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.
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.