Teach For America Corps Member Discusses TFA's Data Emphasis

The following was prepared as a guest post for this blog by Mr. N, a biology teacher in East Los Angeles. He blogs at Two Years at the Blackboard, and has recently put together a series of posts on the TFA institute, which you can read here, here, and here.

Overdrive: Why TFA's Numbers Game Is Bad For Our Kids

In a credentialing class last semester, the professor asked us to brainstorm adjectives to describe the perfect teacher.  “Dedicated!” “Relentless!” “Kind!” We then were asked to prioritize the adjectives, and I couldn’t help but let out a bemused chuckle when my neighbor placed “data-driven,” a TFA buzzword, at the top of her list.

As TFA makes clear throughout its recruitment and training process, my neighbor’s answer was, in their opinion, the correct one. Data are central to any conversation about great teaching. Admittedly, our Institute instructors did occasionally question the utility of standardized test scores as a complete measure of learning, but this felt more like an cynical attempt to quiet the na├»ve hippies in the audience than anything else. Teach for America is powerless to resist the charms of a datum.
Let me slow down for a minute. I am a scientist, a positivist, and I believe that teachers should be held accountable for how their students actually perform. Unfortunately, TFA and its partners seem to view numbers as a good unto themselves, and they’re more concerned about collecting them and manipulating them to look pretty than actually questioning what they mean.
The examples of data abuse by TFA are numerous, but one in particular stands out to me: their definition of “significant gains,” which they equate to 1.5 years of student growth in one year of instruction.  Making significant gains is sort of like being knighted in Teach for America. TFA uses the number of corps members who meet this goal as a key indicator of their success.
The rub is that 1.5 years of growth is actually defined as 80% mastery on teacher-designed assessments. This is troublesome in that it makes absolutely no ****ing sense. How can “growth” be measured if there is no comparison of initial and final states? Couldn’t a teacher achieve “1.5 years of growth” by designing really easy tests, or having really high-performing kids to begin with?
My Program Director (boss) recently criticized my ostensibly subpar standardized test scores, without taking into account (a) the fact that they were actually the highest in my department, meaning that I was most likely adding value, which should qualify as “growth”; (b) this is the first year my school has even used benchmark tests, so there’s nothing to compare it to, which calls into question whether growth could be measured at all; and (c) the corps members attaining higher scores are almost universally teaching at large Charter Management Organizations which are known to churn out high test scores (and I’m opting to omit the sorta-shady techniques they sometimes use to do this). TFA’s supposed measure of growth is actually just a measure of success, so any teacher who isn’t placed into a successful school is essentially screwed.
And while it would be nice to be recognized for my quantitative success, I can’t help but get a little uncomfortable that TFA, which is a hugely influential entity in the reform movement, cares so much more about succeeding on standardized tests than questioning their value.  The same high-performing charter schools that score well on tests and get students into college are terrible at keeping them there, and standardized test scores don’t seem to be a predictor of life outcomes.

Does that mean that testing is evil? Of course not; it’s important to make sure that teachers are doing their job, and it’s a good thing to have some assurance that students everywhere are learning the same basic skills. It does mean, though, that our current tests aren’t doing what they’re meant to do.

My relationship with testing is the conflicted, hot-and-cold stuff of trashy romance novels. I believe that the state standards are rigorous and minutiae-riddled to the point where critical thinking becomes impossible. From high school biology, do you remember how temperature, pH, and ionic conditions affect enzymatic function? Do you remember dissecting a frog? Guess which the State of California considers to be more important.

The over-specificity of the standards leads to some horribly depressing consequences. Critical thinking is thrown under the bus in favor of memorization and drilling. One of my biggest motivations for becoming a teacher was my conviction that all children love science, and that for most this love dies in high school when science becomes less about exploring the world and more about memorizing vocabulary. Private school kids learn the laws of physics by designing mousetrap cars and egg-drop machines, while public school kids learn them by chanting and studying flash cards; and we wonder why the latter group can’t stay in college, or, frankly, why they hate school to begin with. PUC Schools, a large charter group, has decided that, since reading novels isn’t covered by the standards, they’re just going to do away with the whole thing. Urban students are going to graduate from high school without having read a single book.

