Inside Information and Reflections from a Former TFA Instructor

I spent many years instructing new Teach For America (TFA) recruits. I was responsible for accessing TFA’s classroom practice and reviewing real-time student math test scores.

Lack of Preparation

What’s generally taken as fact is that Teach For America’s novices graduate in the top 10% of their highly selective institutions. But, not all corps members hail from “elite” universities. The organization’s website notes this admission criteria: “In order to apply to Teach For America you must satisfy the following prerequisites: Your undergraduate cumulative GPA is at least 2.50 on a 4.00 scale.” So, in effect, candidates can apply with a 2.5 GPA and still be admitted. Regardless, neither GPA, nor corps member elite profile necessarily translates to a CM’s classroom effectiveness.

Moreover, way too many variables, with respect to one’s placement, debunks the guarantee that suggests that corps member’s attributes transfer to their students’ math scores in the classroom. Teach For America’s expectation of high performance, often places “blame” squarely on the shoulders of novice corps members when they burn out or fail, who are not adequately prepared when they arrive in their placement classroom, and have no definitive way in determining their teaching assignment (other than selecting a general region where they would agree to be relocated to).

I have coached and come to know very determined and dedicated CM’s who faced challenges in their site-based realities that were obscured from policymakers, corporate funders and philanthropists who drop in for photo opportunity visitations while CM’s (and career educators) face safety issues, high numbers of ELL students, class sizes of 30-40 students, inadequate administrative support, limited availability of materials, and inconsistent levels of homeostasis in one’s teaching environment (rain water seeping into the classrooms, poor ventilation, non-existent furniture for students). Surely the lack of basic human needs, if left unmet, consistently factors into a child’s overall achievement, including mathematics. Efforts of individual corps members to understand and address the human needs of their students is rarely assessed.

The Research

For TFA’s organization, there are two types of research— studies that showcase the organization and always determine that corp members (CMs) with five weeks of training magically outperform ANY other group of teachers (even if, when re-examined, the information doesn’t support their narrative of success) and then there are the others studies that Teach For America generally dismisses.

To suggest that student math (or any other subject) gains be predicated from indicators noted on TFA’s admission character traits rubric, is sheer folly. One study, authored by Will Dobbie, based within The Economic Think Tank at Harvard University, boasted funding from The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and includes Think Tank board members Michelle Rhee, and Joel Klein, former DC and NYC schools’ chancellors, who are each powerful and influential Teach For America supporters.Michelle_Rhee

Previous studies from Mathematica, Inc. offered irrefutable evidence that TFA does what other teachers are not able to do…. raise student achievement. However, Cloaking Inequity has critique the most recent studies in the posts,

Despite the critiques, TFA quotes Mathematica Policy Institute research in nearly every publication, website, and promotional artifact. TFA strongly promotes studies that show student achievement gains under their corps members; however, few researchers consider the question of TFA teaching effectiveness as empirically settled or conclusive. Regents’ Professor (state of AZ) and statistical guru, Gene Glass (2008), reviewed Mathematica’s first study and noted:

Students of TFA teachers gained on average .15 standard deviation units more on the mathematics test than did the other students. This is equivalent to students having received one extra month of instruction. There was no difference between the average gain scores in Reading. Although the Mathematica group makes much of the fact that their study involved random assignment of students to teachers, the experimental unit in this case was an entire classroom and not individual students. Hence, the degrees of freedom, and consequently the degree of experimental control afforded by randomization, were exaggerated in the report of the study. As with so many issues in education research, the relative effectiveness of alternatively certified teachers dissolves into arguments about recondite matters of statistical methods (pp. 13-14).

I’m wondering why corps members data in these studies is not typically limited to a TFA’ers two-year commitment. Including teachers in year three and beyond, raises questions because TFA alums are no longer considered CM’s nor teaching apprentices. Further, in particular regions, between 60% and 80% of TFA teachers leave their placement site (and often the profession) at the conclusion of their finite two-year TFA commitment. Additionally, between year two and year three, most corps members have completed a graduate level education degree to augment their initial five-week TFA educator training conducted at Corps Training Institute, and they have acquired teaching strategies and methodologies that support their effectiveness in the classroom from education programs and experienced instructors.

Does money matter?

A review of Teach For America’s Business Plan (2010-2015) entitled, “Building and Enduring Institution” notes how taxpayer funds were indirectly used to promote Mathematica, Inc.’s millions in fees for research was paid from funds garnered through the U.S. Department of Education to TFA. According to TFA’s Business Plan narrative:

Teach For America was successfully awarded a “scale up” grant as part of the Department of Education’s “Investing in Innovation” competitive grant program, and will receive $45 million over four years (an additional $5 million will be granted to Mathematica, Inc. to conduct a study examining the effectiveness of our corps members as we scale.) (p. 24).

