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Survivor: The TFA Edition


skoolboy remains fascinated by the way in which Teach for America, a program serving perhaps 3% of the students in the districts in which it operates, can seem like the tail wagging the dog. Like eduwonkette, I see many virtues to the program, but do not view it as a solution to the nation's challenge of developing a corps of skilled career teachers to serve our children and youth.

TFA recruits make a two-year commitment to teaching in a high-needs school, and the limited nature of this commitment is a recurring source of concern. If TFA recruits stay just two years and then leave, then the schools they serve face a revolving door of teachers shuffling in and out. TFA, for its part, cites recent evidence that TFA recruits are at least as effective in the classroom as other novice teachers. Moreover, TFA champions the enduring value of having its recruits see the challenges facing high-needs schools, if only for a few years, and claims that many recruits stay in the field of education beyond the two-year commitment.

There’s some new evidence on this latter point, emerging in the doctoral dissertation research of Morgaen Donaldson, formerly with Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, and now an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at the University of Connecticut. Donaldson surveyed the 2000, 2001 and 2002 cohorts of TFA recruits, obtaining 2029 responses, for a 62% response rate. Focusing on voluntary departures (approximately 16% in the sample were involuntary), she modeled the likelihood of staying in the initial placement school over time, as well as the likelihood of transferring to another school or leaving teaching altogether.

The charts below are from fitted hazard models that describe the cumulative probability of "survival" in the initial placement school across years, as well as the probability of voluntarily resigning from teaching for the first time. The first chart shows that about 90% of TFA recruits (voluntarily) remain in the initial placement school for a second year, and about 44% stay for a third year. These figures decline steadily over time, with about 22% staying in the initial placement school for a fourth year, 15% for a fifth year, and 9% for a sixth year.


The probability of voluntarily staying in the teaching profession over time is higher than the likelihood of staying in the initial placement school, since some TFA recruits, like teachers in general, transfer to other schools. The fitted models suggest that about 94% of TFA recruits remain in teaching for a second year, and 60% teach for a third year. 44% remain in teaching for a fourth year, 35% for a fifth year, and 29% for a sixth year.


It’s difficult to know whether to think of these rates of persisting in the initial school placement or in teaching at large are high or low. As usual, the question is, compared to what? TFA recruits are placed in schools that are claimed to be "hard to staff," and they may be challenging places to work, regardless of the route that brought the teachers to such schools. If the attrition rates for other novice teachers in these schools are just as high as those observed for TFA recruits, it’s harder to argue that TFA is exacerbating the problem of building a stable, high-quality teaching force in high-needs schools. Donaldson’s study doesn’t shed any light on this issue.

I’ll have a bit more to say about Morgaen Donaldson’s research on how working conditions affect the persistence of TFA recruits in their initial schools tomorrow.


(not the "Morgaen" of the study)

These numbers seem intuitively right to me based on my corps experience. I would love for someone to look at similar cohorts of young teachers in the same schools and compare rates of attrition. I'd expect the rates of attrition for TFA to be slightly higher than for young teachers in urban schools generally, but not by much. thanks for posting this.

Where's the control group?
Is the 62% of respondents a random sample of all eligible respondents?

The "compared to what" question is certainly one that needs to be answered--with anecdotal suggestions that teacher attrition and movement is high, particularly in urban/hard to staff schools. But what interests me about the who TFA "thing," is whether it provides an improved model for teacher training and induction--and whether there is possibility of replication on a much larger scale.

I also would think it important to think critically about stability. Certainly a newly formed staff on an annual basis looks like a recipe for disaster--but so does guaranteed employment employment for life (unless there is way more significant screening prior to hiring). Somewhere in between (and where) is the point at which "churn" becomes harmful, and are there other stabilizing elements (structure, culture, curriculum, governance) that counterbalance such trends?

There are others who have quantified in various ways that both "teacher effect" and "school effect" exist--as well as international examples of other models in which both of these are somewhat more prominent than SES (on which we, in the US, tend to hang our hat) effect. I welcome Meagan's research, as well as the TFA program itself, as ways in which we can begin to understand these things. I regret that TFA has gotten so caught up in polarizing sentiment that leads us away from learning about manipulable factors that can lead to improvement of outcomes in education.

to me, this is a point of interest:

"TFA, for its part, cites recent evidence that TFA recruits are at least as effective in the classroom as other novice teachers."

that is basically saying, hey, they're no worse than the other garbage out there! let's face it, a novice teacher is just that - a novice.

i'm in my 2nd year of teaching (i'm a teaching fellow) and i will readily admit that i am much better than i was last year, but there is SO much room for improvement. i hope to be much better next year, and so on and so forth.

to say that TFAs are about as effective as other new teachers is to set the bar very low, indeed.

