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Survivor: The TFA Edition, II


Yesterday, I wrote about Morgaen Donaldson’s research on the survival rates of three cohorts of Teach for America teachers in their initial placement schools and in teaching overall. Today, I’ll describe one of her analyses of why TFA teachers leave their schools, focusing on the complexity of the teaching assignment and the corps member’s academic preparation for the subject(s) that she or he taught.

For this analysis, a complex teaching assignment for an elementary school teacher is one in which the teacher teaches more than one grade in a given year. Similarly, a complex teaching assignment for a secondary teacher is one in which the teacher was assigned to teach more than one subject in a given year. Many TFA recruits had complex teaching assignments during the years of observation. Between 16 and 20% of elementary TFA teachers were assigned to teach more than one grade in a given year, and 35% to 50% of secondary TFA teachers were assigned to teach more than one subject in a given year. (Note that this is different than teaching one grade in 2003 and a different grade in 2004, or one subject in 2004 and a different subject in 2005. These too might make teaching more complicated, but it’s across years rather than within them.)

In the 2000, 2001 and 2002 TFA cohorts, the vast majority of corps members majored in the social sciences or humanities in college. 52% were social science majors, 20% were English majors, 3% majored in the arts, and 6% majored in a foreign language. In contrast, about 5% were math majors, and 15% majored in science, computer science or engineering. Just 2% were education majors, and 4% majored in other subjects. (I think the numbers can exceed 100% due to double majors, but the text isn’t entirely clear on this.)

But their teaching assignments often differed dramatically from their formal academic preparation. One-half to three-quarters of the TFA recruits teaching secondary math were not math majors, and 38% to 50% of science teachers lacked a science major. Even in social studies, 16% to 31% of the TFA teachers were teaching out of their major field. Donaldson reports that out-of-field teaching diminished the longer a TFA teacher stayed in teaching.

Among elementary TFA teachers, a multiple-grade assignment increased the odds of leaving the initial school during or at the end of the first year of teaching by a factor of 3.29 (a probability of 19.1% for multiple-grade teachers, and 6.7% for single-grade teachers.) For the most part, this type of complexity did not influence retention in subsequent years, with the singular finding that in year 4, multi-grade teachers were significantly less likely to leave their initial schools than single-grade teachers. Many of the multi-grade teachers leaving their initial placement school in the first year transferred to another school, but multi-grade teachers also were more likely to leave teaching altogether in the first year than single-grade teachers.

At the secondary level, TFA recruits teaching multiple subjects were more likely than single-subject teachers to leave their initial placement schools and the field of teaching altogether in their first year of teaching. Beyond this first year, however, there were no significant differences in the likelihood of leaving the initial placement school, but multiple-subject teachers had a greater chance of leaving teaching altogether.

The out-of-field teaching story is complicated, with TFA math teachers teaching out of field more likely to leave their initial placement schools and the occupation of teaching altogether, and social studies teachers teaching out of field more likely to leave teaching. Oddly, science teachers lacking a science major were less likely to leave teaching than science teachers with a science major.

These patterns suggest that, at least in the years 2000, 2001 and 2002, TFA teachers often faced very complex teaching assignments for which they were not well-prepared academically, and the complexity of these assignments heightened the risk of leaving the initial placement school or of leaving teaching altogether. As I noted yesterday, there’s no comparison group, so we don’t know if novice teachers in these schools arriving via the traditional route had similarly complex assignments. Nor do we know if this pattern holds for more recent cohorts of TFA recruits, as there have been six cohorts since the three that Morgaen Donaldson studied.

One thing seems clear, however. If we want novice teachers to stay in their initial schools and to stay in teaching, they need adequate support as they learn their craft in the first years of teaching. Asking teachers to teach multiple grades, multiple subjects and/or subjects out of their college major fields is a peculiar way of supporting them.

A program note: We're going to take a break here for the next 10 days or so. eduwonkette and I wish you happy holidays!


"If we want novice teachers to stay in their initial schools and to stay in teaching, they need adequate support as they learn their craft in the first years of teaching."

Other than the open question of what "adequate" is, what's the evidence to support this statement? Why not just better preparation, screening, certification, or compensation? Why is "support" necessarily so important? Or alternatively, is early career teacher mobility really as big a problem as it's hyped up to be? I'm just asking.

This relates somewhat to Fred Strine's post on the Core Knowledge blog. Strine laments (yea, rages against) the rise of the "teacher-facilitator" who does not know the subject, and against ed school ideology that justifies this state of things.

