I am afraid I am a bit bothered by the dance we are being led on this week by Teach For America. First, in an interview on the Huffington Post, TFA founder and CEO Wendy Kopp states, unequivocally, the following: "On average, our corps members stay in the classroom for eight years."
I asked in my blog post of two days ago for some substantiation of this claim, which runs counter to both my experience in Oakland, and the data I have seen, which generally reflects that fewer than ten or fifteen percent of TFA corps members stay past their third year.
Fellow blogger Jersey Jazzman chimed in, with some "back of the envelope" calculations to see if there is any way this claim could be true - and finds it very hard to make the math work.
... what do we know about TFA teachers' attrition rates? This research brief on TFA states "all one can say with certainty is that in 2007, at least 16.6 percent of those recruited by Teach For America were teaching in a K-12 setting beyond their two-year commitment." The same brief cites studies that show attrition rates as high as 85% in some cities; again, we don't know if the TFAers left their initial assignments to go to other teaching jobs.
But let's be optimistic: this study claims 40% of TFAers leave teaching after their initial two-year stint; another 25% leave after four years. What would that mean for Kopp's claim? Roughly, 40% of TFA's corps would have to stay on the job for 14 years, and another 25% would have to stay on for 12 years. That's really the only way the "average" length of a TFA education career can be eight years: a whole bunch of TFA alumni would have to stay much longer than the average to balance out those who leave immediately after their initial commitment is up.
And once again, my experience in Oakland was that we lost about 50% after two years, and 75% were gone after three years. By year five we have lost around 90%.
We know averages can be misleading. If a seventy-year-old grandmother is driving her three grandchildren to the park, the average age of the four people in the car could be twenty years old. This is statistically true, but hardly informative.
But in this case we do not even have the data to support this sort of interpretation.
Today, Heather Harding, TFA's director of research, replied to my query from two days ago. Here is the conversation so far:
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?
Another blogger who goes by the name Edushyster enters the conversation and tweets:
Seems like something TFA would want 2 publicize widely given how it differs from indiv district experiences.
Heather Harding replies:
Estimates aren't really appropriate for publicizing now are they? Nice try @Edushyster
I tweet once again:
So the data to support the 8 yr claim is not published and cannot be reviewed?
No response so far.
Here is what disturbs me about this.
Apparently we are being fed numbers drawn from internal TFA alumni surveys. We have no way of knowing details that are crucial to determining the reliability of these numbers. For instance, what was the response rate? Who is considered an alumni?
Furthermore, Wendy Kopp did not present this information as any sort of "estimate." It was stated clearly, without any qualifications at all. This interview was carried in Huffington Post - I am not sure how this can be interpreted as anything BUT publicizing the claim.
The interview on Huffington Post is part of a series, The Global Search for Education. In this interview, Wendy Kopp explicitly presents TFA and its global offshoot, Teach For All, as promising models for leaders at the United Nation and around the world. The interviewer, C.M. Rubin, asks some excellent questions. But part of good journalism involves digging further to see if the answers we are given hold up under scrutiny - otherwise we risk being used to transmit PR, rather than facts. Thus far, we are not seeing any serious followup here, and in my view, this is a major concern.
The turnover rate of TFA corps members has emerged as a huge concern in Districts such as Oakland, where they have been used for the past decade to fill vacancies. TFA has responded by shifting their emphasis to the great "leadership" we get from TFA alums, such as Michelle Rhee. But as research has emerged showing the negative impact of turnover on student achievement, many are questioning the trade-offs. In this context, the average length of time in the classroom we can expect from TFA corps members becomes of huge importance.
I hope the interviewer at Huffington Post, CM Rubin, takes an interest in this question. I believe that TFA should either provide the data that was used to come up with the claim of an 8 year average, so that it can be reviewed independently, or withdraw that claim publicly. To suggest that they are "not publicizing" this, after it has been stated by the organization's CEO in a major publication, does not wash.
Update: This afternoon Wendy Kopp offered the following clarification via Twitter:
Seeing that my comment in a @HuffingtonPost interview about the avg TFA corps member staying 8 yrs is creating some confusion. We can't definitively say what avg is b/c some folks leave & come back, and we won't know the total for those still at it until they retire. So we use projections based on alumni survey data. 8 is the avg # of yrs of teaching we expect per corps member over their careers. If that seems high it's b/c of the long tail - 17% of our earliest classes still teaching at 20+ yr mark, 40% of 2008 corps still teaching. Sorry for the confusion - really hadn't meant to mislead!
Update 2: TFA alum Gary Rubinstein has weighed in with his take on the numbers at the heart of this: Wendy Fails the Giggle Test.
What do you think?
Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody