Aug 17 2012

Is TFA a waste of money?

Yesterday a very significant article was published by Reuters and syndicated nationally called ‘Has Teach For America Betrayed Its Mission?’  For ‘anti-reformers’, like me (note I’m anti ‘reform’, not necessarily TFA.  If they would just sever their connection with the reformers, I would back off), this is a major story.  I think that this syndicated publication counts as ‘main stream media’ which has, in general, been very kind to the corporate reform movement.

I am quoted in one small part, but I’m sure that much of what I said in the extensive conversation I had with this reporter helped shaped the main point of the article.

TFA alumnus Gary Rubinstein sees the shift to charters as a betrayal of the mission.

“When I entered TFA, we wanted to be on the front lines. We wouldn’t have accepted a job teaching in a school that was doing well,” said Rubinstein, who now teaches math in a top-performing New York school.

The mention that I now teach at a top-performing school might make me look like a bit of a hypocrite, but it is accurate.  I’ve explained this before, but let me try to do so a bit more succinctly.  The first stage of my life after college, I taught for 5 out of 6 years in ‘low-performing’ schools.  This was the phase of my life where I was trying to ‘give back’ to society.  The next six years of my life were the phase where I was trying to make a lot of money.  I went to grad school for computer science and became a computer programmer and tripled my salary.  But I didn’t like it.  The third, and current, stage of my life is the one where I am trying to be happy.  So I found a job at a school where I can sleep better at night as there are fewer variables that are out of my control, as there were at my old schools.  In this stage, not coincidentally, I’ve found time to meet and marry my wife and to be there for my two children, now 4 and 1.  I accept that I am no longer on the ‘front lines.’  Everyone has his or her own way of contributing to ‘the cause.’  For me, I’ve found a way that I think is helping all kids by fighting against harmful reforms.  Maybe I’m helping more kids in this role, albeit indirectly, than I would if I stayed teaching at my original placement school.  I like to think so.

I was also please to see a quote from Dr. Camika Royal, who was at the center of the controversy I publicized earlier this summer when I called her speech at the Philadelphia institute ‘anti-reform.’  Her participation in this article further strengthens my claim that she and I are on ‘the same side.’

Camika Royal, who taught for TFA and has worked for them in various capacities for 13 years, says she once believed the organization’s goal was to strengthen troubled schools. Now she fears it is feeding a perception that public education is in ruins, and only an elite cavalry can rescue America’s children.

“I can’t stand the self-importance,” Royal said.

I think the most powerful point of the article is that TFA is quite expensive.  In the past 22 years, TFA has cost private donors and also taxpayers over half a BILLION dollars.  So the question is:  What did America get for this investment?  And the answer, I think, is:  Not much.

There have been about 40,000 people who have done, or are currently doing, TFA.  About 8% quit before finishing the first year.  Another 42% quit after the second year.  35% teach for exactly 3 years, and the other 15% teach 4 or more years, though the data gets a bit fuzzy from there.  I used these estimates to calculate the ‘average’ length of a TFA career to be 2.87 years.  Maybe it is a bit higher, but it is around 3 years.  So for all that money, we’ve gotten about 120,000 teacher years.  40,000 of those years were first years which, on average, were not very good.  So really we got about 80,000 good teacher years at a cost of over $6,000 per good teacher year.

But we also got the TFA leaders, thrown in for no extra ‘cost.’  There are about 12 high profile alumni, profiled on another Reuters article that came out yesterday.  TFA says that the point of TFA is to get these leaders.  Now I don’t think these leaders are very good, but even if they were, would it be worth a half a billion dollars to get a handful of leaders.  Would it not be possible to get this many leaders for a few million dollars?

One ironic thing about these leaders is that they all say “we need an effective teacher in every classroom” yet they are OK that one third of every TFAers career is not an effective year.  It seems that TFA gets a free pass since without TFA there could not be these leaders who will demand all the other teachers to be effective.

But the biggest revelation in the Reuters article is the long awaited confession that the statistic that TFA uses in their promotional materials, and to get governmental grants — the one that says that 41% of their first year teachers get 1.5 years of growth — is false.

I became aware of this through comments on a post I wrote called ‘Why does TFA value quantity over quality’ over a year ago.  I also challenged this statistic on both of my appearances on NPR.  Well, I am pleased that finally they have admitted that this statistic is bogus.

