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March 28, 2008

Do Teach for America teachers get better results?

A new study by the Urban Institute says yes. The nonpartisan think tank studied achievement data in North Carolina high schools and found that students whose teachers were placed through Teach for America scored higher on math and science exams than their peers.

Teach for America, or TFA, selects graduates of the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities and assigns them to work in some of the nation's toughest schools for a two-year commitment. With 17,000 applicants, TFA placed more than 2,000 teachers in 2005 and expects its ranks to grow to 4,000 by 2010. While few would question the intelligence of the program's participants (several of whom work in Baltimore), critics have two major gripes: 1) that TFA is sending to our neediest schools teachers who are not only uncertified, but sometimes culturally unprepared for an inner-city environment, and 2) that it perpetuates a revolving door of teachers in needy schools (since some college grads see the program as a resume-builder while they figure out what they want to do with their lives).

The Urban Institute's study indicates that those criticisms are unfounded. "TFA teachers are able to more than offset their lack of teaching experience, either due to their better academic preparation in particular subject areas or due to other unmeasured factors such as motivation," the report says. The advantage still held when TFA teachers were compared with colleagues fully certified in their fields. The report's authors say their findings stress the importance of finding teachers with strong academic backgrounds and -- yikes! -- indicate that teacher recruitment is more important than teacher retention.

I have no doubt that this report will generate controversy. Do its findings ring true in your experience?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:06 AM | | Comments (20)
Categories: Study, study!, Teaching



My school does not receive TFA teachers, though it does tend to attract younger teachers who teach for a few years and then move off to different careers or better schools. Although they weren't affiliated with Teach For America, I've seen young and idealistic teachers come to our school, struggle to engage their students, become disenchanted, and leave halfway through the year. I think a lot of it is that people are driven by the glory of being some sort of savior, and aren't prepared to cope with the cultural differences and the lack of support they're given from a school system with big problems.

To me as a student, it's certainly not encouraging to see your teachers give up on you and run off to better schools. The Urban Institute may have a point: why should I care as a senior what my Spanish teacher is now doing four years later? But in a school that's full of people hopping aboard and then jumping ship, it's hard to build a strong support system for students in tough situations who can find other [dangerous] things to do than finish out four years of high school. It's hard to make steady progress when every year new people have to make the same hard acclimatization. TFA is a quick fix for a big problem, and while I certainly admire the people that dedicate two years of their live to giving something to a needy community, perhaps I'm a little disillusioned myself.

One little exception: I did meet this year a new teacher who did TFA, survived, and decided to keep teaching in the system. He said he was only one of a handful that decided to go back for more.

Lisa - based on your comments, it sounds to me that you were in a position to supervise and be a mentor. As such, you probably did counsel many teachers, both TFA and other NEW teachers, for whom the first year presents a huge learning curve. Your comments here, disparaging as they are to a group of people, are both unprofessional and not appropriate for the level of discourse we should be having, in order to ensure the best possible education for our children in Baltimore City.

That being said, I do agree that teaching is an art form that requires finesse and definitely requires experience - experience best gained whilst in the classroom. When I started teaching through TFA, I had some teaching experience...but nothing, including a "certificate", would have best prepared me for the various challenges I faced. And yet, I overcame those challenges, with the support of mentors from BCPSS, my school site, and Hopkins; as a result, my students flourished. Not only on exams, but also on other measures that are less quantifiable, but arguably more important. I measured my success by the number of students who asked thought provoking questions, who started using college level words and started focusing their attention and energy toward entering college, etc. I agree with you, Lisa, that there are other measures (indeed, better measures) than standardized tests, but unfortunately those are difficult to quantify and publish.

Overall, I think we can all agree that this discussion should be in the context of what will be best for our students. And I would have to agree - there is something to be said for the intangibles like motivation, passion, and willingness to learn from mistakes...all of which ultimately leads to an effective and experienced educator. These are NOT qualities that are limited to Teach for America teachers; they are intrinsic qualities that we should find and support. In that respect, I disagree with Urban Institute study that recruitment is more important than retention; I think they are both equally critical to the improvement of education. Once we find the intangibles in a teacher, we should have a workplace that supports their continued professional growth and treats them as professionals.

