Oct 09 2008

Why two years?

Why two years?

A lot has changed about TFA since it began in 1990. Of all the changes, the biggest one is TFA’s ‘mission.’ The original mission was not “One day all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” Instead there was a much more modest mission to fill teacher shortages with bright short-term teachers.

On page 109 of Wendy’s 1989 Princeton thesis “An Argument and Plan for the Creation of the Teacher Corps”, she outlines the original goals of the organization, all of which, incredibly, have been met.

Goals:
A. To help solve teacher shortages.
B. To focus positive attention on the education system and on the profession of teaching.
C. To attract the ‘best and the brightest’ to teach.
D. To provide the opportunity for a group of individuals who would not otherwise teach to do so.

Before I get too far into this, I want to let everyone know that I really admire Wendy Kopp. She is incredibly smart and talented. By creating TFA she has altered the course of my life. She’s also been very nice to me the dozen or so times throughout the past 17 years where we’ve talked or wrote to one-another. My intention here is to argue that TFA has grown beyond what she ever expected, and how one of the initial premises, that a two-year commitment is optimum, is no longer valid.

TFA is based, in part, on president Kennedy’s 1961 Peace Corps and president Johnson’s 1965 National Teacher Corps. These programs were both two-year commitments. Two years seems like a very appropriate length of time for the Peace Corps. More than two years could discourage people from volunteering, especially to recent college graduates. One year would be too short. It would be inefficient to spend all the resources training the volunteers for only a one-year stint. The National Teacher Corps was two years also. We don’t know how they decided that this was also an appropriate number of years for teaching, but since it was based on the Peace Corps, they probably figured that this was a good number. It seems to be not too short to make an impact nor too long to discourage participation. Of course there’s a big difference between teaching and volunteering for the Peace Corps. For example, it probably doesn’t take six months to get good at whatever you are required to do in the Peace Corps. Also, if you mess up your first month of the Peace Corps, you won’t have to wait until the beginning of your second year to get a fresh start at being very effective.

When Wendy proposed Teach For America (known then as “The Teacher Corps”), she also made it a two-year commitment. I think that given the goals of the proposal, this was the appropriate amount of time. Three years would have scared away many of the people who were planning to give back to society while still pursuing their own professional goals.

On page 45 of her thesis, Wendy writes,

it requests that individuals take a break from their fast-paced lives to serve the nation.

Three years is, understandably, more than just ‘a break.’ Three years is too long.

On page 114 of Wendy’s thesis she explains the rationale for the two-years:

Corps members will agree to serve two full years. The two-year term would give Teacher Corps members a chance to become more effective in the classroom and would also provide a general incentive for schools to devote time during the first year for adequate support and supervision.

In other words, she’s explaining why a one-year commitment would be too short.

Thus we’ve got the two-years. Not too short. Not too long.

I think that this was very valid in 1990. But once TFA began to take off, Wendy got a much bigger vision. She had already done something that was seemingly impossible. Now she was going to do more. I can’t remember what year I started hearing the new mission “One day all students in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” Now, that’s an amazing ambitious goal. And as TFA worked to meet this new mission, a lot of things changed to accommodate this new vision. They began investing in better recruitment, more staff members, more sites, more institutes. They have also spent a lot of time and energy improving the training to meet the enhanced goal.

But one thing has not changed. It’s still a two-year commitment.

I think that this should be bumped up to three years.

I say this because I know that after two years of teaching, most CMs have become really excellent teachers. (I’m in my 11th year now, and I don’t think I’m that much better than I was in my third year. I taught for 4 years total in Houston.) Right now there are approximately 3,000 CMs in their first year, 3,000 CMs in their second year in their placement sites. According to TFA 25% of CMs stay for a third year in their original site. (Another 10% continue teaching somewhere else). So that means that there are about 750 third year CMs in their original placement sites, for a total of 6,750. 3,000 them are new, so they’re not as effective as the other 3,750. Let’s say that the new ones are ‘pretty effective’ while the second and third years are ‘very effective.’ So about 55% of 6,750 are ‘very effective.’ If TFA made the commitment three years, you’d have 3,000 first years, 3,000 second years, and 3,000 third years. This would be 9,000 teachers with 67% of them being ‘very effective.’ (I’m not even counting the possible fourth year CMs here). To me, that’s making a good step toward ‘One day all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.’ With 2,250 more third year CMs in the classroom, at an average of 50 students a CM (secondary teachers have 170 students), that’s over 100,000 children getting that opportunity to attain an excellent education. That’s 100,000 closer to ‘all children.’

And, best of all, TFA would have to invest very little to make this policy change. (Those third years don’t really need to tax the support staff anymore.)

