After 25 Years, Teach for America Results are Consistently Underwhelming

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September 7, 2015; Las Vegas Review-Journal

America has a love-hate relationship with Teach for America. What began as the dream of one idealistic undergraduate in the late 80s is now, some 26 years later, an internationally recognized behemoth in the education reform movement, with more than $200 million (yes, you read that correctly) in investments as of last year.

A recent book, edited by T. Jameson Brewer and Kathleen deMarrais, titled Teach for America Counter-Narratives is the latest to put the organization under scrutiny. In an article this week in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Washington Post columnist Esther J. Cepeda writes about the “explosive and jaw-dropping” stories written by 20 of TFA’s alumni, which she says “eviscerate the myth of TFA’s unmitigated success.” Her takeaway is that the book should be a cautionary tale to those studying the education reform movement. The stories reveal the smoke and mirrors (“money and great marketing,” in her words) that TFA uses to recruit the best and brightest while convincing their donors and other partners that they are moving the needle on outcomes.

According to its most recent tax return, TFA has total assets of close to half a billion dollars and revenues of more than $330 million, of which about 90 percent comes from government grants and contributions from corporations, foundations and individuals. An organization of this size and stature has an obligation to its constituents to demonstrate its success, and TFA has accumulated years of research findings about its programming, expansion and scale-up efforts. Marty Levine and Ruth McCambridge asked on this site several weeks ago whether Teach for America’s results justify its pillar status.

In 2013, Mathematica Policy Research concluded a federally-funded controlled study of TFA. Comparing TFA secondary math teachers across eight states with a control group of math teachers in the same schools, the study found that, on average, students in TFA classrooms gained the equivalent of an additional 2.6 months of school, as evidenced by end-of-year math assessments. However, two years later, a subsequent Mathematica evaluation was unable to replicate those results.

While the later study concluded that TFA teachers in early primary grades produced roughly 1.3 months of extra reading gains, that good news was overshadowed by the more troubling evidence that an overwhelming majority of TFA staff (87 percent) reported that they did not plan to spend the rest of their career as a classroom teacher or, for that matter, in any education-related career.

TFA takes great pride in how well it prepares its corps members for the classroom (in a smidgen of the time it takes a teacher to train through traditional avenues). Studies published on its website find that TFA corps members are “as effective” as other teachers in the same schools and that they promote achievement in measures “equal or sometimes greater.” Two state-wide studies in North Carolina and Tennessee demonstrating TFA’s relatively higher effectiveness in teaching STEM content corroborate these findings, although the Tennessee Higher Education Commission report doesn’t go much further than stating that TFA teachers “tend to be” more effective than other beginning teachers.

As NPR correspondents Eric Westervelt and Anya Kamenetz point out, this can be read as either evidence of TFA’s superior pedagogy or an “indictment” of traditional teacher preparation programs. But it should also be noted that some question the reliability of the research itself or claim that even in those limited cases in which TFA shows a positive impact, it is consistently small, and other reform efforts, such universal pre-K, teacher mentoring programs, and smaller class sizes, may have more promise over the long run. The sticking point that returns again and again is that of teacher attrition.

While TFA claims that two-thirds of its alumni have gone on to pursue careers in the education sector, they do not have hard statistics on the number of alumni who have remained full-time classroom teachers for even a minimum period of time. That is a shame, as it’s an obvious question on people’s minds and would be compelling information. Moreover, it’s hard to align the two-thirds claim with the overall trend away from the education space cited in Mathematica’s most recent study.

While there is little else in terms of concrete student gains, much less long-term, systemic results, what’s perhaps most confounding of all is TFA’s almost willful refusal to acknowledge the role of state schools of education (which train the majority of public school teachers) or its very partner schools, as allies in reform. The more one reads from those who have gone through the experience, the more apparent this becomes, with non-TFA faculty regarded as the “problem” that TFA must come in and “fix.” While it’s clear the majority of the TFA teachers and staff are sincere, smart, and hard-working, a corporate reputation too often deemed exclusionary and imperious precedes them, a reputation that seems to have fossilized despite numerous attempts at rebranding over the years.

So, for instance, while TFA has (wisely) moved its narrative beyond a rehashing of its early history and founder, conspicuously missing from the stakeholders it chooses to represent in the present day—its core members, alumni, students, and the more elusive “community”—are the very faculty and administrators of the schools they serve. Apart from national surveys that TFA commissions to query principals about their satisfaction with TFA faculty (consistently good), there is remarkably little testimony available from veteran teachers, guidance counselors, parents, and other school stakeholders about TFA’s ultimate impact on whole school environments.

Similarly, a five-minute video on TFA’s website focusing on greater New Orleans is astonishingly self-referential, attributing a disproportionate share of credit to itself for the turnarounds in that city. (“While [TFA] was expanding its footprint, the community has seen rapid growth in student achievement.”) While its footprint has indeed grown six-fold, the growth filled a notable vacuum resulting from the systematic firing of 7,500 public school faculty, and TFA teachers now make up 20 percent of the city’s teaching force. No mention is made of the hundreds of civic leaders, educators and others—for better or worse—who stepped up to reinvent the system in the disaster’s aftermath. And it should be pointed out that many questions remain as to how successful the Recovery School District has been. As reported recently in the New York Times, “there is perhaps no topic of the last 10 years as polarizing.”

