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Why I Oppose Teach For America Coming To Sacramento

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Last week, an article and editorial in our newspaper announced that Sacramento has been determined to be a “finalist” as a potential new location for Teach For America. If selected, the Sacramento City Unified School District would commit to hiring thirty teachers a year for three years (for a total of ninety). The District would pay the salary and benefits of each TFA intern, along with a $4,000 fee to Teach For America for each one. In addition, $2.7 million in private funds would need to be raised for Teach For America. The District says it plans to place the first thirty at three “under-performing” schools (though I think the plan might be to expand that to six) where they would teach math, science, and special education, and that no credentialed teacher “will be displaced by a Corps member.”

Ironically, this announcement occurred the same week the District mailed lay-off notices to seven hundred certificated employees.

I respect and like our new Superintendent, Jonathan Raymond, and have appreciated his openness and willingness to listen. He has initiated individual meetings with me and with many others to hear our ideas to improve the education this District offers students and expand programs to connect with parents. And he has been very receptive when I (and others) have wanted to initiate meetings with him to discuss concerns. At his request, earlier this year I became a member of an advisory group he formed on District issues.  It is clear that he is very committed to doing whatever he can to make our schools better — especially the ones that face that most challenges.

Despite those positive experiences, I need to say that I believe this new effort is not a wise move and is not in the best interest of our students.

I think it’s a very bad idea to bring Teach For America to Sacramento. Here are my reasons (which I have also shared with our Superintendent):

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE CLASSROOM:

Here is a summary of all the peer-reviewed research done on Teach For America. It comes from the American Association of Colleges For Teacher Education. The first paragraph of the report says:

At least five studies have been completed that include data on Teach for America, four of which have been published in peer-reviewed journals. As a group, the studies find the students of uncertified TFA teachers do significantly less well in reading than those of new, certified teachers, with the negative effects most pronounced in elementary grades. In math, three of the studies also report significantly lower scores for beginning TFA teachers’ students than for prepared teachers. When TFA teachers obtain training and certification, their students generally do as well as those of other teachers and sometimes better in mathematics. However, most TFA teachers leave after 2 or 3 years (more than 80% are gone after three years), so the benefits of their training are lost. Looking across the studies, TFA comparisons are favorable only when the comparison group is even less prepared than the TFA recruits.

An even more recent study in Oakland found that high-minority schools with concentrations of 1st and 2nd year teachers, most of them from TFA and the New Teacher Project, experienced large negative effects on student achievement gains.

Obviously, the results of just one study can be easily questioned.  It is more difficult, however, to say that multiple studies are wrong in their conclusions.

Teach For America, and its supporters, often cite an Urban Institute study which came to a different, and positive, conclusion about TFA interns. That report, however, has many issues, including:

* It has not been officially published because it does not meet accepted research standards.

* It only included TFA interns who stayed long enough to get credentialed (which is typically a very small number — more about that issue later). They compared that group to a group of teachers who also were not credentialed, and even less likely to do so.

That Urban Institute study focused on North Carolina. Another study in North Carolina (by Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor), which included beginning teachers, got the opposite result – TFA and other lateral entry teachers were significantly less effective than teachers with full certification.

Research and statistics aside — and I’m the last person who is going to say that good teaching can be best gauged by student test scores (I prefer to be “informed” by data and not “driven” by it) — I can speak from own personal experience as a novice teacher. I came to the teaching profession after spending nineteen years as a community organizer working in California’s lowest-income communities. I was part of a fabulous one-year credential program where our classes took place in an urban middle school, and we student-taught the rest of the time. In the middle of that program, the middle-school hired me as a full-time replacement for a teacher who went on medical leave.

The students ate me up alive.

Our high school has a strict policy on, and is very reluctant to use, student teachers. One, we’re very selective which teachers can take them, and we’re very selective who we accept. And, for the ones we do accept, they function as co-teachers in the classroom, with the student teacher and collaborating teacher taking turns being the primary teacher.

We feel that our students need and deserve the best and most help we can give. Few, if any, novice teachers can do that — especially only after a five week training course, which is what TFA interns receive before they get their own classroom assignment.

TEACHER STABILITY & TEACHER RELATIONS:

Though the data on student test scores is useful information to have, the more concerning statistic to me is high TFA turnover in the classroom.

The peer-reviewed studies cited early show that 80% of TFA interns are out of the classroom after three years. That compares to fifty percent of most teacher who leave after five years. Neither statistic is a good one, but our urban schools need more stability, not less….

