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Teaching Assignment Linked to TFA Retention

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Teach For America teachers who are assigned to teach more than one grade, subject, or out-of-field are more likely to leave their schools—or the profession altogether, a new analysis concludes.

The paper is the latest addition to a complex research base on the popular alternate-route-to-teaching program. (Eduwonk has a nice summary of the research over at his blog.)

Morgaen Donaldson of the University of Connecticut and Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard University conducted the study, which is the first to my knowledge to examine the retention of TFA teachers longitudinally, using a national sample.

It also avoids some of the problems with retention-based literature in general. As the authors note, past studies haven't always distinguished between "voluntary" turnover and turnover caused by layoffs or forced transfers. Other analyses didn't track teachers over time to determine whether they left certain schools, but stayed in others.

The scholars analyzed data from surveys of some 2,000 TFA teachers enrolled in the group's 2000, 2001, and 2002 cohorts. Then they tracked the teachers' trajectories using something called "discrete-time survival analysis" (eek!), which essentially means homing in on which variables seemed to lessen the probability that a teacher would stay in his or her assignment.

Here's a rundown of the findings:

• Elementary teachers with a multiple-grade assignments were more likely to transfer to other schools after their first year, while high school teachers teaching several subjects or teaching out of field tended to leave the profession altogether.

• Out-of-field science teachers, counterintuitively, were less likely to leave the profession than in-field science teachers. The researchers posited that the in-field teachers might have greater access to alternative occupations.

• Although fewer than 10 percent of respondents stayed in their initial schools more than six years, 44 percent stayed in their initial schools for longer than TFA's two-year commitment, and 61 percent remained in the profession for longer than two years. The 61 percent figure is consistent with prior research on TFA corps members.

• The proportion of teachers transferring to other positions peaked in year three, with 19 percent of teachers who had not previously left their placement estimated to transfer in this year.

The takeaway for administrators, the scholars wrote, is that "assigning a more challenging courseload to a first-year teacher may put her or him at a greater risk of leaving the school. Administrators who want to retain new teachers should probably make an effort to assign a single grade at the elementary level or a single subject well matched to the teacher's college major at the secondary level."

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