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New Teach For America study (and meme) debated in WaPo

The debate about the efficacy of Teach For America continued in the Washington Post this past weekend. Yes, it goes on and on. This time we are discussing a recently released study (apparently not peer-reviewed at this point) that says TFA teachers’ student performed better in math but not ELA. There are many non-peer reviewed studies that analyze TFA— which produce mixed results— as we discussed here. Su Jin Jez, Cal State Sacramento faculty member (also a good friend of mine since grad school), and I critique the study in the story (after a whole lot of Teach For America is awesome meme):

Critics, unsurprisingly, dispute this. Julian Vasquez Heilig, an associate professor at the University of Texas in Austin and a coauthor of the critical Linda Darling-Hammond paper, notes that the Mathematica sample compares TFA students both to traditionally certified teachers and to other teachers trained in alternative certification programs, some of which require as little as 30 hours spent on an online program before being sent into the classroom.

“Let’s say you go to Reagan airport, and Delta says you have three options: one pilot who has had 30 hours of training, another who’s had five weeks of training, and another who’s been piloting for five years and has been piloting this plane for a whole year. Which pilot do you want?” Vasquez Heilig asks. “When they compared the TFA teachers to the certified teachers, they weren’t better. There’s no significant result. So they’re comparing five weeks to 30 hours.”

Of course, Teach for America’s allies would say that that’s just the state of American education, where school districts have to choose between bad teachers or inexperienced TFA candidates. Vasquez Heilig thinks the better question to be asking is why that’s the case to start with. “Why do we have the word ‘hard-to-staff schools’?” he asks. “Does Finland? How about Korea? We aren’t doing what we need to be doing in terms of providing teacher quality.” Real teacher quality improvements, he argues, require money that politicians aren’t willing to spend.

Su Jin Gatlin Jez, an assistant professor at Cal State Sacramento and another Darling-Hammond coauthor, also notes that the United States doesn’t, in fact, have a teacher undersupply issue at the moment. Because of layoffs, we actually have too many teachers for spots available. “We’re laying off experienced teachers,” she says. “So the problem it’s solving may not be existing even at all.”

Overall, Jez concludes that the consensus on TFA among researchers would likely go something like, “They may be better than other teachers in math, but there’s no evidence they’re very good at reading, and definitely not compared to experienced teachers.” That seems fair, if a bit pessimistic. The evidence seems overwhelming that compared to other teachers in their districts, TFA teachers outperform them on math instruction and match them on reading. But when TFA teachers are compared to experienced teachers, the result is less clear.

I also noted in my discussion with the WaPo reporter that the study showed inconsistent effects for African American and Latina/o students across the distribution. They didn’t report results for White students. We also don’t know the demographics of the students beside their race/ethnicity. This is important considering the flood of recent critiques of the single day of training that new TFA corp members received from the organization before they begin teaching ELLs and Special Education students. I have discussed previously on Cloaking Inequity the noticeable uptick in TFA alums resistance in California and elsewhere against the organization— a Civil War. To read more about former TFA corps members’ critiques of the organization and for the full thread on TFA, go here.

Note: Dr. Su Jin Jez and I are producing an update this summer to the 2010 report that we authored for NEPC to examine the peer reviewed research that has been published since that time. Stay tuned.

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About Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig (688 Articles)
Julian Vasquez Heilig is an award-winning researcher and teacher. He is currently a Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and the Director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership at California State Sacramento.

5 Comments on New Teach For America study (and meme) debated in WaPo

  1. I wrote, just within the last couple of weeks, a blog post about this very topic–traditional and non tradition routes to teacher credentialing. I think one of the most important things to note about many TFA candidates is they openly disclaim that this “teaching thing” is meant to tide them over until their real career starts. As a parent, I don’t want teachers who are only invested in my child’s education until something better comes along. As a teacher, I don’t feel very motivated to invest in a colleague who doesn’t plan to invest in this career.
    This is not to say that all TFA candidates have this in mind, but the career span of a new teacher is short enough–on average 5 years. Creating a situation where people are only obligated to teach for 3-5 years is not going to help that statistic.

    I go further into these ideas in my blog post: Is there a better way to teach teachers?
    http://www.hawkanddovestrategies.com/is-there-a-better-way-to-teach-teachers/

    I’d love to hear others’ thoughts and opinions. I encourage comments and discussion on my blog.

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  2. Monty Thornburg // April 9, 2013 at 1:49 pm // Reply

    Andrew: My comments are about the “meme” i.e., “cultural information, cultural practice or idea” (Webster’s) that assumes that “privatized” Teach for America teachers are good and public school teachers are bad; is a norm. That’s why I used the term ‘myth’ when referring to the political place we find ourselves. A place where one entire Cable TV network seems to embrace “private” as good and “public” as bad, while another Cable news outlet seems to embrace just the opposite. Therefore, your statement that you “do not agree with the Objectivist, Libertarian, NeoCon platform that full-scale privatization is the answer,” – is welcome!

