Are Teach For America Teachers Better? $39K Later, We Still Don't Know

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Anyone who's been holding his breath waiting for the Texas Education Agency to release its evaluation of the Teach For America program in the state can let it out now -- along with a sigh of disappointment.

Tasked by the Texas Legislature with determining whether the state is getting its money's worth by investing in the TFA teacher program -- Texas allocated $8 million to TFA in the last two years -- TEA has presented a report so filled with qualifiers, it's difficult to conclude a whole lot of anything.

And according to respected education consultant Ed Fuller, the methodology used in the report in assessing student gains was well, wrong. Using the percentage of students who passed really tells nothing about the actual accomplishments of the students, he said. For instance, one student might have passed at the 98 percent level the year before and the next at 70 percent. He just goes down as having passed each year, but the assessment completely misses his actual gains (or lack thereof.)

Another knock on just using the passing rate as an assessment: A teacher who lands at a school where a lot of students are missing the passing mark by just one or two points can push them through the next year and look totally effective. Meanwhile, a teacher dealing with students who are below the passing mark by say 30 points one year can help them improve to where they're only failing by ten points. In a passing-rate assessment, the first teacher is the hero, the second the goat.

"Their methodology makes it impossible to conclude whether TFA teachers are more effective or not," Fuller said.

The report, which so far has cost the state $39,000, was supposed to come up with a comparison of student gains in academic achievement among kids taught by TFA teachers, versus those who were taught by regular or alternative certification teachers who had less than three years on the job.

A five-person team from the UT-Dallas Education Research Center produced the following insights:

-- The findings should be interpreted "with caution" because they only had data from four school districts for the 2008-9 and 2009-10 years. (Either tremendous honesty or a plea not to get whacked.)

-- TFA teachers in the first two years had slightly higher retention numbers (89 to 95 percent range) than non-TFA teachers (83 to 87 percent range), but dropped off sharply in the third year (41 to 56 percent range compared to non TFA teachers' 76 to 81 percent range). This is a common complaint about the program: that TFA commitments are for two years and do not lead in many cases to lifelong teachers.

However: "The impact of this trend is unclear because TFA places corps members in schools with already high teacher turnover rates and large numbers of inexperienced teachers." (Has no one ever heard of an exit interview? They could ask teachers why they're leaving.)

Fuller takes issue with the report's hand-flailing about getting accurate retention data, saying there are statistical analysis formulas that control for variables such as teaching in tougher schools. In any event, he says, the discussion may be moot since everyone agrees that a higher percentage of TFA recruits leave after teaching two years when their commitment is up.

-- Overall, students taught by TFA teachers in math showed more gains than those taught by non-TFA teachers. But Hispanic elementary students did worse when taught by TFA teachers and it was noted that maybe Hispanic children aren't doing as well because Hispanics are not well represented among TFA ranks, which are predominantly white. (Sounds reasonable. Any stats to back that up?)

-- It's hard to determine what costs are associated with the high attrition of TFA teachers. "They include both the financial and human capital costs of recruiting, hiring and training replacement teachers as well as the potential negative impact of turnover on student achievement."

However: "As such they are not displacing the ideal teacher as much as filling a hole or replacing weak teachers with higher than average turnover rates." (Even if you're a district paying TFA money to secure one of its teachers over and over again?)

Here's a highlight: The next sentence reads: "To the extent that principals have an ongoing relationship with TFA," ... And that's the end of it. (Unfinished thought? Not completely removed extra line? You be the judge. )

-- No measurement can be made of how TFA teachers are doing with science and social studies since those TAKS tests aren't given every year. (Could be great. Could be terrible. Maybe we should do another report.)

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