At the time of this reporting, Matthew Kramer, appointed co-CEO of TFA two years ago, announced he was stepping down and handing over the reins to his counterpart, Elisa Villanueva Beard. Like all other news coming out of Teach for America, it, too, will be closely examined.

In the meantime, the question of whether TFA is living up to its mission to enlist, develop, and mobilize future leaders to strengthen the movement for educational equity remains an unanswered one. With more than $75 million coming in from government at last count and another $220 million from the philanthropic community, we should be seeing more evidence of long-term student gains and far more alumni continuing their impassioned work in the classroom.

 

  • Michael Brand

    Quoting from your piece

    “TFA classrooms gained the equivalent of an additional 2.6 months of school…..”

    “TFA’s relatively higher effectiveness in teaching STEM content…..”

    “TFA teachers tend to be more effective…..”

    “TFA teachers in early primary grades produced roughly 1.3 months of extra reading gains,…..”

    This is remarkable. We can take young adults who never stepped foot in a college of “education”, give them 5-6 weeks of training, and they’ll outproduce those who spent 4 years and took on $$$ of debt to get an “education” degree.

    • Repairman632

      Looks great until you look closely and discover it’s all spin based on bogus analysis.. ” In short, the study says that students generally learn next to nothing in a year of secondary math and with TFA teachers they learn 26% more than next to nothing, which is still, essentially, next to nothing. This is why I object to the wording in the papers introduction, “This impact is equivalent to an additional 2.6 months of school for the average student nationwide.” (emphasis added) It would have been less misleading to say this impact ‘has been estimated to be by some metrics’ or something like that.” http://garyrubinstein.teachforus.org/2013/09/20/how-i-teach-2-6-months-more-of-math-in-a-year-than-the-rest-of-you-slackers/

      A quick search finds this: “The question for most districts, however, is whether TFA teachers do as well as or better than credentialed non-TFA teachers with whom school districts aim to staff their schools. On this question, studies indicate that the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers. Thus, a simple answer to the question of TFA teachers’ relative effectiveness cannot be conclusively drawn from the research; many factors are involved in any comparison.” http://cloakinginequity.com/2012/07/30/teach-for-america-a-review-of-the-evidence-this-is-the-report-that-tfa-loves-to-hate/

      The bottom line is that TFA is all hat and no cattle. They do excel at marketing though.

    • christine

      I’m not an expert, but as someone who does not have a degree in education (I hold a biochemistry degree), I have to disagree with this. In a traditional four year college, at least two years of the degree is spent on general courses, and then two would be more specified towards the degree. A lot of those classes aren’t completely relevant to what they will doing, either (child psychology classes, teaching science even if you aren’t planning on teaching that subject, etc). There are plenty of people who gained bachelors in other fields who can be wonderful teachers.

  • Michael Brand

    “…..the more troubling evidence that an overwhelming majority of TFA staff (87 percent) reported that they did not plan to spend the rest of their career as a classroom teacher or, for that matter, in any education-related career.”

    This evidence is troubling, but perhaps for reasons different than you infer. You get some of the best and brightest young adults who are full of passion and commitment to give two years of their lives to teaching. The evidence suggests they are at minimum somewhat better than the norm. Yet at the end of this experience they choose to walk away.

    Eighty-seven percent attrition rate? This is a huge indictment of how bad the public school system sucks,

    • Repairman632

      Great unwarranted assumption, (propaganda) that the sole reason TFA folks walk away is because of “how bad the public school system sucks,”. The contract that they sign is for two years, and a majority say in advance that they never had any intention of being in teaching beyond the initial contract. TFA is viewed as a resume line, few if any decide that they want to go into teaching as a profession, especially since TFA’s don’t have what it takes to make the life long commitment and instead leave teaching for other much higher paying professions.

      • Michael Brand

        As you surely know, the majority of teachers new to the profession quit within a few years. And as Richard Ingersoll has documented in his research, the reasons they decamp have nothing to do with money. So it’s not just the TFA teachers who think the public school system sucks.

        • iamciril .

          New teachers quit because it is a very hard job and demands a great deal more than politicians and the general public think.

          I substitute taught for a few years and though I keep renewing my credential, I don’t foresee any scenario where I would walk back in the classroom. Part of the reason I wouldn’t go back is because no matter how hard a teacher works and how good they may be, they are lumped in with the whole thing and told that they “suck.” It’s demoralizing.

          My wife taught for five years in an inner city school (it actually had bullet proof windows). She quit after our daughter was born because it was just too much. We have a couple pictures of my wife grading papers on our living-room floor while my daughter was lying next to her. They depress my wife; she was giving other people’s kids more attention than she was her own.

          Too much work after hours, too much stress, and too much investment for too little reward drove us both out of the profession.