It should be obvious at this point that this whole issue raises my blood pressure considerably, but I have to admit that I have found the California State Test to be an effective way to rally my students. We are in full-on battle mode at present, with only two weeks of cramming to go. The other day, I showed my class the training montage from Rocky, and we discussed the clip. Here’s Rocky, working his ass off in the freezing cold, while Apollo Creed signs autographs; and yet, who wins the fight? “People in this world think you are stupid, because of your test scores,” I said to my students, watching their jaws drop. “Latinos perform poorly on the science and math tests, and there are people in the government who think that means they should just give up on you completely. They think it’s because of your genes or your skin color or your culture. But we’re here because we know that’s B.S. It’s not because you’re dumb, it’s because – look around us – our classroom has no sinks, no lab benches. It’s not fair. It’s not fair that the rich kids get to do fancy labs, and we don’t; but the only way to change it is for all of you to claw your way to the top. You have to work harder than them.”  My students began to pound on their desks, angry, and ready, and they brought more fervor to that day’s lesson than I had ever seen before. Suddenly students are showing up for after-school tutoring, and asking questions, and asking to re-take failed tests.

What I mean to say is that, when pitched well, standardized testing can become a call to arms for disenfranchised students. It is meaningful to students to see year-to-year improvement, and testing is (or at least, can be) a way for them to feel validated, and to feel like they are overcoming adversity. I just wonder if it’s the best way to get them to learn, and to enjoy learning for its own sake. I loved the fancy private high school I attended, not because of my test scores and how much they grew, but because we read books and took classes like Russian History and Virginia Woolf, and designed mousetrap cars to learn the laws of physics. I got into a good college and stayed there, and as soon as I could, I started doing my own research.

According to the (bear with me, it’s a dated title) seminal education book “The Miseducation of the Negro,” students from disadvantaged backgrounds need to learn more than white children, both because education is a driver of social mobility and because rich kids take piano lessons outside of school (I paraphrase, of course). TFA has a tragically narrow interpretation of this lesson; we teach them as many facts as their brains can hold, but there are no discussions, no connections to the big-picture, no explorations – because there is no time, and because it doesn’t raise test scores.

You can follow Mr. N on Twitter here and contact him at twoyearsattheblackboard@gmail.com.


  1. i just found your blog, and love it. i am beginning my teaching career this summer with an urban teacher residency program, and it's been a long time in the making (long story short: i spent three years on my immunology & infectious diseases PhD and loved the science and the teaching, but hated the road towards professorship that i was heading down).

    it's great to read a well-balanced blog from a HS biology teacher. you keep writing, and i'll keep reading.

  2. deborahmeier@me.comMay 3, 2011 at 12:22 PM

    Thanks. But surely there's some way--which I suspect you've found--to do for your students what your schools did for you--take your minds seriously. It's also interesting after--if you can--to sit with some students and learn about the logic behind even their wrong answers.

    Good luck--and stick with it.

    Deborah Meier

  3. I taught for 3 years in the MS Delta, with the first two as part of the MS Teacher Corps. I left (I was dept. head and well respected) after the administration started doing the following:

    1. Moving low performing juniors out of US History (state tested during the junior year) and into Economics (seniors) - thus manipulating upward the scores;

    2. Mislabeling classes so that students could essentially take the state tested course multiple times ("creative writing" elective = US history essay/reading class, for example); and

    3. Moving high performing sophomores into US History, again to manipulate upward the scores.

    All of this was about juking the numbers. That is all the matters.

    The real issue is poverty and low teacher pay.

    Solve the poverty problem and pay teachers more (attract and retain higher quality staff), and kids will perform better. In this sense programs like TFA and MTC are nothing more than life support for a system of injustice and exploitation.

