Sep 04 2012

TFA implores Obama administration to hold teacher preparation programs accountable

On the Democrats For Education Reform website last week they announced a letter by “a coalition of over 30 education reform organizations” (including Teach For America) in which they asked Duncan to hold teacher preparation programs ‘accountable’ — meaning that their funding and even existence should be based on the value-added scores of the teachers who graduated from these programs.

These 30+ organizations read like a who’s who of places who think that value-added is so accurate that basing teacher evaluations, school evaluations, and now teacher prep program evaluations on it will surely close that achievement gap up in no time.  (I think my favorite name is ‘Step Up For Students’)  From my research, I’ve concluded that principal evaluations by a knowledgeable principal correlate more with ‘student learning’ than value-added does.  Perhaps in 100 years value-added will reach a better level of accuracy.  (For those of you who are new to this, value-added is when a computer predicts what a class of students should get on the year-end state test if they had an ‘average’ teacher.  It is based, mostly, on the scores those students got on last year’s tests.  It is highly volatile with teachers getting rated great one year and horrible the next despite no change in their teaching.  The reason for the error rate is that it relies on 1) last year’s test results being meaningful, 2) the computer’s calculation of what the student’s ‘should’ get needs to be accurate, and 3) this year’s test results need to be meaningful.  If any of those three things is off, the entire calculation if off.  A lot more could be said, but that’s a brief primer for you.)

Here is the complete text of the letter they sent to Duncan (emphasis mine) :

Dear Secretary Duncan:

We, the undersigned, are writing to convey our strong support for the Obama Administration’s teacher education reform strategy as described in “Our Future, Our Teachers” and urge you to advance your policy through Executive action as quickly as possible.

Each year, some 200,000 schools of education graduates and alternative route participants are newly placed in American classrooms. Too often, they themselves and their employers discover that they are ill‐prepared to teach and as a consequence the children in their classes do not have the opportunity to learn to their utmost potential. Students from historically disadvantaged groups, who year after year are taught by the least effective teachers, are by far the most frequent victims -­‐ often with life-­‐ changing consequences -­‐ of the deficiencies in our teacher preparation and placement system.

We understand that the U.S. Department of Education, with broad input from the field through a formal negotiated rulemaking process, is developing or has developed regulations that would require states to: 1) meaningfully assess teacher preparation program performance; and, 2) hold programs accountable for results. Even though this group of non-­‐federal stakeholders failed to reach consensus, we are pleased to see they came together behind the idea of tying teacher preparation program quality directly to the student outcomes of their graduates (including outcomes for students with disabilities and English Language Learners). We urge you to exercise your rightful authority in this matter and publicly release your draft regulations so that all interested parties may offer formal and detailed comments and the process can proceed with all due haste to final rulemaking.

Administrative action is both sorely needed and long overdue. Title II of the Higher Education Act requires states to conduct an assessment of teacher preparation programs and identify and improve the lowest-­‐performers. At present, such policies are the exception rather than the rule. In the most recent year, states identified low-­‐ performing programs in only 37 of more than 1,400 institutions of higher education that prepare and train teachers. Furthermore, since these requirements were put in place more than a decade ago, 27 states have never identified a single low-­‐performing program. Each year, teacher preparation programs receive approximately $6 billion in support from the federal government. They have both a moral and legal responsibility to carry out the Title II requirements in a way that has a positive and dramatic impact on student learning.

Right now, we don’t have good information for most teacher preparation programs on their graduates’ impact on student learning and their performance in the classroom. A few states, such Louisiana and Tennessee, have started to look at this data and see clear differences both between and within programs. In Tennessee, the most effective programs produced graduates who were 2-­‐3 times more likely to be in the top quintile of teachers in the state, while the least effective programs produced graduates who were 2-­‐3 times more likely to be in the bottom quintile.

In terms of student learning, research also shows that students with the most effective teachers on average advance a grade and a half on academic assessments in a single academic year while students of similar backgrounds with the least effective teachers acquire about only half a grade level of learning in the same academic year. A recent study by TNTP showed that teachers who affected higher outcomes for students also exhibited other positive qualities, according to surveys of the students in their classrooms. Students taught by such teachers were more likely to report that those same teachers cared more about them, made learning more enjoyable, and encouraged them to make greater effort in their studies.

