The Three Biggest TFA Lies

When I was a kid, around ten years old I guess, my father told me a joke that began with the question “What are the three biggest lies?” I said I didn’t know and he proceeded to tell me that the first biggest lie is “The check is in the mail,” which as a ten year old I really didn’t get. The second biggest lie was, apparently, “Some of my best friends are Black,” which also didn’t make much sense coming from my father, considering that some of his best friends were, in fact, Black. The third, well, was a bit too X-rated for this blog, and definitely for me as a ten year old. Not everyone is a perfect parent, I know, and I don’t hold this against him, though I do try to limit his unsupervised time with my own two kids.

As someone who is, I suppose, a big “friendly critic” (an expression TFA coined as the need to describe the growing number of frustrated alumni) of TFA, I think the biggest problem with TFA is all the lying. Though the individual people I’ve known on staff aren’t huge liars, themselves, the sum of all the lies add up to an organization whose lying is pathological. Really, they’ve elevated the art of lying to new heights, much the way Mozart elevated the concerto. Even people like Bernie Madoff who thought they were great liars can’t help but marvel at TFAs techniques.

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Recruiting the best?


This goal – recruiting and retaining talented people into teaching – is shared by most everyone, but it is among the most central emphases of the diverse group that might be called market-based reformers. Their idea is to change compensation structures, performance evaluations and other systems in order to create the kind of environment that will be appealing to high-achieving, less risk-averse people, as well as to ensure that those who aren’t cut out for the job are compelled to leave. This will, so the argument goes, create a “dynamic profession” more in line with the high risk, high reward model common among the private sector firms competing for the same pool of young workers.

No matter your feelings on TFA, it’s more than fair to say that their corps members fit this profile perfectly. On paper, they aren’t just “top third,” but top third of the top third. TFA cohorts enter the labor market having been among the highest achievers in the best colleges and universities in the nation. Getting accepted to the program is very, very difficult. Those who make it are not only service-oriented, but also smart, hard-working and ambitious. They are exactly the kind of worker that employers crave, and market-based reformers have made it among their central purposes to attract to the profession.

Yet, at least by the standard of test-based productivity, TFA teachers really don’t do better, on average, than their peers, and when there are demonstrated differences, they are often relatively small and concentrated in math (the latter, by the way, might suggest the role of unobserved differences in content knowledge). Now, again, there is some variation in the findings, and the number and scope of these analyses are limited – we’re nowhere near some kind of research consensus on these comparisons of test-based productivity, to say nothing of other sorts of student outcomes.
But, to me, one of the big, underdiscussed lessons of TFA is less about the program itself than what the test-based empirical research on its corps members suggests about the larger issue of teacher recruitment. Namely, it indicates that “talent” as typically gauged in the private sector may not make much of a difference in the classroom, at least not by itself. This doesn’t necessarily mean that market-based policies won’t lure great teachers, but it does suggest that, if we’re going to enact massive changes in personnel policy to attract a certain “type” of person to teaching, we might reexamine our assumptions on who we’re trying to attract and what they want.


Teach for America ‘research’ questioned

Recently I exchanged emails with a Teach for America employee in my city. On my last exchange, I tried to press her to answer at least one of my questions.

"Given the choice, would you see a doctor with 5 weeks of training or a certified doctor? A lawyer? An actuary?"

Answering with a ‘yes’ would be absurd. Answering with a ‘no’ would indicate a blatant disrespect for teachers.

Unfortunately this disrespect is exactly what we have going on in our country at this time: a blame-the-teacher mentality that ignores real world issues and concerns.

The TFA employee directed me to the organization's "research" page where TFA claims this: "A large and growing body of independent research shows that Teach For America corps members make as much of an impact on student achievement as veteran teachers."

This claim, based on the "studies" supplied by TFA, is misleading at best and demonstrably false at worst. I read all of the 12 "studies" available on TFA's website, and here is what I found.

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Despite lay offs TFA circling in Cincinnati

Cincinnati public schools are experiencing the full impact of the recently passed budget and it's provisions. The district reduced its general fund budget by $8.6 million to $458.6 million this year due to state funding cuts, and the end of 2012-13, the state will have reduced its funding to CPS by $55 million.

Naturally this is causing serious budget problems for a well performing large urban district, including lay-offs that were announced earlier in the year

Cincinnati’s School Superintendent announced Friday more than 200 staff positions will be cut next year to help the district balance its budget.

Mary Ronan said in a release the reductions include 158 teachers, 33 central office employees and 17 additional school-based workers.

According to the same article, CPS has been closing schools and reducing staff for the past decade. Since 2001-2002, more than 1,100 positions have been eliminated and 17 schools have been closed.

To alleviate some of this pressure, CPS has a permanent levy on the ballot this November. Polling shows this levy to be neck and neck.

But another provision in the state's budget is also rearing its head. Teach for America (TFA).

Teach for America wants to put its teachers in Cincinnati Public Schools, possibly as early next year.

But both parties must agree. So far, the district has remained non-committal.

"We're really just looking to see if districts are interested in partnering," said Ben Lindy, who is on Teach for America's site development team.

Lindy made a pitch to CPS board Wednesday. It was the first such outreach in Ohio since Gov. John Kasich signed a law in April allowing TFA to locate here.

It might raise some eyebrows, that at a time when the district is having to lay off highly qualified and experienced educators and their support professionals, TFA is circling with promises to fill classrooms with their under prepared, inexperienced amateurs. As we wrote a short time ago, it is literally harder to become a casino card dealer in Ohio than it is to be a TFA recruit.

Cincinnati would be better served passing their levy and ensuring that they continue to have classrooms staffed with experienced professionals that have helped guide CPS to its current creditable performance levels.

Teach For America: From Service Group to Industry

One of the best articles written on Teach for America

Although Teach For America began twenty years ago as a well-intentioned band-aid, it has morphed into what is essentially a jobs program for the privileged, funded by taxpayers and wealthy individuals. TFA was originally designed it to serve a specific need: fill positions in high-poverty schools where there are teacher shortages.

A non-profit organization that recruits college seniors primarily from elite institutions to teach for two-year stints in high-poverty schools, preceded by five weeks of training. TFA has grown from 500 teachers to more than 8,000 teachers in thirty-nine rural and urban areas.

As TFA is expanding, it is no longer just filling positions in shortage areas; rather, it’s replacing experienced and traditionally educated teachers. To justify this encroachment, TFA claims that their teachers are more effective than more experienced and qualified teachers, and that training and experience are not factors in effective teaching. TFA supporters also defend the explosive growth of TFA as an indication that TFA is elevating the status of the teaching profession for ambitious high-achieving college students.

Unfortunately, while Teach for America has been very effective at elevating the status of Teach for America, it has not had a similar impact on the status of teaching as a profession.

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The Exaggerations of TFA

A former TFA'er digs into some wild TFA claims

In response to critics that TFA teachers don’t have enough long-term impact, TFA replies with the statement from their annual survey “Nearly two-thirds of Teach For America alumni work in the field of education, and half of those in education are teachers. Teaching remains the most common profession among our alumni.”

Now a statement like this is pretty strong and probably shuts up those critics, though it also probably leaves them scratching their heads. How could this statement possibly be true?

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