I hate to move the discussion in this direction, but in order to RETAIN top teachers, we must pay them as top professionals, provide them with professional development opportunities that don't belittle their education and experiences, and we must develop supervisors and leaders of our schools who will support the frontline educators.

Thanks, Artie, for the insight into teaching and the retention of teachers. TFA teachers may or may not be better than others at motivating. They are certainly more idealistic and ready to try new and different approaches to education. That is a good thing and one all of us in education can learn from. Unfortunately, they often burn out even with support because of the many problems they find that they want to deal with also. One of the things I counsel my new teachers with is not to overextend themselves in the first couple of years--coaching, extra curriculars and the like. Teaching is a full-time job even for veterans and new teachers have too much trouble with time management as it is. Yes, retention is the true problem but money alone won't cure the issue. Most of the teachers who leave after only a few years do so not for more money but for a job where they feel truly appreciated and that they believe their efforts are recognized. Society will have to change drastically before that will happen.

In my experience, no, they do not get better results. They either get about the same or worse. My question is this: are they studying only elementary schools? Or are there middle schools and high schools that are completely TFA? If a student has 1 out of 8 classes taught by a member of Teach For America, does that count towards the achievement data of TFA? In secondary education, one teacher CAN make a difference but it is a lot harder to measure.

Also, with any new teacher, there is a learning curve. For a study to say that teacher recruitment is more important than teacher retention is almost ridiculous. Perhaps in more stable environments that can be true, but urban areas almost demand experience.

I know this article is about TFA but I was struck by the last statement about the importance placed on attracting new teachers vs retaining new teachers. Each year in Baltimore County approximately 1000 new teachers are hired. It goes to show that BCPS also feels that attracing is more important than retaining. When they give signing bonuses to teachers who last only a year or two (because that happens with or without TFA) and will not ask for a raise in salary for the veterans who have spent the bulk of their career with the students in BCPS it shows how much value the system places on their teachers.

Some new teaches quit. Whether it's because they're unprepared for the stress of the urban classroom, they don't have the tenacity to work through the growing pains of learning a new profession, or they simply don't have a taste for teaching, it's a reality of the field that is not limited to alternative certification teachers. TFA drop-outs just stand-out because they already have a high profile as members of what is still seen by many as an experimental program. If you look at same-school retention rates within the first two years of teaching, TFA corps members are actually less likely to leave their placement schools than their trad-cert counterparts, despite the ever-present "this one at my school" stories.

When it comes to the issue of retaining teachers after two years, that is a problem that has to be met on a structural, not individual, level. Teaching is a profession; it is not volunteer work. If young, intelligent, successful teachers are leaving after a few years, we should be thinking of ways to make the profession more attractive to them, not passing moral judgment and labeling them as quitters. What TFA teachers have that many trad cert teachers do not are strong exit options. They have impressive resumes and degrees in malleable subjects, so there is naturally going to be more competition for their services in the labor market. If school systems want to hold onto their talent, they need to move away from the current tenured-based pay structure that awards time served and ignores effort and results. Any business that pays its top-performer a third of what it pays a lower-performing employee would lose that top-performer to another job with greater potential for advancement. Merit-based pay - not simply higher salaries - is the only way to draw and keep the talent the school systems so desperately need. We need to stop thinking of urban teachers as martyrs and start treating them like professionals. Until that happens, the schools have no one to blame but themselves when they lose their star math teacher to investment banking.

Ben - I want to underscore your second to last sentence because I think it absolutely illustrates the point: "We need to stop thinking of urban teachers as martyrs and start treating them like professionals." THANK YOU! In one sentence, you best stated what it took me several paragraphs above to try to muddle through :) lol

Ben totally is right on. And to that end, during my TFA training, they did an excellent job of preparing us to be consummate professionals. It is fair to state that TFA tends to attract a very idealistic bunch - and the current leaders of the organization recognize this and very effectively help the Corps Members realize they are not out to save the world - just make their classroom as effective and welcoming a place for children to best learn.

