Sunday, February 27, 2011

Getting it Wrong Again and Again: Our Uncritical Love Affair with Teach for America

Recently, George Will wrote an article entitled, "Teach for America: Letting the cream rise". In the article, Will- quite rightly, identifies Wendy Kopp as the dynamic founder for Teach for America (TFA) and traces some of her accomplishments in making TFA the national brand name it is today in education reform. For instance, there are currently 8,000 TFA teachers in America's classrooms. Moreover, there are more than 20,000 TFA alumni, 2/3 of whom are working full time in the field of education (although not necessarily in teaching). Will continues that TFA should benefit from increased federal funding for "getting it right" when it comes to education.

But, is TFA "getting it right?"-- the data indicates a much more complicated and not as flattering perspective on Teach for America. For instance, Do TFA teachers do as well as or better than credentialed non-TFA teachers with whom school districts aim to staff their schools? On this question, studies indicate that the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers.

Experience has a positive effect for both TFA and non-TFA teachers. Most studies find that the relatively few TFA teachers who stay long enough to become fully credentialed (typically after two years) appear to do about as well as other similarly experienced credentialed teachers in teaching reading; they do as well as, and sometimes better than, that comparison group in teaching mathematics. However, since more than 50% of TFA teachers leave after two years, and more than 80% of TFA teachers leave after three years, it is impossible to know whether these more pos-itive findings for experienced recruits result from additional training and experience or from attrition of TFA teachers who may be less effective.

From a school-wide perspective, the high turnover of TFA teachers is costly. Recruiting and training replacements for teachers who leave involves financial costs,and the higher achievement gains associated with experienced teachers and lower turnover may be lost as well.

Thus, a simple answer to the question of TFA teachers’ relative effectiveness cannot be conclusively drawn from the research; many factors are involved in any comparison. The lack of a consistent impact, however, should indicate to policy- makers that TFA is likely not the panacea that will reduce disparities in educational outcomes.

Teach for America is full of well intentioned people wanting to accomplish good things for our society. That is not in dispute at any level. But, we must be aware of the peer reviewed research on the effectiveness of the program before praising this or any program intended to assist the students most in need to quality teachers throughout our country.

I would encourage readers to look at one of the best and most objective assessments of the Teach for America program conducted by a colleague of mine, Dr. Julian Heilig, from the University of Texas at Austin and Dr. Jex from California State University entitled, "Teach for America: A Review of the Evidence".

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