The Real Cost of Teach For America's Impact on Our Public Schools
In debates over education policy in urban school districts, few topics are more contentious than the role played by Teach For America, the national organization that recruits elite college graduates to teach in low-income urban and rural schools for two years. It is not uncommon to hear veteran teachers, who majored in education and often have advanced degrees, complain that their profession is diminished by what they see as a preference for TFA recruits who did not study education. Parents are heard to question the qualifications and commitment of TFA’s novice educators, given the assumption that their sign-up for a two-year stint suggests only a fleeting interest in teaching. And both veteran teachers and parents sometimes bemoan the fact that the racial and ethnic make-up of the TFA corps rarely matches that of the students they are assigned to teach.
Here Rachel M. Cohen, writing fellow at The American Prospect, explores another area of controversy in the Teach For America program: the start-up costs of hiring a TFA teacher, and the program’s impact on the retention of veteran teachers.
When public school districts hire teachers from Teach For America, they pay a greater upfront cost than if they hire traditional entry-level teachers. This is because TFA charges finder’s fees for every “corps member” they supply. In addition to the salary and benefits school districts pay each teacher, districts also must pay the national organization, typically between $2,000-$5,000 per corps member, per year. Though generally overlooked, these finder’s fees are salient to many of the key issues in the national debate over TFA’s harm and benefit to public education.
To put the finder’s fees in perspective: If one city’s TFA cohort, consisting of 200 corps members, comes with an annual finder’s fee of $4,250 for each teacher recruited from the organization—then that cohort’s two-year commitment will cost the district an additional $1,700,000 in dues to the organization. This is not a trivial sum for school districts experiencing massive budget shortfalls.
The TFA hiring contracts are generally non-refundable, even if a teacher turns out to be a serious problem or quits early. Takirra Winfield, the national spokesperson for TFA, says that while the organization has a “pretty clear” no-refund policy in its contracts, there have been some cases where TFA has made exceptions, such as providing a credit to the district for the upcoming year, or giving regional teams discretion as to whether to invoice districts for teachers who leave early.
Finding excellent teachers who are willing to stay and work in low-performing schools—typically located in high-poverty areas—has been a challenge for school districts across the nation. As a result, the teachers most frequently sent into high-poverty school districts are young novice instructors who are more likely than more seasoned teachers to leave their positions soon after their hiring. This creates a cycle of inequality for the most disadvantaged students; studies have shown that high teacher turnover itself leads to lower quality instruction and lower student achievement, as well as an inability for schools to build up their own institutional capacity.
The Alliance for Excellent Education, an education policy organization, found that about half a million teachers leave their schools each year, and only 16 percent of this attrition is due to retirement. The remaining 84 percent can be attributed to teacher transfers between schools (most often transferring into schools with higher-income students) or leaving the profession altogether.
TFA, which is built on a model of two-year teaching commitments, presents a challenge for schools that are looking to recruit teachers who will remain in their classrooms for the long haul. In 2007, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future determined that teacher turnover costs districts millions of dollars annually, and has been getting more expensive over time. Nearly half of all new urban teachers leave the profession after their first five years of teaching. Though studies show 60 percent of TFA teachers stay for a third year, after that their the numbers significantly drop, with a little more than a quarter of all corps members remaining in teaching after five years. (And about 85 percent of those TFA recruits who do keep teaching after four years transfer out of their original placement school.)
Teach For America reports that 90 percent of their corps members nationwide return for their second year. The American Prospect asked TFA for data on regional teacher retention, to get a better sense of what the story looks like in urban districts. TFA responded that they have only been tracking regional retention since 2012, which is surprising for a data-driven organization that is coming up on its 25th anniversary. Below is information based on the three years TFA was able to provide:
Finder’s fee tradeoffs
The hiring contracts signed between TFA and school districts vary, and often depend on the level of bargaining power with which a district has to negotiate. For example, the Cleveland School District stipulated in a 2013 contract that it would pay TFA $4,000 for each recruit during his or her first year, and $5,000 per recruit for the second year. Chicago’s Board of Education signed a contract in 2013 committing to pay TFA $3,000 per teacher in the first year, and $2,500 per teacher in the second year. The contracts also vary within states.
TFA’s Winfield defended the finder’s fees, saying it’s a “nominal amount of what [TFA] invests in recruiting, training and placing corps members with the district.” She said the organization spends about $9,000 to train each new teacher, and $11,000 per year during the two-year program. “Given the amount of investment in placing teachers with partners,” Winfield explains, “monetary or otherwise, we don’t refund the amount.”
In other words, a $31,000 investment into each corps member makes a $6,000 finder’s fee a reasonable deal for the school districts, according to TFA. However this presumes that cost is equivalent to value.
The peer-reviewed research remains mixed on the academic impact of TFA. Studies have shown that in the short term, TFA teachers generally perform as well as other non-credentialed novice teachers. In some areas, such as secondary math, TFA teachers have been shown to be more effective than traditionally prepared teachers. However, education researchers Julian Vasquez Heilig and Su Jin Jez found that TFA corps members perform less well overall than credentialed novice teachers, and significantly less well than veteran teachers.
So, if it’s not clear that TFA teachers are exceptionally better instructors, why are districts willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual service fees to hire them?
