On Assignment for DianeRavitch.Net: Rewriting Thomas Harkin’s Teach For America Constituent Letter

Head_in_Sand

I am on assignment today. Diane Ravitch asked me to rewrite Tom Harkin’s email to a constituent that extols the virtues of TFA. I will begin with the letter that was forwarded to me that was apparently written by Harkin’s office and then follow the official letter with my rewrite.

From: Senator@harkin.senate.gov

Date: January 7, 2014 3:18:58 PM CST

To: XXXX

Subject: Reply from Senator Harkin

January 7, 2014

Dear : XXXX

Thank you for taking the time to contact me.  I always welcome the opportunity to hear from my fellow Iowans.

Let me first apologize for the extreme delay in responding to your concerns.  As you can imagine, I receive a tremendous amount of mail, and on this occasion a processing error let to a number of letters being misdirected.  For that, I sincerely apologize.  Now, let me turn to the concerns you raised in your letter.

I was deeply sorry to hear about your daughter’s disappointing experience with Teach for America (TFA).  Although TFA includes five weeks of rigorous training to prepare program participants for difficult and challenging placements, it would appear from your description of XXXX’s experience that her training was inadequate and the on-site support services in the New York region lacking.

Notwithstanding XXXX’s unfortunate outcome, I have supported this program over the years as a model to address persistent socioeconomic achievement gaps in public education by recruiting highly qualified, dedicated recent graduates to teach in disadvantaged, low-income urban and rural districts.  It has been my experience that the vast majority of TFA participants conclude their rotation positively, gain valuable teaching skills, and make a lasting impact on the students they teach.  Indeed, recent public surveys indicate that nearly two-thirds of TFA participants remain as public school teachers beyond the two year commitment, and after five years nearly 15 percent remain at the same low-income school in which they began.

Despite this, I find it invaluable to hear feedback from constituents who have had first-hand experience with federally-supported programs like TFA.  As Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) and Chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds education initiatives like TFA, please know that I will remember XXXX’s criticisms and suggestions when I consider future legislation or budget items related to this program.

Again, thank you for writing to me.  I hope that XXXX’s experience with TFA does not dull her passion for public service and civic engagement.  Please do not hesitate to contact me again in the future about any issue that concerns you.

Sincerely,

Tom Harkin

United States Senator

Here is how the letter should have been crafted…

Dear Constituent,

Thank you for taking the time to contact me.  I always welcome the opportunity to hear from my fellow Iowans. Let me first apologize for the extreme delay in responding to your concerns.  Honestly, I have been really busy here in D.C. To understand how busy I am, I refer you to an article by Stephanie Simon at Politico

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chair of the education appropriations subcommittee, led the push to use the bill reopening government and lifting the debt ceiling as a vehicle for renewing a provision that defines teachers still in training as “highly qualified” under federal law.

The renewal was opposed by a coalition of nearly 100 civil rights, union and educator associations. Members said they were stunned to see it in the budget bill, especially given that Congress has not yet received data it requested last year analyzing whether the novice teachers are disproportionately assigned to schools serving poor and minority children…

Teach for America, which relies on its teachers being certified as “highly qualified” to place them in classrooms across the country, has been a big supporter of renewing the definition. Spokeswoman Takirra Winfield declined to comment on TFA’s lobbying efforts or any last-minute push to get the renewal in the budget bill…

I have been very pleased with the impact of NCLB and the watering down of the high-quality teacher provision. Why? My support of a weak high-quality teacher definition has resulted in an explosion of under-qualified teachers entering the classroom across the nation. National data show that NCLB has exploded under-qualified individuals into schools— as about 133,000 teachers entered classrooms with limited training in the seventeen years before NCLB compared to 359,000 in the seven years after its introduction— a 270% increase. Typically, poor children are primarily taught by the under-qualified teachers— not children attending wealthy schools. Why would the wealthy allow their children to be taught by teachers that are under-qualified? That is a silly proposition. BTW. You’re Welcome. (See Alternative certification and Teach For America: The search for high quality teachers)

Now, let me turn to the concerns you raised in your letter.

