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Evaluating Teach for America

Dueling views about innovative programs aimed at improving educational quality are nothing new. What is different today is taxpayer demand for evidence to support these proposals. Two recent essays about Teach for America, which was started by Wendy Kopp in 1989, serve as cases in point.

On July 10, the Wall Street Journal published "What They're Doing After Harvard" by Naomi Schaefer Riley, and in Spring 2010, Rethinking Schools published "Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America" by Barbara Miner. (Full disclosure: I weighed in on TFA in the September 2008 issue of The School Administrator with "Top Collegians Won't Solve What Ails Classrooms.")

I'll begin with Riley's piece. She writes: "The results are clear. A 2008 Urban Institute study found that 'On average, high school students taught by TFA corps members performed significantly better on state-required end-of-course exams, especially in math and science, than peers taught by far more experienced instructors.' " What Riley fails to mention is that the study focused only on North Carolina. As a result, she implies that TFA produces similar outcomes elsewhere. But Linda Darling-Hammond's 2005 study of more than 4,400 teachers and 132,000 students in Houston's public schools found that the performance of TFA teachers lagged significantly behind the performance of certified non-TFA teachers.

The best way to determine who is right about this vital issue is to conduct a nationwide study of TFA and traditionally certified teachers who are randomly assigned students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. In the absence of such data, it is exceedingly difficult to know how much confidence to place in either side's findings. Ideology is no substitute for science.

Riley also maintains that TFA's intensive summer training institute, coupled with the support and further training during their two-year stints, prepare its members for the realities of the classroom. But Miner contradicts this view. She traveled to St. Louis to interview educators. She spoke to the associate dean of teacher preparation at the University of Missouri - St.Louis, the vice president of the teachers union, and the president of the elected school board. They acknowledged the intelligence and enthusiasm of TFA members, but felt they were at a disadvantage compared to traditionally trained teachers.

Granted that these three individuals have vested interests in the status quo, but there are others who do not. Education Week published "Teaching for America" by Kerry Kretchmar on Dec. 18, 2009. She left after her two-year commitment because her mental and physical health were shot. Kretchmar wrote: "I cursed TFA for throwing me to the sharks under the false pretense that I could make a difference." In all fairness, it's important to note that she taught 32 kindergartners in a rat-infested South Bronx basement, where there was a 60 percent staff turnover rate and the majority of teachers held emergency credentials.

Then there's the question of career commitment. Riley wrote that Kopp told her: "Today we have hundreds of examples not only of teachers replicating that example (Jaime Escalante) but whole schools moving whole classrooms full of kids and putting them on a path to graduating from college at much the same pace as schools in higher-income communities." Yet given TFA's size - about 0.2 percent of all teachers - that is highly unlikely. Moreover, in 2007, for example, only 16.6 percent of students recruited by TFA were still teaching in a K-12 setting beyond their two-year commitment, according to Miner. In New York City schools, 85 percent of TFA teachers had left by the fourth year, according to Michael Winerip writing in the On Education column in the New York Times on July 12 ("A Chosen Few Are Teaching for America"). It's hard to believe that this tiny percentage is capable of achieving what Kopp said.

What is impressive is the demand by students from marquee-name colleges to be admitted to TFA. From a record 46,359 applicants this past school year, 4,500 were selected to teach in high-poverty schools. This compares with 18,172 applicants in 2007 during the economic boom. Whether the demand will hold up once the recession abates is unclear.

Riley began her essay by explaining how Kopp applied to Morgan Stanley after graduating from Princeton because it was easier than getting traditional teacher certification. I'll end this post by explaining that I graduated from an Ivy League university too and had an opportunity to work for Lehman Brothers ("Lehman and my dad would have been appalled," USA Today, Sept. 25, 2008). Instead, I turned it down to earn my teaching credential the old-fashioned way from UCLA in order to teach in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 28 years. I never regretted my decision for a moment.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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