Six Questions for Teach for America

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.

3.  Will TFA solve our staffing needs? Pittsburgh is apparently considering a deal with TFA because of a shortage of middle level and high school math and science teachers. The administration claims that TFA will help them get young people of color to fill these positions – a worthy goal, but at the last board meeting, TFA representatives said they could not guarantee that this would happen. If we truly have a staffing problem, why aren’t we working with local universities to place their recent graduates and “grow our own” regional talent? What happened to previous new-teacher programs in the district? I’ve also heard that our hiring cycle is quite late in the year, putting us at a disadvantage when it comes to making competitive offers: why don’t we address this simple calendar issue? I find it hard to believe that with at least seven teaching-degree-granting colleges and universities in Southwest PA, Pittsburgh can’t figure out a way to fill its ranks with highly qualified, trained teachers who want to make teaching their career, and perhaps even stay in their hometown.

Significantly, Dr. Vasquez Heilig and his colleagues conclude that, “The evidence suggests that districts may benefit from using TFA personnel to fill teacher shortages when the available labor pool consists of temporary or substitute teachers or other novice alternatively and provisionally certified teachers likely to leave in a few years. Nevertheless, if educational leaders plan to use TFA teachers as a solution to the problem of shortages, they should be prepared for constant attrition and the associated costs of ongoing recruitment and training.”

4.  Will TFA address our racial achievement gap? TFA’s recent job announcement points to the low number of black men going to college saying, “We believe that Teach For America corps members can play a vital role in the fight for educational equity in Pittsburgh.” The implication is that by placing TFA instructors in our neediest schools that somehow these bright-eyed 22 year olds will solve our racial achievement gap. Do we have any credible research showing that youth and enthusiasm are the keys to this complex, persistent problem? Dr. Vasquez Heilig’s analysis of TFA outcomes answers that question this way: “The lack of a consistent impact…should indicate to policymakers that TFA is likely not the panacea that will reduce disparities in educational outcomes.”

5.  What will TFA cost us? TFA operates like a temp agency, tacking on a finder’s fee for its recruits. It charges districts $3,000 to $5,000 per instructor per year – and that’s on top of the regular entry level teacher’s salary each TFA recruit receives from the district. How is that saving us money in the middle of this budget deficit crisis that has already forced the district to furlough hundreds of our kids’ teachers? To makes matters worse, TFA seeks out grants from states where it is doing business (it has a plan to increase state collections to $350 million in 2015). That is more of our taxpayer money that ought to be going towards equitable funding of our public schools.

And it’s clear that TFA wants to tap into other local resources: its current job ad says that Pittsburgh’s Founding Executive Director will “Grow a sustainable, diversified local funding base that will include gifts from individuals, corporations, and foundations; district and local public funding; and possibly an annual benefit dinner.” Our city is not a gravy train and those valuable resources ought to be going to support students in public schools, not TFA. Make no mistake, TFA is a huge organization with a $100 million endowment and annual revenues close to $300 million. If TFA really wants to help Pittsburgh students, it could help us with our $46 million budget gap.

6.  Does TFA support public education? Here’s where the school board really better sit up and take notice. TFA has become a political powerhouse with huge political clout. In the middle of our federal budget standoff last month, TFA managed to renew a provision that defines teachers-in-training (including TFA recruits) as “highly qualified” so they can continue to take charge of our children’s classrooms. Right now TFA has seven alumni working for senators, representatives and the House Education committee through its new Capitol Hill Fellows program, paid for by Arthur Rock. A wealthy venture capitalist from San Francisco, Rock sits on TFA’s board and according to Politico, “has become a leading financier of education reform. He has made sizable donations to legislative and school board candidates across the country who support expanding charter schools and, in some cases, vouchers. Until recently, Rock also sat on the board of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which advocates public subsidies to send low-income children to private and parochial schools.”

Like Mr. Rock, TFA is funneling money into school board races all over the country where TFA alumns are running: this year a New Jersey teacher tracked hundreds of thousands of dollars channeled to candidates promoting corporate-style and privatization reforms.  A Massachusetts teacher recently dug into the role of TFA in urban charter schools, and discovered why the program is expanding in districts where teachers are getting laid off: “In city after city, TFA has largely abandoned its earlier mission of staffing hard-to-fill positions in public schools, serving instead as a placement agency for urban charters. In Chicago, however, TFA’s role appears to go far beyond providing labor for the fast-growing charter sector.” She found documents indicating that TFA hoped to “dramatically expand the number of charter schools in the city,” with plans to support 52 new charters at the exact moment the district proposed closing more than 50 traditional public schools.

In Pittsburgh, TFA wants its new Executive Director to “Develop and evolve a strategy for maintaining and growing our public support, from district, local, and state sources,” and to “Establish relationships with school districts and charter management organizations to place corps members with an eye toward maximizing scale and sustainability.” No doubt about it: they’re planning to stay. And grow. In a big way.

Is this the organization that we want to invite in Pittsburgh’s front door? I’m not convinced from the review of the evidence that Teach for America will help our students. And I am deeply concerned that it may directly harm students, while costing us resources we don’t have, and failing to address our actual staffing needs. Here’s one last question: Can we show TFA the back door and say, no thanks?


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