Dec 13 2012

Wendy Fails ‘The Giggle Test’

‘The Giggle Test’ is an expression coined in the late 1980′s.  As a lawyer contemplates whether or not to make a legal argument, he should avoid any argument that he won’t be able to make without immediately giggling afterwards.  A completely ridiculous argument, thus, ‘fails the giggle test.’

Teach For America was never intended to be a source of career teachers.  The original idea was that ‘the best and brightest’ experience what its like in the schools while trying to do some good in cities with severe teacher shortages.  Rather than have no teacher at all, we would at least be a stable presence for that year.  As an added bonus, maybe our enthusiasm would rub off on some of the veteran teachers who had much more skill than us, but perhaps could even get a bit inspired by these young go-getters.  After our two years we would be ‘educational advocates’ — lawyers, doctors, businesspeople, maybe even politicians, who would have first hand knowledge of the potential of low-income students, and also an understanding of the challenges they face.

In the beginning, most people did not stay for a third year.  I was some kind of outlier, staying for four years in my original placement city of Houston.  As the years went on, we now hear that about 60% stay for a third year, maybe 25% for a fourth year, and after that it drops off pretty rapidly.  Putting these numbers together with the fact that 8% of TFAers don’t make it through their first year and 3% don’t make it through their second year and a quick estimate says that even with the few people like me who became ‘career teachers,’ the average length of a TFAers teaching career is somewhere between 3 and 3.5 years.  Since the people who quit during the first and second year aren’t, technically, ‘alumni’ they might not be factored into the average, which would bring that average up a bit, but I think those people are relevant.  Considering the TFA model this 3 to 3.5 year average is actually something they should be pretty proud of.  I doubt in the beginning they would have ever expected to get that many people to stay for a third and fourth year.

Over the years, I’ve asked various contacts I have in TFA to give me their best calculation, but I hadn’t been able to get much out of them.  They sometimes say that 1/3 of alumni are still teaching, but this stat is pretty inflated since TFA has grown exponentially with 5,000 people in the 2010 corps compared to about 1,000 for most of the 1990s and this 1/3 of all alumni includes all those third year TFAers inflating the statistics.  Over the summer I was in contact with someone on this question and they said that such a calculation could not even be made since people’s careers aren’t over yet and since even people who have left the classroom — like I did for 7 years — could return to teaching and have lengthy careers.

It’s hard to say what a ‘good’ number of years for the average TFAer should be considering that even the ones who teach for 8 or 10 years are pretty likely to be lured into becoming administrators.  And with the charter schools popping up left and right and with all the opportunities to work for TFA alumni who are working for big school districts, TFAers have a lot of opportunities that non-TFA teachers might not get offered so often, so I’d never expect the average TFA teaching life span to be that large, and haven’t really held the fact that there are few ‘lifers,’ though I have mused that maybe a three or four year commitment would be a good idea.

So it was with great surprise that I read an interview with Wendy in The Huffington Post where she said “On average, our corps members stay in the classroom for eight years.”  When I first read this, I assumed that she simply misspoke, like when she said in a speech at Harvard that only 3% of alumni are in the private sector, while that number, according to one of my TFA contacts (who is probably deflating the number his/herself) says that Wendy should have said it was 16% with 3% being specifically in business.

But reading over the reaction to this claim and also her responses on Twitter, she is standing by it (read from bottom to top).

She does not say that the numbers are inaccurate, but that this is a ‘projection’ based on the alumni survey.  I was planning to boycott the survey this year.  TFA sent me about ten reminders to fill it out.  They even had a raffle for an iPad for filling it out by a certain day.  I caved, though, when the NY Alumni director came all the way to meet me for coffee by my school.  For someone to make that kind of effort (not specifically to get me to fill out the form, but still I felt I wanted to show ‘good faith’ by doing it,) I couldn’t resist even though my 15 years is definitely upping the average.

