In response to critics that TFA teachers don’t have enough long-term impact, TFA replies with the statement from their annual survey “Nearly two-thirds of Teach For America alumni work in the field of education, and half of those in education are teachers. Teaching remains the most common profession among our alumni.”
Now a statement like this is pretty strong and probably shuts up those critics, though it also probably leaves them scratching their heads. How could this statement possibly be true?
I decided to investigate a bit to see how much of this was fact and how much was PR spin. Before I get started, though, I’d like to explain something about myself to people who don’t know where I’m coming from with my occasional criticisms of TFA. It’s not that I want TFA to fail. There are two things I don’t like about misleading PR: 1) Politicians often believe it and then make policies based on it, like “those TFA teachers keep teaching so we can solve the education crisis by firing all the overpaid veterans and replacing them with these TFA teachers.” and 2) TFA seems to believe the PR themselves and don’t seem to feel the need to improve their ability to get more alumni to teach beyond the two years.
The first thing that you should notice when looking at a stat like “one third of alumni are still teaching” is the careful choice of words. You’re only an alum if you don’t quit before you become an alum. And since somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of people who start in TFA do not complete their commitment and therefore become alumni, they are not considered in that stat. That alone would move the number down to 30%, but that’s just the beginning.
The first report I looked at was the 2007 report. At the bottom there was some fine print that said “The information in this report is based on self-reported data as of April 2007 and represents more than 57% of our alumni network.”
Well, 57% is pretty low, considering that it’s self-selecting. This is not a random sampling by any means since those who are in education are more likely, I think, to respond to the alumni survey.
The 2008 report says “Percentages that reflect current data — as opposed to cumulative data — are drawn from our 2007 alumni survey, which received 4,097 responses, and represent 35 percent of our alumni network at the time.” This doesn’t sound very reliable statistically.
The 2009 report says “Except where noted, percentages that reflect current data — as opposed to cumulative data — are drawn from our 2008 alumni survey, which received a 57 percent response rate and went out to our alumni from corps years 1990-2006.” So now it’s back to 57 percent.
Finally, the recent 2010 report says “Data is self-reported and reflects 72 percent of our total alumni population.” This is quite a jump, so I wanted to examine it. Of course the size of the new corps is rising so if they were able to get 100% of the new CMs to respond, that would help. There were 17,000 alumni the year before and 3,000 new ones that year. But if they kept the 57% of the original 17,000 and got all the new 3,000 to respond, that would still be only 63%. To get the 72% they claim, they would have to not only get all the new 3000 to respond, but they’d have to get 67% of the 17,000 people who they tried to get before. I don’t think this is feasible since as the years go on, it gets harder to track people who you’ve lost. I do admit that it’s possible that they made a huge effort to get those numbers up to answer criticisms about the low self-reported turnout.
Just under the ‘two thirds in education and one third in teaching’ stat in the 2010 report it also says ‘Nearly half of our corps members stay in their initial low-income placement schools for more than two years.’ Now, this, I believe. CMs do often stay for a third year. I did, though it was mainly because I needed to make up for the damage I had done my first year. Still, this is a true stat. But it also skews the ‘one-third of alumni are teachers’ statistic. If you take the 3,000 new ‘alumni’ (there were 17,000 alumni from first 18 years, so 3,000 is a big percent of alumni) of which 1,500 are teaching a third year, that accounts for a large percent of the alumni who are still teaching. I think of those third-year people as part of their own category which is definitely worth reporting and even bragging about. However, if you don’t count them among the alumni who are still teachers (I know they are officially alumni, but it does cause a misleading stat), you would be down to about 25% alumni teaching, which still doesn’t account for the people who quit and never became alumni.
The one-third stat makes it seem like one out of every three alumni have chosen to become career teachers, while I’d say the number is more like ten or fifteen percent (of which I’m one of them.) I think that ten or fifteen percent is actually pretty impressive considering that most of them (like me) weren’t planning to become career teachers before doing TFA. They should be proud of the people who are still teaching, but be honest about their retention rate.