Rebutting 7 Myths About Teach for America

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Posted: February 21, 2011 12:59 PM
by Whitney Tilson
Board member of KIPP charter schools in NYC, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Democrats for Education Reform
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Diane Ravitch is perhaps the best known critic of education reforms such as charter schools and the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top Program, which have been championed by people like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee. In a recent article, Ravitch set her sights on Teach for America, repeating many common criticisms of this widely celebrated program, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary last weekend in Washington D.C. As one of people who helped Wendy Kopp start TFA in 1989, I feel compelled to respond to her article.

First, she writes that TFA “grossly overstates its role in American education” and holds itself out as “the answer”, yet she provides no support for this assertion. In reality, even TFA’s biggest champions — and I’d include myself in that category — don’t claim it’s “the answer”, but we do claim that it’s having an important impact on our K-12 educational system in many fundamental ways (ways in which Ravitch doesn’t like, which explains much of her opposition to TFA, I suspect).

Second, she highlights that “most [TFA teachers] will be gone within three years”. True, but misleading. Time columnist Andy Rotherham rebutted this in a recent article entitled, Teach for America: 5 Myths That Persist 20 Years On:

Interestingly, TFA’s strategy doesn’t emphasize making a career out of teaching. The organization hardly discourages it, but believes that transforming America’s schools requires committed leaders in a variety of sectors and roles. Fifty-two percent of its alumni remain in teaching after their two-year commitment, and 67% still work fulltime in education in one way or another. That includes 553 principals or school district leaders, 548 school-district and state “Teacher of the Year” winners, and a National Teacher of the Year as well as politicians, nonprofit leaders, foundation officials and consultants. My nonprofit firm, for instance, is full of them — one of my partners helped launch TFA — and remarkably that doesn’t make us unusual among our peer organizations.

Wendy Kopp also addressed this in an email she sent me in March 2007 (shared with her permission):

Our goal isn’t actually to get our people to stay longer than two years, but rather to provide excellent, committed teachers for two years and to build a force of leaders who will work for fundamental change from within education and from positions of influence in every other sector.We know Teach For America shapes the career paths of corps members, as evidenced by the fact that 60% of our alumni are working full time within education and that many more are working to take the pressure off of schools by improving the quality of health and social services in low-income communities. We think this is important because achieving educational excellence and equity will require long-term, sustained leadership within education. At the same time though, we think it’s critical that many of our corps members do enter other sectors, taking with them the commitment and insight that comes from their Teach For America experience so that they can work for the kind of changes in policy and public opinion that are necessary for ed reform to take hold.

The impact of TFA alums is a critically important point that Ravitch fails to even mention. More than 21 years ago, when I was helping Wendy start TFA, I recall with absolute clarity our vision and belief that TFA’s biggest impact would not be the two years its corps members spent in the classroom, but the army of reformers it would create. Michelle Rhee, KIPP co-founders David Levin and Mike Feinberg, Colorado State Senator Michael Johnston, and thousands of other incredible people who are transforming American K-12 education, especially for low-income and minority children, are not accidental by-products of TFA – they are the deliberate outcome!

How appropriate, then, that Education Next just published a lengthy article documenting the astonishingly powerful impact TFA alums have made. Here’s an excerpt:

Examining the work histories of founders and top management team (TMT) members at nationally prominent entrepreneurial education organizations, we find that TFA appears more frequently in the professional backgrounds of these proven entrepreneurial leaders than does any other source in our sample. We don’t know whether it is the TFA experience, the criteria by which TFA selects its corps members, or institutional relationships that account for this. However, the research does find that TFA is producing a large number of entrepreneurial leaders.

Third, Ravitch writes: “TFA sent 8,000 young people into high-needs schools…This is a small number indeed when you consider that our nation has 4 million teachers.” Rotherham addresses this critique as well:

As you read this, there are about 8,200 TFA teachers teaching a half-million students in places like Los Angeles, Houston and the Mississippi Delta. In fact, Kopp’s organization trains more teachers annually than any other single institution. And at its current pace, TFA will have 100,000 teachers and alumni by the time it celebrates its 30th anniversary. Meanwhile, the organization’s data show that its teachers’ effectiveness has increased as the corps has expanded, a noteworthy accomplishment. On the other hand, the U.S. has more than 3 million public school teachers, so while the lessons drawn from TFA’s methods can be replicated, no single TFA-like organization can address the entirety of the education labor market.

