Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What's TFA Really Worth?

What's TFA?

TFA is a program founded by Wendy Kopp while she was a college student that puts recent college graduates with minimal training in our most needy classroom environments for two years under the assumption that great teaching is more a function of the type of person teaching than it is of their experience and training.

Students change teachers after the year is over anyway, so why does it matter if teachers leave after two years?  

Great question.  I'm sure the logic behind this question makes sense if you've never taught in a school before.  Here's why teacher retention matters (some of these kind of overlap, so bear with me).

1. Hiring new teachers costs our national education system about $7 billion annually (and yes, I realize that's not TFA's fault - I'm just stating a fact generally). 

2. When you work in high-needs environments, you may be the only adult some of your students are able to develop a positive relationship with.  I can't tell you how many students come back to see their teachers from previous years for emotional and academic support.  A teaching staff that stays together forms a more stable community for many students who largely have little to no stability in their lives.

3.Teaching takes a long time to master.  Even someone who's been teaching fifteen years will struggle in their sixteenth year if they're given an entirely new subject to teach.  Building staff buy-in on best practices, curriculum overlap, and just generally how things work at a school takes time, and every time a teacher leaves (or a group of teachers leave), that staff has to put significant work into bringing the next person on board with all of that.  Plus that new teacher has to do all the legwork of figuring out the curriculum all over again, which inevitably makes for less effective instruction.  

4.School staffs in constant flux have significant difficulty following their mission.  Every time a new cohort of people come in, they have to be retrained, and a lot of them have their own ideas about the best way to do things.  

5. A child doesn't get a phenomenal education from one teacher, they get it from a community.  The more consistency that community has, the more they work together to meet the needs of their specific population, the better they get at doing it.

What are the pros of TFA?

1. It is often difficult to staff schools in high-needs districts, and a TFAer might be better than the alternative.

2. It provides those who want to go into public service with an experience in our public schools with the hopes that they may go on to change those realities (I'm going to throw in my opinion real quick here: while I believe TFA does this, I also believe many of the people who go into TFA with the intent of using it to get a sweet policy job later are the type of people who are more concerned with winning the rat race than really doing good for our society, and while those two things sometimes converge, I think this is a positive that is hugely outweighed by the negative).

3. It's generated a lot of research and discussion around what good teaching is and around identifying people with the potential to be good teachers.

4. It provides an alternate path for aspiring excellent teachers to quickly enter the profession, thereby dodging many of the hoops many teachers have to jump through (e.g. education degrees, certification)

What are the cons of TFA?

1. Many recruits leave after their two year stint, and some leave even before that.

2. The training provided is minimal when compared to urban teacher residency programs offered at top schools of teacher education.  TFA recruits receive five weeks of summer training prior to beginning their full-time, often minimally supported, jobs in the classroom  (I believe it's five weeks, someone correct me if I'm wrong.)

3. I would say most (if not all) recruits initially lack the necessary pedagogical skills, the cultural competency, and an understanding of exactly what it takes and what it means to be an effective teacher, ESPECIALLY in classroom environments that are entirely foreign to them (e.g. a Yale student just out of college trying to teach disadvantaged students from New Orleans's ninth ward).  And I would argue that many TFAers are just beginning to fully realize these skills just as they're about to finish their time.

4. My experience in DCPS has taught me that many TFAers and DCTFers are given virtually no support once in the classroom - sometimes no texts to work with, no curriculum to adapt, AND THEN are asked to attend nightly classes as they work toward their master's.  I can tell you from experience that quality teachers in the first few years of teaching DO NOT have time to be taking classes outside of teaching.  You devote about everything you have to planning, grading, meetings, calling parents, etc....

5. As a result of their inexperience, many TFAers provide a substantially worse education than a passionate, experienced, and reflective teacher would.

6. TFA buys positions in high-needs districts with its political clout.  That keeps professionally trained teachers from getting jobs (which I'll grant is not always a problem, but I think it is in this economy).

Please watch Learning Matters's Series on TFA for a better understanding of what TFA recruits have to deal with, and what type of people TFA draws.  My take on TFA is that it's a band-aid solution that does have some pros (there are plenty of amazing people who've gone through TFA and are still teaching), but allows us to overlook many fundamental societal problems in favor of silver bullet solutions.  Anybody who tells you this program will solve America's educational problems is delusional (and I think most people in the TFA organization would agree).  I've previously discussed why TFA is not a solution to our problems here, here, and here.

Lastly, I'd like to close by saying that I think we need to see TFA for what it is.  Wendy Kopp was an uber ambitious Princeton student when she decided she'd found an organization to fix America's schools, despite the fact that she had no teaching experience herself (and she's constantly reminding people that nobody thought she could do it, which I think says something about what motivates her).  So far, she's made a ton of money for herself and garnered hundreds articles touting her greatness.  Along the way, she probably discovered some of the pitfalls of the TFA model, but rather than admit them (and enamored with her fame and prestige in the education world), chose to push back by improving TFA's media relations and funding studies to support the program.  As the Education Policy Blog and a recent commenter on my own blog noted, an interesting recent article just came out in Rethinking Schools on TFA's motives and media relations (please read it if you want to know A LOT more).   So yea, TFA does some good things, and it helps some kids temporarily, but if a real educational solution were to take place in our most disadvantaged schools, TFA would not be a part of it, and that's something Wendy Kopp doesn't want to admit.


