Thursday, January 27, 2011

Can TFA Hemorrhage Teachers and Still be Good?

Earlier, I wrote a post pointing out that Teach For America members can do a lot of good after their two-year commitment is up even if they're not in the classroom.  In that post, I wrote that "it’s a fact that most do not teach long, if at all, past their two year commitment".

A commenter over at Eduwonk takes issue with this statement by pointing to this post, which says that one study found that 61% of TFA teachers teach beyond their 3rd year and then continues to say that a TFA alumni survey found that 32% of current alums are teachers right now.

Even though TFA is 20 years old, substantial recent growth means that there are far more graduates from the last few years than from the first 10 or so.  Plus, it seems plausible that earlier grads might be harder to track down and/or less likely to respond (though this can be addressed by proper weighting of the results, I don't have the survey report so I'm not sure whether or not this was done).  So let's say that the average TFA alum in this survey is 5 years out and 32% of those 5 years out are still teaching.  That would be mean that over 2/3 of TFA members teach fewer than 5 years after their two year commitment.  And that few alums stick around very long in the classroom -- just as I wrote before.  Perhaps more to the point, the vast majority of TFA members do not become career teachers.

But my guess is that the criticism of my statement wasn't really an attack on my methodology or facts.  My guess is that it was a defensive reaction by somebody who supports TFA.  Indeed, I've seen TFA employees become very defensive when people ask about the attrition numbers.  And I don't think they need to be.  Because TFA can do a lot of good regardless of whether or not all their teachers immediately bolt the classroom.  We're once again confusing two separate issues:

1.) Does TFA transform the teaching profession?
2.) Does TFA positively impact high-poverty schools?

I've long argued that the most significant effect of TFA in the long-run is going to be the large number of people in power who have taught in high-poverty schools and care about the issues confronting them -- not the formation of teaching force that accounts for fewer than 1% all of teachers in America.  I think it's more than possible for 2/3 of TFA alums to quickly move out of the classroom and the program to have a significant net positive effect.

In other words, I don't see the exodus of TFA alums from the teaching profession as something that's necessarily, or at least entirely, bad.  TFA can still do a lot of good even if every single teacher leaves after their second year.

So, I'd argue that the answer to question #1 is mostly "no" and the answer to question #2 is mostly "yes" -- and that that's perfectly ok.  TFA employees and supporters should have no problem with this, and TFA critics should acknowledge that TFA can do a lot of good even if it doesn't provide a long-term, comprehensive solution to the shortage of high-quality teachers in high-poverty schools.

Here's how I'd frame it if I were in charge of PA for the organization: TFA is providing an emergency stop-gap intervention in the short run, with the long-term goal of transforming the system so that we no longer need emergency interventions.  Critics allege that TFA is nothing but a band-aid solution, but band-aids can do a world of good if they're then followed up with more extensive care.

The band-aid that TFA provides is reasonably good teachers in schools that, for the most part, wouldn't otherwise be able to hire people of comparable success.  Studies of TFA tend to find that TFA teachers are as good as, or a little better than, other teachers in the district.  If anything, it's likely that these studies actually understate the relative quality of TFA teachers.  I say this because they compare TFA teachers to other teachers currently teaching in the district.  But the most relevant comparison group are the teachers who didn't get hired because a TFA teacher was hired instead.  In some cases, a perfectly competent teacher lost out to a TFA member, but in many cases a TFA member was hired instead of somebody that was unqualified or even instead of the position remaining vacant for the year.  On average, it's likely that the teachers not hired because of TFA are a little worse than the average teacher in the district, or even the average new or provisionally certified teacher in the district.  All this is to say that it's likely that most schools that hire TFA members are better off in the short-run with a TFA teacher or three in place than they would have been had they not had the option of hiring TFA members (now, there may be exceptions -- schools were principals hire TFA teachers that will actually be worse than the alternative -- but, in the aggregate, there is little doubt that most schools that do so are better off, at least in the short run).

The more extensive follow-up care that TFA provides is through the engagement of thousands of the country's most ambitious and talented young adults in the issues facing high-poverty schools.  Countless TFA alums who might otherwise be doing something else are now teaching in high-poverty schools, leading high-poverty schools, or advocating for high-poverty schools.  In the decades to come, I think we'll see steady growth in the number of TFA alums leading schools and districts, publishing research on schools and districts, managing educational non-profits, serving in legislative bodies, and influencing the situation on other ways.  I'm not sure what, exactly, the end results of these efforts will be, but I have little doubt that they have the potential to do more for America's education system as a whole than do those TFA members currently serving in the classroom.  This is not to diminish the importance of those currently in the classroom -- to the students in their class(es), they might be the most important figure in their life -- but, rather, to say that since TFA teachers make up well under 1% of the current teaching force, there are practical limits as to what they can do for the entire system.

