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.


Anonymous said...

and local to Nashville and TN (could happen elsewhere) - A recent report showed Nashville's TFA training program as one of the tops in terms of teacher programs throughout the state. Should that spurn competition and better results from other teacher training institutes? Yes, it should, but I'm not sure if it will increase teacher's competencies in a really meaningful way. Gets to your point about long-term impact. Well thought out

NashvilleJefferson said...

This ( would appear to support your point. I've always thought that much of the point of TFA was to get corps members who have had first-hand experience in some of the country's most difficult schools into positions of leadership. On that measure of success, I think TFA is doing quite well.