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Tough Questions for Teach For America: Heather Harding Responds

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Over the past several months, I have featured a number of posts that were critical of Teach For America (TFA). We had education professor Phil Kovacs, who wrote several articles reviewing the research cited by TFA on their web site, and heard concerns from current TFA corps member Jameson Brewer. Last month, fellow Education Week blogger Rick Hess carried an interview with Heather Harding, TFA's vice president in charge of research, responding to some of these posts. I wrote to Ms. Harding and asked if she would answer some followup questions. Here is the result.

Question 1:
From 2001-2009 (based on TFA's self-reported Form 990 tax return) it appears that TFA spent 127 million dollars on teacher training while spending nearly 4 times as much (425 million dollars) on Placement, Awards, and Recruitment over the same course of time. Is this accurate?

Heather Harding: No, this is not accurate. It looks like these numbers are a conflation of multiple categories in our tax forms. According to our 990 forms from those years, Teach For America's expenses fall into four categories: "teacher recruitment and selection" ($134M); "pre-service institute" ($130M); "alumni affairs" ($35M); and "placement, professional development, education awards, and other" ($300M) (with 94% going to professional development, 2% to placement, 2% to education awards and 2% to other expenses).

Professional development for teachers is our single highest spending priority. Of the $306M spent on "Placement, Professional Development, Education Awards, and Other" from FY 2001 - FY2010, 94% was dedicated to corps members' professional development.

Question 2: Given that many Corps Members report feeling underprepared, is there any interest in expanding the training, or shifting to a more in depth preparation model, like the residency program some TFA alumni have suggested?


Heather Harding:
New teachers, whether part of Teach For America or from other pathways, have one of the toughest jobs imaginable, particularly those working in high-needs schools. It is unlikely that any program fully prepares teachers for every challenge they'll encounter during their first year as teacher of record. However, we are committed to getting our teachers as prepared as possible, and then providing them with the ongoing support they need once they start teaching. In my own work as a teacher educator, both with Teach For America and in a more traditional program, my biggest goal was to support a candidates ability to self-diagnose and access to knowledge networks and ongoing feedback for continued development. We do this in a variety of ways.

We're encouraged by the fact that principals who employ our corps members overwhelming (87 percent) think that Teach For America's training is at least as effective as the training other beginning teachers get. Additionally, three recent studies conducted in Louisiana, Tennessee and North Carolina have shown that corps members often help their students achieve academic gains at rates equal to or larger than those for students of more veteran teachers.

I wrote a more in-depth piece on why Teach For America is not going to become a residency last summer for Rick Hess' Straight-Up blog. While the residency model provides a longer ramp for practice and may offer stronger alignment with local concerns such as curriculum, we don't yet have any evidence that the result is a more effective teacher.

Question 3: Given the strong evidence that staff stability has large effects on student achievement, how can TFA justify having teachers cycle in and out of teaching in the neediest schools, with most gone after 2 years and 80-90% gone by their 4th year? Doesn't this do a disservice to the students who most need a stable supply of expert teachers?

Heather Harding: District leaders and principals regularly comment on their satisfaction with our teachers. So again, the majority (85 percent) of principals who hire Teach For America teachers report that corps members have made a positive impact in their schools. Even more telling is the 89% of principals who indicate that corps members have become a part of the community.

It's a myth that Teach For America corps members have a significantly lower retention rate than other teachers. According to our internal statistics, in 2010, 88.6 percent of first-year corps members returned to teach a second year. In contrast, about 83 percent of new teachers in low-income communities (NCTAF No Dream Denied report, 2003). In the last five years, the percent of corps members returning for a second year has remained above 88% with some years as high as 92.4%. In the only external study done on Teach For America teachers' retention, Donaldson & Johnson (2010) report retention rates for three consecutive cohorts: 61% stay longer than two years, 44% persist into a third year, and 35% into a fourth year. These numbers are not much different than national trends that find nearly 50% of all new teachers leave the profession by year six.

Question 4: Many urban districts that have concerns about the high turnover and frequently poor performance of new TFA members are nonetheless required to hire TFA recruits by external funders (supporters of TFA) who make this hiring a condition of their grants. Why are districts pressured into accepting TFA recruits when they don't want them? And why does TFA participate in this practice?

Heather Harding: The statements in this question are just not based in fact. We have 9,000 teachers in 34 states and more than 3,000 urban and rural schools across the country, and we are not aware of any teachers who were forced upon a school or principal because of a donor or grant. The decision to hire Teach For America corps members is made by school districts and individual principals, alone. Our corps members apply for open positions alongside other candidates, and principals determine who the best fit for their schools is. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for hiring; Teach For America is one of several options school districts are relying on for finding and hiring effective teachers.

Principals and independent data report that our corps members are effective classroom teachers. Ninety-two percent of principals who work with Teach For America teachers agree that our corps members are just as effective, if not more so, than other new teachers in overall performance. As I mentioned above, three recent studies conducted in Louisiana, Tennessee and North Carolina have shown that Teach For America is among the most effective sources of new teachers

Question 5: What percentage of revenue and donations does TFA assign to training corps? Please distinguish between recruiting and marketing and actual teacher preparation.


Heather Harding:
This is addressed in the response to your first question.

Question 6: How does TFA figure into the efforts to "turnaround" schools with low test scores?

Heather Harding: Many of our corps members and alumni are working hand-in-hand with veteran teachers, as well as community and school leaders to improve achievement levels at struggling public schools (whether designated turnaround, or just in need of improvement). We are excited to see the results these schools are achieving.

Orchard Gardens, a public school in Boston that was named a turnaround school by the State of Massachusetts in 2009, was the fastest improving middle school in the school district in its first year of turnaround. Its rate of failure for sixth-graders taking the MCAS math test dropped from 57 percent to 29 percent in just one year. Twenty-five percent of the teachers are Teach For America corps members or alumni. We see this as evidence that we are part of the solution for that school community.

In some regions, we are piloting models where our teacher support staff work full-time in schools to provide on going professional development to corps members. While of course all of our teachers receive in classroom support, this allows us to even more fully ensure that we're working with school and parent communities to successfully have a positive impact on school improvement efforts.

Question 7: Why does TFA not require corps to remain in their commitment for 3-5 years when they move beyond the novitiate state and advanced beginner stages of teaching?

Heather Harding:
We've found that two-years is the right time commitment for motivating people's entry into this work. Given that 61% of our corps members teach beyond that initial commitment, and many more continue in the education sector for their professional career, we believe that most corps members retain what will be a lifetime commitment to improving education for kids growing up in poverty. Additionally, according to our annual alumni survey, 33.3 percent of all of our alumni (more than 20,000), are working full-time as preschool-12 classroom teachers today, even though less than 14 percent had considered a career in teaching when they first entered the corps.

In a recent study conducted by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, participation in Teach For America markedly affects corps members' beliefs. Fryer and co-author Will Dobbie indicate that the Teach For America experience strengthens participants' conviction in the academic potential of all children regardless of income level or race, and increases racial tolerance among participants across all racial groups. In addition, the experience increases the likelihood that participants will pursue a career in the education sector.

Anyone who has taught knows that teachers alone can't build the system all kids deserve. We believe it's critical that some of our corps members stay in the classroom beyond their two-year commitment, while others take on other leadership roles inside and outside of education. Teachers - and students - need and deserve committed principals, mentors, social workers, district leaders, public health workers, politicians and others working to provide every kid access to a great education.

Update:
See responses to this interview from a number of educators here.

Readers, what do you think?

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