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Can This Claim Be True? TFAers in the Classroom for 8 Years?

The Huffington Post this morning features an interview with Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp, focused on how much TFA has to offer the poor of the world. Five years ago, Kopp founded Teach For All, in order to export the TFA model to other countries around the world.

In this interview, Wendy Kopp states: "On average, our corps members stay in the classroom for eight years." Honestly, I find this claim incredible.

I have firsthand experience with Teach For America. I worked in high poverty schools in Oakland, California, for 24 years. In my last four years (2007 to 2011) I led a mentoring program that was developed to provide support to the many new science teachers we had in the District. The District was relying on TFA and a program affiliated with The New Teacher Project to fill vacancies. Unfortunately this simply fed into the cycle, because these novices did NOT last an average of eight years. In fact, three years after they started, 75% of them were gone. That meant we were constantly training the replacements for the ones that were leaving. While our mentoring program was somewhat successful, we struggled because so many of the TFA teachers came with the intention of only teaching two years.

I have reviewed the research on Teach For America retention, and I have never seen evidence that they have an average service record of eight years. I would like to see some substantiation of this claim. If you follow some of the links of TFA's research page, such as this one, you will find that in Memphis, Tennessee, merely 8.9% of TFA teachers are still on the job in year four.

Why is this a big concern?
TFA places teachers in the classroom their first year with only five or six weeks of preparation. I can tell you as a mentor that most of these individuals are overwhelmed and struggle for their first year, and many struggle in their second year as well. If, in fact, they persisted and stayed an average of eight years, then we might not mind the fact that we have a year or two when they are learning on the job. But if the majority leave after their two year commitment is fulfilled, which is the pattern we saw in Oakland, then reliance on them is unwise. It actually reinforces the turnover that has been shown to be so harmful in our low-income schools.

To be fair, TFA did not create the problem of high turnover among science teachers in Oakland. This problem has its roots in the challenging conditions in Oakland's high poverty schools, and the low pay rates Oakland offers. When Oakland teacher pay was increased by about 20% more than a decade ago, turnover rates declined significantly. Unfortunately the District became insolvent, the State of California took over and slashed the pay - and it has yet to recover. But as I wrote here, programs such as TFA enable the District to fill classrooms with revolving cadre of inexperienced teachers, and enable us to avoid dealing with the conditions that promote this turnover. Though TFA did not create this problem, the organization reinforces it, especially when about half of the TFA corps members leave after their two year commitment is fulfilled.

If the United Nations or leaders in other nations are looking for model teacher preparation programs, they would be wise to double check the facts they are getting from Teach For America. When Phil Kovacs reviewed research cited on their own web site, he found little support for many of the claims they make.

The claim that TFA teachers last an average of eight years in the classroom is simply astounding. If this can be substantiated, I will reappraise my critique of the program, though I will have to wonder why our experience in Oakland (and that in Memphis as well) was so different.

When I had a chance to ask Heather Harding, research director for TFA, some questions, she said 35% of TFA teachers return for a fourth year. This number is higher than we experienced in Oakland, and higher than the 8.9% we see in Memphis, Tennessee. But it is much less than we would expect if, as Wendy Kopp asserts, the average TFAer lasts eight years in the classroom.

So I raise this serious question. What is the average length of service for TFA teachers? Can we get some evidence to support Wendy Kopp's claim?

Update: Heather Harding, TFA's director of research, responded this morning to my tweeted question posed two days ago. Here is the conversation:

AC to @HeatherHJ:

Can you provide clarity on Wendy Kopp's claim that corps members last an avg of 8 yrs? (tweeted Dec. 10)

Response from @HeatherHJ

stat is a best estimate--imp to try given data challenges (Dec. 12)

AC to @HeatherHJ

Do you have any data to support this estimate? It seems to contradict both my exp in Oakland and other numbers.

Response from ‏@HeatherHJ

Data involved is national and based on our alumni survey

AC to @HeatherHJ:

Is this TFA alumni survey published anywhere so it can be reviewed?

(still waiting for a reply.)

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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