I’d also add that TFA had 47,000 applications last year and would love to grow faster and recruit more teachers, but needs funding to do so.

(Incidentally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, and secondary school teachers, held about 3.5 million jobs in 2008.”)

Fourth, Ravitch writes: “our most compelling problem is attrition. Of those who enter teaching, 50 percent are gone within five years. These are terrible statistics. We need a stable teaching profession, not a revolving door. We need to recruit new teachers who plan to stay in teaching and make a career of it.”

Whether attrition is a problem or not depends on who is leaving the profession. Sadly, the teaching profession is increasingly drawing new teachers from the bottom third of college graduates so it’s hardly surprising that many of these teachers prove to be ineffective in the classroom. If the 50 percent attrition comes from these ranks, then this is something to be celebrated.

There is some evidence to support this. According to an article about this study:

The researchers found that, of the “exiting” teachers, those leaving Texas schools entirely and those that sought out another school in the district were on average less effective relative to teachers who stayed in their schools in raising mathematics scores.

Another study went even further: it said that it’s nearly impossible to determine who will be an effective teacher up front, so the optimal strategy is to lower barriers to becoming a teacher and instead provide lots of support and then do careful evaluations, with the intention of being left after a number of years with the top 20 percent of proven most effective teachers.

This comment in The Education Gadfly, in response to a Sept. 2007 NY Times article about this “crisis”, points out that an 8 percent annual attrition rate isn’t “any worse than other professions that attract lots of 20-somethings” and highlights the real problem:

The manufactured crisisIt’s back-to-school season, which means it must be time for a prominent news outlet to decry the teacher-turnover ”crisis.” Enter the New York Times, whose front-page story quotes all the usual suspects saying all the usual things. ”The problem is not mainly with retirement,” explains the president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. ”The problem is that our schools are like a bucket with holes in the bottom, and we keep pouring in teachers.”

Perhaps that’s true, but with a national attrition rate of eight percent, is teaching really any worse than other professions that attract lots of 20-somethings? Some contend that fewer teachers might even be a good thing. Nor is this challenge insurmountable. Some districts are taking common sense steps like offering bonuses for teachers in high-need fields or high-poverty schools. But others keep tripping over their own impenetrable hiring bureaucracies and minimal support for new teachers. Tim Daly, the new president of The New Teacher Project, explains, ”There isn’t any maliciousness in this, it’s just a conspiracy of dysfunction.” Indeed.

A big part of the problem is longshoreman’s union-style labor policies, which Ravitch defends.

Fifth, Ravitch writes: “New teachers should have a solid education and strong preparation for their work. They should have the mentors and support they need to survive the trials of the early years and to improve continuously.”

Ravitch’s criticism is so ironic because she should be supporting TFA for these reasons and calling for TFA’s approach to be adopted widely. In our current system, this is the norm: new teachers increasingly have weak educational backgrounds, get little preparation from the abysmal schools of education in this country, and are then thrown into the toughest schools and classrooms with no mentors, support or meaningful professional development. In contrast, TFA recruits exclusively teachers who have the very strongest educational backgrounds, gives them high-quality, intense preparation, and then provides them with extensive mentorship, support and professional development.

Here’s Rotherham:

In practice, TFA provides more training and support than is commonly assumed. Although the initial boot camp, called “the Institute,” lasts just five weeks, TFA has developed an elaborate system of professional development and performance metrics in the regions where it operates. And while we know that TFA’s selection model works well, we don’t know how much more effective it would be in tandem with an even more robust training regimen. The performance of TFA teachers should be a wake-up call for the nation’s teacher-training programs, but it’s hardly the last word on how to train teachers.

Sixth, Ravitch says that TFA “sucks the air out of any public discussion about restructuring and improving the profession… Perhaps unintentionally, TFA’s success has stifled any national discussion about how to build a profession of well-educated, well-prepared, experienced educators who view teaching as a career rather than an experience.”

