Teach For America: TEA Undertakes Audit

The Texas Education Agency has until January 31 to submit a report to the Texas Legislature that asks whether the much lauded Teach for America is doing much good for the low-income students in Texas.

The Lege allocated TFA $8 million over last year and this year and it wants to see if it's getting its money's worth before it antes up again in what are expected to be extremely lean financial times. It is asking the TEA to compare "to the extent possible" how well students do who are taught by the TFA (sometimes referred to as "Teach For Awhile") troops as compared to traditional teachers with a degree in education as well as teachers who went the alternative certification route. The study should compare classes of students with similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

The Houston ISD employs TFA teachers, several of whom have been sent to its nine pilot schools in the Apollo 20 project established this year in an attempt to raise test scores and academic levels at the district's historically low-performing schools.

Criticism of the Teach For America approach which takes just-graduated college kids who did not get an education degree and puts them in a five-week training session before sending them to low-performing schools is three-fold: Critics say the new teachers don't get enough training before taking over a classroom; data seems to indicate their students don't do better on standardized tests than those taught by non-TFA teachers and they often don't stay with teaching as a career.

Proponents say it's a wonderful way to get some of the best and brightest from each graduating class into education, at least for a while. Not all leave after two years and even those who do gain an appreciation of the needs and realities of teaching, supporters point out.

As part of its "cost effectiveness" research, the TEA will look at "the amount of state funding provided per teacher trained ... the retention rates of these teachers in high poverty public schools and the impact of these teacher preparation programs in closing the teacher achievement gap for low income students in Texas."

Author and education historian Diane Ravitch who recently spoke at Rice University, criticized TFA for claiming its teachers will close the achievement gap:

"I would urge you please, stop claiming that TFA will close the achievement gap. That may be a nice slogan but nobody can teach for two or three years and close the achievement gap. Closing the achievement gap requires a lot more than really smart and dedicated young people with five weeks of training and a lot of enthusiasm. It requires highly skilled career professionals with deep experience who are willing to stick to the profession.... You send out a false message that your corps of young people is all that it takes and that's not true."

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing