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In Which We Make Sweeping Generalizations from a Sample of 69 Teach for America Teachers in North Carolina

| 13 Comments
A special shoutout goes to the New York Times editorial board for making national policy recommendations based on the Urban Institute's study of Teach for America in North Carolina, which included a whopping 69 Teach for America teachers - a .5% sample of all TFA teachers placed during those years. The study found that North Carolina TFA math and science teachers produced results slightly better (about a tenth of a standard deviation) than experienced teachers in the same school. Because every state in the country is just like North Carolina, the NYT argues that "states that want students to do better in math and science need to focus recruitment on more selective colleges instead of on traditional teacher education programs, which are often little more than diploma mills."

There is a long discussion of that study here. As I wrote then:

I’m all for Teach for America as a stopgap, but the achievement gap claim is fanciful thinking. Why? By comparison, the black-white gap in NAEP math achievement in grade 12 is approximately 1 standard deviation (and is likely larger because many black students have left by grade 12). An advantage of .04-.1 standard deviations over teachers with 3-5 years experience in the same school is not going to significantly close the achievement gap. This is not an advantage over teachers in the nearest suburb or the best schools in the city that don’t staff TFA teachers, and is hardly a convincing rationale to permanently staff tough schools with a revolving corps of academically talented 2-year teachers.
13 Comments

You nailed it. Your posts on this issue should be sumbitted to the NY Times as an op ed.

Two years is by anyone's estimate a minimum amount of time to learn even the basic ropes of teaching. Traditionally trained first year teachers for all the critiques of these programs do get a lot of teacher training than can prove useful. I was also an instant wonder in a special program to attract men avoiding Vietnam to elementary schools in the late 60's and was very deficient compared to the teachers who came through education programs. It took me about 2 years to make up the gap.

How many kids suffer from some TFA people's lack of experience and training, many of whom admit kids suffered in their first year? How many desert their classrooms in the middle of the first year?

I just want to say, I am a TFA alum, and I still don't believe Teach for America is the answer. I was a middle school English teacher and so I don't really fit into this study. I do have some friends who were very successful teaching math and who are now teaching for 3rd and 4th years but I still don't find them to be a justification for endorsing teach for america as an answer to the achievement gap.

I feel like this is a bit of straw man argument (disclosure - I'm a TFA alum), at least the last two comments are. The NYT should never have written an editorial on the basis of one small study, however well-designed, and no one should be saying that TFA is the answer to the achievement gap.

But no one is saying that. Not even the NYT editorial, with its over-extrapolation from the UI study, and certainly no one affiliated with TFA.

I don't want to get a debate over the comparative worth of TFA - I think most people agree that on the balance, the world is better for TFA existing than if it didn't (I expect that you disagree Norm). I stand with the folks who argue that the real impact of TFA is the folks who remain in education after their two years. From what I understand (and makes sense to me through my own experience) that number is around two-thirds.

There are so many benefits to having tomorrow's leaders engaged in teaching in urban environments for two years that even if the champions of the status quo are right that TFA teachers have little or no more success than traditional-route teachers, there is still tremendous value in Teach For America's growth.

Politicians and business leaders have little sense about the problems and possible solutions in urban education if they don't have actual urban teaching experience. TFA is by far the best hope we have as a nation that the people who run this country's education system will actually know how to do so. Otherwise, they just listen to the policy wonks and ed school professors who often have little or no real-world experience, or if they do, it is often in suburban or private schools. Or worse, their policies come from those whose political interests are at stake. W

My school district decided to not hire any new Teach for America teachers this year.

What happened at my school?

They hired a local teacher that spent more than three months on medical leave and left a rotating set of subs (who don't teach) in her replacement.

They hired another local teacher who got fired six months into teaching for threatening to blow up the school and left a rotating set of subs (who don't teach) in his replacement.

They hired a local first year teacher who failed nearly 80% of his students in the first quarter and didn't have any evidence of their grades.

They sent our students to computer labs to learn AP Literature and AP US History from distance learning teachers because no one wanted to interview for the position.

You argue that they should not have made such a generalization about all of TFA based on what was studied in North Carolina. Then you shouldn't generalize that TFA is not better than what districts can survive on locally based on a NAEP study. I gave you those glimpses into how my school functioned without TFA because that is how my region functions without TFA: poorly. Each region is different and there is a different story to tell about the efficacy of TFA teachers on "closing gaps" depending on where you go. Here in Mississippi, my TFA teachers and I are some of the best, most reliable and knowledgeable teachers our kids have got. I'd like to believe that if our region was ever studied, the same conclusion would be made.