Wendy says that there are a good number of early TFAers who now have 20+ years of teaching who are inflating the average.  I’m not so sure about this claim that 17% (which is 1 out of 6) of the 1990, 1991, and 1992 corps are still teaching, as they are the only ones who could have 20+ years.  According to the latest Alumni magazine ‘One Day’ it says that 56 of the original 500 corps members from 1990 are still teaching, with 19 of those in low income communities.  This is about 11%, and I’d speculate that this is inflated anyway.  Of all the people that I know from 1991 (and I was quite the popular corps member in my day!) I’m the only one that I know who is still teaching.  There isn’t any reason to think that the 1991 and 1992 corps would be so much higher to bring that number up.

Also, since these people with 20+ years are so few, as the corps back then were so small, they don’t bring the average up by that much.  With 30,000 alumni now, they are a drop in the bucket.  Even if it was 17% of those old-timers who stayed, those 300 teachers out of the 1,750 from those three years, amassing a total of 6,000 teaching years would have to be averaged together with the nearly 10% of the 2011 and 2012 corps who won’t make it through 1 year.  So when you put those 300 teachers with their 6,000 years together with the 1200 with a total of (I’ll give them each half a year) 600 teaching years, well you’ve got 1500 teachers with an average of about 4.4 years.

If TFA really wanted to know the true number of the average length of a TFA teacher’s career, they could pretty easily track down most of the corps members from 1991 to 2000.  Back then the average corps size was about 750, so we’re talking 7,500 people.  For people who have never left the classroom, assume that they will teach for 30 years.  Everyone who has left teaching, you can assume that they will not go back into teaching (assuming the others will stay for 30 years will more than make up for the few people who might go back and won’t get credit for doing that).  Add ‘em up, divide by 7,500 and you’ve got your number.  Or you can just use my 3.5 year estimate and save all the trouble — it won’t be much different.

So this claim is truly outrageous and, even for me, disappointing.  There is so much dishonesty in ed reform.  There are the charters who boast that 100% of their students get accepted to college, with no mention that half their students disappeared before senior year.  There are the claims, now even TFA admits they were inflated, that a large percent of first year corps members get a year and a half of ‘gains.’  And now add this new one about TFA retention.  How can we ever figure out what is working in education when PR contaminates the truth we need?

Some good commentary on this 8 year claim:

The Jersey Jazzman blogs about it.

Anthony Cody Part I

Anthony Cody Part II

15 Responses

  1. Michael Fiorillo

    Giggle test? How Kind.

    I’d call it the smirk test, or better still, the “laugh-at-loud-at-the-rubes-after-you’ve-hustled-them” test.

  2. Hilary

    There are a lot of easy ways to fudge these numbers. It’s likely they’re only counting the people who finished the survey (which would probably over-represent people still teaching). And, it’s likely they’re only counting alumni to be people who finished the 2 years in the first place.

  3. Eloise O'Shea-Wyatt

    A friend whose daughter was in TFA and taught for 5 years quit and told her mother after 5years you are stuck and she did not want to be stuck in classroom teaching. This is I believe the overall attitude of TFA people. Those who make a career out of teaching are losers and they are destined to become policymakers and education leaders. This is part of the elitist indocrination they get from the elitist institutions that put out our “Masters of the Universe”. For all its proproganda all it ever was meant to do was produce soldiers to fight the war against teachers unions.

  4. Daniel Hayman

    Gary, thanks for this post and for your work shedding more light on TFA teaching tenures. Would it be possible for you to post how you got your back-of-the-envelope estimates? I tried my own using the numbers you pulled here and an estimated model filling in the gap between year 3 and year 30, and got 6.3 years: 0*8%+1*3%+2*29%+3*35%+4*2.3%+4*2.3%+5*2.3%+7*2.3%+10*2.3%+14*2.3%+19*2.3%+30*11%=6.3. (This is assuming 11% teaching 30 years.) If you take Wendy’s word on 40% of 2008 corps teaching more than 4 years and 17% “maxing out”, I was able to get an estimate upwards of 9 years: 0*8%+1*3%+2*29%+3*35%+4*20%+5*3.8%+6*3.8%+8*3.8%+11*3.8%+15*3.8%+20*3.8%+30*17%=9.0.

