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Bruno: TFA Is Great At Recruitment (Which May Not Matter Much)

4613987073_c945954c92I didn't initially think much about this short article about business and economics majors postponing lucrative careers in finance to spend a few years with Teach for America.

Blogger Andy Rotherham, however, was annoyed by the coverage of such teachers' effectiveness. And it's fair to say that the discussion in this case is almost entirely evidence-free. 

Still, Rotherham's defense of TfA raises more questions for me than it answers.He makes two points: that studies support TfA teachers' effectiveness, and that TfA's real strength is in recruitment, not training. His interpretation of the research - that TfA teachers perform "as well or modestly better than other teachers" -  is generous, but not unreasonable. (I'd say it's an over-simplification.)

If TfA's recruitment is so effective, though, why are their teachers only roughly "as good" as those who enter through other routes? As far as I can tell, the fact that TfA teachers aren't dramatically better (and don't demonstrate greater retention) implies either that TfA's training is substantially inferior or that their recruitment strategies don't matter much.

If Rotherham is right on both of his points, that would seem to imply that TfA's training is quite poor. My instinct is that he's actually overestimating the importance of recruitment strategies. I don't have hard evidence, here, but I can certainly speculate.

I actually fit the profile of a TfA recruit in some ways - I graduated (with honors!) from a prestigious university, for example - and indeed I applied but didn't get in.  But it's not obvious to me what about my background  better prepared me for teaching. I am also not aware of research indicating that high-performing graduates of prestigious schools do consistently better in the classroom. 

Moreover, I haven't seen any evidence that traditional teacher training is markedly superior to TfA's methods. My own training - at the same prestigious university where I did my undergraduate work - certainly left a great deal to be desired. Nor do I often hear other teachers - especially newer teachers - speak highly of their own traditional programs. 

All of which indicates to me that while Teach for America has made a name for itself in part by aggressively recruiting an "elite" corps of recent college graduates, those recruitment strategies may not matter much. That would be an interesting result in its own right.

- PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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Actually, there is evidence that high-performing graduates of any type of college (not just elite colleges) do perform better in the classroom. I will see if I can find that evidence and link to it. But I'm guessing that the study was mostly looking at teachers who were strong students in high school and college, then found their way into teaching through more traditional routes -- either they graduated with certification, or they were career-switchers who went through traditional Education MA programs. They were not looking for a 2-year sojourn in education land (as some TFA'ers clearly are), they were looking for careers. One difference between these types of teachers and TFA teachers is that they are not heavily recruited, there is no aura of glamor to their decision, and they are not surrounded by a cohort of other high achievers who bond with each other through the intense (but very short) training period. In other words, they were choosing teaching even though it was not surrounded by a support system and an appealing peer group.

TFA's great strengths, of course, are PR and fundraising. Same with many, or perhaps most, education "reform" operations.

@Caroline - If TfA is getting equally effective teachers into the classroom more efficiently - i.e., some combination of faster and/or cheaper - then it's fair to say they're pretty good at *something* of value. If EB's right, it's mostly recruitment; my instinct is that it's mostly training.

You read their blogs, right?

Even assuming a skewed selection bias, I have a tough time believe the well-meaning whiners are equally effective. But as a rule, they are teaching in populations where no one can be effective, if by effective you mean educating low ability kids.

That said, I don't know what anyone means by "effective" teacher training. It's an art, not a skill. Teacher training is just a pretext to give teachers classroom experience that the schools don't have to pay for.

I'll just say that TFA's effectiveness is under debate, and some view it as a destructive rather than beneficial force in terms of its impact on public education. But no one can dispute its supremacy in terms of winning fawning press and deluges of funding.

Paul ...

If TFA's recruiting and training were inferior to traditional preparation, then TFA teachers would under-perform traditionally-prepared teachers. But TFA teachers do as well or better than traditionally-prepared teachers, which proves that TFA's selection and training are not inferior to traditional preparation. If you don't buy this argument, you're on good grounds, but your argument the other way round against Andy is equally weak. All this of course leaves aside what Andy meant when he said that TFA's strength is recruitment. You interpret strength in recruitment to mean demonstrably better results compare to other teachers. Your comments about your own preparation and experience in your early career are informative and I'd be interested in your reflections on that in context of what Andy meant by TFA's strength is recruitment. Why don't you ask him instead of speculate?

@EB - I meant to say earlier: I'd be very interested to see that research.

@Art - I think you misunderstand me. My point is not that TFA's recruitment & retention are inferior to their traditional equivalents. My point is that it probably cannot be the case that both their recruitment AND their training are superior (precisely because the evidence indicates they are basically as effective as their traditional peers). I didn't think I was speculating about Andy's position; I thought I was taking it to its logical conclusion.

Another way to put it would be that research indicates that:

(1)(TfA recruitment + TfA training)≈(traditional recruitment + traditional training)

Andy seems to think that:

(2)(TfA recruitment) > (traditional recruitment)

As far as I can tell, (1) & (2) taken together imply:

(3) (TfA training) < (traditional training)

If TfA teachers last no longer in their profession, and are no better than traditional teachers, the question to be would be, is this a cost effective way to get more teachers, assuming a shortage. Currently their is a glut in California, but even if a shortage did exit, I would want to know if the same money cold be spent more effectively.

@Nick - Good point. My guess - and it's only a guess - is that the lesson we should take from TfA is that teacher supplies could be improved by trimming the fat in teacher training/credentialing for everybody. It may also make sense to recruit more selectively, but the TfA recruitment model also seems to suffer from a turnover problem - which, as you mention, makes it less cost effective while doing little to solve supply problems - so we're probably better off improving recruitment by increasing salaries.

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