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Bruno: What's The Point Of Teach For America?

2281095105_fcae401f97I liked John's post about Teach for America and the "burden of proof". Experimenting in education is fine, but when a reform group commands as many resources as - for example - TfA, it really does have some obligation to prove its worth.

What complicates things is that it's not at all clear what Teach for America is trying to prove in the first place.

You might assume that the point of TfA is to staff classrooms with high-quality teachers. This is the commonsense view, and Teach for America encourages it in a variety of ways, for example by touting any research indicating that corps members are about as effective in the classroom as other teachers.

Arguably, the fact that TfA teachers are (roughly) as effective as traditionally-certified teachers reflects poorly on traditional teacher preparation. 

That does not, however, "prove" that Teach for America is a worthwhile reform initiative.

If TfA teachers are of average effectiveness but have higher rates of turnover - which is both financially costly and bad for student achievement - then the program as a whole is not obviously an improvement over the status quo.

More to the point, Teach for America conspicuously fails to include "staffing classrooms with high-quality teachers" as part of its mission. To the extent that its stated mission focuses on teacher supply at all, it is in the context of giving future "leaders" a little bit of teaching experience before they go into something else (ideally) education-related.

But if "the point" of TfA is to incubate future education leaders and innovators, what does their burden of proof consist of?

They offer as evidence much less research on this issue, and what they do offer is much more vague. There is some evidence that corps members are substantially more optimistic about the prospects for disadvantaged students and somewhat more likely to be involved in education in one way or another.

Still, it's not clear what those impacts of TfA amount to in practice. Presumably we should care not just about whether more people are more interested in education, but also about exactly what they're doing and whether educational outcomes are in fact improving as a result.

And it also matters whether the best way to go about recruiting future leaders is to develop an entirely new, elaborate alternative-certification scheme rather than simply recruiting from the pool of existing teachers.

Not only has Teach for America failed to meet that burden of proof, they haven't even adequately specified what would count as success. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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IMHO, the original point of TFA was pretty straightforward: to put non-sub teachers in schools where no teachers wanted to work. This is (still) a real problem in some areas. TFA was not the cause of that problem, though their existence provided disincentive for states and districts to solve it. Although its probably fair to ask them to justify themselves in that context, I would note that we have all sorts of other such negative incentives within the public education system itself.
TFA still has the goal of making sure low income kids get the best education possible in their mission, but they seem to have morphed into doing so more through the eventual impact of administrators and reformers and not through teaching. Personally, I am not so sure they need to justify that (it is what it is) but I do think states and districts who rely on those teachers must justify their decision to use TFA teachers.
Finally, TFA teachers should never be in charter schools if their original purpose still means anything to them. If a charter school is unable to find teachers willing to teach in it then it is a clear indication that the market for the school does not exist. This is important as the whole point of charters is to move the demand into the market.

Good arguments overall. I feel the need to stop using the term effectiveness and use the phrase "increasing standardized test scores" more often. Also, we have no idea what types of schools TFA teachers are actually assigned to (charter v district, sp ed, and ELL populations). But your point on turnover is absolutely correct

Thanks for the interesting thoughts.

@navigio - I don't recall TfA's early days well enough to judge whether their mission has changed. That said, it's not clear to me the extent to which teacher shortages are a problem in most subject areas in most geographic areas. I'd love to see TfA address that but given that their current mission seems to have little to do with staffing classrooms per se, it's probably not a priority for them.

I agree that they wouldn't need to do much justifying if all they were doing was trying to magnify the impact of administrators/reformers/leaders/etc. The problem is that they've chosen to accomplish that goal through very costly and disruptive means, so it'd be nice to see some justification for those upfront costs.

Interesting idea about TfA in charters. I'm not really sure there original mission was ever as you describe, but if it was they've pretty clearly abandoned that mission at this point, so I don't think they'd be persuaded by your argument.

@Ajay - I've got mixed feelings about how I use "effectiveness". On the one hand, test scores are not all we should care about in education. On the other hand, we should care about them somewhat, we're not great at measuring - or even defining - other elements of effectiveness, and it wouldn't surprise me if test-score-effectiveness correlated pretty well with those other metrics anyway. But point taken.

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