Many principals and teachers might find some initial reduced test scores an acceptable price to pay for an enthusiastic, smart, relational, and talented new teacher who is  likely to stay around for the long haul.  That makes the time and money needed to provide  mentoring and professional development worthwhile.  TFA turnover rates, however, do not make that look like an attractive investment.

I believe our Superintendent when he says that he does not intend for TFA interns to replace credentialed teachers. However, this is happening in more and more districts around the country. It also doesn’t help teacher relations in our district that our new Superintendent was hired from Charlotte, which has been the leader in that practice, and that the TFA announcement came the same week as lay-off notices.

If these ninety positions are indeed in “hard-to-fill” areas, why not first pursue retraining some of the hundreds of laid-off teachers in our region so they can fill them?

Questions have also been raised by some teachers and University staff about problems in the late hiring calendar of our District that results in final decisions being made far later than neighboring districts. I can’t positively say that this is a problem, but I value the judgment of those who are saying it, and it is certainly worth examining.

In addition, California State University-Sacramento (that’s the credential program I went through) says that if the District wants a paid intern program, they have an ample number of students seeking hard-to-fill certificated positions. Many of these students are Hmong, Latino, and African Americans (along with Whites) who grew up in Sacramento, went elsewhere for their undergraduate degree, and now want to return to Sacramento to teach in their home community for the long-term.

If there are indeed ninety “hard-to-fill” positions for which our District can’t find qualified candidates through the hiring process it uses now, it should explore all three of these options fully — and give them a try first — before seriously considering an outside group with a questionable track record in the classroom like Teach For America.

LEGAL ISSUES:

TFA interns, even though they are still training for their credential, are recognized as “fully-qualified” under No Child Left Behind. There is an on-going lawsuit — brought by families of low-income families from schools where TFA interns are placed — challenging that viewpoint, and it appears there will be a final decision at some point this year. It seems to me that this issue should be resolved before the idea of bringing any interns in from out-of-town.

CONCLUSION:

I’m all for college graduates taking a year-or-two and devoting their time to service. Prior to my organizing career, I spent seven years in the Catholic Worker Movement, and we had many young short-term volunteers provide great help in our soup kitchens and emergency shelters. Groups like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and AmeriCorps offer similar opportunities.

However, when exploring these kinds of service opportunities, let’s keep in mind the saying “First, do no harm.

Putting a brand-new college graduate with five weeks of training into an urban classroom does not seem like an action respecting that motto.

(Please read my colleague Alice Mercer’s post on this same topic)

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

13 Comments

  1. Thank you for this excellent and thoughtful summary of the issues regarding TFA. I have met some wonderful TFA teachers who are still in the classroom, but as you point out they are few and far between. I have often thought, as have others, would we accept a program entitled “Airline Pilots for America” or “Doctors for America” with 5 weeks training? I would be more comfortable if the program were “Assist a Teacher for America” or “Tutor a Child for America.” Thanks.

  2. I think it is downright wrong to bring in TFA interns when so many experienced and certified teachers are being laid off around the country. TFA was supposed to be there to fill in where there were openings that couldn’t be filled. With all the teachers being laid off, there shouldn’t be any openings anywhere.

    We use TFA and while some of them are good, they are mostly short term. 2 years and gone. That doesn’t help us in the long run. We need people who are going to come and stay.

  3. Larry…
    This is a great post. Prior to reading it, I did not know much about TFA. I commend your standing up and addressing an issue you feel strongly about. I look forward to hearing if your district is selected and if your superintendent goes through with the program.

    Curious…how do your peers feel about this?

  4. Hi Larry.

    I am glad you blogged about this topic. It is an important dialogue to have. It would be a shame to dispel certified educators and get inexperienced ones in your district, however I was under the impression that programs like TFA specifically target “teacher shortage areas” http://bit.ly/9v1h3M

    According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a nonprofit research advocacy group, there is an impending shortage of teachers as retirements escalate http://nyti.ms/bdzKq1 Programs that corral recent college grads or “new blood” into a field they may not have initially chosen would help to alleviate the shortage if indeed these reports are true.

    I did TFA in a school that was considered the 9th most violent in nyc at the time. I can tell you first hand that there were few if any certified teachers clamoring to get a job there, and as a corps member I was required to take education courses at night to eventually change a temp licence into full certification. The school was staffed with about 30% TFA and all (but me) are still in education as teachers/administrators. That was 10 years ago.

