One of the last things I read last night was this NY Times article about a new research study on the civic engagement of former TFA teachers. In short, the forthcoming study finds that TFA grads are actually less engaged than are those who drop out early and those who were accepted but didn't enroll.
A number of other bloggers have already commented on the article (including Robert Pondiscio, Debra Viadero, Alexander Russo, and I'm sure many others), but I have yet to see anybody comment on the comparison groups that were chosen.
Without having read the study, that's about the only methodological issue on which one can comment. I see the merit in the research design -- by comparing TFA grads to TFA dropouts and "non-matriculants," you're controlling for a number of otherwise unobservable characteristics of the people involved -- people accepted by TFA are surely more academically successful than the average recent college grade, for example.
But it's also an extremely limiting study -- what percentage of the population would make the cut for TFA admission? Maybe 5 or 10%?
So what does this study really tell us? Assuming that everything else is perfect with the data and methods (which, of course, is never the case), what would it mean that people who complete two years with TFA are less engaged than are other TFA admitees who either dropped out or declined to enroll? It could be the case that people with broader interests are choosing not to stay in TFA for multiple years, or it could be the case that staying in TFA for longer is narrowing the interests of grads.
Either way, it's entirely plausible that applying to TFA makes one much more civic-minded than not -- which, in many ways, is a more important question. The people that TFA admits are a tiny and unique sub-section of the adult population of our country, so differences within that population are only somewhat meaningful.
That said, the study seems to raise a number of important questions that are worth exploring further. I'll be interested to see how some of these are addressed when I can get my hands on a copy of the actual article.
If what you want to study is what effect TfA has on the people who participate, that seems a plausible choice of control group -- otherwise the selection biases would be huge.
But it makes for a narrow question -- the argument that TfA was good because of its effects on its participants always seemed like gilding the lily.
I certainly wouldn't be surprised if TfA teachers were less engaged in other civic activities while in the program -- it's easy doing something like that to figure that IS your civic engagement, and your friends who opted for investment banking can give to charity.
And it wouldn't be surprising if that persisted afterwards. But if that's the case it makes a difference whether TfA grads continue to be engaged, but in different ways than their peers. Or if the feel that with 2 or 3 years in TfA, they "done their part."
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