I was deeply sorry to hear about your daughter’s disappointing experience with Teach for America (TFA).  I am very familiar and comfortable with TFA. For example, I have a history of hiring individuals from the TFA organization as my Senior Education Policy Advisor for K-12 Issues was an alumnus (she did actually have 6 months of teaching experience). We are also deeply indebted to TFA here on the Hill. Stephanie Simon reported that TFA has access to millions of dollars and the legislative process to directly influence Capitol Hill by paying for “education” staffers for congresspeople on the Education and Workforce committee. Which of my colleagues have accepted education staffers paid by TFA via a California billionaire? In case you are interested,

Tom Cole was included to be sure that TFA is a symbol of bi-partisanship.

Although TFA includes five weeks of summer training to prepare program participants for difficult and challenging placements, it would appear from your description of your daughters experience that her training was inadequate and the on-site support services in the New York region lacking (In case you didn’t know, I take off five weeks all the time in fact, in fact our work calendar in Washington was only 126 days in 2013). Now that you mention it, turns out that TFA alumni have recently published ideas for the reform of TFA and its summer institute in prominent media outlets such as the Harvard Crimson, Harvard Magazine , The Atlantic, and on education blogs.

I can understand your daughter’s unfortunate outcome, I have supported this program over the years as a model to address persistent socioeconomic achievement gaps in public education by recruiting highly qualified, dedicated recent graduates to teach in disadvantaged, low-income urban and rural districts.  But it turns out, it is not as good as advertised. The practical question faced by most districts is whether TFA teachers do as well as or better than fully credentialed non-TFA teachers with whom those school districts aim to staff their schools. On this question, the predominance of peer-reviewed studies have indicated that, on average, the students of novice TFA teachers perform less well in reading and mathematics assessments than those of fully credentialed beginning teachers. Although the differences are small, TFA teachers do better if compared to other less-trained and inexperienced teachers. Again, the comparison group matters greatly. (See Teach For America: A Review of the Evidence)

TFA also has a turnover rate much higher than the national average for new teachers. TFA typically claims about 50-60% of their alums remain in the “education field.”  This vague assertion avoids noting the much smaller percentage of TFA teachers that actually stay teaching in public education and the even smaller percentage of TFA teachers that stay in their initial placement. Independent peer-reviewed research published by Donaldson and Moore Johnson found that while the majority of TFA teachers leave their assignments after two years, 28% of TFA teachers do remain public school teachers after five years— compared to about 50% of non-TFA teachers. After seven years, only 5% are still teaching in their initial TFA placement. TFA will toss out all sorts of attrition statistics in casual conversation and in the media, but these are independent data.

I find it invaluable to hear feedback from constituents who have had first-hand experience with federally-supported programs like TFA (The feds give TFA tens of millions of dollars every year). As Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) and Chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds education initiatives like TFA, please know that I will remember her criticisms and suggestions when I consider future legislation or budget items related to this program.

Maybe I might make an about-face on the high-quality teacher provision that I weakened and snuck into the budget bill to reopen the government. Or maybe I will reduce the tens of millions of dollars that are authorized for TFA from the federal government each year. Or maybe I will discourage colleagues and committees from accepting education staffers paid by a billionaire to do TFA’s bidding in the capitol. Or maybe not.

Again, thank you for writing to me.  I hope that your daughter’s experience with TFA does not dull her passion for public service and civic engagement.  Please do not hesitate to contact me again in the future about any issue that concerns you.

Sincerely,

Tom Harkin

United States Senator

For all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts on TFA go here.

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Categories: Teach For America, Teacher Quality

Author:Julian Vasquez Heilig

Julian Vasquez Heilig is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning and African and African Diaspora Studies (by courtesy) at the University of Texas at Austin.

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  1. Julian Vasquez Heilig Gives a Lesson to Senator Harkin About TFA | Diane Ravitch's blog - January 21, 2014

    […] A mother who lives in Iowa wrote her Senator to complain about her daughter’s terrible experience in Teach for America. Her Senator is Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Committee responsible for education. The Senator sent her a response which she found unsatisfactory. She sent the Senator”s letter to me, and I asked Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig of the University of Texas to review the accuracy of the letter. So, first comes the letter sent by Senator Harkin, then Dr. Heilig’s critique: […]

  2. School of Doubt | Required Reading 1/23/2014 - January 23, 2014

    […] Vasquez Heilig at Cloaking Inequality does a favor for Tom Harkin in answering questions about Teach for America. Thanks Dr […]

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