I know the main risk in this change: There is a chance that this longer commitment will scare away some perspective teachers. But TFA is such a popular thing to do right now, I believe that they will still get plenty of quality applicants. Maybe a few years ago they wouldn’t, but now they’ve amassed so much power that they can use this power to increase their effectiveness. It’s a risk worth taking, and it’s a gamble that TFA can make because it is such a desirable program right now. It would also silence some of the TFA critics since three years does sound a lot longer than two.

Another idea I have is to give people the option of applying to TFA for either a two-year or a three-year commitment. The people who commit to three years could have a better chance of getting in, kind of like colleges do with early admission.

Anyway, that’s what I think would be the quickest and easiest way for TFA to work toward its ambitious mission statement. Maybe I’ve convinced some people that even three years aren’t enough. If you think it should be even more than that, write your own blog about it. I’d be happy with three.

15 Responses

  1. Alison

    If the commitment were 3 years:
    “But TFA is such a popular thing to do right now, I believe that they will still get the same number and quality of applicants.”

    I can’t imagine that would be true (in terms of numbers). I, for one, would not have even considered it, and my other college-turned-CM friends also already thought that 2 years sounded like a long time when we were applying…

  2. garyrubinstein

    I guess you’re right. They would lose some applicants. (I edited the post to fix this oversight) I still think they’d get plenty of good ones. It’s like if Harvard decided to raise their tuition by 10,000, they’d lose some applicants but still be able to get a good incoming class.

    If the goal is just to not lose any excellent applicants, why not make it a one-year commitment? Then nobody would be scared off. You see, it’s a tough balancing act. I think that the magic number is 3, TFA currently thinks that 2 is ideal. I’d like to see this number really pondered rather than just set up arbitrarily because someone in 1961 decided that it would be a good length of time for the Peace Corps.

    Also, if they gave you a choice between a two-year and a three-year commitment, you could have still applied for the two-year program with the understanding that you might lose your place to someone who will commit to three years.

  3. Mary

    What does a “commitment” mean, anyway? I totally did not feel bound by the two year commitment while I was in the middle of it (especially during the struggle that was my first year). It was only afterward that I felt glad — really glad — I had finished my commitment. However, the commitment was not one of the factors that motivated me to stick it out.

    Anyway, I think that 1) three years will reduce the size of the applicant pool, causing TFA to miss some people who would have been good teachers and who would ultimately stay more than two years, 2) the “commitment” may be meaningless, or even discourage people from sticking out a tough first year, because the a three-year time horizon seems like eternity at that point.

  4. garyrubinstein

    Good points. I’m not saying that I’m positive that 3 years would be better than 2. Just that I think it would be a good ‘conversation’ (to use TFA-speak) to have. Maybe I would have been scared away if it were 3 years, but if that meant that more children would have the opportunity to an excellent education, maybe it would be better that way.

  5. Mary

    I can’t disagree with that, but we don’t know if it would help more kids or fewer. Maybe TFA could randomly assign new corps members to two year or three year commitments, and report on the retention rates and effectiveness for those two groups.

  6. Matt

    In the Las Vegas Corps, the school district offers to pay for your graduate education if you sign a three year contract with the district when you first arrive. 75% of CMs sign it. Apparently three years isn’t scary to most. I didn’t sign it, and am glad that I didn’t, but it has been effective.

  7. Pete

    Hi Gary,

    I’m just finding your website now, and I wanted to thank you for your candid assessment of TFA and Institute. I am a NYC ’04 alum (I attended your workshop in the summer of ’04 and read your book as well), and my first year was very similar to the one you describe in Reluctant Disciplinarian. While I was proud of many things my students accomplished, especially during my second year, I felt so burned out by two years of teaching that I decided to leave the education world. I have no regrets about joining TFA — I probably never would have had the opportunity to teach otherwise — but I do wish I had done some things differently.

    My biggest complaint about TFA Institute is information overload. Maybe I was just not organized enough or disciplined enough to turn the stacks of binders and tips into a coherent PLAN for my first week/month/semester of teaching. But I honestly think that pre-service Institute should focus on what to do as a first-year teacher. Some of the higher level ideas and more ambitious curriculum suggestions should be withheld until a later time and place, whether that’s subject matter meetings during the year or even a “mid-commitment Institute” during the summer between the first and second years. I definitely would have benefited from a 1-2 week refresher Institute; that would be the perfect place to discuss “riskier” lessons and more ambitious teaching practices.

    As for two years vs. three years: Like Mary, I felt great about completing my commitment after the fact, but I don’t think it would have stopped me from leaving if I felt compelled to do so. I knew so many people in my corps who left after one year (or even sooner in a few cases). On the one hand, I definitely think I would have gotten over the hump from my second year to my third year if I had stuck with teaching. On the other hand, I already felt totally burned out — emotionally and physically. So much of the TFA experience is dependent on your environment (for example, I was a “lone ranger” at my school, as my advisor called me, with no TFA cohort for support). Increasing the commitment to three years may not just affect application rates but also completion rates.