The ultimate goal of formal and final regulations should be to ensure that the HEA Title II requirements around reporting and accountability have the effect that they were intended to – providing meaningful data on program quality and ensuring that low-­‐ performing programs are identified and improved. This may require the investment of some additional, targeted resources, particularly to minority serving institutions to ensure that the quality and diversity of the teaching force go hand in hand.

We hope the Administration also pursues work with Congress to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. But for now, deliberate and swift administrative action on Title II regulations is the best next step to advance these aims.

Thank you for your consideration.

I’ll go through some of the issues I have with this letter:

“Too often, they themselves and their employers discover that they are ill‐prepared to teach and as a consequence the children in their classes do not have the opportunity to learn to their utmost potential. Students from historically disadvantaged groups, who year after year are taught by the least effective teachers, are by far the most frequent victims -­‐ often with life-­‐ changing consequences -­‐ of the deficiencies in our teacher preparation and placement system.”

Isn’t this the problem with Teach For America?  Many of the new CMs struggle and feel very unprepared after five weeks of training.  Now of course they are going on to show that by some metric TFA is failing in a smaller way than some of the other teacher preparation programs so they are worthy of being spared from the sanctions, but I’ll show the problems with those metrics later.

“We understand that the U.S. Department of Education, with broad input from the field through a formal negotiated rulemaking process, is developing or has developed regulations that would require states to: 1) meaningfully assess teacher preparation program performance; and, 2) hold programs accountable for results.”

Since ‘meaningfully’ is defined as ‘by value-added’ in all their studies, I don’t think that ‘meaningful’ is the appropriate adjective.

“In Tennessee, the most effective programs produced graduates who were 2-­‐3 times more likely to be in the top quintile of teachers in the state, while the least effective programs produced graduates who were 2-­‐3 times more likely to be in the bottom quintile.”

Again, the Tennessee study which, of course, put TFA at the top of the performers, is just based on value-added.  In that same study, TFA is a very poor performer by another metric — retention rate.  I think that any evaluation of a teacher preparation program should have retention as part of it so TFA should be very careful about what it is asking for.  Of course the people making the evaluations will rig them so that retention is not a part of it, just to protect TFA, but maybe in the far future someone else with more of a research background will be making those decisions.

But even with value-added being the main criteria, I’ve discovered a giant paradox in this letter.  The theory of value-added is that it somehow equalizes for student starting points.  So teachers that have ‘better’ students are not rewarded just because their students do well on the state test.  They have to do better than the computer prediction.  So if the coalition is so enamored with value-added then they need to work out the value-added for each program.  But isn’t that just the value-added of the students of the teachers trained through the program?  No.  (This might get a bit confusing and ‘meta’ but try to hang with me on this one.)  What they would need to develop is a program that predicts what the value-added should be for the students of a group of teachers, depending on the ‘starting point’ of those teachers.  So since TFA teachers are the ‘best and brightest,’ the program would predict that they would get good value-added from their students.  So just because their students get those good scores, that does not mean that the training program has done a good job, just that they got ‘better’ raw material.  So by this type of calculation the ‘value-added of the value-added’ might not be so good for TFA.

In terms of student learning, research also shows that students with the most effective teachers on average advance a grade and a half on academic assessments in a single academic year while students of similar backgrounds with the least effective teachers acquire about only half a grade level of learning in the same academic year.

I’ve analyzed the ‘study’ on which this claim was ‘proved’ and wrote about it extensively here.  That they would throw this bogus stat into this letter is really low.  This study was based on 1,920 students in Indiana and was a study about how children that have a lot of siblings have lower achievement than children who don’t have a lot of siblings.  The comparison of effective teachers claim was a small afterthought and it was admitted that the sample wasn’t big enough or varied enough to decisively conclude anything.  And while it is possible that some teachers only get 1/2 year and others get 1 and 1/2 years of learning, there is no mention about what percent of these superstars there are and what percent of these dullards there are, so it is not something that any policy can be based on.