To get the grant, TFA presented internal data showing that 41 percent of its first-year teachers and 53 percent of its second-year teachers advanced their students’ performance by an impressive 1.5 to 2 years in a single school year.

But TFA’s former research director, Heather Harding, told Reuters these statistics were unreliable. Only 15 percent of TFA recruits teach subjects and grades that are assessed by state standardized tests. So to measure growth, many teachers rely on assessments they design themselves.

That means the teacher efficacy claim “is not a particularly rigorous statistic,” said Harding, now a senior vice president at TFA. “I don’t think it stands up to external research scrutiny.”

To have this come out in a syndicated Reuters article which ran all over the country yesterday is pretty stunning.  Whether TFA ‘suffers’ from this or not, I don’t know, but I’m happy about this since all I’ve been asking for all these years is for TFA (and also the ‘reformers’) to STOP LYING.  These lies don’t benefit kids.  When politicians believe these lies, they make bad decisions like that we need to fire all these old teachers since 41% of the new ones are miracle workers.  Just tell the truth and then we can, as a country, really figure out what is working and what isn’t.

This is true for charters too.  Maybe there are some good practices we can learn from them.  But if they continue to lie about how they are serving the ‘same kids’ and getting amazing results, how can we make progress when they lie like that?

This is why the theme of my blog for the past 18 months has been to reveal lies that are distracting us from making progress in education.

I don’t know how, or if, TFA will ‘respond’ to this article.  If they want to ignore it, they can, but I’m feeling a lot of momentum on the side of ‘truth’ now, and will continue to talk to reporters and help them understand what is going on with the corporate reform movement and the unfortunate, and unnecessary, involvement of TFA in that movement.

I also know exactly how TFA can free themselves of this burden of being associated with the corporate reformers.  I wrote about this extensively in ‘The Man Who Saved TFA,’ but I don’t think TFA is taking my advice seriously, just yet.  They really should.

17 Responses

  1. Terry

    If they were truly concerned with teaching and learning they would look for the best in all schools and not just charters and KIPP. They would highlight good teachers everywhere not just their temporary scabs. The only reason they are asking members to stay longer now is to repair the criticism so they can keep raking in the dough. This is Wendy making sure she keeps her highly paid position. It is not about children, teaching and learning.

  2. anon

    If it was about learning they would hire experienced (possibly retired?) teachers to coach new teachers, rather than former TFAers who taught for 2 years and then left to “broaden their impact.” But I’m afraid that isn’t a consideration because they’d bring their own opinions rather than the party line.

    • Susan

      I am a 30 year teacher who did coach the TFA recruits for 3 years. I quit when the national office rewrote the curriculum which we had to parrot. It was top heavy on theory and contains little, if any, practical knowledge. My TFA recruits hungered for this. I know I let them down when I left mid year but I couldn’t continue with the pablum that TFA thought so important to new teachers. This seminar was for 9 months, one evening a week. Hardly time to catch their breath.

  3. Michael Fiorillo

    When measured by their own ideologically pinched framework of closing the “achievement gap,” TFA is a dismal failure.

    However, when measured by its success in busting the unions, fragmenting and privatizing the public schools, and developing leadership cadre to do the same, they have been all too successful.

    Take a look at their Board of Directors – including Deregulator In Chief Lawrence Summers, who also sits on the Board of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst – and ask yourself whose interests they really serve.

    http://www.teachforamerica.org/our-organization/boards/

    • Don’t miss Laura Arnold on that Board. Her spouse started his career in capital at Enron, where he was an integral part of their energy trading team, the one whose shenanigans in the California electricity market caused massive brownouts and led to many plea bargains, convictions, and fines.

      “The Laura and John Arnold Foundation” is not only interested in Enron-like solutions in education, they’re also hugely invested in pension “reform”. Given the number of state pensions and state teacher pension programs that took enormous hits due to Enron’s bankruptcy (not to mention those that suffered when Enron’s schemes illegally bankrupted California utilities), I suppose one could argue that destroying pensions has been a long-range plan for Mr. Arnold.

  4. skepticnotcynic

    Michael that board list is frightening. It goes to show you that Ivy league elitists are not very introspective. You would think they would have the intelligence and experience to question their assumptions, but I do realize they live in a bubble and probably haven’t associated with the commoners as of late. Please don’t get me started with the pompous and narcissistic Larry Summers.