    Thank you again for your candid advice. I think a good number of incoming corps members would benefit from pushing their TFA curriculum books aside and reading through your book instead.

  8. John Fong

    Any more updates coming to the website?

  9. phil

    The main problem with TFA is that they actually do consider 2 years to be a commitment. The problems these school districts have cannont be solved by having a rotating series of new teachers. Those districts that use TFA spend millions of dollars in training and get very little return on their investment since a vast majority of TFAers leave after thier two years. TFA loves to promote that a large number of thier alumni stay in education. How many actually stay to teach in the same type of district they began? Leaving TFA to become a teacher in a well funded district is what a vast majority of those who did their two year commitmnet end up if they stay in the classroom. A waste of money, time, and resources.

    Two years is not a commitment. Two years is building a CV to get into grad school. Systemic change in those districts served by TFA will only occur when and if TFAers make a commitment to become part of the community- long term.

  10. Mary

    It’s not clear to me that new non-TFA teachers in the same schools where TFA teachers are placed are actually retained at a higher rate than TFA teachers, so the waste may be even bigger, but not due to just to TFA. Over six years I saw a lot of non-TFA teachers leave, but I’m not sure whether anyone has done a systematic accounting of teacher retention in the schools where TFA places (or has placed) corps members. Maybe someone knows.

  11. Ellen

    That’s something that I was wondering as well. I hear that most teachers leave within 5 years if they are going to do so. Maybe the churn isn’t as bad as it is made out to be. What makes me wonder is how to not get burnt out as a TFA CM. I plan to make a career out of this, so I probably need to be very careful with how I move through the first few years. Burning out would help no one.

  12. Joe Troiano

    There is a very simple reason why two years. Any longer and you might actually become a unionist, and the last thing TFA wants is to feed talented leaders into the teachers’ unions.

    TFA and its supporters are trying to break the teachers’ unions plain and simple. The plan looks something like this:

    1 Get the richest, whitest, most conservative new teachers to make a very temporary commitment to breaking the cycle by which new teachers become unionists.

    2 Cook the books to make TFA teachers seem to be wildly effective.

    3 Work with administrations that wish to attack union rights fought for and earned over the past 40 years.

  13. Allison

    Joe Troiano — The mission of teach for america is to close the achievement gap by sending high quality teachers to areas where they are most needed. A “plain and simple” accusation that TFA and supporters are attempting to break teachers’ unions is a ridiculous attack. I am a second year corps member who plans to remain teaching for at least 4 or 5 more years and also an active member of a teacher union.

    I always find the “only two years” argument interesting. Any school can benefit from a high-quality teacher whether that teacher stays for one year, two years, or more. The gains that students make in the classroom and the material learned is not lost because a teacher leaves.

    Furthermore, high needs school districts have a difficult time retaining teachers period regardless of teach for america. In fact, my school district alone has a difficult time retaining teachers for a FULL year. In my first year of teaching, we lost 3 new first year teachers over the course of a few months (NONE of whom were affiliated with TFA). We recently (within the past week) hired a teacher who will work for the campus until June and not return next year, also not affiliated with TFA.

    When examining teacher effectiveness, we measure student outcomes and student success. Retention is a complex issue, and first and foremost, why do teachers WANT to leave high needs schools? Until this issue is addressed, teacher retention will be a challenge.

    Lastly, when I look at the quality of teachers on my own campus, specifically non-TFA teachers who have 5+ years of experience, I’m not impressed. Anyone can photocopy a worksheet, have students read the textbook independently during class, then sit behind a computer for the period. Is that really someone we want to retain? I’d rather have a rockstar teacher for 1 year than a mediocre teacher for 10.

  14. Your not impressed because you don’t know enough about teaching. The fact of the matter is students need massive SSR time to make up the achievement gap in reading. Because teachers aren’t entertaining students 24/7 does not mean they are not teaching. As far as “worksheets” what do you mean by that exactly.
    I notice the 5+ experience remark- the fact is it takes about that long to become competent and your thinly -veiled attack on veteran teachers fools nobody.
    Rock star teacher for 1 year? Rarely would a 1st year teacher ever be a rock star. Most of the good teachers in my inner city school were veterans while the newbies were either dedicated and learning or arrogant and condescending to veterans- until the figured out it was the veterans who were willing to help them the most.

  15. Gary Rubinstein « Diane Ravitch linked to this post.

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

Region
Houston
Grade
High School
Subject
Math

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