So, TFA really has no need to adopt a defensive posture and hide behind the misleading statistic that 61% of people teach at some point after their second year.  When TFA recruits and trains their members, they actively encourage them to spend a few years in the classroom and then go to pursue other careers (the job market for TFA alums is pretty robust, as are the job placement services provided by TFA). But, when people transition from their time as TFA members to their time as TFA alums they are encouraged to stay engaged in the issues surrounding high-poverty schools.  At the current rate, within a couple decades there will be hundreds of thousands of TFA alums in high-ranking positions throughout the country -- so, those who focus on the few thousand young teachers in the classroom may be missing out on the big picture.  No, we're never going to fully staff all of our high-poverty schools with TFA teachers, but that shouldn't be the measure of success for TFA.

So, to answer the question in the title, yes: TFA can hemorrhage teachers and still have a net positive impact on our society and our schools.  And TFA advocates and critics alike should keep that in mind.

*full disclosure: as it says on the front page of my blog, I am an alum of the NYC Teaching Fellows (a sister program of TFA) who no longer teaches in a high-poverty school, but remains engaged in the issues confronting them.  While I am not a TFA alum, it's possible that I have a soft spot for former teachers who believe they can still make a difference.

TFA Members, Year 3+

Eduwonk writes that the number of people signed up for Teach for America's upcoming summit "should put to rest the idea that corps members just do two years and move on".

But I think he's confusing two separate questions here:

1.) Do TFA corps members remain in the classroom?
2.) Do TFA corps members remain engaged in education?

It's a fact that most do not teach long, if at all, past their two year commitment. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though it does make it impossible for TFA in its current form to be a large-scale solution for the teacher quality problem.

But I've always argued that the second question is more important. There's a bevy of anecdotal evidence that TFA members move on to other careers (both within and outside of education) that impact our educational system. We're already seeing TFA alums serving as principals and superintendents, and in the next decade I think we'll see a growing number of TFA alums taking leadership roles in academia, government, and other fields as well. To me, this will be the largest impact of TFA in the long run.

So, regarding his post, I don't think a large turnout would say anything about the first debate, but it would say an awful lot about the second.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How the US Health Care System is like the US Education System

I was struck by this NY Times piece discussing a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences on longevity in the US and other nations..  I was struck because one could substitute an analogous remark about education for virtually every mention of health care and the report would still ring true.  For example:

Over the last 25 years, life expectancy at age 50 in the U.S. has been rising, but at a slower pace than in many other high-income countries, such as Japan and Australia. This difference is particularly notable given that the U.S. spends more on health care than any other nation

could become

Over the last 25 years, educational achievement in the U.S. has been rising, but at a slower pace than in many other high-income countries . . . This difference is particularly notable given that the U.S. spends more on education than any other nation

Here's the best graph I could find of this trend (the red dots represent the US):

and another example:

With respect to income inequality, it is widely believed that such inequalities are higher in the United States than in other high-income countries . . . Poverty rates also appear to be higher in the United States than in most of the other countries . . .

This combination of factors could result in higher mortality rates among people in the lower socioeconomic brackets in the United States than in other countries, pulling down US life expectancy levels in general

could become

This combination of factors could result in lower achievement rates among people in the lower socioeconomic brackets in the United States than in other countries, pulling down US achievement levels in general

Additionally, we could draw parallels between the success of the highly sophisticated and specialized branches of both health care (e.g. cancer research) that the report lauds and our nation's elite college and university system.

So, what does this all mean?  I'd argue that the parallels illustrate two truisms about American education:

1.) Society matters more than any single institutions.  While the quality of our doctors and teachers influence how healthy and educated people are, other factors are, cumulatively, far more important.  Both are affected by parenting, neighborhood context, diet, exercise, and so on.  But while we rush to blame teachers for the failures of American students, I hear very few rushing to blame doctors for the American populace's unhealthy lifestyle.

2.) We excel when we strive for excellence, but place little emphasis on providing excellence for all -- one concoct examples from numerous other fields (e.g. transportation or housing).  Whether this is good or bad is largely a value judgment, but it's a fact that the US is more individualist and less collectivist than maybe any nation on Earth.

The end result of these two factors is that our health and education systems are quite similar in many ways (which should surprise no one) and, as such, are likely similarly difficult to reform.

How Many Bad Teachers Are There?

With all the discussion surrounding the need to fire "bad teachers" these days, I wish we could take a step back and examine how many teachers out there are truly worth firing.

A working paper by Thomas Kane and colleagues sheds some light on the issue.  In the paper, they investigate the validity of teacher observations conducted by outsiders and find them to be fairly strongly correlated with both teacher value-added scores and levels of teacher experience.  This leads to the conclusion that the observations are fairly good measures of teacher effectiveness.

Included in the paper is this chart showing the spread of teachers who averaged ratings on a 1-4 scale.

What sticks out to me is that the distribution is skewed far to the right -- well over half of the teachers earn at least a 3 on the scale, and there are only a few that score really low.  This gibes with TNTP's report on San Francisco, in which fewer than 1% of teachers are rated unsatisfactory, and 94% of principals agree that teachers in their school who are underperforming are rated as such.