So for TFA to be demanding teacher training programs to be improved really takes a lot of ‘Chutzpah.’  They only offer their trainees ten to fifteen days of student teaching an hour a day with classes of ten students or less.  Their training is really an embarrassment.

I should mention here that I have not been impressed with some of the training I’ve seen at other training programs, even ones that are a full year or more.  There are others, though, that I think are very good.  Certainly the most important thing is the opportunity to student teach.  If I could have just started over after six weeks of my first year of teaching, I could have jumped right to the kind of success I experienced in my second year.  So if I could have gotten a good student teaching experience with many different groups of students I’m sure that I could have had one of those mythical ‘good’ first years.  Until TFA fixes this deficiency in their training, they would be wise to just fly “under the radar” but they seem to think they have, and will always have, some sort of diplomatic immunity.  When the pendulum swings back the other way, TFA might find themselves on the short end of this kind of policy.

 

11 Responses

  1. J

    Now, I’m all for an objective debate over TFA, as it certainly has its pros and cons. However, the commentary you have provided in the article is far from accurate. The training and on-going support you were provided in 1991 vs. 2012 could not possibly be more different.

    1) CMs struggle their first year not because they’re not teaching well (every 1st year I’ve ever worked with has still made at least a year of growth with students), but because they’ve never experienced failure before. TFA recruits people with impecable resumes and transcripts – those that have never had to experience not being good at something before. It’s not a skill gap, just a mindset one. Once they believe in themselves, and know they can overcome the stress, they blossom. Just picture the first day your management went well within your classroom… it’s not that you learned some magical new skill, it’s that you felt like the leader of your classroom and the kids completely picked up on that.

    2) TFA is not strictly value-added, and hasn’t been for the past couple of years. ALL regions have moved towards using more qualitative evaluation of classrooms as opposed to merely looking at data. Additionally, most regions also require principal surveys and district evaluations as one of their metrics used to gauge effectiveness, choosing to partner with the school as opposed to redefine its measures. Much of the programs listed above have also focused on more holistic evaluations of classrooms — TNTP uses their ACE observations and rubric system, TFA has TAL rubrics, TAP has a rubric for teacher evaluationm, states like Louisiana now have a state-wide teacher evaluation focused on not value-added, but observations. It’s important to keep in mind that as you read studies, the data is *old*. Even if the report is released tomorrow, chances are the data is still 2-3 years old due to the time it takes to collect, analyze, write a report on. TNTP has been a leader in teacher evaluation, but even their recent publications are not representative of what they’re doing in the classroom. Perhaps if you had been involved in TFA since 1991, you would have realized this.

    3) I have no idea where this figure of 10-15 days of teaching for a class of ten children comes from for an hour a day comes from. All CMs teach for 20 days (four weeks, every day) for a minimum two hours (1 hour of lesson, 1 hour of intervention). The only exception for this would be the various small pilot programs they’ve tested that were specific to one or two school sites each year. Nationally TFA has moved towards creating smaller collaborative groups as well (many having only 2 or 3 members) which means that some CMs may even be teaching for 3 hours each day. In my six years of working at multiple institutes (Delta, Houston, Phoenix, Chicago), I have NEVER seen class sizes that small either. While rural schools tended to be smaller than urban merely due to the population of the area, they still typically had class sizes that were representative of what was to be experienced regionally as well.

    4) Traditional student teaching does not prepare teachers beyond what institute provides. While traditional education *courses* provide adequate preparation, student teachers often become the classroom helper, copy maker, tutor, or observer. In my six years of institute, I have had 10-12 teachers that had completed traditional undergraduate or graduate degrees in education prior to joining TFA, and were in no way stronger than the other CMs that I worked with. The same challenges with management, pacing, planning, and student investment that my brand-new CMs struggled with were the same ones that my ones that had student taught struggled with. A first year of teaching, regardless of route of preparation, is going to be rough. I’ve also worked for the past two years as an instructional coach at a school, supporting traditionally trained teachers, TFA CMs, and teachers that have completed other alternative certification programs. Again, first years struggle no matter where they came from. This is a huge problem across the education field not specific to TFA. In fact, my TFA teachers typically improved at a faster rate during their first year because they had other professional development being provided on-going by TFA, whereas for my other teachers, I was the only source of development at the school.