Now, whether TFA teachers are more effective than other first year teachers is a point that can be debated - I am not comfortable making that claim because as I stated earlier, I believe the methodology for defining "effective" leaves much to be desired. But I again reiterate what I do believe - TFA teachers enter some of the most difficult classrooms in the country and, because they are willing to try new things, recreate best practices working with the veteran teachers in the building, and make magic happen, they deserve to at least be respected as colleagues in the field. I was fortunate at my school to never experience the type of animosity and jealousy that some of my colleagues felt at other city schools. I was at a school where we were like family in the building and all looked out for each other.

Point is my school was like a family not because it had more TFA teachers than most (half the faculty at the time), but because our school LEADERS were competent, ridiculously hard working, and supportive. They worked hard to integrate all the faculty and help us contribute to the whole based on our talents. Indeed, as Ben said, they treated us like professionals in the field...and it made all the difference.

City College: Anyone who calls TFA a quick fix completely misses the mission of the organization, that is, to raise awareness about our nation's biggest problem, the achievement gap. TFA attracts the best and brightest, people who if they do leave the school system after their two years will be leaders in whatever profession they pursue. These are the people who will make change happen in the long term. You cannot teach in a terrible school like many in Bmore City and not leave a changed person for the experience.

Furthermore there is plenty of evidence to suggest that TFA alum do stay involved in education. In DC I believe 14 of the city's public school principals are TFA alum. The DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is one as well.

Steph, the entire point of a scientific study is to get past issues of sample size and bias. Bluntly, a study like this trumps your personal experience. I might add that my own experience has shown TFA teachers to be at worst middle of the pack and often much better than their counterparts.

While many do not complete their term, I believe their dropout rate compared to BCTR or any 1st year BCPS teacher is far superior. Even if they do leave following their 2 years, those 2 years of teaching are likely superior (as this study confirms) to whatever non-TFA teacher would have been in their place.

Experience is important but far too often it is experience in failure, protected by the union.


Alt cert folks in BCPSS tend to actually have better retention than traditional cert, despite personal impressions of the issue. And even if many are leaving, if they are making an impact on student learning while here, this seems like a good thing.

The Abell Foundation commissioned a report to look at retention of TFA, PSS (another alternative program at JHU) and Baltimore City Teaching Residency (BCTR) versus regular certification longitudinally from 1999 - 2005 and found:

"On average, teachers in alternative certification programs had higher retention rates than either conditionally or regularly certified teachers for each of their first five years of teaching in BCPSS."

There are always going to be critics of methodology (especially in education research), but attempts at systematic study are usually much more valuable than personal anecdotes.

I understand scientific study. I believe the last question in Sara's blog post said, "Do its findings ring true in your experience?"

In my own experience, the answer is no.


Touche salesman.

Like Artie, I'm another former Bmore TFA teacher. Do I think I got any better results than anyone else at my school? Probably not. Did I stay at the school any longer than anyone else, nope. Besides some of the old guard, every teacher at my school had been there five years or less. Not to mention several classrooms spent the whole year without a certified teacher, having a rotating door of long-term subs. I outlasted TWO principals. One of those principals was then transferred to another middle school where she didn't even last out the year.

The reality of the situation was is that the ENTIRE building was in utter chaos. Students ran in and out of classrooms, threw books out the windows, cursed out the teachers, set fires in the ceiling tiles, started food fights in the cafeteria, sexually harassed staff/faculty members as well as their peers, physically assulted teachers, etc, etc... Don't worry though, in order to escape the dreaded persistanly dangerous label, we didn't suspend or punish or attempt to reform those students in any way.

It's no wonder the building is now closed. I don't think I was able to find much success in my classroom, but I don't think anyone in my building did. What I did find was heartbreaking, the kid sitting in the front row begging to learn while the kid next to him takes up all the teacher's attention by running around the room throwing paper airplanes. The group of kids who would stay after school to do projects because their classmates would misbehave and the day's lesson would be ruined. I saw this all over the building and what I felt was sadness. Here was the kids who really wanted their education and they were getting less than what they deserved because of a few troublemakers.