JE: Sorry for the achievement gap comment seeming out of context - it refers back to the original Urban Institute study and my previous post about it: The authors concluded that "the TFA effect, at least in the grades and subjects investigated, exceeds the impact of additional years of experience, implying that TFA teachers are more effective than experienced secondary school teachers….programs like TFA that focus on recruiting and selecting academically talented recent college graduates and placing them in schools serving disadvantaged students can help reduce the achievement gap, even if teachers stay in teaching only a few years.”

Socrates: I generally agree with you on your "second half of the mission" point. I am curious as to what wins one the label of "champion of the status quo?";)

Believe in the Delta: Thanks for proving the Mississippi context. Why did your district choose not to hire more TFA teachers? As I said above, I'm very comfortable with TFA as a stopgap, but it's not a long-term teacher quality solution.

Believe in the Delta, that was "providing the Mississippi context."

There's an irony to how Eduwonkette has framed this rebuttal:

By comparison, the black-white gap in NAEP math achievement in grade 12 is approximately 1 standard deviation (and is likely larger because many black students have left by grade 12).

This incredible gap is the result of the existing system and traditional pathways of teachers who end up under-serving our poor and minority students. You can't use the problem as an argument for the status quo!

On the other hand, it's clear that TFA is not sufficient as a solution. But don't use that scale argument to say it can't be a part of the solution.

Manny, Acknowledging that TFA has a role to play (which I do) is different than saying that we should focus our recruitment efforts on selective college students.

Also, what evidence is there that teachers coming from traditional pathways are primarily responsible for the achievement gap?

Socrates wrote:

There are so many benefits to having tomorrow's leaders engaged in teaching in urban environments for two years that even if the champions of the status quo are right that TFA teachers have little or no more success than traditional-route teachers, there is still tremendous value in Teach For America's growth.

This actually seems one of the most powerful arguments for TfA. My sense (from only anecdotal evidence) is that TfA alums themselves have a much better understanding of the challenges of teaching, and of public education, than many of the most vocal "policy" proponents of TfA-like programs.

My big concern with TfA is the tendency to make the argument that if a litte of something is good, a lot must be even better. I think most organizations benefit from the presence of idealistic, energetic young people. But organizations also need people who are in for the long haul, and too much of the discussion of TfA and alternative credential programs seems focused on "which is better?" not on "what is the right balance?"

Eduwonkette: to your question as to what wins one the "champion of the status quo" moniker:

Generally, it's enough to be quoted in a positive light by Norm, but in your case, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt: I think he's just agreeing with you so he can look more mainstream. You're not exactly a knee-jerk status quo-phile, but I do wonder why you're so quick to point to these studies that only sorta show that TFA newbies beat out other newbies when TFA is so clearly of dramatic benefit for other reasons. It's a bit like applying the microscope to Michael Jordan's free throw percentage and pointing out that he's not in fact better than everyone else at everything.

In my experience, TFA first-years (1T's?) aren't that much better than other first-year teachers, despite their unarguably better academic pedigree. The reason they're just as bad as we all were in our first year is that nobody can manage a class well enough for it to matter how sound their lesson plans are or how rigorous their standards. In their second year, I think you start to see some separation, where TFAers who've learned to manage (which they probably do in numbers comparable to traditional-route teachers) start to really outpace other teachers. Once the kids are in their seats, their teachers' academic background achieves greater relevance.

What I'd really like to see is a study of TFA alums who keep teaching. I'd be willing to bet they comprise the top quartile of teachers overall.

Hi Socrates,

Real quick because I'm running out the door - I point out the efficacy of TFA teachers only because the NYT's op-ed was based on that argument ("states that want students to do better in math and science need to focus recruitment on more selective colleges instead of on traditional teacher education programs"). The key conclusion of the Urban Institute study was also about their relative efficacy ("programs like TFA that focus on recruiting and selecting academically talented recent college graduates and placing them in schools serving disadvantaged students can help reduce the achievement gap, even if teachers stay in teaching only a few years.")

So much more to say about the "status quo" label and why it does not advance the debate (and it gets used often in ed policy). More on that later.

I also would like to see a study of TFA teachers who continue on - like you, I bet they are among the best. I would definitely support policies to recruit selective college grads and provide them with strong incentives to stay in the classroom.

It seems like this an argument for Fellows-style alternative programs. Tom Kane found in NYC, the Teaching Fellows persist at about the same rates as any other pathway studied. He was looking at a five year period.

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  • eduwonkette: Manny, Acknowledging that TFA has a role to play (which read more

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