Another good question.
So the first question, again, is how do I know that TFA values quantity over quality? First let me clarify that this means that TFA is more concerned with growing the corps than it is with making sure that the new teachers are effective.
I know this is true because TFA has published it on their own website. In their growth plan they list out their organizational priorities and the first one is not that the CMs are effective in instructing the hundreds of thousands of kids that they have been entrusted to ensure. Instead, the first priority is ‘Grow to scale while increasing the diversity of the corps.’ Then for the second priority, thankfully, they have ‘Maximize the impact of corps members on student achievement.’
Now I have two problems with this priority list. First is that it is crazy for TFA to not make increasing the impact of CMs in the classroom number one. They say that the teaching part creates TFAs ‘short term impact,’ which, in my mind, really minimizes how important it is that CMs are as effective as possible.
My other problem with their mixed up priorities is that even if it is more important for them to grow than it is for them to succeed, why would they admit that? I generally ask TFA to be more honest, but in this case their failure to air-brush the truth makes me think that they don’t even understand why someone might question this ordering of priorities.
Still, this didn’t surprise me much. For years I’ve noticed that TFA does a much better job recruiting than it does training.
I’ve recently been complaining that TFA keeps the data about their failures secret. Actually, in doing some research for my previous post, I found a document they produce that explains a lot of the data I wanted. For instance, it is revealed in here that the ‘quit rate’ that I had been speculating about was 11%, which means one in nine CMs don’t complete the two years. Also in the same document they report the percentages of CMs who meet the different performance categories: significant gains (1.5 years of growth), solid gains (1 year of growth), limited gains (less than 1 year of growth)
Describing how they measure who falls into which category, they have on the website this puzzling explanation “Teach For America measures the percentage of corps members who can point to evidence that they have moved their students forward at least a year and a half’s worth of progress in a year’s time.”
So the CMs don’t actually have to ‘prove’ that they achieved these significant gains? They just have to “point to evidence.” How do they do that? [Note: See comments from current CMs at the end of this post to get the answer to my mystery.]
So the document claims that in 2008 the percent of first year CMs getting significant gains was 30%. In 2009 it was up to 39% and they projected 2010 to be 44%. For solid and significant gains they said 55% in 2008, 65% in 2009, and a projected 70% in 2010.
I have to tell you that I don’t buy the whole year and a half thing.
They didn’t have these metrics when I was a CM, but as one of the most successful teachers in the history of TFA, I’m sure that, in my prime, I would have scored high in whatever system they had. And as proud as I am of myself for having been such an amazing teacher, I can’t say that my students progressed a year and a half in one year. And I think that’s fine. That really wasn’t my goal. I wanted to develop confidence and problem solving abilities and also to show kids that math is fun and beautiful. Doing all that might not get them a year and a half of gains, but to me it was much more important.
I have to question their metric since if 40% of 2009 CMs got these ‘significant gains,’ then I’d say that something is wrong with the rating system. Not to be a bummer, but do you realize how difficult it is to be a first year teacher? Aside from the basics like teaching all your lessons for the first time while also trying to fit into the school community and learn basic things like how to fill out paperwork, it is completely physically and emotionally draining. Even with my 13 years of teaching experience, if I had to transfer to a new grade level and had to make all new lessons and go through the process of realizing that my lessons weren’t as fine-tuned as I thought they were, I’d be completely worn out.
Imagining a bell curve of effectiveness, I speculate that the number of rock stars should approximately equal the number of people who quit, or about 11%.
If TFA wants to delude itself into thinking that 40% of new CMs are making a year and a half progress per year, then it makes sense that they don’t make improving training their top priority. They’ve already accomplished it.
I’m not the only person, though, who thinks that TFA CMs are not as effective as these numbers suggest. According to her new book, Wendy Kopp feels the same way. She says so in chapter four of ‘A Chance To Make History’
“our teachers are still not, on average, changing the trajectory of their students in a truly meaningful way. With a lot of hard work, we are getting better, but we are not where we need to be: The bell curve of effectiveness within our corps is still too wide.”
This, to me, seems to contradict the stats that 39% of first year 2009 CMs and 50% of second year 2009 CMs have gotten a year and a half in one year.
So, I guess we need to fix the training model? Surprisingly, no. A page later she explains
“And it would be misguided to assume that there’s an as-of-yet undiscovered route for teacher preparation or retaining excellent teachers that will prove to be the silver bullet. There is no evidence, for example, that longer preservice training, teacher residencies that place new teachers as apprentices for a year before they assume full-time teaching positions, or incentives for teachers to stay in the classroom longer produce significant impacts.”
In other words, nobody knows how to train teachers better than TFA has, so let’s focus our attention on the bigger picture, and this is the main point of the book, getting transformational leaders. This is the new focus of TFA. It’s a machine that takes in five thousand of the best and brightest, doesn’t really know how to improve training, and then turns them into to a few dozen leaders, maybe even a President of the United States one day.
Let me finish with some constructive ideas about improving training:
1) The ‘Teaching as Leadership’ framework has a lot of flaws. I think the biggest is how much it oversimplifies things and also how it doesn’t properly prioritize the skills that a new teacher needs to be successful. For example, the very first tenet of Teaching As Leadership is that all effective teachers ‘Set Big Goals.’ Meanwhile, I’d say that this is horrible advice. Most teachers who quit also had set big goals. Setting Big (and unrealistic) Goals is not the self-fulfilling prophecy they say. Read my big critique of TAL to get this in more detail — I did it much better there.
2) I’m not going to stop harping about TFA’s refusal to give CMs a proper student teaching experience. Four CMs sharing a class that sometimes has only 10 kids in it? That’s just negligent. Yet, they’ve been doing this since 1994 and I don’t get any sense that this will change. Obviously it would be very expensive to do it right, but it is worth it. Maybe a smaller, but better trained corps would result in more effective teachers, and even more future leaders. But that conflicts with the top priority of growth.