  5. Michael Fiorillo

    A question the Reuters article raised in my mind, which hopefully readers of the blog can answer, is the substantial “operating surplus” the organization has run the past three years.

    I thougare on-profits are supposed to show a match between income and expenditures. This “operating surplus” sounds like a euphemism for profit.

    Can anyone out there clarify this?

    • My understanding is that if a 501(c)3 has a surplus, they can roll the money over to the following year (or, if they have a foundation, put it into the organization’s investments), as long as the funds go toward the mission (as opposed to things like salary bonuses).

      I am not a tax accountant, though.

      • edharris

        Operating surplus and they depend upon a $50 million handout from the US taxpayer?

        • Megan H

          exactly @edharris. I would prefer that at least TFA just get their money from Walmart and other private investors. Leave the public money out of these private interests.

  6. Michael Fiorillo

    It appears they have every intention of rolling over these large “surpluses” indefinitely. It’s no surprise articles about the group point out the splendor of its Manhattan digs.

    My guess is that there’s also a connection between these “surpluses” and their political action arm.

    Given the TFA’s impunity and overall lack of oversight by the states and Department of Education, maybe the IRS should be taking a look.

    A guy can dream, can’t he?

  7. Pamela Harbin

    Thanks so much for your post; it has really opened my eyes. I was wondering why so many of the central office staff in Pittsburgh Public School were TFAers. Our District reforms are straight out of the mouth of Gates, Broad and TFA.
    Parents (like me) are so misled and uninformed by the media.

  8. Mavor

    When the dust settles,the long run impact of TFA and the “reformers” will be a decimated profession that won’t attract any self respecting people. It may have already happened. Teachers, especially those teaching poor and nonwhite kids, have become the whipping boy of the “reformers” and conservatives. I know am sick of being demonized for not solving social and economic problems beyond my control. I began teaching in ’91 for LAUSD. Taught there for 12 years and remember respect for teachers declining at that time. In ’03 I moved to New Orleans as a, get this, Michelle Rhee Orleans Parish Teaching Fellow. It was in New Orleans, which had to be the most dysfunctional district in the country, that I began to realize that many people thought all teachers of poor children taught because they couldn’t get any other job. We moved there for my wife to take a high powered position in healthcare and an appointment to Tulane University, I attended many cocktail parties with pillars of the business community. Almost always when I was asked what I “did” the questioner responded with a dropped jaw followed by there solution to the “education problem.” It was clear that they thought there was something wrong with me because of my job. At any rate, while New Orleans might be an extreme example, since Katrina flooded us out of Lake View I have taught for an urban district in Sacramento, I know, I know, Michelle Rhee lives there. Can’t get away from the phony. I saw her at the farmers market a while back. At any rate, the lack of respect for teachers has increased to the point that most teachers feel under siege. I knew I would soon be laid off so I earned another MA. Now I work as a medical librarian and suddenly I am respected, thought of as being competent and appreciated. The contrast is dramatic. I actually regret ever becoming a teacher and I was a good one. I taught every grade from second to high school and always received great evaluations. Now, after being laid off and demonized it feels like 20 wasted years. If I knew it was going to turn out like this I would never have become a teacher.

    • Terry

      You were laid off but they were hiring TFA “teachers”?

      • Mavor

        Not yet, but they are threatening to. One of my old principals, the best and smartest principal I know of, talked the
        Superintendent out of contracting TFA, but he wanted to. We don’t need TFA. We have dozens of teacher ed. programs within 50 miles and a great supply of math and science teacher. He convinced the Superintendent, a non educator from the Broad school, that it would be a mistake to bring in TFA. I was laid off because the eliminated they cut back on my classification and I did not have enough seniority in the district.

  9. Dufrense

    Toward the end of the article, Kevin Huffman mentions that he recalls how he “worked ferociously” to “boost students’ test scores” during his brief stint teaching 1st grade in Houston. Unless I’m overlooking something, that’s some serious false bravado.

    In the early ’90s Texas used the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills–before renaming it TAKS at the onset of NCLB. The tests were given in grades 3-11. What tests exactly did he boost his 5-6-year-old students’ scores on, then?

    • Terry

      He didn’t. He is lying just like his ex-wife. Masters of spin…delusions of grandeur. This is how you become a “leader”.

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

Region
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Grade
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Subject
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