Friday, April 24, 2009

TFA Alone Cannot Save Us

Dan Brown wrote yesterday that more than 99.8% of all teachers are not members of Teach For America. Chad Alderman writes a "yes, but . . ." piece today over at The Quick and the Ed. Yes, Alderman makes some good points, but . . .

First, the good:

While TFA currently represents only .16% of the teaching workforce, they're bigger than that because:

1.) They're mostly new teachers
2.) They partner with TNTP
3.) They're growing

All good points -- the .16% figure is a tad bit misleading. Alderman concludes by saying that "we should be careful not to underestimate its growing impact.

At the same time, Alderman's arguments are probably even more misleading:

1.) Sure, a greater percentage of new teachers are TFA members, but it's still only 2%. And, more importantly, they leave at rates much higher than other teachers. So if 2% of new teachers are recruited through TFA each year, 30 years from now we'd still see less a teaching force comprised of less than 1% TFAers

2.) Yes, TFA has sort of branched out into TNTP programs. But they're not one and the same -- they recruit somewhat different applicants (TNTP recruits a lot more mid-career people and has a stated goal of turning their recruits into career teachers, TFA recruits mostly fresh-out-of-college youngsters and encourages people to go make a difference in the world after their two years). Furthermore, most of the studies that people like to reference finding that TFA teachers are about as good as, or a little better than, other teachers do not inclue estimates of TNTP teachers.

3.) Yes, TFA has grown rapidly. But in its current form, it can never make up more than a tiny fraction of the teaching force. They already receive applicants from 5-15% of the graduating class of many of the top 100 colleges and universities in the country. Unless they morph into an organization that recruits people from less selective colleges, which might mean they recruit less effective teachers, their potential for growth is extremely limited.

4.) Alderman cites a recent study with a "large" sample size that finds TFA teachers are better than all others. I've already pointed out a number of limitations and shortcomings in that paper, so I'm not going to repeat myself. But I will say that the sample included only 98 TFA teachers from North Carolina -- which is certainly not a large sample when trying to generalize to all teachers in the United States.

5.) It's odd that Alderman mostly argues that TFA might make a bigger impact down the road, and then warns us not to underestimate its current impact. I don't think many people underestimate the current impact of TFA (probably more people overestimate it), but underestimating the future impact of TFA is easy to do.

I still think that the largest impact of TFA is going to be the what its alums do -- from research to leading schools to running government. In other words, I think TFA will have a big impact on education -- but through ripple effects, not through the few thousand teachers it hires it each year. So I think Alderman is mistaken when he tries to argue that TFA can hire enough teachers to make a difference in our education system. It its current form, TFA alone cannot save our classrooms -- but 20 years from now I think we'll have seen a huge impact in many other ways.


Unknown said...

So, a couple years in the classroom of a self-selected bunch of charter students makes for a future policy/management savant? Come on!

If anything these TFA alums will think they know what they could not know because they will lack the experience; the very same charge many make against education reformers who have not spent much time in a school teaching.

I suppose I could have said I disagree, but I'm frustrated.

Chris said...

Check out a column I wrote about the limitations of TFA and its adverse effects on the teaching profession here:

Although undoubtedly many TFA alumni will go on to do great things for education, I find their dominance on many top-college campuses to dangerously narrow the view of the teaching profession.