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.
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.
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)