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Jack Hassard Reports: Cobb County, Georgia, Rejects Teach For America

Guest post by Jack Hassard.

Cobb County, Georgia's second largest school district, decided not to consider the superintendent's request to hire 50 Teach for America (TFA) uncertified college graduates to work in under-performing schools in South Cobb. According to an editorial in the Marietta Daily Journal, Dr. Michael Hinojosa, the county's new superintendent (formerly superintendent of the Dallas ISD) had worked with the Atlanta office of the Teach for America program behind the scenes to bring the new teachers to the school district.
Teach for America recruits and then trains the teachers in 5 week summer sessions before they assume their teaching responsibilities, which are usually in low-income neighborhoods, initially in urban schools, but now in school districts that will agree to sign contracts to pay for the TFA training.

The Deal

According to an Open Records Request, Dr. Hinojosa and Shyam Kumar, executive director of Teach for America Metro Atlanta, had worked together to bring 50 TFA teachers to South Cobb, and discussed ways of raising the $8,000 per TFA for summer training. It was revealed that Kumar met with three influential Cobb citizens, including Shan Cooper (general manager of Lockheed Martin Marietta), Barry Teague (executive developer Walton Communities), and Sam Olens (Georgia's State Attorney General), all of whom agreed to find ways of funding the effort.

It was assumed by TFA and the superintendent that the deal would be approved by the school board, but the board was unaware of any of the negotiations, or how the contract would be funded. Before a recent board meeting, the chairman of the school committee removed the item from the agenda. It was also revealed that the three women school board members were against the idea, while four male members of the board were in favor of it. One school board member changed his mind, and as result the chairman pulled the item.

The School District
Cobb County is located west and north west of Atlanta and includes cities and towns including Marietta, Powder Springs, Acworth, Smyrna, Kennesaw, Austell, and Mableton. The county serves 106,000 students in 114 schools. The ethnic breakdown of students in Cobb is as follows: White (44.5%), Black (31.2%) Hispanic (16.5%), Asian (4.8%) Native American (<0.1%) The county employs 5,894 classroom teachers.

The 50 TFA teachers would have been placed in the Pebblebrook and South High School feeder patterns, located in South Cobb. According to system and state records, schools in South Cobb have been "under performers" based on state achievement test scores (Criterion Referenced Competency Tests-CRCT). But many of these schools are also located in the poorest neighborhoods in Cobb County.

State testing results for 8th grade science were compared between 6 middle schools in South Cobb and 6 schools in North Cobb. I also looked at the data available at the state DOE website to determine the percentage of students receiving free and/or reduced lunches. In Cobb County, 43 percent (46,192) of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches in 2011.

As seen in Table 1 below, there is a great disparity between North Cobb and South Cobb Schools. CRCT scores are higher in schools with low free or reduced lunches than schools with very high percentages of free or reduced lunches.

This pattern of low performing schools in poor neighborhoods is one that TFA uses to place non-certified teachers into schools in which students have significant learning and social problems. Research, which is discussed below, indicates that students in low performing schools perform better when placed with more experienced teachers, or beginning teachers who have gone through a teacher education program.

Table 1. Comparison of North Cobb and South Schools on the 8th Grade science CRCT and % of free and reduced lunches.

TFA Rejected: Is this a good decision?
There are many reasons to support the decision that the school board made. However, I am not sure that TFA was rejected for reasons that help us understand the real problems that should be explored and discussed by the school board about teaching and learning in low performing schools.

That said, the fact that Cobb will not be hiring 50 un-certified teachers is a good thing. The research on exploring the effectiveness of TFA and other non-certified teachers generally shows shows that TFA teachers' students do not out-perform other students of teachers' that were non-certified in mathematics, reading and language arts (Laczko-Kerr & Berliner, 2002). Laczko-Kerr and Berliner also found students of certified teachers out-performed students of teachers who were under-certified. In fact, they found that students of under-certified teachers make about 20% less academic growth per year than do students of teachers with regular certification.

This is an important finding. What it is saying is that "traditional" teacher education programs are much more effective than "alternative" programs, especially TFA. And for Cobb County, there is really no need to recruit TFA teachers when in the metro-Atlanta area there are at least 10 universities and colleges that have vibrant teacher education programs, and provide a source of certified teachers who have gone through experienced- and field-based teacher education programs. Indeed, many of these graduates would have completed internships in South Cobb Schools.

The decision not to hire TFA teachers is common sense.

Why would Cobb County board members think that placing inexperienced and non-certified teachers in its most difficult schools is good idea? As one teacher said, because of budget shortfalls, the county is going to lay-off personnel. If there are 50 teaching positions available in South Cobb, why not staff these positions with teachers who have served Cobb County for years, are experienced and certified, rather than with college graduates who have no teaching experience, and are not certified in the State of Georgia?

The research on the effectiveness of TFA teachers does not support the claims that TFA makes on its website, nor does it make any sense to educators and parents that teachers in schools with students who have not done well should be staffed with inexperienced and rookie teachers. Would we do this in any other profession?

Teacher Education Counts

In a recent research paper entitled Teacher Education and the American Future, noted education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond wrote that:

For teacher education, this is perhaps the best of times and the worst of times. It may be the best of times because so much hard work has been done by many teacher educators over the past two decades to develop more successful program models and because voters have just elected a president of the United States who has a strong commitment to the improvement of teaching. It may be the worst of times because there are so many forces in the environment that conspire to undermine these efforts.