  5. Daniel Hayman

    Gary, thanks for this post and for your work shedding more light on TFA teaching tenures. Would it be possible for you to post how you got your back-of-the-envelope estimates? I tried my own using the numbers you pulled here and an estimated model filling in the gap between year 3 and year 30, and got 6.3 years: 0*8%+1*3%+2*29%+3*35%+4*2.3%+4*2.3%+5*2.3%+7*2.3%+10*2.3%+14*2.3%+19*2.3%+30*11%=6.3. (This is assuming 11% teaching 30 years.) If you take Wendy’s word on 40% of 2008 corps teaching more than 4 years and 17% “maxing out”, I was able to get an estimate upwards of 9 years: 0*8%+1*3%+2*29%+3*15%+4*5%+5*3.8%+6*3.8%+8*3.8%+11*3.8%+15*3.8%+20*3.8%+30*17%=8.9.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Good question. One big consideration is that I do not think that 11% (that’s one out of 9) of the people between 1990 and 2000 are still teaching and will then teach for 30 years, in the simplified calculation that I propose. That 11% is just from who responded to the survey and does not include people who didn’t complete the commitment, so I think that it is too high and the accurate number is probably closer to 5%.
      How about:
      8% 0 years
      3% 1 year
      29% 2 years
      35% 3 years
      15% 4 years
      5% 5 years
      5% 30 years
      Gets me 4.01 years. I think that there is an issue where the old-timers can skew the figures which does become misleading. Perhaps a more meaningful statistic is what the ‘median’ number of years is, which is certainly 3. Also, maybe some kind of weighing could be done to make a more relevant statistic.

  6. Bryan

    Last week I read Class Warfare and this week I’m reading Kopp’s book A Chance to Make History.

    Well I must say I have been floored by how incredibly even-handed this book is. Kopp’s basic thesis is “Mandates Don’t Work.” She decries the search for scapegoats and silver bullets. It is honestly almost Ravitchesque.

    It leads me to believe that she was grossly misrepresented by Mr. Brill. Wondering if you’ve read it and what you think.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      I did review the book a while ago and posted about it starting here: http://garyrubinstein.teachforus.org/2011/02/07/a-chance-to-make-history-my-review-part-i/

      Yes, that chapter about silver scapegoats and silver bullets was good, but unfortunately what Wendy writes in her book and what she does are sometimes two different things. TFA ‘features’ people like Michelle Rhee who clearly see teachers as scapegoats and also charter people who see charters as silver bullets. Still, though, that chapter is very good and I’m hoping that Wendy starts to see why people would like to see more like that from her.

    • Michael Fiorillo

      For the most part, you can disregard what she says – although she is uncharacteristically honest when she says that TFA is a training academy for taking over the public schools – and observe what she does.

      Much more Edward Bernays and George Creel than Diane Ravitch.

    • Educator

      I read Class Warfare, but not A Chance to Make History (am planning to).

      One problem i had with Class Warfare was that the author didn’t go into the deep nuts and bolts of the problems with many of the charter miracle schools. He didn’t investigate the tricks that many charters do to skew their statistics. I can’t imagine that in his interviews with Weingarten that she didn’t mention some of her qualms. I wish Brill had interviewed Gary, and I wish he would have called out the charters just as much as he calls out the unions.

  7. Who cares? We’re talking about adding a tide of minimally qualified people to a system that considers them “exceptional” because the learned the tricks of succeeding in school? What make these TFA kids think that their experience in the well-resourced schools they attended will have any relevance for what they’ll be facing after 5 weeks of training? TFA has always been a joke among professionals, never to be taken seriously.

  8. I doubt the eight year claim based on my own ancedata. I’ve taught with at least fifteen Corps Members and most left after two or three years.

    I do think that looking at the earlier Corps might be interesting, not just because it’s a smaller group but because I think that the earlier Corps may have had more people who were intending to become teachers all along and for whatever reason did so through Teach for America. I joined in 2001 intending to stay in teaching; I work closely with four other teachers who were in TFA in the 90s and they also joined to become teachers.

    My sense is that there are fewer people joining TFA who intend to make teaching a career than there were in the 90s. I don’t think the alumni survey provides rigorous data (isn’t the response rate fairly low?) and self-reporting isn’t always accurate, but a question about whether alumni joined intending to teach long-term might be interesting.

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

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