The problem lies not only with teachers teaching out of field, but also with the dilution of the field itself. I would be teaching out of field if I taught history, but I would love it and put my best efforts into it. Unfortunately, few schools teach history; they teach social studies, and a watered-down version at that. Students spend much of the year interpreting charts and relating little tidbits of primary sources to their own lives.

Those who enter teaching with a longing to teach a subject--their own major or another subject--become quickly disillusioned when they learn that the subject itself must take second place to the "strategies," "socialized learning," etc. There is strong distrust of the teacher who stands in front of the room. Students' desks must be in arranged in groups. Chalk has been all but abolished. Teachers are not supposed to write on student work any more; they must write their "authentic" comments on Post-its.

It does not surprise me that the TFA teachers who taught in their field lasted longer in the profession. For one thing, they were probably better placed than others; for another, the school probably recognized the value of the field itself. I imagine there is a strong correlation between a school's respect for subject matter and its assignment of knowledgeable teachers to each subject.

Diana Senechal

New teachers are often placed in schools that are rough and tough and given the hardest students. I see that in our 9th grade academy this year. The teachers are brilliant at their subject, but getting the kids to learn is very difficult. They need lots of support from administration in getting the disobedient kids out of the room so they can do their job. No one seems to want to talk about kids who just do not want to be in school.

"Oddly, science teachers lacking a science major were less likely to leave teaching than science teachers with a science major."

Is that really odd? Probably not if we rephrase it this way: Among science teachers, those with a science major found it more attractive to leave teaching than those without a science major. That science major might indicate more non-teaching opportunities with more tangible rewards.

This invites the question, can we make useful inferences about why people leave teaching without considering the state of the overall job market for those with comparable qualifications? Still, having comparison data for non-TFA novice teachers at the same schools, as you point out, would really be the only way to draw conclusions about whether TFA recruits are any more or less likely than their peers to stay at their initial schools or in the field.

Did Donaldson's survey ask what motivated the voluntary departures? I know, subjective self-reported data are questionable, but sometimes that's all you can get.

Hey dilettante,

I agree that a decision to leave teaching needs to be understood in relation to the array of alternatives from which a teacher might choose. It's possible that science majors might have more attractive alternatives than non-science majors, and in fact science and technology majors have a higher rate of leaving the field than those with other majors, whether or not they are teaching out of field.

I haven't seen Donaldson's survey instrument, but would be very surprised if it did not include questions about reasons for departure.

DKZODY--I'm willing to talk about the "kids who just don't want to be in school." My observation as a substitute teacher is that by high school the kids who don't want to be there just leave. So by ninth grade, it is beginning. In my urban district, it is not unusual to have numbers of seniors about a fourth of what the ninth grade numbers are. Granted, ninth grade numbers are inflated by repeaters. But my observation is that schools are highly efficient at getting kids out.

What my greater concern is, however, is with finding ways to not only keep kids in, but to combat their unwillingness to "be there." It's not too surprising that many don't want to be there (and this impression comes from time spent teaching in a GED program). Much of their school experience has been about learning that they are not smart enough, or not good enough, or are in other ways destined for failure.

I don't know about your home town, but mine cannot sustain the current numbers of unemployed, imprisoned or criminal young people who have next to no options. I personally don't see that much is gained by trying to get school administrators to push greater numbers out any earlier. We really need to be about figuring out solutions that keep kids in school.

i'd like to comment on this point:

"One-half to three-quarters of the TFA recruits teaching secondary math were not math majors."

i am a nyc teaching fellow. i was in the "math immersion" program, which was a two week long math class (covering math a and math b) designed for non-math majors.

after week one (during which we had ostensibly only covered math a), we were expected to take the math content specialty test.

some of the people in my program (myself included) hadn't taken a math class in over 10 years. there was absolutely no screening of us when we were selected to be math immersion fellows. no one asked us to take a test to see if we were proficient enough to be elible for math immersion. all that was required was a certain number of math credits from our undergraduate degree.

25% of my class failed the cst and they expressed frustration and disappointment in the level of support we received.

i am constantly amazed by how few my credentials were that got me into the program...i am grateful that that occured because i really enjoy teaching math and have always been very strong in it, but they literally had no way of knowing when they assigned me to math whether i was any good at math or not!

and that to me is a little scary...