As Darling-Hammond points out, many schools of education have made significant progress and changes in the way teachers are prepared. She identifies schools of education in Boston, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Charlottesville, Portland, Maine, and San Antonio. In the cases that she examined, effective teacher education programs all had a clinical curriculum which was focused on working in local schools to help candidates not only learn about the local school district curriculum, but to become immersed in diverse cultural settings. These programs struck a balance between the practical and theoretical, and prepared teachers who were skilled professionals who knew how to make decisions about pedagogy and child development, and were prepared to assume the responsibilities of a professional teacher.

As reported in this study, "it is possible to prepare teachers effectively, even for teaching in high-need communities." Teacher education programs not only provide the tools for success, but as one first year teacher said about her first year of teaching: "I'm miles ahead of the other first year teachers. There are five other first year teachers here this year. I am more confident. I had a plan for where I was try to go. The others spent more time filling days...I knew what I was doing and why -- from the beginning." (teacher who graduated from Mills College, CA, quote from Darling-Hammond, p. 41).

To hire uncertified teachers in high needs communities simply contributes to a national problem in which poorer communities have unequal access to quality education. And according to today's politicians, the most important factor in influencing student learning is the quality of the teacher. So why does a district like Cobb county want to hire uncertified teachers and place them in the poorest schools in the county?

In the U.S., the evidence is that there is unequal access to qualified teachers, and the Cobb decision not to hire TFA non-certified teachers is not only good for experienced teachers looking for a teaching position, but good for parents and students who live in South Cobb. For example, the graph below should the distribution of uncertified teachers by poverty (determined by free or reduced lunches), race and achievement results. Data shows that more uncertified teachers are placed in schools which are poorer, include high percentages of minority students, and in schools in which the students perform in the lowest achievement quartile.

Source: http://www.cgsnet.org/portals/0/pdf/am09_Darling-Hammond.pdf, Accessed February 12, 2012

TFA--Be Wary of their Slogans
One of the slogans on the TFA website is: "We can turn things around. We can put our country back on track. Let's start today."
It appears from the graph above that TFA is contributing to the problem of America's poorest communities being staffed by uncertified teachers. Yet TFA claims that its uncertified teachers actually have as much an impact on student performance as veteran teachers do.

Over the past few months on Living in Dialogue, you will find discussion that shows just the opposite of TFA claims. Professor Philip Kovacs wrote several posts exploring the research on the Teach for America program. Dr. Kovacs is a professor of education at the University of Alabama, Huntsville who not only reviewed the research on TFA, but vocally opposed Huntsville School District's hiring of TFA teachers and signing a $1.6 million contract with TFA which will provide 170 un-certified teachers over the next four years.

Dr. Kovacs wrote three articles for Living in Dialogue.
Philip Kovacs: Research Suggests Teach for America Does Not Belong in Huntville: 1/9/12
Huntsville Takes a Closer Look at Teach for America 12/11/11
Philip Kovacs Takes on TFA in Huntsville 11/19/11

Phil Kovacs was also recently interviewed by local Huntsville TV station WAFF, as can be seen here.

Dr. Kovacs cites some of the research as referenced earlier (Laczko-Kerr and Berliner and Darling-Hammond) in this post but delves deeper into research, especially in the legal domain. Here is what he said about a recent study which looked at the placement of teachers in Title I schools:

The most recent peer-reviewed study is Vasquez Heilig, J., Cole, H. & Springel, M. (2011). Alternative certification and Teach For America: The search for high quality teachers. Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy, in press. I requested and received the page proofs as part of my research into Teach for America.

This study focuses more on the legal ramifications of changing the definition of "highly qualified" teachers so that programs such as TFA can operate under No Child Left Behind, which was supposed to make sure poor, minority students received the same high quality education by middle and upper class students.

This peer-reviewed piece appeals to me and to my city in particular because Huntsville, Alabama, is under a federal desegregation order and one of the Department of Justice's specific complaints is inequitable distribution of teachers. Given that TFA members are only going to Title I schools, it seems to me that this particular inequity is going to increase, especially in light of the peer-reviewed pieces cited above

And Kovacs reports that the researchers of this study concluded that
This inequitable distribution of effective teachers further compounds the disadvantage that high-poverty and high-minority students are faced with in school. Children most in need of strong teachers are being denied what arguably might be their most invaluable resource-teachers, which is reinforcing the inequalities.

My view is that Cobb County inadvertently made the right decision not to approve the superintendent's desire to hire 50 TFA teachers. TFA has a regional office in Atlanta, and although the superintendent said the issue will not come up again this year, he wants to improve communication with the board, and concluded that he would try again. As superintendent of the Dallas ISD, Dr. Hinojasa was an advocate for TFA, and indeed, TFA has a big presence in Dallas.

So, if the research reported here has any bearing on future decision making on the part of the Cobb County School District board of education, then they need to educate themselves on the research not only related to TFA, but on the value of hiring teacher education graduates with full certification.

Update: In response to one of the comments below, Phil Kovacs offers a review of the three most recent studies that claim to show a positive impact by Teach For America core members.

What do you think? Was the right decision made in Cobb County?

Jack Hassard is Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. He is author of The Whole Cosmos Catalog of Science, Science Experiences, Adventures in Geology, The Art of Teaching Science (2009), Second Edition, Routledge, and most recently, Science As Inquiry (2011), 2nd Edition, Good Year Books. Specialities include science teaching & learning, global thinking & education, geology, web publishing, blogging, writing, and antiquing. His blog is The Art of Teaching Science.

All graphs are used with permission.

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