    Yes, there are a million things about TFA that could be better, but the same could be said about education as a whole. You’re focusing on a TINY subsection of the educational field. TFA has 9,000 teachers in classrooms right now, as opposed to the millions of traditionally trained teachers. Education in our nation is not working period. I’d much rather try to make massive change that’s going to help support ALL students, rather than just focus on 9,000 of them. The stakes are too high for our students to not want to make things better for all of them. I don’t know what it will take to get there, but complaining about TFA is certainly not it.

    • meghank

      I disagree. TFA makes a great deal of money, and uses that money to spread messages about public education that are simply not true. So the problem is not merely the 9,000 teachers it currently has placed, but the messages it is sending to the public.

      Another problem is that those messages are generally dismissive of career teachers, as this most recent letter is, and as your comment is. If you put the message out constantly that career teachers are not as good at TFA temporary teachers, eventually someone will believe it, and that is exactly what has happened (despite the fact that it is patently untrue).

      A further problem is TFA’s reliance on standardized tests and promotion of further reliance on those tests. You say they are moving towards qualitative data, but in this letter and in most of the state legislation that they have supported, a teacher’s evaluation is based mostly on standardized testing data. This is obviously flawed, for many reasons that Gary has explained before and that I don’t care to explain again in this comment.

    • skepticnotcynic

      J, having been involved with the organization for the last 10 years and as a former corps member, your writing is typical of someone who has a vested interest in preserving the TFA status quo. If you have worked at institute for 6 summers, you would think you would be part of the solution to improving their training model.

      As a start for TFA training reform, don’t treat CM’s any different than any other first year teachers. They are not saviors, they are not the chosen one’s, and they are usually no more effective than other first year teachers. I still have to waste a year of my time listening to them speak as an authority on a profession that they have absolutely no credibility to speak about. Some of the more outspoken and foolish corps members reject the practical advice I give them and even refuse to implement the curriculum that I have developed and refined over ten years know works and has worked with my students for years. Only to watch them falter when they use their own so-called one trick pony and phony strategies they learned during TFA institute. This is an indictment on the poor training they are receiving by CMA’s, who often have only 2 years of teaching experience. This is what is so astonishing; a teacher with 2 years of experience is training teachers. This is unimaginable in any other profession or sport.

      I am tired of listening to students come up to me asking me to remove them from the class of a first year CM, because of poor classroom management, instructional confusion, and inauthenticity. Why do I have to waste a year of my time beating the crappy training they received only to see them finally start to improve and gain the respect and admiration of the kids after deprogramming them for a year? I guess this all would’ve been unnecessary had they had more practical and realistic training during institute, instead of wasting time holding hands and reflecting on the achievement gap

      Trust me, the kids know that many of the first year CM’s are full of crap, the veteran teachers know that many of them are full of crap, and some of the corps members know they are full of crap due to their unchecked egos or insecurities.

      You are correct in your assertion that first year teaching is rough for most people, but where you fail is in thinking that TFA has better training model than traditional education programs and that it should be taken seriously as a part of the solution to education reform. At least the traditional education programs do not hold their teachers to unrealistic expectations and promote faux achievement among their graduates. Most of them are far more humble and take the profession a lot more seriously.

      Furthermore, if you are advocating for value-added to be part of the evaluation criteria when assessing teacher’s performance, you clearly lack understanding of what great teaching is and should be. If you have been involved with TFA since 1991, you would think you would have obtained more wisdom from your years of teaching, but it is evident that you have not, so I am curious to know how many years you actually spent teaching in a classroom. My guess is fewer than 5 based on your comments about how “every corps member you have worked with has achieved at least 1 year of growth.” I must ask, were your teachers in K-12 held accountable for your tests scores? I didn’t think so, you were. Hopefully you studied and reinforced the material at home and if you still didn’t understand, you asked for help and practiced until you obtained the scores you needed or wanted.