!0_MORGUE_2008_MoneyStack001PSPIs it not curious that an organization such as Mathematica, Inc. is paid to study an alternative teacher education program with funds procured by the U.S. DOE? And, that’s not all. What does it mean when a research organization maintains an ongoing relationship with high-profile high paying clients? What would you think if you knew that the TFA network also enlisted the services of Mathematica, Inc. for its charter school math assessments? TFA charter subsidiaries, KIPP Academies and YES College Prep Public Schools employ the services of Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. for their outside, independent consulting, too.

Is it coincidental or does it appear slightly curious or professionally irregular, that the same research firm is responsible for multiple studies across the TFA landscape? Do concerns of bias, favoritism, or subject selectivity, cross one’s mind when the identical reporting agency that generates millions of dollars annually conducts research across the same educational network, for yet another study? See my prior discussion of these issues in the post Huggy, Snuggly, Cuddly: Teach For America and Mathematica

From the looks of things, Mathematica, Inc. seems to garner repeat business from TFA and incestuously related charter franchises, and might be deemed the go-to research agency for rosy outcomes.

Every few years shouldn’t the Department of Education, who is funding studies with taxpayer monies, stipulate that TFA hire an independent reviewing agency so that the public might trust the results, without wondering whether or not “researcher vested interest” presents? Can one assume that when researchers garner significant funds over consecutive studies they can remain independent? Furthermore, why are researchers studying TFA required to share results with TFA before they are made public?

Every business entity recognizes the importance of retaining generous and loyal clients, who provide significant revenue. Repeat business warrants keeping the customer satisfied, and Teach for America pays big bucks for studies that they commission that offers credibility from agencies so procured to conduct reliable assessments.

Are Teach For America teachers “Highly-Qualified”?

Soon the US Congress will vote on whether to permanently confer highly-qualified status on teachers-in-training, namely, TFA corps members in the reauthorization of ESEA. Members of Congress might agree with TFA’s take on their incoming corps members, and vote yes since so many of their aides and interns are TFA alumnae. TFA dominates discussions in DC because their corps members are everywhere but the classroom.

Here are the facts: Far too many of TFA’s teachers lack minimal qualifications, and wouldn’t be hired (during their first year) to teach the children of the wealthy and the grandchildren and children of our nation’s leaders. They are not prepared or qualified to teach Special Education, primary grade literacy, or subject areas that are not aligned with their content area specialization. Moreover, they are disproportionately assigned to classrooms of poor kids across the United States, with populations of children who are overwhelmingly of color and live in poverty.

Teach For America’s corps members are pressured to ‘get the hang of teaching’ quickly through TFA’s compressed teacher development— about 18 classroom hours according to the most recent research.

Is it not surprising that preparation for cosmetologists (15 weeks) is 300% more than TFA’s (5 weeks)?

Carter and Gonzalez’ (1993) research synthesizes the acquisition of knowledge by novice teachers learning to teach, into three areas: (a) information processing, (b) practical knowledge, and (c) pedagogical content knowledge. Could each of these aspects of teacher knowledge really be concentrated into a 5-week span? If so, are novices able to retain and then apply all of this information? The answer from a CM sums up the boots-on-the-ground evidence:

As the manual states, we were directed to ‘be challenge ready’ without the tools to do the job well. The focus was always on the assessment and the big goals, and we often we were just repeating the ideas to ourselves, but internally questioning, ‘How is this really going to happen when I have live kids in the class?’

Josh, Corps Member 2012

Though the thought may be unpopular with some, it’s time to ask: What really is TFA’s commitment to children?

Read more about my experiences training TFA corps members in the book Learning on Other People’s Kids: Becoming a Teach for America Teacher

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Hamilton, M. L. (1993). Think you can: The influence of culture on beliefs. In C. Day, J. Calderhead, & P. Denicolo (Eds.), Research on teacher thinking: Understanding professional development (pp. 87-99). London: Falmer.

Saltman, K. J. & Gabbard, D. (2003). Education as enforcement: the militarization and corporatization of schools. New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Teach For America (2010-2015). Building the Movement to Eliminate Educational Inequity Teach For America Business Plan 2010 – 2015

Veltri, B.T. (July 2008). Teaching or Service? Education and urban society. 40 (5). Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks, California.

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