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Teach For America to Pilot Yearlong Teacher Training, Retention Efforts

Teach For America plans to provide a year of up-front training for a subset of its new teacher recruits—and put more of an emphasis on teaching for longer than the group's two-year requirement, the organization's leaders announced in a speech.

The two pilot programs, outlined March 4 by TFA co-CEO Matt Kramer during a "What's Next for TFA" address in Nashville, Tenn., mark the organization's biggest shift in internal policy since its founding in 1990.

TFA recruits typically receive a five-week "institute" in which they learn basic teaching methods, followed by two years of on-the-job support while they fulfill their teaching commitment. The new pilots will cost about $16 million over four years.

"We've come a long way. I think there's a lot for us to be proud of," Kramer said to an audience that included about 1,000 alumni and supporters attending in person or watching online. "At the same time, there is much more to do. We need to keep our minds open to change and innovation as we continue to find new and better ways to do right by kids. .... Teaching beyond two years cannot be a backup plan; it has to be the main plan." 

New Initiatives

The pilots are the first major stamp that Kramer and his co-CEO, Elisa Villanueva Beard, have made on the organization since founder and former CEO Wendy Kopp stepped down last year. 

The program recruits academically strong college graduates and other individuals and places them in high-need public schools (both traditional and charters). Despite research showing that TFA teachers tend to do about as well—or in some specific grades and subjects slightly better than other novice teachers—TFA's preparation efforts remain controversial. 

Critics of the program argue that the five-week period is insufficient to prepare teachers for the realities of the schools and communities in which they work, and that the short commitment contributes to what are generally high rates of teacher turnover among novices, particularly in high-poverty schools. 

Kramer didn't directly address those criticisms in his remarks. Instead, he framed the two pilot programs as a natural part of the nearly 24-year-old organization's evolution. 

The first pilot will target 2,000 undergraduate juniors who applied for early admission to TFA's 2015 corps. A subset of that group will receive a year of training in learning theory and practical pedagogy, cultural competency work, and increased classroom experience. 

"Different paths into the classroom are right for different people, and we believe this approach will meet the needs of many future corps members," Kramer said.

As recently as 2012, TFA leaders seemed ambivalent to the idea of more up-front training. At that time, Kopp cited mixed results from yearlong "residency" programs as one reason for her hesitancy in extending the training. 

"The studies that have been done on existing residency models, including Boston's pioneering urban teacher residency and Tennessee's adaptation of it, do not show positive impact on student achievement within teachers' initial two years," she said then in a message to alumni.

It isn't yet clear whether the additional training would be provided by local colleges of education, in-house at TFA, or through some other arrangement.

Beyond Two 

The second pilot, to begin this summer, addresses teacher retention. TFA will offer support for alumni in their third through fifth years of teaching. About 12 of TFA's 48 regional areas are developing the retention strategies, which will range from "teacher practice" communities to additional in-class coaching.

There were already signs of interest in addressing retention: Even before the new announcement, a few TFA regions, including New York and Jacksonville, Fla., had experimented with a "Teach Beyond Two" campaign encouraging corps members to remain in their schools for longer than their commitments. In some cases, the regional offices have extended the group's professional-development supports to such teachers. The new initiative is meant to show its commitment to retention, TFA officials said, and will help gauge what supports could be offered to all regions. 

So far, the best gauge of corps members' retention comes from a longitudinal study by Morgaen Donaldson, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Connecticut. Her study of corps members from the 2000-2002 cohorts indicated that about 44 percent of TFA graduates remained in their initial placements for a third year; about 60 percent overall remained in teaching for a third year. But within five years, all but 15 percent of the teachers left their original placements, it showed. 

The pilot program stops short, though, of requiring TFA teachers to commit to teach for longer periods of time. TFA has historically resisted calls to formally extend its two-year commitment, citing internal data indicating that a longer upfront commitment would affect the applicant pool, resulting in fewer diverse applicants, math and science talent, or individuals with high GPAs. 

The shifts also come during a period in which TFA has begun to decentralize somewhat, allowing regions flexibility to tailor certain initiatives. Although the five-week institute used to be centralized, for instance, some regions are now hosting it in their own communities or extending it to a sixth week.

Policy Interest

TFA has also experienced internal criticism, one reason why Kramer and Villanueva Beard embarked on a "listening tour" of its regions last year to gauge alumni and community perceptions of the program. From that, they have pledged to better address the variety of viewpoints held by current and former corps members.

Some of the criticism concerns TFA's incursion into the political and advocacy realm through its related 501(c)4 group, as I reported.

"There was a pervasive sense from the folks we spoke to that TFA has taken a side in education reform, taken the side of teacher evaluation and charters, and that their views were more complicated,Kramer said in an interview with Education Week interview several months ago. "We need to create a space that is much more welcoming of the diversity of opinions." 

TFA's pilots also land just as policy interest in the preparation of teachers rises to the top of policymakers' agendas. States are passing new laws restricting entry to teacher-preparation programs; many groups are pressing for all teacher-candidates to receive at least a year of hands-on practice before they're put in charge of their own classrooms. Other efforts include new accreditation standards for preparation programs, and pending federal rules that would rewrite accountability provisions for such programs.

Results from the training pilot will be analyzed after two years and could affect future programming, TFA officials said.

Education Week will bring you more reaction from the field to flesh out this initiative, so stay tuned to edweek.org for a full story. So far, it's not clear whether the movement will make for friendlier relationships with groups representing traditional teacher-preparation schools, which have tended to be critical of the organization.

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