There is no way to prove or disprove such a subjective assertion, but I believe that TFA has been an important catalyst for the broad, critically important national discussion about restructuring and improving the profession, and am certain that TFA strongly supports building a solid core of teachers in this country who are “well-educated, well-prepared, experienced educators”.

Seventh, Ravitch writes that “there is also something scary about seeing so much money and power assembled around its core belief that a brand-new college graduate with only five weeks of training is just right to educate our nation’s most vulnerable students.” She later makes a comparison to doctors, saying that we would never support taking new college students and making them doctors after only a few months of training, and therefore concludes that “TFA does not share the doctor’s understanding of the importance of deep training and experience.”

Yet again, Ravitch fails to substantiate her assertions. Who is claiming that brand-new TFA corps members are “just right” and what evidence does she provide that TFA doesn’t support deep training and experience?

In an ideal world, the teachers in this country would go through a rigorous development program, as doctors do, that would look something like this:

  1. Ed schools would be highly competitive (the nations with the highest achieving students like Finland and Singapore only take teachers from the top 10 percent of college graduates);
  2. Ed schools would be rigorous and provide students with real preparation;
  3. Graduates would have to pass a tough exam demonstrating that they’d mastered the content;
  4. New teachers would enter a carefully controlled and monitored environment, with seasoned mentors by their side to make sure they learned (and did no harm);
  5. Effective teachers would be rewarded and given more responsibility; and
  6. Ineffective ones would be given additional support and, if that didn’t work, counseled out.

In our dysfunctional, Alice-in-Wonderland education world, not one of these six things happens with any regularity.

In my ideal world, there would still be room for TFA, but 80 percent or more of teachers would be seasoned veterans — there’s nothing incompatible both coexisting.

A better analogy for doctors would be the following: imagine that our least accomplished college grads went to medical schools, which were noncompetitive schools of quackery that taught students little. Upon graduating, new doctors had to pass nothing more than an eighth-grade level test (or none at all) and were immediately thrown into emergency rooms, treating the neediest patients. Not surprisingly, the mortality rates would be off the charts for these patients, almost all of whom are of course poor and minority.

(Incidentally, it’s easy to imagine what defenders of this outrageous and immoral system would say: “It’s not the doctors’ fault. Look at how many of our patients are obese, have bad diets, drink and smoke too much, etc. What can we be expected to do when you ask us to treat such patients???” (This is, of course, exactly what the unions say.))

If this were the status quo in the medical profession, I would absolutely favor “Doctors for America” — especially if the positive impact of the new doctors mirrored the positive impact of TFA corps members, for whom there’s now overwhelming evidence that they are doing a good job – certainly far better than the teachers they’re replacing (namely, the last teachers hired in every district). Here’s Rotherham:

Pretty much every article about TFA states the boilerplate assertion that the research about its effectiveness is “mixed” or “inconclusive.” Actually, that’s only true if you think the best way to consume research is to literally pile all the different studies up and see which pile is higher. Again and again, the most rigorous studies show that TFA’s selection process and boot-camp training produce teachers who are as good, and sometimes better, than non-TFA teachers, including those who have been trained in traditional education schools and those who have been teaching for decades. “The weight of the evidence suggests that TFA teachers as a whole are at least as effective as other teachers in the schools they end up in,” says University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, one of the nation’s leading researchers on teacher effectiveness. Another solid indicator? The marketplace. Superintendents and principals, who are on the hook for results, can’t get enough TFA teachers.But it’s worth noting that while the TFA corps overall turns in strong results, that doesn’t mean all of its teachers can walk on water. Some of them turn out to be total duds. One recent example: when then-schools chancellor Michelle Rhee (herself a TFA alumna) told principals in Washington to get rid of low-performers as part of a budget reduction measure, there were some TFA teachers who got booted as a result. Being better on average doesn’t mean universal excellence.

To summarize, nobody claims that Teach for America is “the answer” to what ails public education. There are no silver bullets or 100 percent solutions. In reality, we need 100 1 percent solutions — and TFA is clearly one.

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