Hey Ed,

There is no control group in the study. Donaldson surveyed the entire population of 3283 TFA recruits from the 2000, 2001 and 2002 cohorts, and received 2029 responses, for a response rate of 62%. A sample such as this is not a random sample of the population, because respondents generally differ from nonrespondents in systematic ways. But Donaldson reports that there were few significant differences in the characteristics of her sample and the population in terms of gender, cohort membership, and level of school assigned to. Her sample may not be representative of Black and white TFA recruits, but it's difficult to judge, due to differences between how TFA recorded race/ethnicity and how it's represented in her data.

I find this fascinating since TFA is mentioned by everyone. Doing the simple math from their annual reports finds the following:

2005 $41M budget/1925 new teachers=$21K/teacher
2007 $85M budget/2777 new teachers=$31K/teacher
2010 EST $160M budget/4224 new teachers=$38K/new teacher
Interesting scale...


Still gotta ask--compared to what? What is the going rate for turning out new teachers any other way?

compared to a Bachelor's degree, it is much less. Compared to other alternative certifications:

Western Governor's: $10,000 for degree program in teaching

Missouri Alt Cert: 24 credit hours required - $8,500

Texas Alternative Certification programs: Average $3,000

ABCTE: total cost less than $1,000

According to Jay Greene - not much difference in quality

You should take a read of Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker article about teacher recruitment/hiring.

He argues that we really don't know what makes a good or bad teacher, much like NFL scouts don't know what makes a good or bad quarterback in pro football.

So he argues for lowering the barriers to entry into the teaching profession, and then working to keep the brightest performers. Not a bad idea in my mind, but the consequences are that we will see dropouts from teaching (like you write about in your post here). My point is, perhaps dropouts are not such a bad thing if we try to cast a wide net, and attract the brightest individuals into teaching. (Granted that we do our best to ensure that those who stay are in fact the brightest folks, and not the ones with no other career options).

Who's this Gladwell guy? Anybody here ever heard of him?

In Texas, teachers from alternative certification programs are more likely to leave the profession than teachers from traditional programs--even after controlling for the personal characteristics of teachers and the demographics and achievement of the schools

This is true of both the private programs that provide no pre-service training as well as the programs that try to create a TFA-like program.

As far as identifying which qualities would make a good teacher, I wonder what the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation would say. For many decades they have studied people who are successful and happy in their careers. Once they identify such people, they find out what aptitudes those people have (or don't, as is better in some cases).

Then they work forward, doing aptitude testing (and career guidance) on people who are trying to figure out what to do w/their lives. Their evaluation of several people I know, including myself, was quite accurate.

If we're trying to maximize the fit for people entering the teaching profession, wouldn't something like this help?


There is a long tradition in vocational psychology asserting that a congruence between aptitudes or personality types and work environments results in success and work satisfaction. But good teaching cannot be reduced to a set of aptitudes or traits, and this literature hasn't had much bearing on understanding teachers' careers and good teaching. Johnson O'Connor is a reputable outfit, and their research manager is an old buddy of mine.

"If the attrition rates for other novice teachers in these schools are just as high as those observed for TFA recruits, it’s harder to argue that TFA is exacerbating the problem of building a stable, high-quality teaching force in high-needs schools."

Then we should ask, I must ask, is this revolving door a permanent feature of these schools? Is there any way of changing that?

And then, the kicker. If there is any way of changing that, it does not involve TfA.

If we ever get to the point of not being flooded with novices, TfA will need to be out of the picture.

If we ever get to the point of not being flooded with novices, TfA will need to be out of the picture.

Actually, I think there's a middle ground -- some percentage of novice teachers probably isn't a problem. But it needs to be small enough that they can be supported adequately by more experienced colleagues

But I think the evidence that TfA teachers aren't markedly different than other teachers, that attrition among novices is high, and that novice teachers aren't, in general, the most successful, all make clear that TfA can be only a small part of the solution to the challenges of recruiting and retaining teachers.

Rachel: Well said.

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