      I have worked with corps members as a teacher for the last 7 and still too many of them come in with inflated egos, a false sense or reality, and a focus on the wrong things in their first year, (i.e. teaching to a test). Where do they get this idea, during their TFA training and PD sessions?

      Of course, this pressure comes from the organization through their program directors to preserve its funding and reputation as a force in education. The organization publishes laughable scientific research in promoting an agenda that is so far from reality that it amazes me how gullible the elite media and philanthropic organizations really are. You can keep pulling the wool over the public’s eye, but TFA’s training model should not be immune to criticism in preparing first year teachers.

      Lastly, I have worked with two education majors who were also TFA corps members, and they were significantly more humble and better first year teachers than their corps member peers, and they are still in the classroom, while only 1 of the traditional TFA CM’s out of 15, who I have worked with in the past 5 years, is still teaching.

  2. J

    As I said, TFA is moving towards qualitative data. Nowhere within the letter does it mention using value added assessment. It states, “A recent study by TNTP showed that teachers who affected higher outcomes for students also exhibited other positive qualities, according to surveys of the students in their classrooms. Students taught by such teachers were more likely to report that those same teachers cared more about them, made learning more enjoyable, and encouraged them to make greater effort in their studies.” That is the exact opposite of value added and pure dependence upon quantitative data.

  3. Dufrense

    J, as Gary noted, reformy types don’t use the phrase “meaningful assessment” without including value-added.

  4. J

    That’s not completely accurate. To quote TNTP’s (one of the authors of the articles, and one of TFA’s partners in training and evaluating TFA CMs)publication The Widget Effect from 2009:

    “Teachers should be evaluated based on their ability to fulfill their core responsibility as professionals—delivering instruction that helps students learn and succeed. This demands clear performance standards, multiple rating options, regular monitoring of administrator judgments, and frequent feedback to teachers. Furthermore, it requires professional development that is tightly linked to performance standards and differentiated based on individual teacher needs. The core purpose of evaluation must be maximizing teacher growth and effectiveness, not just documenting poor performance as a prelude to dismissal.”

    We’re not talking about a single quantitiative measure. We’re talking about a holistic perspective of how teachers are doing and how to ensure that all of their job duties are being fulfilled.

  5. Cosmic Tinker

    Of course TFA would be supporting less rigorous assesment. It was recently admitted that the data TFA has is largely based on teacher created pre-test/post-test measures, not standardized tests.

  6. Dufrense

    J, I get that they promote “multiple measures.” The problem is valued-added models–whether they stand alone or accompany other measurements–are flawed enough to seriously impact a teacher’s composite score.

  7. skepticnotcynic

    Do you really think TNTP differentiates their training for individual teachers? They follow a rudimentary rubric for evaluating teachers. I’ve seen it, and it’s a training model for beginning teachers, not experienced veterans.

  8. Chi Res

    Who knew all it takes to make “a great teacher” is to inflate the egos of enthusiastic novices, leading them to believe that, after five weeks of summer training, they already “have impressive strengths in the classroom” and are “great”?

    From first year TFAer, Anna of the Delta, Week Update, Aug 16, 2012:

    “So it’s Thursday of my second week of teaching.”

    “So perhaps behavior management still needs a bit of work, but realizing that I do have impressive strengths in the classroom makes me feel good about the job I am trying to do. I love the challenge this year is bringing so far, but keeping in mind that there are things that make me a great teacher, such as my innovation and creativity, is crucial to getting through this year confidently.”

    Silly me. I thought it was learned skills that are then honed from years of classroom experience which make great teachers. When there has not been enough training time for skills to develop, TFAers have to wing it on bloated self-confidence and an inflated belief that one’s “innovaton and creativity” are the keys to success –which is highly unlikely in today’s test-taking-based classrooms, with many top-down mandates and scripted curriculum (except in unregulated charters).

    It’s the same inflated ego in TFA leadership that they infuse in beginning teachers which propels them to have the audacity to tell colleges of education how to train teachers. The high on ego, low on skills model of Teacher Education is likely to save districts a lot of money, by replacing veteran teachers with TFA novices, but don’t count on that for saving children’s lives.

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

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