One may argue that the fees are worth the cost because TFA corps members take jobs in schools that are hard to staff. And certainly, private and parochial schools often take advantage of headhunter agencies, whose recruits also come with finder’s fees. But such services are not commonly used in public school districts, and graduates of traditional teacher preparatory programs do not come with finder’s fees.
In recent years, TFA has been taking heat for securing jobs in areas where there are no real teacher shortages. In cities across the country, veteran teachers are facing layoffs and hiring freezes, and graduates from local teacher colleges are being passed over in the hiring process. For example, even though the Seattle School District received 138,000 teacher applications in 2009 for 352 full-and part-time jobs, TFA still worked to join their competitive job market in 2010. The Washington Post reported last year that hundreds of Connecticut residents who earned their teaching certification through local colleges and universities were being passed over for out-of-state TFA recruits. In Chicago, the number of TFA corps members is growing, despite Chicago Public Schools having laid off thousands of tenured teachers. (During the 2012-2013 school year, there was a TFA cohort in Chicago of 498 teachers, and by the 2013-2014 school year it had risen to 593.) Similar stories are playing out in places like Philadelphia and Newark.
Some critics contend that the hiring choices are political. They point out that in various school districts where TFA is expanding, school board members and superintendents have close ties to TFA, many of them being former alumni of the organization. (John White, the New Orleans school superintendent, and Paymon Rouhanifard, the Camden school superintendent, for example, are former TFA corps members.)
Another plausible explanation for school districts’ employment of TFA teachers is based on long-term economic calculations. Many districts are recognizing that investing in teachers who are unlikely to stay long in the classroom, even when factoring in the high cost of teacher turnover, can save them money down the line. If the bulk of teachers leave within two to three years, school districts will not have to worry about paying for the higher salaries and the state pension fund payments to which public school teachers with seniority are entitled. Even if 20 TFA teachers quit early, and the school district is not refunded the finder’s fees it paid to the organization, the district’s wasted $60,000 or so is relatively minor compared to the costs of paying for tenured and experienced teachers.
As Alexandra Hootnick laid out in The Hechinger Report, administrators and TFA’s national staff recognize that its recruits are less expensive in the long run than paying the salary and benefits for teachers with experience or advanced degrees. Hootnick reported:
Michael DeBell, a member of the Seattle school board, helped bring TFA to the district in 2010. It wasn’t a question of lacking qualified teachers, DeBell said, with between five and 100 people applying for every open teaching position. Rather, he said, “it was a simple matter of fiscal challenges and political optics…”
Ultimately, it may be cheaper for districts to continually cycle through novice teachers, but it comes at an expense that rubs against TFA’s stated purpose of providing better education to kids than they otherwise would obtain. Districts, their students, and their communities pay a high price to support TFA’s routine teacher turnover.
Will more training provide a fix?
Under new national leadership, TFA has launched a series of pilot programs in 12 regions designed to improve its overall teacher retention rate. Its hope is to scale up successful models nationally over time. Some of these initiatives, which include incentives for those who stay longer in the classroom, are geared towards teacher development training; others appear to be more political in scope.
For example in Connecticut, TFA is launching programs to help train alumni teachers to better support younger TFA corps members. They’re also working to “offer pathways to school administration.”
In Chicago, TFA is offering its teachers opportunities to attend monthly and weekly professional development trainings, as well as sessions to help teachers better understand their political and policy landscape. Takirra Winfield explained that the goal of the policy session “is for teachers to emerge with the skills to empower their students to challenge the laws, regulations, and practices that are impacting their education, and advocate for change.” How they envision mobilizing students politically is not yet clear.
It will be up to the public to decide whether TFA teachers are the right investment for school districts in the future. Though accounting for less than 1 percent of the country’s teaching force, the organization holds a disproportionate amount of political power when it comes to shaping education policy. The national organization receives millions of dollars from the government each year, and is increasingly funneling its recruits into charter schools. As of January 2014, TFA reported that 42 percent of its recruits taught in charters, up from 33 percent in 2012, and up from 13 percent in 2008. Many of these charter schools were founded by TFA.
Research demonstrates that “insufficient compensation” is a key reason for why many teachers leave the profession or transfer into schools that serve students from higher-income families. Improving teacher retention in high-poverty neighborhoods is unlikely to be solved through a reliance on short-term novice teachers earning low-paying salaries. The impact of these new TFA pilot programs may perhaps change the dynamics on the ground. Some evidence suggests that TFA is open to change—particularly with regard to the new diversity of its recruits.
But while TFA reckons with its model and its future, the growing national debate is taking a toll on the organization. Over the past year, two large school districts, Pittsburgh and Durham, North Carolina, rescinded hiring contracts with TFA. In September, the national student labor organization, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) announced a campaign aimed at kicking TFA recruiters off college campuses. In a open letter sent to the CEO and board chair of Teach for America, USAS leaders wrote:
TFA’s shift from an organization providing volunteers to overcome teacher shortages to an organization that deprofessionalizes the teaching career and displaces veteran teachers has forced us as students to ask our universities to reconsider relationships with Teach for America.
In December, TFA announced that it is having trouble recruiting candidates to teach in New York City schools—a problem organization leaders attribute, in part, to the “contentious national dialogue” surrounding TFA’s impact on school districts and the teaching profession. In anticipation of declining corps members, TFA plans to close its New York and Los Angeles training sites.