head start programs, inadequate nutrition, lack of basic resources in classrooms like textbooks and simple things like paper, and dirty, often toxic school buildings.
    By overlooking these factors, TFA is in fact, enabling them, which is why so many people are now asking the question-who is supporting the program and what exactly are their private interests?
    A look through their donor list can be most enlightening.

  2. "TFA claims that they are filling jobs that no one else wants and that poor school districts cannot recruit good teachers, . . . , I can attest that the problem is not recruitment but retention-teachers do not stay."

    So . . .you are agreeing with them? Whether the problem in your view is recruitment or retention (and they aren't two separate things if you handle them correctly) the bottom line is that the schools in question have vacancies that TFA is filling.

    I can't help but note that for all of your griping about TFA, your complaints appears to boil down to:

    a) You feel that "poor minority children" would be better off with "no teachers" or "not enough teachers" than with what they get through TFA; (which is to silly to deserve a formal rebuttal) and

    b) your feeling that a program designed to provide teachers to short handed school systems "deliberately overlooks all social conditions affecting children in low income neighborhoods-denial to basic healthcare, overcrowded classrooms, . . ., inadequate nutrition, lack of basic resources in classrooms . . . , and dirty, often toxic school buildings.
    By overlooking these factors, TFA is in fact, enabling them,"

    Hmmm so in your world if any given program fails to solve all of the worlds problems, it is a bad program. So if we apply your analytical model to say "free meals at school for needy children"; then the result would be that because free meals fails to address the shortage of qualified teachers, underlyng poverty, rampant lack of parenting skills in the districs in questin, and the poor health of the children we should stop feeding them? After all, by overlooking these factors, "free meals" are, you use your phrase and logic, "enabling" them.

    Why do I get the feeling that your real gripe is that you see TFA as getting in the way of you getting a huge raise (the only you will get "qualified" teachers to stick around in "poor inner city districts" and you see them as devaluing you personally because the program is based on the idea that a talented and motivated amateur is going to do a better job than you are?


  3. If you take a broader look at TFA, and particularly at its critics, I supsect you'll find that the second point isn't so much "", as it is, that's the message implicit in what TFA tells its participants - that the problems of these schools can be fixed by an intelligent, motivated outsider to the community (who, if they last, vanishes in two years) - as if that's the only thing that matters. Under that interpretation, TFA projects an attitude contemptuous of both the profession of teaching and of the dedicated teachers who choose to remain and teach in troubled schools despite the problems neither they nor TFA can affect.

    TFA teachers are not volunteers. They are paid on par with entry level teachers. Arguably they depress wages by increasing the pool of warm bodies willing to step into inner city classrooms; I suspect, though, that the education budgets in those districts are pretty much maxed out, such that there's no real effect on wages (which, it should be further noted, are negotiated with the teacher's union).

  4. "TFA tells its participants - that the problems of these schools can be fixed by an intelligent, motivated outsider to the community"

    WOW! This could not be any further from the truth. TFA does not claim to be the solution, and I would challenge you to find anything from the organization that does. As a matter of fact, TFA is more of a piece of the overall solution, however it can directly and indirectly be a large piece.

    The people who stay in the classroom will always be committed to the cause, it is in their blood, and honestly, it is indoctrinated in them day one of TFA. Those who choose to leave the classroom after their commitment will go on to create change in other sectors. The truth is, the type of people TFA recruits are the future leaders of this country and having the experience of teaching in inner-city and rural communities will certainly effect their positions on the issue of education and poverty.

    So it is funny that the only thing you consider is a false conclusion that TFA thinks they have the elixir to cure educational inequality. The more effective approach would probably be to approach the situation with an open perspective and see where you and the communities can gain from TFA and where TFA can gain from you. The problem is, if you approached situations with that sort of sense of possibility, then you would probably be a TFA Corps member and fighting the same fight as the rest of us.

    -It is so interesting to see how "traditional route" teachers insist on battling organizations such as TFA. I wish they could see that our common enemy, the achievement gap, is plenty enough to go around, and wasting your energy being hypercritical of TFA is only hurting the children Maybe if you focused your attention on why you joined the teaching "profession"to begin with we could get a lot more done, TOGETHER!

    P.S. I put "Profession" in quotations because I do not know a single profession that has a "Union" who fights for employee rights such as the right to WEAR JEANS! Last time I checked that had nothing at all to do with educating the youth of America, and please do not humor me with the comfortable clothing argument.

  5. If you are going to post childish attacks on unions and the profession of teaching, to the point that you want us to describe teaching in scare quotes, at least have the cajones to sign your post.

    Beyond that, I suggest you read the TFA website, as it backs up my statements, including its misleading presentation of studies on the relative success of TFA participants as compared to trained teachers as outlined in my original post. You don't agree with TFA? Take it up with them.

  6. Honestly, Aaron, I'm a little disappointed that no one came on and said "the teacherz earn too much moneys!!11!11! They only work half the year!111!!!!!! They are lazey!" (Interestingly, these same folks never seem to be bothered by professors who work T, W and Th, like the ones that I had at my NON-publish or perish undergrad school....)

  7. How does public school teacher compensation compare to private college faculty members? My experience in both worlds estimates that the typical K-12 teacher works less hours, has less graduate work, and has double the retirement benefits compared to your typical small private college faculty member.

