Thursday, October 4, 2007

Thoughts on Teach for America

Lots of edubloggers have weighed in on the Sunday Times article on Teach for America – see Eduwonk, Ms. Frizzle, and Teaching in the 408 - and I will throw in my two cents as well. There are at least five constituencies affected by TFA, and we need to think about TFA’s effects on each of them. Apologies in advance for the crazy long post.

While reading, keep in mind what the counterfactual is; in other words, if TFA didn’t exist, what might the world look like? Spoiler alert: my conclusion is that we are better off in a world where TFA exists. However, contrary to the sweeping arguments made by TFA and its supporters, TFA is in no way “closing the achievement gap” or changing the face of urban education. Part 2, on Monday, will focus on the dangers of these capacious claims and focus - from my own perspective - on what you know, and what you don't know, after teaching for two years.

1) The students corps members teach: First and second year teachers are not at the top of their game, and we all know it. But I have seen little convincing evidence that TFA teachers are much worse at promoting kids’ academic achievement than other new teachers; see, for example, this EdNext summary of the Kane, Staiger, and Rockoff study on New York City, or the Mathematica study. When compared to other new teachers, principals are happy with TFAers as well; according to the Times article, 74% considered TFA teachers to be better than beginning teachers. Non-TFA beginning teachers seem to be the right comparison group here, as in the world where TFA never existed, these kids (absent some substantial policy interventions) would be taught by inexperienced teachers.

That said, the notion that the two-year classroom component of TFA is even part of the answer to closing the achievement gap - a claim that is tossed around loosely at campus recruiting - is not supported by the existing evidence. Corps members do no harm to the students they serve, but at least in their first two years in the classroom, they’re not revolutionizing education for disadvantaged kids, either.

2) The schools in which corps members teach: One argument is that TFA destabilizes schools by providing a permanent revolving army of inexperienced teachers. In the Times article, a principal relates that she has to constantly retrain teachers. Again, it’s my sense that if TFA had never been founded, these schools would be staffed by inexperienced teachers who teach, on average, for a couple of years before moving on.

3) The corps members themselves: The Times article reviewed the “second half of the movement,” i.e. to staff multiple fields with former teachers who understand the realities of the classroom. Kopp made the following comment in the article: “In order to have a real impact…you will have to influence the priorities of a generation. We are completely redirecting students’ paths.” Supporters point to the accomplishments of core members such as Michelle Rhee and the founders of KIPP as evidence of TFA’s broader impact on education reform.

For this to be true, we need to believe that core members who stayed in education and garnered a lot of attention (i.e. Michelle Rhee, the founders of KIPP) would not be involved in urban education reform had they not been corps members. But if you’ve talked to a corps member recently, you know that these are young people with strong social justice commitments; a lot of the people who stayed would still be working in urban, education, and social policy in one way or another. Again, we have a comparison group problem; we need to compare people who were selected for TFA and joined with those who were selected and declined. That some former corps members hold key education policy roles is not evidence of TFA’s success; it’s very possible that they would have been there anyway. On the other hand, we might expect big effects on those who were unlikely candidates for TFA - i.e. not kids who spent all four years of college tutoring in urban schools - but ended up there for one reason or another.

To my knowledge, only one study has attempted to make this comparison. Doug McAdam, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, recently surveyed TFA applicants who became corps members, those who became corps members and did not serve the full two years, and those who were selected but did not accept the offer. McAdam is the right person to do the study – he wrote a phenomenal book on the long-term impact of Freedom Summer involvement on its participants, comparing those who applied and went with those who applied but didn’t go – and found long-term effects on the life paths of those involved. McAdam’s study is ongoing, so we’ll have to wait a while for the answer to this question.

Nice op-ed on the second part of the movement in Ed Week by Michael J. Salmonowicz, a former corps member.

