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Barnum: Can We Talk About How Expensive TFA Has Become?

This is a guest commentary from Matt Barnum, at TFA 2010 alumnus who's now at the University of Chicago Law School:

image from farm4.staticflickr.comThose of us engaged in the education policy debate have heard, many times over, all the arguments for and against Teach For America.

That’s why I was not surprised when much of the response to a recent TFA critique I wrote for the Washington Post “Answer Sheet” blog fell along traditional lines.

A few reform critics posted it gleefully on Twitter; the reform community, on the other hand, by and large ignored it – another day, another critique of TFA. Yawn.

This is understandable insofar as some of my points were old arguments restated and previously rejected by reformers. But I would challenge reformers to seriously consider the cost-effectiveness arguments against TFA.

Why?

Because when thinking about the cost-effectiveness of TFA, I rarely hear discussions about the, uh, costs.

I am ambivalent on the question of whether TFA, taken as a whole right now, is having a positive effect on schools and students. However, I am not ambivalent on the question of whether TFA is a cost-effective: it’s not.

In 2009 Teach For America spent a stunning  $38,046 per incoming corps member; in 2005 that same number was just $18,811. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations – dividing TFA’s 2011 expenses (pdf) by the number of 2011 incoming corps members – TFA is now spending $42,151 for each new recruit.

[In a response to the 2010 GiveWell report, TFA writes that the additional funding is being "invested in improving corps member and alumni effectiveness" and that future efficiencies will reduce the cost per recruit.] 

Even so, it’s simply impossible to fathom that it’s worth throwing this kind of money at corps members, two thirds of whom will be out of the classroom within four years, and who may or may not be more effective than the average teacher. Not to mention the reality – which I speak to in my original Washington Post piece  – that for some corps members, the expensive training and continued support is largely useless.

Think about it this way: if you were in charge of a low-income district and were offered 100 TFA teachers or the nearly $4 million those teachers cost TFA, which would you choose? I realize that this is an overly simplistic hypothetical, but it makes my point starkly. Money in education can be better used on other initiatives.

The onus should be on those who want to continue Teach For America to come up with strong reason to do so. Reformers are right when they say that the status quo is unacceptable and cannot, solely by its existence, be.

But, like it or not, TFA is now the status quo.

Matt Barnum is a 2010 alumni of Teach For America – Colorado; he taught eighth grade English in Colorado Springs. He currently attends the University of Chicago Law School and writes frequently about education. Image via Flickr Paul Lowry

Comments

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"'I realize that this is an overly simplistic hypothetical' but I'll continue to use it so I can extend the five minutes of fame my rehashed arguments have earned me. Oh please, please pay me attention, 1L is soooooo boring."

From the same Givewell page cited: "We feel that TFA is one of the most transparent and well-evaluated groups working in the field of education, with the result that there is a large body of evidence about its work whose interpretation requires substantial judgment calls. We strongly encourage donors interested in this area to consider TFA and the evidence we have discussed here."

Selective citation much?

"Think about it this way: if you were in charge of a low-income district and were offered 100 TFA teachers or the nearly $4 million those teachers cost TFA, which would you choose? I realize that this is an overly simplistic hypothetical, but it makes my point starkly. Money in education can be better used on other initiatives."

Like what? Spending on education has doubled over the last few decades and produced little in terms of improvements in student outcomes. Cities like Newark, NJ spend over $20,000 per year per student on public education and get horrible results. $4M is likely a drop in the bucket for large urban school districts.

The only stark thing about your point is that it's starkly biased based on your own experience and starkly uninformed.

Give me the 100 teachers. GIve all of the TFA alum still working in and around the classroom to provide better outcomes for children, including some of the countries best performing networks of schools. Give me the flourishing alumni network working on multiple issues related to low-income communities. 28,000 extra advocates is not nearly enough.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.