Research on TFA

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:

Anonymous said...

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.


  1. A great response TRE. I went through a similar experience as you did but it was in the late 60's. Heading for a PHd in history, my academic career was disrupted by the Vietnam war and teaching elementary school in a high risk area of Brooklyn was one of the only alternatives to being drafted.

    Young men flocked in from all over the nation to teach in NYC, all naturally non-ed majors with no background in education. We were "trained" in a 6 week summer program that included one week in an actual school.

    I went into school in Sept (and was greeted by a 2 week strike) with fear but also disdain for all those ed majors (almost all women) as compared to "scholars" such as me. It took me about 2 weeks to learn to appreciate their skills and my ineptness. Luckily I was not given a class to ruin but was used a a full-time sub over the next year and a half and when no one was absent I was sent into classrooms to assist.

    It was the best way to learn and by the middle of the second year I felt capable of taking my own very difficult class and had great "success" over the 5 months. I say that because my success had nothing to do with the data but with the reaction of the kids to the environment I set up and to me. They made me feel like a rock star. It took me about 2 weeks before I fell in love with the kids and teaching and by the next year the history degree was abandoned and I remained in the NYC system for 35 years, 17 of them teaching self-contained classes in grades 4-6.

    I don't think in today's data munching world I would stay but I have no regrets about those years or the wonderful kids and parents I worked with.


  2. A fine posting. I would only add that people should make a distinction between the idealism that most TFAers bring in to the classroom and the institutional and ideological direction of TFA itself.

    Whether or not it started out that way, TFA functions as a Trojan Horse for undermining the teacher's unions and for privatizing public education. It's Board of Directors and major funders are a Who's Who of corporate education deform, and its recruits have been used as the shock troops of privatization in places like New Orleans.

    Additionally, individual TFAers who are seen as having leadership potential in the hostile takeover of public education(such as Michelle Rhee and Cami Anderson, who is busy charterizing District 79 in NYC) receive training from such outfits as Eli Broad's leadership academy, and then go on to destabilize and fragment public school districts and systems.

    The TFA model is at best an inadequate means of improving education for needy students; at its worst, it's a training ground for union busters and scabs.

  3. @The Reflective Educator,

    Thanks so much for this post (and for the post on Seattle PS and TFA). I am working on a piece about TFA and your links are invaluable. I also value your honesty and reflection, and feel similarly skeptical of TFA. I think, however, before we study TFA more that we need to study the studies that have been done on TFA more, including the ones they promote. My husband is a research psychologist and said he would take a look at them. I'll let you know what he finds.

    @Norm, What a great story. Thank you for your service and dedication to public education.

  4. Norm. thanks for sharing. I find that story fascinating and telling. It appears we really did go through a similar coming of age process in teaching, although in very different decades.

    Michael, I completely agree that there's an enormous distinction to be made between the TFAers themselves and the mission of the people at the top. I doubt many of the corps members have any idea about the larger world of education or the backlash TFA has created in many communities. Wendy Kopp and co. must have learned their lessons long ago about the realities of public education and how much positive influence a program like TFA can actually have. I think they either choose to ignore these realities or allow their confirmation bias/ego/paychecks to deflect criticisms.

    Rachel, I agree. The studies that have been done on TFA should be looked at more carefully, and I will be very interested to learn what your husband discovers.

  5. Someone referred me to this today. It's a link to a literature review of TFA studies. I haven't read it myself, but I'm just about to:

  6. Excellent post. I taught for 34 years before retiring last fall...and I have to say that each year was a learning experience.

    TFA may be good for helping young people right out of college figure out if they are meant to be in a classroom, but it's not fair to use the neediest children in the country for guinea pigs in your "What shall I do with my life" experiment.

    TFA promotes the false notion that "anyone can teach" -- something we who have spent our professional lives in the classroom know is not true. It takes hard work...determination...the ability to analyze your own motives and performance...and dedication to last more than 2 years in a classroom. Those are the teachers our children deserve.