On CNN right now they are discussing jobs that are available for people who are unemployed. Of course teaching was mentioned because a large number of retirements are expected in the next ten years. The host mentioned the fact that "all you need is a bachelor's degree" since many states issue emergency credentials during desperate times. Indeed.

There doesn't seem to be much discussion about the American tradition of hiring anyone "with a warm body and a degree" to teach, but this factor alone could account for many of our school problems. Countries with excellent schools (e.g. Finland) hire the most qualified professionals possible. These teachers, who enjoy high status, are then given professional autonomy and much respect.

Now that I'm retired, I can admit that I was a "warm body" in 1966. Cleveland hired me without so much as an interview. I was placed in one of the poorest schools and given forty students. I am ashamed to describe the mistakes that I made, even on this anonymous blog, but suffice to say I probably did more harm than good. I was not alone. Some of the teachers were the worst I came across in my many years. My friend and I suspected a couple of them were functionally illiterate. Of course, as soon as I became qualified, I went on to greener pastures. So did many of my colleagues.

Now that I look back on it, placing inexperienced, unqualified teachers in schools where education was so critical to the children was a crime. Yes, some of these people had natural gifts for teaching, but they seemed to be in the minority.

If citizens (and people like Michelle Rhee) are really serious about closing the achievement gap, they can start by hiring fully qualified teachers, paying them competitive salaries and treating them as full professionals. And that will just be a beginning.

By the way, I didn't mean the earlier comment as a putdown of the social sciences or of scholarship within them. I object to "social studies" when it turns into a vague and fluffy subject, like "literacy"--when schools don't really teach history, geography, or literature, but instead focus on so-called "relevant" topics.

I suspect that the emptier the curriculum, the more difficult it is for novice teachers to grapple with, regardless of their level of preparation.

One clear case in point is ESL. Many novice teachers teach ESL in NYC, as it is in high demand. Yet many schools lack any sort of ESL curriculum. It is not perceived as a subject, but rather as a collection of strategies. Schools keep changing their minds about what it is. It is a big shame; we should treat ESL as a subject and teach it as a course. It would be interesting to see how many ESL teachers leave precisely because of the indecision surrounding the subject.

Diana Senechal

One foundational problem with teaching math when you are not a math major is the base level of math competence of the average US citizen is far below that of many (if not most) countries in Asia (i.e. Japan, Singapore etc) and Europe (i.e.Hungary, Finland, Czech Republic). When you take a non math major and have them teach math in the US they are by definition less numerate on the subject. When you combine this lower baseline understanding of math with no national math standards, and no step by step content specific teacher’s guides like they have in Japan and Singapore the job becomes even far more difficult.

John: I generally agree with you that placing people without strong math skills in math teaching positions is less than optimal. However, as a former teacher, I have two comments: (1) Many people without math majors have strong math skills. This includes people in science, economics or other fields that utilize math, as well as people in other fields who have strong math skills; (2) Different math classes require different levels of subject matter knowledge. As a former high school and middle school teacher, I taught middle school math (without a math major) in a long term sub assignment, and had no subject matter problems. Then again, teaching AP Calculus may be a different story.

Point being: Many non-math majors may still have strong math skills, and not all math classes (particularly at the middle school level) require very high level math skills on the part of the instructor. Holding out for math majors at the middle school level may not therefore be necessary.

Attorney DC:

Cogently argued. There's little to add. Who could believe that students up to the pre-calculus level could learn all the math they will retain, for yes, engineering courses, out of the recreational math of Martin Gardner and his tradition? As for numeracy, as against math, where do students actually learn scale, not as a set of exercise, or as one more of those looped sections labeled "estimation", but as perspective. Yes, as that skill called "sizing up" or "taking the measure of" a situation?

John Stallcup:

You are mistaken. Between-nation differences are small. Whether they should be smaller and the US position should be higher depends, frankly, on workforce needs and workforce policy. Shortages of US born engineers and scientists are understandable--the people are regarded as expendable and substitutable with immigrants, or by outsourcing. Young physicists learned that the difference between employment with math and selling retail is application of mathematical fluency to product development for Wall Street.No physics required, and all the time spent learning and doing it wasted. There's no real physics in the velocity of money. If math skills are so necessary, how does one explain US economic growth in the absence of increased skills in the school age population for the last half-century? (and shudder to estimate them in the adult population?)

Addressing the topic: If TFA people are permitted some time to engage their students in the joy of math they may have experienced, then there would be much more they could bring to the classroom. That joy is NOT what most ES principals in public schools are about, if they ever have been.

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