  8. Interesting that you choose to compare just "small private college faculty member" (ie the lowest paid of the profession) with "public school teacher" . . . not stacking the deck a bit, are we?

    The answer will very radically depending on which institutions you choose to compare. (For exacmple "teachers at small private K-12 institutions tend to earn less than public school teachers, but tend to have less "grief" to put up with at work.)

    If we look at the averages, and that is the only data I found, college faculty earn more than teachers and work fewer hours, both by a large margin (see bottom of article for DoL data).

    I didn't find anything specific to retirement benefits; but since the college faculty crowd is making nearly twice as much money per year . . . I don't think it's all that relevant to the conversation. (If you disagree, feel free to post some actual data to support your point.)

    Of greater interest to me, is what your post fails to address. The underlying fundamental differences between the professions.

    Based on your "experience in both worlds" which group had to spend more time and energy on class room discipline? Who has to function as social workers and ensure that students and their families get county or state managed intervention services? Who has to spend more time and money on outfitting their own classroom and buying supplies for the students? Which profession has a surplus of people trying to get in and which profession needs to bring in extra bodies through TFA?

    Don't get me wrong. I am perfectly prepared to concede that both groups are, for the most part, over paid and under performing. Although, I'd actually be more vitrolic in my statements about the post-secondary crowd. They seem to produce fewer "exceptions" who actually care about educating their students.

    Here is what the US Dept of Labor has to say:

    Median annual earnings of kindergarten, elementary, middle, and secondary school teachers ranged from $43,580 to $48,690 in May 2006; the lowest 10 percent earned $28,590 to $33,070; the top 10 percent earned $67,490 to $76,100. Median earnings for preschool teachers were $22,680.

    According to the American Federation of Teachers, beginning teachers with a bachelor’s degree earned an average of $31,753 in the 2004–05 school year. The estimated average salary of all public elementary and secondary school teachers in the 2004–05 school year was $47,602.

    In 2006, more than half of all elementary, middle, and secondary school teachers belonged to unions—mainly the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—that bargain with school systems over salaries, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. Fewer preschool and kindergarten teachers were union members—about 17 percent in 2006.

    In terms of hours worked, DoL has this on teachers:

    Including school duties performed outside the classroom, many teachers work more than 40 hours a week. Part-time schedules are more common among preschool and kindergarten teachers. Although most school districts have gone to all-day kindergartens, some kindergarten teachers still teach two kindergarten classes a day. Most teachers work the traditional 10-month school year with a 2-month vacation during the summer. During the vacation break, those on the 10-month schedule may teach in summer sessions, take other jobs, travel, or pursue personal interests. Many enroll in college courses or workshops to continue their education. Teachers in districts with a year-round schedule typically work 8 weeks, are on vacation for 1 week, and have a 5-week midwinter break. Preschool teachers working in day care settings often work year round.

    For the college proffessor crowd, DoL has this:

    Earnings for college faculty vary according to rank and type of institution, geographic area, and field. According to a 2006-07 survey by the American Association of University Professors, salaries for full-time faculty averaged $73,207. By rank, the average was $98,974 for professors, $69,911 for associate professors, $58,662 for assistant professors, $42,609 for instructors, and $48,289 for lecturers. Faculty in 4-year institutions earn higher salaries, on average, than do those in 2-year schools. In 2006-07, faculty salaries averaged $84,249 in private independent institutions, $71,362 in public institutions, and $66,118 in religiously affiliated private colleges and universities. In fields with high-paying nonacademic alternatives—medicine, law, engineering, and business, among others—earnings exceed these averages. In others fields, such as the humanities and education, earnings are lower. Earnings for postsecondary career and technical education teachers vary widely by subject, academic credentials, experience, and region of the country.

    Most postsecondary teachers have flexible schedules. They must be present for classes, usually 12 to 16 hours per week, and for faculty and committee meetings. Most establish regular office hours for student consultations, usually 3 to 6 hours per week. Otherwise, teachers are free to decide when and where they will work, and how much time to devote to course preparation, grading, study, research, graduate student supervision, and other activities.

    Classes are typically scheduled during weekdays, although some occur at night or during the weekend. This is particularly true for teachers at 2-year community colleges or institutions with large enrollments of older students who have full-time jobs or family responsibilities. Most colleges and universities require teachers to work 9 months of the year, which allows them time during the summer and school holidays to teach additional courses, do research, travel, or pursue nonacademic interests.


  9. I find that TFA attracts those who want to polish their resume. Most of them aren't really passionate and care about inner-city/urban issues. Most of them BS the interview process and just cause they're from "Harvard", they get into TFA!

  10. TFA recruits elitists. Period.

    1. In a sense, I suppose so. There's an inherent narcissism / elitism in a college graduate's supposition that she will be a superior classroom teacher, as compared to somebody who completed an education degree, normal certification, and has actual classroom experience. Not that you can't find individual examples where the assumption would be correct, but on the whole.

      That doesn't seem unusual, though, for college graduates who have yet to be beaten up by life. Lots of people think they have all of the answers before they know what the questions are. I'm not personally going to fault TSA recruits for being pretty typical young adults, in their beliefs about themselves and the world, not even the ones who are trying to build their résumés. It's TSA's job to impress upon them the reality of the work they're volunteering to do, and to weed out the opportunists and résumé buiders.


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