The support I got from the school administration was simply, "Sorry, but you've got to strike FEAR into those kids. Unless you can make them afraid that you'll just go totally crazy on them one day, they'll never respect you." So I left after my two years. I'm now at a school where I feel supported by the administration and the other teachers and couldn't be happier.

Alex I am glad you shared your experience. Some schools are essentially broken, and well-intentioned teachers are screwed regardless of their efforts.

I think IBE (Walbrook) is one of those schools. I've watched my TFA roomate get beaten down first hand by a culture of failure and a terrible administration. How can you possibly expect to maintain discipline when you send a troublemaker to the principal only to have him/her triumphantly return to class 10 minutes later?

What's really depressing is that Alonso recently visited IBE and the principal, knowing of the visit in advance cleaned up the school for the day. Alonso gave the school an A rating when in reality it's a mess. Alonso needs to visit these schools unannounced and actually interview a random selection of teachers to get a real conception of the environment.

Perhaps his last visit was just to rate the physical plant?

Alex and Corey bring up an excellent point. Regardless of the training of the educator in the classroom, LEADERSHIP of the school is critical. I often wondered if the CEO and other big wigs really felt that many schools were top-notch because during their visits, the schools often were in an amazing state - contrary to daily life in the particular school.

To this end, punitive and ineffective punishment needs to be replaced with more effective training of our school leaders. When the threat for having a bad school is to be fired, you do what you need to do to maintain the bread on your table. In BCPSS (in the FUTURE :) before any firing can take place, there should be intense training and peer support - only if a principal still doesn't get it after being given all possible lifelines should they be let go.

I am fully in agreement with you that visits need to be UNANNOUNCED. Follow-up, however, should not be punishment, but rather, intense training and support to help an individual improve. IF the training fails to improve the principal's leadership and if the school culture continues to be poor (as gauged by the TEACHERS and unannounced visits), then PLEASE fire the dead weight.

I wish I had read this earlier. Unfortunately, I've found myself bogged down in BCPSS work and law school life that blog reading/writing has diminished dramatically. I have 2 quick points to add.

1) I want to echo Corey's post. For full disclosure's sake, I was also a TFA Baltimore CM ('05), and I left the classroom after my 2nd year. I will be the first to admit that to this day I have bangs of guilt for not seeing my students everyday anymore. However, and this is the big however, looking at TFA in the perspective of teaching alone completely misses the point of the mission. The mission is that "one day all children will have the opportunity to attain and excellent education." Attacking the achievement gap CANNOT be done by teachers alone. Through teaching, I'm sure the vast majority of you have learned that the issues faced in the classroom stem from WAY greater problems than simple academic deficiencies. These problems stem from structural racism, housing issues, mental health, general poverty issues, substance abuse, employment, transportation, et al. The achievement gap is a serious problem and we must attack it from ALL vantage points. The purpose of the 2 year commitment is to bring those into the field so that (a) they continue or (b) take the experience with them when they move on to hold positions of power in other industries. TFA alum across the country (25,000 by 2010) are leading some of the most impressive organizations, both private and non-profit, that our country has to offer. TFA are directing industrial thought to the achievement gap like never before. One of the chief managing partners at one of the most prestigious law firms in the country (world) is a TFA alum who is direct the pro-bono expansion. That firm (through community based legal intervention) is affecting educational inequity issues on a scale and from a perspective that a classroom teacher just cannot ever reach - I'm sorry to say it, but it's just true. The bottom line is that educational reform cannot just be left to the efforts of educators. It must come from all industries, and TFA's mission is functioning in exactly that way.

Were it not for Teach for America, there is probably no chance that I would have ever been working for urban educational issues - just wasn't my thing. Because of Teach for America, my life likely is dedicated to educational equity issues, and I go to law school and concurrently work at North Ave precisely because I am continuing along TFA's mission. While I regret leaving my kids, I want their kids to have a better opportunity than they did, and I believe that my efforts are better spent fighting legal battles for struggling communities than serving in the classroom (note: that is not at all to say anything other than that I have the highest respect for teachers - I just wasn't a very efficient one).