4) The profession of teaching: An expressed goal of TFA was to elevate the status of teaching – to make teaching with TFA the equivalent of winning a Rhodes. It’s clear that the status of the profession of teaching affects who goes into teaching and stays in the future. So framing teaching as a self-effacing, heroic act of service, as opposed to a profession, may actually work against that goal. There was a terrific NYT op-ed by Tom Moore, a Bronx teacher, a while back about the hero dilemma, which pointed out the problem with this mythology:

Films like "Freedom Writers" portray teachers more as missionaries than professionals, eager to give up their lives and comfort for the benefit of others, without need of compensation. Ms. Gruwell sacrifices money, time and even her marriage for her job. Her behavior is not represented as obsessive or self-destructive, but driven — necessary, even....The film applauds Ms. Gruwell's dedication, but also implies that she has no other choice. In order to be a good teacher, she has to be a hero. "Freedom Writers" presented as a celebration of teaching, but its message is that poor students need only love, idealism and martyrdom.

Every day teachers are blamed for what the system they're just a part of doesn't provide: safe, adequately staffed schools with the highest expectations for all students. But that's not something one maverick teacher, no matter how idealistic, perky or self-sacrificing, can accomplish.

On the other hand, professions do gain status when they are selective. Whether you can elevate the status of teaching, which has an enduring status problem, by making it selective is an empirical question, and one we won’t know the answer to for some time. I have very mixed feelings about this. On one hand, we know that since women’s opportunities opened up, the quality of the teaching force has declined. For example, Sean Corcoran, Bill Evans, and Robert Schwab found that in the 1960s, 40% of women in the top 10% of their high school classes went into teaching. By 1996, less than 10% of women in the top 10% went into teaching. So the problem is real. (See paper here.)

But, do we want people who see selectivity as a plus teaching? (See commentary by a college senior on making teaching a status symbol here.) Do we end up encouraging young people to “do well by doing good?” Is this good for kids? I don't know, but these are important questions.

5) The public: TFA gets a lot of media attention, and what gets said affects what the average citizen thinks about the problems of urban education. Does TFA give the message that we just need “smart” people in front of the classroom? That urban kids are behind only because what happens in school? That heroes alone can close the achievement gap?

To sum up, I don’t see evidence of harm done to the kids and schools themselves, but I continue to wonder about TFA’s long-term effects on the teaching profession. Stay tuned for more on this issue on Monday.


Double H said...

OK--first of all it is CORPS member. Full disclosure: I'm a TFA alum from way back in the day ('92). I appreciate how you've laid out the constituencies and what you see as the right comparison groups but I would argue that the no harm done standard is far to low a standard for an organization that proclaims itself a service/social change/do good citizen of the world. It seems fairly obvious that TFA has to provide more than a no harm benefit during the teaching tenure of corps members if it wants to hitch its wagon to the achievement gap.
I think the assumption that many corps members who end up in education post 2-year commitment might have done so anyway is not as straight forward as one might think. Based on my personal experience, I know that I would not have pursued a professional career in education if I hadn't done TFA. Instead, I would have maybe attempted to address educational inequity through community service or other forms of activism that would have been secondary to my real career. I'm not certain if I qualify as a 'smart' person whose educational credentials/accomplishments raise the stature of teaching as a profession but I do know that as a high performing African-American undergraduate at a top school I was discouraged from entering teaching and education more broadly. TFA provided a respectable entry point when I joined the corps. The current expansion efforts and growth cloud this issue for me now. But I do agree that the teaching profession does need the most talented adults to enter and traditional routes have not been good at attracting talent on a large scale.

eduwonkette said...

hi double h,

thanks for these comments - and for your patience with my spelling snafus (got out in the 5th grade spelling bee on fluoroscope). your point is important:

I think the assumption that many corps members who end up in education post 2-year commitment might have done so anyway is not as straight forward as one might think. Based on my personal experience, I know that I would not have pursued a professional career in education if I hadn't done TFA.

I'm sure TFA does change the path of SOME participants, but perhaps not those at the tails of the distribution - those who would definitely be in education or those who would definitely not. It could go either way, so we'll have to wait for the McAdam study.

rdt said...

Again, we have a comparison group problem; we need to compare people who were selected for TFA and joined with those who were selected and declined.

I would think there could be significant self-selection biases between those who chose to accept the fellowships, and those who chose not to, with the ones who turned the fellowships down being less committed to education (and more interested in other options they had) than those who accepted, and therefore less likely overall to pursue a career in education.

Another possible comparison sample is people who were turned down for TFA but went into teaching anyway. Tho' that group might be expected to be even more committed to a career in education than the average TFA fellow.

ms. v. said...

great post... lays out the issues pretty clearly and calmly. thanks!