In other words, maybe the vast majority of teachers are doing a pretty good job.  Which, of course, is not to say that teachers who are failing their students should remain as is forever.  Clearly, as in any profession, there are teachers who need to receive more training, work harder, and/or move to another job.  But if this is the case (and I'm not going to claim it is based on only one study), then we should be a little more careful with our rhetoric.  If most teachers are doing a pretty good job, then we should probably spend a little more time praising them, a little less time decrying the fate of the teaching profession, and refer to bad teachers as the exception rather than the rule.

Monday, January 17, 2011

3.6 Inches of Snow = 10 Days Without School

Last week, we had 3.6 inches of snow in Nashville (2.5 inches on Monday morning, .6 inches on Tuesday, .4 inches in Wednesday, and .1 inches on Thursday according to the NOAA).  The result was that Nashville's school system -- and almost all others in the mid-state region -- canceled school for the entire week.  Though only 5 days of school were canceled, the day off for MLK's birthday means that there will be 10 consecutive days without school in the Metro Nashville Public Schools.

As a Northern transplant, I've often cynically joked that Nashville cancels one day of school for each inch of snowfall.  Since I moved here, this the first time that the rule hasn't held.

Why would 3.6 inches of snow shut down a school system for an entire week?  You might think it's because of the lack of snow clearing equipment in Southern cities, and you'd be partially right.  But all the main roads had been plowed and salted by the end of the day Monday, and the vast majority of side roads were clear by Tuesday afternoon.  So what gives?  Well, a small fraction of the side roads -- including a number that school buses regularly travel -- remained covered with ice the entire week.  This was the result of two things: 1.) temperatures that remained below freezing the entire week; and 2.) the fact that side roads, apparently, do not get salted or plowed in this city.

The continued cancellation of school day after day must've gotten somebody's attention, because the district felt compelled to post this explanation of how they make the decision following this announcement of a fifth consecutive day of school closures which says, in part, that:

We had serious concerns about safe bus travel. We did not want children to be left standing at a bus stop in 13-degree weather because a bus was unable to safely travel on an icy road. Additionally, we did not want to risk having a bus try to travel on an icy road and getting into an accident. We simply could not guarantee safe transportation for EVERY student in MNPS.

The explanation isn't completely unreasonable.  The pictures posted on the website make it quite apparent that there were, in fact, still some icy roads on Friday.  But this doesn't mean the city and school district didn't drop the ball.  There are at least two easy solutions that could -- and should -- have been implemented.

1.) Since the main roads were clear on Monday, that left most, if not all, of the snow clearing equipment free for the rest of the week.  It, of course, costs money to salt other roads -- money that undoubtedly wasn't part of an already tight budget.  But at some point in the next four days, somebody has to have thought to themselves that it would be worth saving 3 or 4 days of school to go salt a couple dozen troublesome spots.  Since bus safety was the main issue, trucks could have simply driven the school bus routes and salted problem areas.

2.) MNPS officials should be aware after a similar episode last year that it can take a number of days for the snow/ice to melt from all the roads in the county.  Given this knowledge, it would seem prudent to have alternate/emergency bus routes set up for days where only a few hilly, shaded roads are dangerous.  For a couple of days each year, kids can be dropped off at bus stops slightly farther from home and still make it to school safely.  Many public transportation systems (including Nashville's) have such alternate routes for their buses.

The end result is that it's only mid-January and Nashville has already used 7 snow days.  They only have 4 built in, so they'll be attending school on President's Day and will tack on two extra days at the end of the year (after the state testing).  More importantly, students will have attended exactly four days of school between December 17th and January 17th.  I don't envy the teachers who have to re-establish classroom norms and get students back up to speed this Tuesday and for the rest of the week and month.

Now, this is not to say that it's always a bad idea to cancel school.  Overly zealous decisions to keep school in session regardless of weather conditions can be harmful or, at best, a waste of time.  During my two years in NYC, we had three days (including one where 19 inches of snow fell on Sunday) where virtually all of the surrounding suburban districts called off of school but NYC did not.  On all three days, the majority of teachers and majority of students did not show up.  The SOP for those days was for all present students and teachers to report directly to the cafeteria in the morning.  The administrators then surveyed the scene and assigned students to teachers (on one day I had about a half-dozen kids from three different classes) and a day of babysitting, videos, and hangman ensued.  Chancellor Klein undoubtedly thought he was doing the students right by preventing students from missing valuable instruction time, but those on the ground saw a different story unfold (though, to be fair, the kids who did show got free childcare and meals even if they didn't learn much of anything).

In the end, the Nashville situation is yet another example of ways that circumstances outside of the control of teachers and administrators can influence the achievement of students.  Beyond that, it's an example of the myriad ways in which school districts and cities can influence the achievement of students beyond the standard examinations of pedagogy, curriculum, teacher quality, etc.  When designing models to explain the achievement level of students, in addition to accounting for teacher, school, neighborhood, and family effects we may also need to include the ability of local governments to mitigate weather problems.