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Teach for America: Let’s practice good journalism

Recent editorials failed to mention that many people and groups have some deep concerns about the quality of TFA programs.

Recent op-eds from both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press criticized the lack of support for the Teach for America (TFA) program. They suggested that policy makers were siding with the teachers’ union, primarily to protect jobs from being taken by young innovative teachers. Teach for America is a program that recruits bright students from elite colleges and places them in inner city classrooms. These individuals have no prior teaching experience and receive five (5) weeks of intensive training before they enter a classroom. The editorials characterized TFA as a creative alternative for teacher preparation and a program that had support from administrators and many public officials. They presented positions as though there was no opposition to TFA.

What the editorials failed to mention is that many people and groups have some deep concerns about the quality of TFA programs. After all, they contend, five weeks is clearly inadequate for teacher preparation. Not only do teachers’ unions oppose TFA, but many schools of education reject them….or simply fail to work with them. There are no such similar efforts in medicine, architecture, social work, or any other major profession to place people with only five weeks of training in the front lines of the most challenging work settings.

The research on TFA is mixed. While some suggest these novice teachers help improve math scores, the bulk of studies raise serious concerns about the effectiveness of long-term solutions promised by the TFA organization. Recent reports indicate that most of TFA candidates have left the classroom by the third year (up to 80%). It creates problems for students in urban schools who are looking for some stability rather than a revolving door of teachers. Developing relationships is an important part of teaching. Creating a teacher program that can’t retain most of its trainees is not helpful. This also creates huge costs for districts in terms of retraining and replacement.

Add to this the mixed results of TFA teachers on academic achievement. In one major study by Mathematica (2004), a respected independent research firm, TFA teachers did OK compared to other teachers in the schools. They did better in math scores and the same in reading. Unfortunately, the majority of the comparison teachers were similarly poorly prepared, most having not done student teaching nor had a formal preparation program. And the data are clear as far as concern for classroom practice: TFA teachers had twice as many problems with physical abuse between students, three times as many problems with verbal abuse of teachers, and more problems than comparison teachers with students following directions or general misbehavior. So, in some respects it doesn’t matter if some test scores improved a bit….the nature of the classroom was clearly less problematic in the hands of more experienced teachers.

When compared to experienced, regularly prepared teachers, they don’t do as well. According to the National Education Policy Center, “the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers.” And in a large-scale Houston study, in which the researchers controlled for experience and teachers’ certification status, standard certified teachers consistently outperformed uncertified TFA teachers of comparable experience levels in similar settings. To be fair, TFA teachers do as well as conventionally prepared teachers if they actually stay and get a full credential. However, this may be because the strongest people stay and the rest move on to other fields. This is hardly a solid endorsement for a program that was supposed to address the achievement gap by placing bright, energetic students in the hard to staff inner city schools. And keep them there!

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Add to this mix research from Stanford University (Reardon, 2011) that suggests the achievement gap is actually getting larger for economic groups. The author says “the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier. 

In fact, it appears that the income achievement gap has been growing for at least fifty years.” So, it is fair to assume that when it comes to school achievement, poverty matters. Many other authors have reached this same conclusion (for example, Diane Ravitch in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, 2010). It’s not reasonable to think that a teacher education system alone can alter the performance of urban youth.

Let’s do our homework, Star Tribune and Pioneer Press editorial writers. Your position on TFA was not a good example of well researched opinion. At the very least, present the existing countervailing information and research. We should have had enough information to suggest the governor and policy makers didn’t act just to protect the teachers’ union. They acted on a body of research that raises serious questions about the effectiveness and efficiency of TFA. We await the next debate/discussion, but let’s make it an honest debate.

This post was written Alan Anderson and originally published on mnpACT! Progressive Political Blog. Follow Dave on Twitter: @newtbuster.

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