2) I wouldn't make assumptions about what Dr. Alonso does or does not believe about certain schools. He's an extremely intelligent man, and I think he has a better grasp on the situation than maybe others are giving him credit for. Additionally, many visits are unannounced, and let's all remember that he's still only 8 months in the position. I'm sure there's plenty still to come. The real question is what the schools will look like after this summer and the implementation of the Fair Student Funding strategy - that's the true kicker and the true test of the future of city schools.

Alright, not short at all, got on a rant. Enjoyed it, but back to work.

I am going to be a TFA teacher in Baltimore this coming Fall. If ANY of you Baltimore teachers, TFA or otherwise, would be willing to share your experience/offer any words of advice, I would be incredibly grateful!


I think Teach for America is a great idea. Honestly, it should be extended to all teaching. Schools would be much better if schools could recruit the smartest students from the best schools, instead of--because of useless certification requirements--be forced to bypass talented people who majored in something real so they can hire graduates of teaching colleges who took useless classes in educational theory propounding pseudo-marxist obscure scholars like Paolo Freire.

Granted, teaching is a gift. Some brilliant people cannot teach and some average people can. But "teaching" can't be taught through education classes. Let's let schools hire the best candidates, not just the certified candidates.

I am veteran teacher from Houston seeking a dialogue with current and past Teach for America teachers regarding what appears to be a pattern of TFA leaders and alumni in school district leadership positions espousing conservative ideas and profiting from close relationships with reactionary corporations, while self-righteously proclaiming they are the new civil rights movement. I first became aware of this when a former local TFA Director, now a school board member, recently proposed to fire teachers based on test scores and opposed allowing us to vote to have a single union.

The conservative-TFA nexus began at the beginning, when Union Carbide sponsored Wendy Kopp's initial efforts to create Teach for America. A few years before, Union Carbide's negligence had caused the worst industrial accident in history, in Bhopal, India. The number of casualties was as large as 100,000, and Union Carbide did everything possible to minimize taking responsibility for the event. Not only did Union Carbide provide financial support for Ms. Kopp, it provided her with other corporate contacts and office space for her and her staff.

A few years later, when TFA faced severe financial difficulties, Ms. Kopp wrote in her book she nearly went to work for the Edison Project, and was all but saved by their managerial assistance. The Edison Project, founded by a Tennessee entrepreneur, was an effort to replace public schools run by elected school boards with for-profit, corporate-run schools.

In 2000, two brilliant TFA alumni, the founders of KIPP Academy, then joined the Bush's at the Republican National Convention in 2000. This was vital to Bush, since as Governor he did not really have any genuine education achievements, and he was trying to prove he was a different kind of Republican. And everyone knows about Michelle Rhee's prescription for improving education, close schools rather than improving them, and fire teachers rather than inspiring them.

Wendy Kopp's idea for Teach for America was a good one. TFA teachers do great work. But its leaders often seem to blame teachers, public schools and teachers' organizations for the achievement gap. By blaming teachers for some deep-seated social problems this nation has, they are not only providing an inaccurate critique, they feed conservatives more ammunition to use in their twenty-eight year war against using government as a problem solver.

Our achievement gap mirrors our country's level of economic inequality, the greatest among affluent nations. Better schools are only part of the solution. Stable families are more able to be ambitious for their children than insecure, overworked and struggling ones. Our society has failed our schools by permitting the middle class to shrink.(It's not the other way around.) As more people are starting to recognize, we need national health care, a stronger union movement, long-term unemployment benefits, generous college funding, trade policy and reductions in military spending to bolster the middle class.

Ms. Kopp claims to be in the tradition of the civil rights movement, but Martin Luther King would take principled positions—against the Vietnam War and for the Poor Peoples March—even when it pissed off powerful people. His final speech, the night of his assassination, was on behalf of striking Memphis sanitation workers. In his last book, he argued for modifying American capitalism to include some measure of wealth distribution. I would like a dialogue about what I have written here. My e-mail is You as an individual TFA teacher has a responsibility here because your work alone gives TFA leaders credibility (its not the other way around.)

I am going to be a TFA teacher in Baltimore this coming Fall. If ANY of you Baltimore teachers, TFA or otherwise, would be willing to share your experience/offer any words of advice, I would be incredibly grateful!

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