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  3. Monty Thornburg // April 9, 2013 at 12:18 pm // Reply

    You didn’t understand me! I said the “myth” that private is good and public bad is just that- a myth! You effectively knocked down the straw men/women, re: NCTM. As a classroom teacher of “at-risk” students, 9-12, I completely agree with your last statement.

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  4. Monty: The problem with “Students need to be supported by a system that cares about students and does not label them and subject them to so called zero tolerance rules that unnecessarily criminalize too many students” is that a.) “Standards,” at least rational objective ones, are to a certain extent “zero tolerance,” and once we start apologizing for having standards, that opens the door to all manner of apologist logic that serves only to justify and provide alibis for failure, not seek to remedy it; b.) It is a false dilemma to claim that a system that has such policies de facto does not care about students — in fact, it is the proponents of “progressive” notions such as the abolition of objective standards (look at what the NCTM did in 1989) who are putting their politics and social agendas above pedagogy, and as a result, are the ones who in fact do not care for children (they may think they do, and really even believe it, but their philosophy and their actions are empirically destructive and therefore against students’ best interests).

    It is possible to have a socially responsive pedagogy without embracing progressive cliches and collectivist rhetoric.

    Also, please understand that summarily dismissing “private is good and government is bad” is no better rhetorically than embracing it summarily. Another false dilemma. The fact is that public schools and schoolteachers are often unable to put their best foot forward because of arbitrary restrictions, often imposed form the top down, often by non-educators. Government, at all its levels — site-level administrative oversight, district-level oversight, state-level oversight and national-level politics — is simply overreaching its grasp. Each level adds a little something, that, taken individually, might not seem so bad, but it is the classroom teacher who feels the burden of these regulations’ and policies’ cumulative weight. I do not agree with the Objectivist, Libertarian, NeoCon platform that full-scale privatization is the answer, but the spirit of privatization — a certain measure of autonomy in the classroom and freedom from micro-management, for example, will help liberate teachers from the tangled briar patch that is NEA/NCLB/Common Core/Race to the Top, and allow them to actually, you know, teach.

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  5. Monty J. Thornburg // April 8, 2013 at 8:55 am // Reply

    In your comments it’s said: “Real teacher quality improvements, he argues, require money that politicians aren’t willing to spend.” That pretty much sums it up!

    Instead, politicians like to turn to popular policies that sound good to those outside schools such as “zero tolerance” and then rely on “privatized” solutions such as hiring inexpensive TFAs. Many politicians, then, pretend all of the problems are the fault of public school staffs; particularly teachers. This feeds the myth that private is good and government is bad; or, “government is the problem” as said by former President Reagan.

    Former President Reagan’s mythology is popular, I have found, among otherwise well meaning average citizens struggling to find educational solutions through charter schools. Charter schools supported by local populations when the public system was forced to drastically cut services and close schools due to the “Bush” economic conditions since 2008. And, to lend insult to injury, President Bush’s brother and other family members have raked in Billions of dollars with corporate education schemes that lend to the “privatized” myth as being true.

    In my 40 plus years as an educator, (teacher) going back to the “desegregation” days in New Orleans, your comment would have applied. I haven’t seen a change that would discredit the essence of what you said, i.e., that politicians are unwilling to spend! Look at the current financial mess in Washington and at the massive teacher layoffs caused by state government austerity measures.

    This was true then and continues to be particularly true where “under served” student populations in poor inner cities and rural areas exist.

    Also, I’m referring to services beyond the teachers of core subjects. Rather, I’m referring to the entire array of services that successful students experience. These are not all provided by schools and include: a hot meal, a decent and safe place to live, a culture that is respected, a climate that is conducive for learning, and committed-supported teachers by administrators who are likewise committed and supported by government and politicians. Also, the kinds of education programs that have been cut out: transportation services, counselors, library services, art and music programs, and vocational education programs to name some.

    Students need to be supported by a “system” that cares about students and does not label them and subject them to so called “zero tolerance” rules that unnecessarily criminalize too many students. This is particularly true for those from the groups mentioned above. Jail is a much more expensive option and the statistics in America bare this out. My own doctoral and other research has found significant evidence that zero tolerance rules lead in the direction of the “school to jail pipeline” researched and documented by the Advancement Project!

    The “pipeline” is counter productive to meeting the needs of students, teachers or administrators as are the gross lack of resources. Teachers alone, whether TFAs or experienced teachers cannot overcome the “school climate” conditions caused by such policies- policies supported by too many politicians.

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