Evaluating Teach for America

[Sigh]  I’ve been out to lunch on this one.  However, there have been enough articles regarding Teach for America (TFA) lately for me to continue ignoring it.

First, I had NO idea this program was started in 1989.  Second, I had NO idea that the people trying to get into this program were faced with huge and fierce competition. Next, I clearly was not aware of the two-year commitment, you get paid like a “real” teacher part, but you have to relocate to get it. Then, I wasn’t aware that the mission of this program was to “eliminate educational inequality by enlisting our nation’s most promising future leaders in the effort.”  Finally, I didn’t realize that, for doing the equivalent of Peace Corps in the United States serving this under-served population, blog and article wars would be engaged in to determine the effectiveness of meeting this mission statement. WOW!

I don’t even know where to start with this.  I guess I’ll start first by asking, sincerely, if one truly believes the issues of on-going academic underachievement and educational inequality can be solved in 2-year stints?  I suppose one can view this as the young boy and starfish parable, wherein he can’t affect the life of every starfish stranded on the beach, but he made a difference to that one. However, being a new teacher is a rough gig regardless of your background.  Most teachers spend year one trying to find their asses with both hands.  The next year, they have a better clue, then… they’re done?  This doesn’t seem like a practical plan for progress or improvement.  I think if you look at the impact over the past 20 years, it’s pretty clear that educational inequality is still a prevalent part of the American educational landscape.

Perhaps it’s that they, unlike other teaching programs, are picking FUTURE leaders.  Future leaders would, of course, come into the situation better prepared to deal with the day-to-day hiccups, hardships, and horrors visited upon by the regular traditional teaching schlubs. Except, in today’s day and age, there really aren’t “traditional” teachers anymore. What I’m most curious about though, with these teacher leaders, is where did they go after Teach for America?  Did these former teachers help build and inform policies like No Child Left Behind?  What impact have they had in their local, state, and federal educational standards?  Are they the leaders currently navigating this ship? With the program entering it’s 20th year, it seems that there should be a lot of data as well as anecdotal information floating around to actually answer some of the questions that are out there.

The most pressing and prevalent question among the articles I read was in reference to the effectiveness of the Teach for America crew.  In one study, they outperformed regular teachers.  In another, the results were mixed.  In yet another, it merely underscored the importance of establishing good relationships with one’s students.  WTF?  How about this?  Some did amazingly well, some did a good enough job, some were highly mediocre, and some sucked.  I’m guessing that were we to compare them laterally to other teaching programs and teachers embarking in their first years, we’d probably see similar results.  Why?  Because the shitty thing that NO ONE TELLS YOU is that teaching is hard.  Some people are natural teachers, walking in and making it look easy.  Others, however, need time, mentoring, and help to get there.  However, to truly evaluate the effectiveness of a program based on a person’s first year is silly.  It’s not really informative.  In fact, to have informative data, you should have something like 3-7 years of matched cohort.  This, my friends, is not easy to do.

One question that hasn’t been answered despite my recent reading is HOW the TFA teachers are paid.  On the TFA website is a banner for donations.  The first part of supporting the corps isn’t particularly clear. There’s no nice pie chart showing how the money is distributed.  It’s unclear if the corps pays the teaching candidates in the fields or if the school districts pay the candidates. TFA does use donated funds to “offset” the cost of training, support, etc. the candidate in the field.  It’s interesting because the idea is to eliminate inequality by donating money.  Let’s just say I have some “cognitive dissonance” over this statement.  Don’t even get me started on the fact that school districts can lay off teachers, but then are “obligated” to “honor” their TFA placements as there is a contract.  Plus, with a teaching certificate, most teachers, after two years, are permanent (what you call tenured).  Are we just paving an easier path for one set of people than other?

Yet, I’m loathe to really take individual Teach for America candidates to task.  For whatever reason — duty, opportunity, idealism, exploration, or other — they have opted to take on this challenge and improve the world.  I would never fault someone for working to improve education. I just want to make sure the rubber hits the road and there isn’t some hidden ulterior motive.  These are school communities and kids’ lives we’re talking about.

Now, mind you, I find out they get loan forgiveness or something else for doing this… Well, then, when I go Medieval on someone’s ass, it will be deserved.  Until then, I reserve judgment.

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