  1. As a DCTF "graduate", I share your discontent with those that use DCTF and TFA as a resume builder. I am one of the VERY few of my DCTF cohort that stayed in teaching after our 2 year commitment and was also one of the very few who was actually using the program for career transition.

    Does anyone look into who DCTF actually hires as far as real career transitioners? According to their website: "For eight years in Washington, D.C., professionals from all walks of life have made the decision to change their lives and the lives of students by teaching in DC Public Schools. DC Teaching Fellows are just like you- engineers, clergy, federal employees, lawyers, journalists, social workers, and others who realize that they want to address inequalities in education by teaching. Established in 2001, the DC Teaching Fellows program upholds the conviction that public schools can work, but they must be staffed and led by our most talented and accomplished citizens." In my DCTF cohort, many of my fellow DCTFers were recent college grads who had never held a "professional" job and left after their 2 year stint was over to move onto med/grad/whatever school thanks to a nearly free Masters degree and resume padding.

    If there is one thing (well, just one of the MANY) that kids in DCPS need is consistency. Each year, I am asked whether I will be teaching at my school next year. I don't think I ever even thought to ask any of my teachers that when I was in school? Students are constantly expelled, transferred, moved into different schools throughout the year... it would be nice if at least the staff had some sort of congenial and collegial report amongst each other if they actually worked together for more than than 2 years, but that just seems impossible nowadays with all the retention issues due to DCTF/TFA two year term teachers, RIFing, excessing, and burnouts (like myself) that are just tired of all the BS to deal with at the school and DCPS level.

    I guess in the eyes of those DCTF and TFA backers, there is always a bright eyed and motivated young person to step in and save the day... even if it's only temporary. Just like in a fast food restaurant, it just makes sense (looking at the bottom line) to hire a 16 year old and pay him/her minimum wage to run the cash register or flip a few burgers as long as they can help get through the summer rush. We might as well do the same for educating our urban youth, right? Look at what that sort of mentality has done for customer service in America? When was the last time an employee at your local big business restaurant, grocery store, or department store actually gave a real shit about what you needed/wanted? They definitely don't give a shit at the end of the summer or their 2 year stint serving for the better good of society (or their resume) is over.

  2. Bob Somersby had a great take on TFA, especially the media lovefest:
    Does Teach for America “have the potential to end educational inequity?” Kopp said she truly believes it does—and she thinks her program’s alumni should now start running for office.

    People are free to believe what they like, but after nineteen years in the field, the studies provide no current basis for such grandiosity. Let’s review some basic ideas from this past week’s series:

    Academic studies don’t show big differences in classroom achievement between TFA teachers and other teachers.

    After 19 years, miracles haven’t occurred. It’s time to stop saying they have.

    For these reasons, Kopp’s anecdotes are unrepresentative, even if true. And there’s no evidence they’re true in the first place.

    There’s no sign that Kopp has any idea how to “fix” low-income schools.
    Once these basics are understood, the Charlie Rose program of July 1 starts resembling an act of consumer fraud. You can’t display pictures of Cadillacs if you’re actually selling Schwinns. In the business world, people who misrepresent their product to the extent Kopp does will sometimes end up in large trouble.

    And Rose’s performance was inexcusable. You can’t let a CEO come on your show and rattle off unsupportable anecdotes about the transformative brilliance of her program. You can’t ignore a raft of studies which contradict the portrait being aired. But Wendy Kopp is a Manhattan darling—and her claims routinely get treated this way. Rose failed to serve viewers—and the public at large—when he rolled over for Kopp.


  3. Ahhhh, Urban Teacher. I feel your pain, but also an overgrown anti-elitism. You put yourself through the ringer, and I am glad you taught in the District as long as you did. That said--and I had to look into TFA for a number of reasons, but not deeply--bright, eyed, bushy-tailed, eager, TFA-ers look pretty good compared to many of the grizzled, dispirited, waiting-to-retire DC teachers I have met. You would have a larger sample, I know. But these teachers bear little resemblance to the public school teachers I grew up with (a long time ago in a coastal suburb blessed with top schools). They may have ed. degrees and a lot of experience, and they do not seem lazy, but they seem totally gun-shy (bad allusion, sorry), tend to look down on their kids, and have given up before the first day of school on them because they are a handful. Still, they demand more pay ("combat" pay) and are oh-so-sensitive to being public employees. They really seem to shun responsibility and accountability. Rhee's advent was a bath of cold water with ice cubes. They were to be measured--by something handy--and even subject to getting canned for being ineffective or excess. How dare the parents/taxpayers/DC government disturb them? You can read the squawks from many of them on The Wash. Teacher and in the Washington Post comment sections. They make one yearn for charters and contracting out. You, as I sense you are in your blog, were different, and better. That may have something to do with why you left. I thank you for your public service and wish you the best.

  4. Rethinking Schools, the progressive ed reform magazine, had 2 good articles on TFA. Here is the link for one of them: http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/24_03/24_03_TFA.shtml