If “Jury Is Still Out” on Teach for America— Why the Massive Investment?

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November 27, 2011; Source: Boston Globe | We here at NPQ are always curious about why one program is chosen for federal replication over others. Shouldn’t it be because it has better results and promises a longer-term gain? Christine Armario, an AP education reporter, warns us once again that while a major federal investment has been made in Teach for America, the results are very mixed and the strategy may in fact be putting lower income children more at risk.

The program, which brings young people into teaching with no previous experience and relatively little training, is expanding significantly, and through the use of a $50 million federal grant, TFA recruits could make up one-quarter of all new teachers in 60 of the nation’s highest-need school districts by 2015.

But the program may have some serious drawbacks –—not the least of which is the fact that the program’s recruits generally do not stay in teaching for more than five years. And their results do not seem to be better overall than those of other novice teaching recruits—which is to say that they do not compare with the results produced by well-seasoned teachers who have proven their mettle.

Armario writes, “Many countries, including those where students perform higher in math and reading, send the strongest and most experienced teachers to work with the lowest performing students. The U.S. has done the reverse. There are nearly twice as many teachers with fewer than three years’ experience in schools where students are predominantly low income and minority.”

Even the program’s supporters seem to agree that a track record of successful teaching is critical to succeeding in schools where high levels of poverty exist.

Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, asserts, “Nobody should teach in a high poverty school without having already demonstrated that they are a fabulous teacher. For poor kids, education has to work every single year.”

Armario points to research done on teacher training programs in North Carolina, including Teach for America, that indicates “that elementary students taught math by a first-year teacher lose the equivalent of 21 days of schooling compared with students who had teachers with four years of experience.” According to this article, however, TFA has one of the highest turnover rates of all teacher training programs.

Haycock, commenting on why TFA has gotten such traction in the nation’s schools, says that when TFA started they “were staffing our high poverty schools . . . with anything that breathed.” But, Haycock continued, “Saying their solution is better than what came before it is not to say it’s the right thing.”

Teach for America asserts that according to external research its teachers achieve student gains that are “at least as great as that of other new teachers.” Hardly a ringing endorsement.

Oddly, Teach for America releases no internally generated data to the public that is paying the freight for this strategy “We just don’t feel it’s responsible to show,” Kopp said. “There are so many flaws in our system.”

Still, the program is also expanding internationally. What do you think is going on here?—Ruth McCambridge

  • Albert Ruesga

    TFA touches one in three children here in New Orleans. Many of us are grateful for the contributions TFA teachers make to our community. The fly in the cocktail is that TFA also succeeds in shifting the cost of quality teachers from public to private sources. Reasonable people can disagree, but in my view, quality public school teachers are a public good and should be supported entirely by tax (i.e., public) dollars.

  • Renee McGivern

    Leaders and donors are deeply worried about how far behind impoverished children are in school and how that sets them on a life trajectory of continued struggle. So when a creative, well-run nonprofit is able to enlist hundreds of enthusiastic citizens to be part of a solution, it seems better than nothing. Unfortunately, traditional teaching and teachers have earned a bad rap for causing, or certainly for not knowing how to solve, this now intractable problem. There’s way too much emotion and defensiveness about this and the poor kids’ education has become a sad social experiment.

  • Michael

    But the jury has come back with its verdict on the public education system. After you subtract for the dropouts, a full 1/3 of our kids get high school diplomas without the literacy and numeracy skills needed to compete for WalMart jobs.

    TFA has shown some results….especially with students in high poverty schools (see Albert’s comment). With the trillions we spend on an out of date K-12 system, consider the $50 mil to TFA as venture capital.

  • Bill Huddleston

    I don’t think the article answered the question posed in the headline. A short answer is, “better lobbyists.”

    Bill Huddleston