    Philosophically, I don’t believe that we are meant for one “job” in our career path. Even if one teaches for only two years they can still have a positive impact in a low SES area, particularly if they bring a field of specialty that encompasses innovative science and technology. Quite frankly with our low TIMMS/PISA scores we need all the help we can get.

    • Joe,

      I am aware of the predictions of large numbers of teacher retirements, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were true. And I agree that we need to attract new teachers into the profession.

      I just have questions about programs that put novices into their own classroom with minimal preparation, and especially ones that place people who have not chosen it as their career in a community where they have no roots.

      I’m sure, however, that there are TFA interns who have done great work with students and have stayed in the classroom. Based on the data, I don’t believe that there are enough of them to mitigate the damage other TFA interns do to their students.

      Larry

  5. What a thoughtful, detailed post. Thanks for addressing this topic so effectively.

  6. Your post is thoughtful, but omits or dispenses prematurely with any study which does not conform precisely to your own vision of Teach For America and its efficacy. Additionally, the methodology of many of these studies has been severely criticized (points of which I am sure you are aware), so I will simply add one point as “food for thought” so to speak:

    The majority of these studies are done by 4 year education programs, programs which TFA, if it is successful, essentially render obsolete. We cannot be surprised they resist a movement that threatens them, and we cannot expect their research to be unbiased when the methodology is reviewed by like-minded “peers.” I know that I took 3 semesters of ed classes before switching my major to history and concluding that they were useless. Sure, I learned that Venn diagrams were the bomb and that racism was bad, but nothing really helped me become a better teacher from those classes.

    On the other hand, the 6 weeks of training I received before going into TFA were brutal. I worked 18 hour days, student taught, took classes, lesson planned, and did everything “hands on.” There is no question that those weeks taught me far more than 18 months in education classes. And I’d imagine that those sentiments are commonly shared: It’s a surprisingly effective training program.

    I’d take issue also with your pejorative and consciously disrespectful choice to refer to TFA teachers as “interns.” I was paid the same salary, given the same contract, and performed the same duties as a first year teacher. I also held the same degree and possessed the same certification. So in what way specifically would I have been an “intern” and not a teacher?

    Is it a dicey proposition to put novice teachers into rough classrooms? Of course. But we all have to start somewhere.

    As for the temporary-ness of TFA teachers… I think that the negative effects of this are overblown. I consider myself a “worst case scenario:” I did my 2 years, achieved an AVERAGE of roughly 1.5 years of growth in reading and math for my 5th graders both years, and then moved on. Meanwhile the other 5th grade teacher at my school (who had an ed degree and oodles of experience) did not know how to do long division, a subject which she was ostensibly responsible for teaching. So how am I hurting those kids by working my ass off for 2 years and getting results when they would otherwise be subjected to her classroom?

    With this year’s layoffs, you make a very compelling case for not adding to a diluted labor pool, but please think further before making that case by disparaging the hard work and real results of thousands of TFA teachers (not interns) like myself. The fact is that the status quo is not working in Sacramento. I went to public schools here, and they just aren’t getting the job done. I could make a laundry list of the lemon teachers I’ve had in this district, but unlike some people I don’t feel like insulting the other side is the ideal way to propagate one’s argument.

    TFA might not be the final answer (in fact, it almost surely isn’t), but we’ve gotta change SOMETHING in Sacramento’s schools, because as-is isn’t working.

    • John,

      Instead of getting into an online debate on the credibility and source of studies, I’d encourage people to check them out for themselves. They can easily compare the rigor of studies done by Teach For America with the ones done by various schools of education and by researchers not connected to those schools and which are critical of TFA. I think most will place more credibility with the later.

      As I said in my post, however, I am much more concerned with the high turnover rate, and do not at all feel that its ramifications are overblown.

      I’m sure there are TFA interns who have done very well in the classroom. However, overall, I do not believe that anecdotal evidence trumps the many real problems that having TFA interns in the classroom cause schools and their students.

      In California, according to the Teach For America website, members of TFA who teach in the classroom receive an “Intern Credential” from the State of California. In addition, it’s easy to surf the web and find people from TFA referred to as interns by numerous supporters of the program. So I feel comfortable using the word “intern” to describe someone from TFA.

