Though education ‘reformers’ always speak of the need for transparency, Teach For America is one of the least transparent organizations out there. Though they get a lot of public money, I don’t think that there is a way to FOIA their internal records so we are often left with their interpretations of the data with no way to verify it or put it into some kind of context.
About four years ago, way before I starting ‘resisting’ TFA, I had a lengthy conversation with Hearther Harding, who was a VP of research, I think. I had asked her about the alumni survey, the attrition rate, and also about the principal survey. At the time I was not considered an ‘enemy’ of TFA so she did not have her guard up and she told me a lot of interesting information, some of which she now denies telling me. For example, about the principal survey where something like 90% of principals say that they are happy with their TFA teachers, she admitted to me that the results could be affected by principals who are happy with their second year TFAers but not with their first, and with the fact that it was a four level satisfaction survey, where the second two levels counted as ‘satisfied.’ She also said something to me along the lines of how the intended audience of the principal satisfaction survey is potential funders.
When I asked her about the attrition rate, she told me that 92% of TFAers complete the first year, and 89% complete the second year, and that 60% of TFAers stay for a third year. I can’t remember exactly what she said about staying for a fourth year — I believe it was something like 25%, but for beyond the fourth year, she said something like “it really drops off after year four,” which agrees with the numbers that have popped up in various papers over the years where fewer than 20% teach for a fifth year.
Two statistics that TFA just loves to quote are that “two thirds of alumni are currently ‘in education’” and that “one third of alumni are still teaching.” These numbers supposedly are calculated from the annual alumni survey. One thing to note is that since over 10% of corps members quit before they can even be counted as alumni, the numbers are already somewhat skewed. Another thing that distorts the numbers is the fact that the recent corps are so much larger, about 6,000 while the older corps are around 1,000 so even the third year teachers comprise a lot of the alumni still teaching and ‘in education.’
The reason I get frustrated when I hear about the 2/3 of alumni are ‘in education’ with 1/3 still in the classroom is that I know that these are, at a minimum, very misleading, and more likely, complete lies. I know this because I was a corps member and I’m not saying I was the most popular person in my Houston 1991 corps, but I know enough people to know that very few are still teachers. When TFA quotes that 1/3 statistic in the news, it is meant, I think, to mislead the public into believing that one out of three TFAers become career teachers.
What is easy to forget sometimes is that TFA alumni aren’t these abstractions. They are 30,000 actual people who are, the vast majority of them, alive and well, and fairly easy to track down. So after seeing these numbers tweeted again a few months ago, I asked one of the staffers I’ve communicated with from time to time (please TFA, don’t fire this person or reprimand him/her), to find for me the numbers for my own Houston 1991 corps. If these numbers were to completely disagree with what I know and have seen with my own eyes, I would have considered tracking down the members of my cohort and verifying the results.
Now of course someone from TFA could argue that Houston 1991 was not a typical corps year. That with their ‘improved’ training and support, people are more likely to stay teaching or ‘in education.’ But I don’t think that the corps members have changed very much over the years. I use the quit rate, which has been a steady 10% as a way of gauging this.
Well I got the results of the data, and perhaps this is the last time I ever get any data from TFA so I hope this is newsworthy, and I’ll report them here.
The first anomaly in the data is that TFA reported that the size of the Houston 1991 corps was 146 members. This is false. That year, there were well over 200 corps members, something I know because we talked about it back then all the time. I actually have a list of 210 people, most of the names still familiar to me. So when I saw that the statistics were going to be out of 146, I knew that the stats would be already flawed.
They said that 62 people responded to the survey, which they called 42%, but which is really more like 30% considering that they had the wrong number of corps members. The number of people still in the classroom was not anywhere near one third, but actually just 6 teachers, which if you include me (I boycotted the survey) is up to 7 teachers. This is 3%. Another 12 people were working in schools as principals or assistant principals. So the number of career teachers from TFA, I think we can safely assume, is quite low — something that everyone already knows.
Now, TFA can protest that they never said that one third of all TFAers become career teachers. They just said that a third of the alumni who filled out the survey were still teachers. But the point is that they are ‘suggesting’ that TFAers remain in the classroom, which they generally don’t. The truth is that probably between 10% and 15% of TFA alumni do become career teachers. This might even be an impressive amount. I’m not sure what would be considered an expected amount. But to suggest, as they always do, that one third of all alumni are still in the classroom is one of their worst misleading statements that they continue to make any chance they get.
I do appreciate that they were willing to give me the data I asked for. Maybe this is part of their strategy to be a little less arrogant and condescending as they try to re-build their image after the battering that they’ve taken the past year. I also hope that they continue to be more transparent. If they really want to be ‘for the kids,’ it does not really serve the kids to offer misleading data which might mislead philanthropists to invest in TFA rather than another organization that is more honest about its data. TFA also uses its data/PR to win millions of dollars in government grants. This is just unethical. Figuring out what works in education is hard enough without powerful organizations deliberately skewing the data.