        • Joy Marie

          You are apparently a one-trick pony who, no matter what, deduces that public schools suck. Hey, the sun rose today, therefore, pubic schools suck. Do some research. TFA was never about the kids, and it CLEARLY isn’t now. Its about politics, money, real estate, and grifting. I’m soooo tired of my tax dollars being “gifted” to TFA. I’d rather spend it on fully funding public schools, instead of cutting staff like nurses, librarians, aides, security, and PEARSON tests and common core curriculum and technology….this is to bust unions, and privatize education so the 1% can rake in tax paying dollars for profit. Its good for those black and brown kids, but not for their own kids. Look at who is pushing the agenda and you’ll know all you need to know.

    • iamciril .

      An indictment of how bad public schools are?

      Nonsense.

      TFA teachers leave because TFA is a resume builder, nothing more.

      Some years back, I saw a TFA advertisement in a magazine somewhere. It had a picture of a young man in front of a chalkboard and the caption said, “Your first job could be your most important job.”

      The implication is that you do it for a couple years than leave.

      My wife worked at a TFA hosting school for a few years. None of the TFA teachers she met stayed in the classroom.

  • CosmicTinker

    “While the later study concluded that TFA teachers in early primary grades produced roughly 1.3 months of extra reading gains, that good news was overshadowed by the more troubling evidence that an overwhelming majority of TFA staff (87 percent) reported that they did not plan to spend the rest of their career as a classroom teacher or, for that matter, in any education-related career.”

    No, that is not “good news,” because they are talking about TFAers forcing children as young as Pre-Kindergartners to learn to read. And the fact that the majority of TFAers don’t plan to stay in education is not “more troubling.” THAT is the good news, because these are people who are not skilled in child development and developmentally appropriate practices for young children, and who use old school Behaviorist animal training strategies.

    Virtually anyone can drill students in Pre-K thru 2nd grade to get them to score high on tests, but that is not developmentally appropriate and it undermines motivation, so it’s not likely to result in young children maintaining a love of learning, reading and school.

    TFA should take their novice animal trainers and send them to the circus; just keep them away from young children!

  • JLS

    Public schools do not suck, Michael. Like every other organization, they vary based on resources and leadership. Some are absolutely fantastic – such as the ones in my community. Those tend to be well-resourced, run by individuals who believe in a progressive public education, and attended by children whose parents are also believers in a public education system based on love of learning rather than nonstop test preparation.

    Other public schools are operating on a shoe string and are under intense and constant pressure to produce higher standardized test scores, even though those tests demonstrate NOTHING about student learning and primarily reflect the income of the students’ families.

    The idea that public schools suck is a political one, promoted by those who dislike all things public and use that false talking point to push privatization.

    The thing I find most troubling about TFA is the organization’s very large role in the public education privatization movement and its very political agenda. That is ultimately what is turning so many TFA alums against the organization.

  • AC

    A lot of the comments and statistics quotes both in the article and the below comments are pretty disturbing and show a pretty severe lack of understanding of the purpose/aim of TFA. While there are certainly criticisms regarding the funding and turnover, TFA generally providers teachers to a specific set of public schools. Comparing, across a wide swath, TFA teachers vs. full time career teachers is not an apt comparison as the schools districts in which TFA works is heavily skewed toward low income communities where, generally, traditionally “qualified” teachers do not venture.

    While a lot of the funding and political aims of TFA may be questioned, the vague statistical comparisons are complete nonsense and a waste of time unless you compare the teachers across like school districts. Regarding the turnover, this is not a concern unless there is a negative regression following turnover in a certain position/school (and there is no evidence as to this point).

  • JLS

    Schools are not cars and education is not a business. Market analogies like that one may be tempting for those who do not understand public education and see the world as simply a marketplace, but such analogies do not work.

    Children should not be fired or rejected if they don’t measure up and schools should never be forcibly shut down or closed. This is not GM.

    The culture of education is not broken. The effort to treat education like a business is what is broken.

  • iamciril .

    I don’t know about YOUR kid, but mine is a person, not an automobile.

  • Holly B

    Respect and humility have been and will continue to be very, very difficult values for TFA to embody. As a former TFA CM, I experienced an organization whose entire sense of identity relied on self-aggrandizement. On my final day with TFA, I was assigned to a “working lunch” with a group of CMs (including incoming new members) and the executive director for our state. The agenda including a robust discussion of how to expand TFA to new complexes and schools in our state. Corps members who were brand new to teaching AND our state, fresh out of college, were eagerly engaging in a discussion of how best to reach out and get into more classrooms – there was lots of talk of “making greater impact” and “transformational change” and “community”. Having already earned a reputation as being the snarky powder keg, I managed to hold my tongue until we got to the part of the agenda where the ED obliviously introduced the need to encourage more “humility” into the organization. In typical TFA fashion, rather than let me remain silent, I was directly asked my thoughts on the topic. I responded that I thought humility would be very difficult to embrace for a group that just spent the better part of an hour trying to figure out how to justify its own expansion as if the mere presence of TFA was enough to create transformational change in poor communities, without any discussion prior to that about what exactly the group was actually accomplishing – and without any members of those communities being present. No one spoke to me for the rest of the meal.

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