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Six Questions for Teach for America

While TFA may be good for young grads itching to experience “the real world,” it's far from clear that the program is helping children.
 
 
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Why would the Pittsburgh school board invite an organization into our schools that could potentially harm students and the district itself? I can’t answer that question, but it appears that is what they are about to do by signing a deal with Teach for America.

Teach for America (TFA) recruits bright young people, fresh from our top colleges, gives them five weeks of training, and sends them to work in mostly urban school districts. To understand the potential problems with TFA, you have to separate these young recruits from the program itself. Some of my own former students have gone into TFA, which is now widely considered an excellent resume builder and has become quite competitive on some college campuses. A couple years ago, a whopping 18% of Yale’s senior class applied to the program.

While TFA may be a good thing for these young people who wish to experience “the real world” for two years before moving onto their “real careers,” the program is not necessarily helping students. In fact, it may be hurting them. And there are some very big concerns about the damage TFA is doing to public education more generally.

The Pittsburgh Public School board opened the door to TFA when it hired the outside consultants Bellwether and FSG at the beginning of this year to help close the district’s looming budget gap: their winning proposal promised to help the district recruit “high quality teachers” by “building a strong pipeline of talent through partnerships with local universities as well as with major alternative certification providers such as New Leaders, Teach for America, and the Urban Teacher Residency.” At the time, the district’s director of strategic initiatives in charge of the Bellwether/FSG contract was Cate Reed, a TFA alumna who has since left to do development work for, yes, Teach for America. Meanwhile, TFA has set up shop in Pittsburgh and is now hiring a Founding Executive Director to plan their expansion into the city by next fall.

Here are six questions the Pittsburgh Public School board should ask before inking any deal with Teach for America:

1.  Will TFA help our students? Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig at the University of Texas Austin and his colleagues “have taken a look at every peer-reviewed research study that examines TFA and student achievement.” Their conclusion? “TFA is NOT a slam dunk.” Previously they found that “students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers.” A widely publicized recent Mathematica study suggested that TFA instructors are effective and give their students a 2.6 month boost in learning over traditionally trained teachers.

This sounds good. However, in a technical review of that work, Dr. Vasquez Heilig points out that this number requires context, noting that “class size reduction has 286% more impact than TFA.” What’s more, a recent analysis demonstrates that early childhood education has “1214% more impact than the TFA effect reported by Mathematica.” The bottom line? TFA doesn’t look like a silver bullet for our students and other initiatives such as class size reduction and early childhood education have an exponentially larger impact on student learning.

2.  Will TFA hurt our students? TFA corps members sign up for a two-year commitment and then most go on to other careers, contributing to the churn in the lives of students, many of whom are already facing great instabilities. Education historian Diane Ravitch calls TFA, “Teach for Awhile.” About 20-30% of TFA members stay in the classroom 3-5 years, and only 5% are still teaching in their initial placement by the seventh year. Many TFA alumni are now speaking out about their experiences working with some of our neediest students. With only five weeks of training, they say they were ill-prepared to work with troubled kids, could do little more than “teach to the test,” and worry that they really were harming children. [See for example Washington Post 2-28-13; John Bilby; Cloaking Inequality, 9-20-13 and 8-6-13] These are testimonies worth serious attention.