  7. Fantastic. This reminded me of my first year teaching, only I knew I didn't know anything. I am still grateful to the friend and colleague that got me through.

  8. Excellent post!

    I've always found that new teachers, even non-TFAers, were unwilling to accept that they had so much to learn. Part of the reason is that administrators more often than not put these cheap teachers on pedestals.

    I've witnessed on numerous occasions, (excellent) veteran teachers being forced to "learn" from the rookie by observing them. Can you just imagine the indignity?

    Our society is very youth-driven. And the teaching profession is following this model.

  9. TFA kids idealistic? When did this idealism surface, 2 weeks before graduation when there are no jobs on the horizon? If they want to teach and change the world, why not be an ed major and prepare to become a teacher? Oh, I forgot, being an ed major is for stupid people and they are really smart.
    BTW, I'm a veteran teacher and not afraid of learning from rookies, fellow veterans and anyone who has skills and techniques that can help me better address my students' needs. I remain open.
    And most of the TFA teachers I've worked with have been humble and willing to learn from us experienced teachers.

  10. Anonymous,

    I think it's fair to say that many TFA recruits are idealistic, and naive, and often arrogant. Those qualities are not mutually exclusive.

    As for majoring in education as a marker for competence or commitment, come on: I feel I am a far better teacher because I majored in a content area, had a variety of jobs outside of teaching, and only then took the (with a few exceptions, classroom observations and student teaching among them) bullshit ed classes that I needed to get my license. I see the same being true among my colleagues.

    The problem with TFA and its recruits is not that these young people didn't major in education, it's that they push the false ideology that (overwhelmingly) white, upper middle class missionary temps can solve the problems facing American students and schools, and that the organization itself is a front for the hostile takeover of public education.

  11. I'm anon @ 9:45 and for the record didn't major in education either, but have been teaching, fully credentialed, for over 20 years.

  12. RE:

    I agree with your view of TFA.

    I'm interested in knowing how many inexperienced teachers (TFA, New Teacher Project, Fellows etc.) were hired by Michelle Rhee for DC schools. Do you know? Thanks.

  13. Linda,

    What I can tell you is that in her tenure, Michelle Rhee saw over half her teaching force leave according to Bill Turque:


    According to Mary Levy (former DCPS parent and educational advocate), Rhee increased the number of inexperienced teachers by 6% and decreased the number of "most experienced" teachers by 10% between 2008 and 2010.

    I, too, would love to know the number of TFAers and DCTFers involved in that mix, but I don't know how to find out.

  14. Well said.

    The problem with evaluating this research is that the answer is always going to be "it depends." In complex situations like education, there will never be a sufficiently simple explanation of the effect of one variable.
    So if we look to see if TFA "works," we will find an answer that doesn't fit in the small space most people have in their brains.
    For my place, I think we could start with some of the evidence that everyone accepts, and let that constraint whatever conclusions we want to make.

    First, few TFA'ers stay beyond the two years, and even fewer stay beyond 4 years. I can't believe that one of the links above has a title of "Study Finds Teach For America Teachers Stay in the Classroom Past Initial Commitment" but then you read below and it says that 15% stay in their initial position beyond four years, and only 35% stay in "the teaching profession," which I can only assume includes Michelle Rhee, who I personally would exclude from this category.

    Second, experience matters for both TFA'ers and non-TFA'ers.

    If both of these are true (and I think in the murky, controversial world of TFA evaluation, they are both accepted), doesn't that immediately limit any positive impact TFA could have?

  15. Also TFA'ers are sent to the most struggling schools, poverty-ridden environments, and predominantly minority neighborhoods; they are not sending these recruits to Sidewell Friends, and St. John's etc. Therefore the children who need the most effective and stable teaching force are nothing more than a 2 year experiment. Most troubling is that these recruits are sent en masse. Just this in itself is a criminal act.


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