      Larry

  7. John. Larry is correct. The studies are quite reputable. For example, For example Mathematica Policy Research Inc. (not a teacher education programs) found that students of Teach for America recruits got slightly better results in math and the same gains in reading as did those of other new teachers. But most alternative-certification advocates ignore the fact that the study’s 41 TFA recruits were compared with other teachers who were, remarkably, even more underprepared, with fewer being certified or having had student-teaching than members of the TFA group themselves. Perhaps most notably, the students of both TFA teachers and their non-TFA counterparts performed abysmally.

    So let’s look closely at their data. The students of both TFA and control group teachers scored very poorly on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The achievement scores in reading for the students of both TFA teachers and the control group were essentially the same, hovering between the 13th and 15th percentiles. In math, the students of the control teachers showed no gain, while the TFA teachers had one-year gains from 14th to 17th percentile; but these very low scores left the students far below grade level and way behind their peers nationally as well as far below expectations for improvement under No Child Left Behind.

    But if you look at the high quality teacher education programs – like those at Stanford, UCLA, Bank Street, University of Virginia as well as even less prestigious programs at Alverno College or Emporia State – you will find that graduates of these programs like these do a far better job at getting student results and also are more likely to remain in teaching. I would agree that too many traditional teacher ed programs do not pass muster. and if they do not, they should be closed. But so should poor alternative programs as well.

    How in the world can you prepare a teacher for the 21st century schools (including the growing numbers of second language learners who must be taught effectively) with a few weeks of summer training? How can you turn around a lower performing school with a revolving door of untrained novices? Most TFA corps members who stay in teaching are the first to say they need more preparation! And so do most from traditional programs as well. It is time to do the right thing for kids and prepare and support teachers in ways other nations do so without controversy and vitriol.

  8. I am perhaps the weirdest of all of the TFA alumni- I spent 3 of my four college years in a traditional teacher preparation program, then switched majors in my senior year to English. Then realizing that I did indeed want to teach I joined TFA (during one of its first years). That was over 14 years ago, and I am still teaching.

    I have to be honest and say that NEITHER TFA nor the traditional preparation program prepared me for the classroom.

    The traditional teacher training that I had, from a private Jesuit college with a good reputation, did teach me to write detailed lesson plans, but didn’t tell me what to do when a kindergartner started kicking me or any of the other less than pedagogue perfect situations that I have faced in the real classroom.

    My TFA training seemed mostly focused on idealism as well. The training might have changed since then, but at that time we had a summer of training in LA shadowing a teacher, many seminars which were oriented more around the idealism of teaching versus the reality I have since faced.

    I honestly believe that there is no training program, short of an old fashioned and LENGTHY apprenticeship that COULD train someone for what they will face once the door closes and you are alone in that classroom with your class.

    But I also respectfully disagree with your assertion that TFA is doing more harm than good.

    Teachers, no matter what path they arrive by are as individual as snowflakes.

    Some TFAers, as well as some traditionally trained applicants, and alternative certification applicants (which is the road TFA was taking when I started) are going to be exceptional, others abysmal, and the great majority are going to fall somewhere in the middle.

    Some will make teaching their career, some will decide it is not for them, and some will stay too long and burn out (unfortunately taking some of their students with them.)

    Most TFAers come into the classroom with a great deal of idealism and energy- they sincerely want to change the world one classroom at a time. Some do better at it than others. And yes, there is a revolving door policy for many TFAers- but they go on into business and the private sector with at least the knowledge that teaching isn’t all summer vacations and getting off at 3pm every day. And as teachers we can definitely use SOMEBODY in the private sector having an inkling of what we deal with day in and day out.

    Now as for the schools letting go of seasoned teachers to hire TFAers or alternative certification program applicants, or other green recruits. I do disagree with that policy- but I think it boils down to economics. Many districts think that by hiring someone at starting pay, versus keeping on a seasoned teacher, they are helping their budget. They just don’t look past the dollar signs to see the kids that are being affected.

  9. Yes Tammi! Your points are spot on. Many so-called “traditional” teacher education faculty John D criticizes actually call for the kinds of residency programs you suggest are needed. But the way state legislatures and higher ed agencies as well as university presidents fund teacher ed programs forces them to limit the kind of clinical training needed to prepare new recruits for 21st schools. Watch out for a new book – Teaching 2030 — which lays out a bold vision for the future of the profession and transcends these 20th century debates.

  10. Pingback: Teach for Goldman Sachs | Fiat Lux

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