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.