    And how do teachers get higher pay? Unions. Where are some of our worst schools? Right to work states in the South. And urban schools serving overwhelmingly poor students.

    I now make more working 36 hours a week as a dog trainer than I did as a MS teacher who regularly put in 80+ hour work weeks.


  4. "It’s a good thing to have some assurance that students everywhere are learning the same basic skills."

    Can I just say I fundamentally disagree with this sentence as it applies to anyone over the age of 5?

    Beyond numeracy, literacy, good manners, and critical thinking skills and other (generally untestable) problem-solving meta-skills, I don't think I can name another skill that is useful for "students everywhere."

    And herein lies the problem with standardized testing and TFA.

  5. i don't know too much about it, but from what i remember my high school teachers saying, No Child Left Behind was a terrible act, and i guess they'd say it's a good thing that Obama's getting rid of it (but let's hope something good replaces it).


  6. I definitely agree with you about problems surrounding standardized testing. However, I'm really interested that you consider this to be a TFA problem. If anything it seems like over the last year TFA has been trying to balance the weight we give numerical data with their drive for CMs to create "vision-driven" classrooms. Staff members love to talk with me about creating enduring drive in our kiddos for reading and implementing an exploratory science curriculum... For me, the insane practices (showing us powerpoints of the "focal" students who we need to pass, writing their names on the board, pressure to teach to the test, etc) come from my school and school district, not TFA.

    Perhaps regions differ in this?

  7. Whether the pressure for test scores above all else comes from school districts or from TFA, it's wrong. Today I finished "Night", which I'm teaching (privately) to a student. In his foreword, Francois Mauriac writes, "We do not know the worth of one drop of blood, one tear." Yet metricists like Donald Rumsfeld lead corps that seek to measure everything, and ignore everything that isn't measurable. I am reminded of Hannah Arendt's reflections, in "The Life of The Mind", upon Nazi Germany, at that time arguably, in some ways, the most advanced nation in the world, immensely proud of its culture at the same time it was wiping out some of its most cultured people: "We don't need any more educated Eichmanns." On this day when we show love to our mothers everywhere, we shouldn't overlook that which cannot be measured.

    1. Confused in MissouriJanuary 22, 2012 at 6:18 PM

      Amen to that. One good question is worth a thousand answers. If my students understand that upon leaving my classroom, I will have succeeded.

      Don't you think a kid who can ask good questions will be able to pass a standardized test? I do. I guess the data advocates just hope he won't start to question the validity of the test.

  8. There's a lot of broad generalizations and factually inaccurate statements in your blog:

    1) I don't see the connection between you having higher scores than your department and "value added." You're comparing apples and oranges if you had a different group of students. You yourself argue that the only reliable measure is a diagnostic at the beginning and a similar end of year assessment at the end, not arbitrary and relative comparisons.

    2) Also, I wasn't placed in a successful school. It had an API of 1. My students did average their first year, but they did really well their second. A classroom culture and success is not necessarily completely driven by its surroundings (though I agree that being placed in a traditional public school where the school culture is rocky makes it more difficult to help students towards success).

    3) I also take exception that charter school students just flunk out of college. The fact is charter schools like KIPP have 85% of students making it to and through college.

    4) I also think that the connection between standardized curriculum and dumbing down teaching is an atrocious connection. Standardized testing has been around from the time we were in schools. It doesn't mean that their existence means our generation is dumber. Frankly, the test is such a low bar it's a joke. The idea is to teach critical thinking and high level thinking and if you do, the students will naturally do well on the end of the year test. The problem is that many teachers teach to the test as a goal. However, it is not the tests fault that they do that.

    And contrary to what you say, there is a correlation between high test scores and success. The person that got a perfect SAT score makes on average more than the person that scored in the 10th percentile. It's not an exact science. Someone that scored in the 10th percentile could end up making a lot of money. As an average, however, it works.

    William (TFA '05)
    www.lulu.com/alastingwill - Classroom Resources For All

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