My last post, which was about TFA attempting to place corps members in Seattle, solicited a comment that I realized I wanted to respond to in a full post. Here's the comment:
Have you done any research to determine whether or not Teach For America teachers are effective in raising student achievement? Seems to me like that's what matters most -- regardless of how we feel about the idea of putting brand new teachers in the most challenging schools. I'm interested to see what you find...and please post it back here. I don't want opinions to decide things for me...let's look at the evidence (pro or con).
November 5, 2010 11:58 AM
Here's my response:
Anon at 1158: The intent of this post was more to mock than to persuade. If you don't agree with me, I'm sure you probably found it over the top. I hope you do come to your own conclusions, and if you're a non-educator, I can see how that might be difficult given the amount of research TFA has funded on its behalf and praise the media has showered on them. If you begin to wade into the research around TFA, you'll find that it's not all that conclusive, AND it's almost all entirely based on math and English test scores, which, for me, is a less than appropriate battery of metrics to fully capture the impact a program like TFA might be having on our urban schools.
It's one thing to prepare kids to deal with an onslaught of standardized tests throughout the year; it's an entirely different thing to get them to engage critically with rigorous material in a way that gets them excited about learning, helps them make connections with their own lives, and ensures they have the basics down to pass the mostly worthless state tests. Sadly, preparing students for tests and actually teaching them anything of value are often antithetical to each other.
So the metrics that would tell me more about the effectiveness of TFA recruits (and are not represented in the body of research) might include testimony from staffs about how TFA turnover affects their school and curriculum, the number of referrals and fights coming from TFA classrooms, the performance of students on project-based assessments that assess critical thinking and rich connections students are making between content and their own lives, and something that would be impossible to measure: the difference in learning gains between the TFAer and his/her opportunity cost - i.e. the trained teacher who doesn't have a job because Wendy Kopp bought the trained teacher's position with TFA's political clout and promise of a cheaper, less-experienced teacher.
Nonetheless, here is some research on TFA. Some studies are kind to TFA and others are not:
But, as I implied above, research on something that is so political is less than what's required to make a fully informed decision.
I can tell you that five years ago I was very similar to college students who aspire to enter TFA (except I wanted to stay in teaching, unlike a significant majority of TFA's corps). More than a few of my friends applied for TFA (some got in and some did not). I would have applied for TFA myself if I had not been accepted into my master's program (which was excellent). I had an excellent GPA, had done international service trips and participated heavily in college leadership and extracurriculars, had a major in honors history and minors in anthropology, education, political science, English, and economics; and I felt strongly about the inequity in our public schools. I tell you this not to toot my own horn, but to make it clear that on paper at least, I was every bit as capable, motivated, and experienced as anybody who goes into TFA.
I thought I could go into the classroom and really change things. Because of the things I was reading about our abysmal public schools in Newsweek and Time magazines, I thought that a dose of idealism, youthful energy, and the leadership skills I'd learned in college would be all a lot of the kids would need in order to appreciate an education. My idea of what good teaching was before I entered the classroom has changed vastly since I've become a teacher.
Students in challenging environments don't just need someone who's excited to teach, they need someone who's able to form caring yet respectful relationships that allow for classroom decorum; they need teachers who know how to appropriately diagnose their learning needs and act on them; they need people who have a solid grasp on the content they're teaching; they need people who know how to plan curriculum so that it builds on itself; they need the first day of class to begin helping them grasp ideas and concepts that will culminate in the final assessment on the last day of class; and they need teachers with a full range of instructional strategies and assessment tools that will help those students find their way to that last day of class. The teachers who do this need to be able to navigate the intricate politics, systems, discipline problems, and parent relationships that come with any school. (New teachers often don't recognize that what their administrator tells them to do in the classroom may, in fact, be detrimental to student learning). And they need to know how to successfully implement a classroom management plan that helps everyone be successful. Unfortunately, none of this can truly be accomplished in a five-week training session in Philadelphia. (Also, I feel sorry for the kids in summer school participating as guinea pigs for TFA recruits who are learning how to be teachers on them.)
What I learned after about three years on the job is that NOBODY has a clue about what they're doing in the classroom in their first few years. The first years you spend in the classroom need to be closely supervised in order for you to really give students the education they deserve. I remember denying this my first year as a teacher. I believed I was doing just as well as any teacher, no matter how many years they'd been teaching. Luckily, I had college supervisors and teaching mentors to remind me constantly that my super exciting lecture on the American Revolution (while it may have kept the kids attention) was largely lost on them because they lacked the background knowledge to make meaning of a lot of it. I had very little sense of what my kids were missing and how to start teaching it effectively on their level. Luckily, I had four experienced educators watching me every step of the way and supporting me for an entire year.
I've met a number of TFAers. Most of them are well-intentioned people. Every now and then you meet one who's unabashedly honest about their prejudices and lack of respect for teaching, but most of them are out to help as much as possible; they believe they can make a difference in two years. And for the something like 16% of them that actually keep teaching for longer than four years, I suspect they really will have a big impact. Sadly, from the students' perspective, the rest of them will probably serve more as babysitters than anything.
So, you see, I have strong feelings against TFA because of what my experience has taught me. Experience has taught me that nobody in their first year teaching honestly has the time to attend grad courses in the evening and teach children during the day; experience has taught me that TFA serves its corps members far more than it serves inner-city children by providing them with a nice network through which to go to law school one day; experience has taught me that experience matters and that putting teachers who've never been in a classroom in our most needy classroom environments is intuitively idiotic (there are some things you just shouldn't need research to understand); experience has taught me that the 8th-grade science student will likely be disserviced by the teacher with five weeks of summer training who either teaches them to take a test properly or is so disorganized and culturally incompetent that the students never take him seriously enough to try to learn anything.
You asked for research, Anon @ 1158. I'm sorry. It's not quite that simple.