LTE: Another Take On Teach For America

I write to counter the Heights editorial about Teach for America titled “The Problems Facing Teach for America.” I am not a Teach for America spokesperson, but I am both a TFA and Boston College alumnus, and I found that the editorial lacked context and made many blanket assumptions.

First, the contention that “it costs more to place a TFA trainee” due to “relocation costs” is misleading. TFA derives the majority of its funding from private donations, not from public revenue resources. Further, the school districts do not pay for the relocation costs, to suggest otherwise lacks factual foundation.

Second, the assertion that “BC’s continued support of TFA is incongruous with its investment in the teaching profession, and is ultimately damaging the country’s already troubled public education system” is unfounded, and the reasoning used to draw that conclusion is severely flawed. The Editorial Board contends that since TFA applicants have no bargaining power as to placement, those who accept their placements will leave and damage our public education system. Let’s build some context here. First, research indicates that about 50 percent of teachers leave the profession after five years. Thus, retention is a teaching problem, rather than a problem placed squarely on TFA’s shoulders. Next, this assertion that applicants have no say is not true either. Applicants rank their regional preferences, and TFA has begun to emphasize placing corps members in regions in which they have a connection. This assertion also fails to take into account those candidates that will not accept their assigned corps region because they don’t want to move to that particular region.

Third, the editorial notes that TFA gets 70 percent of its operating costs from private foundations and donors, yet simultaneously asserts that TFA corps members cost the taxpayer more. If 100 TFA recruits cost $8.2 million dollars, then the taxpayer may pay up to $2.46 million, or 30 percent of that number. The Colorado report indicates that 100 non-TFA teachers cost $2.22 million. A difference of about $200,000, but that difference is still questionable.

This analysis is questionable given that schools of education, like those who created the report cited favorably by the Editorial Board, are notoriously anti-TFA and a lot of their research seeks to refute TFA effectiveness. The Editorial Board’s face value embrace of one study, while disregarding the others (like Mathematica discussed below) demonstrates a lack of critical analysis. For example, the 2010 Colorado Report puts the attrition cost for non-TFA at $750,000, and $1,080,000 for TFA, noting that these were “estimates” in their research. The Colorado Report does note that TFA charges “up to” a $5,000 finder’s fee per corps member, but does not indicate how that $5,000 per corps members amounts to an almost 400-percent increase in five year costs for TFA corps members versus non-TFA teachers. Again, considering that 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within 5 years, the Report fails to address that particular statistic and how it does or does not impact the attrition costs for non-TFA teachers.

Fourth, the Editorial Board confuses staying in the same school teaching the same grade in perpetuity for proven effectiveness, by noting “only 5 percent of TFA teachers are still in their initial placement.” This assertion misrepresents teacher effectiveness, school administration and internal teachers’ unions’ rules that affect this result. For example, many TFA corps members move into leadership roles, which usually means they have to leave their schools to become school leaders. Further, the editorial doesn’t make clear or provide any research showing how a 6th grade teacher staying in the same grade at the same school does anything to increase student achievement, they just assume it to be true. In addition, if a corps member is excessed (laid off) because of low enrollment in the school, or because a more senior teacher who was excessed from another school bumps him or her, union contracts determine that even if that TFA teacher was the best teacher in the school, they will still be laid off for a more senior teacher. This 5 percent figure also connotes that not staying at the same school means that the corps members are no longer teaching in low-income schools, which is assuredly false. I taught in Houston for two years with TFA, and came to Boston and taught at a traditional public school for another three years. All five years I taught low-income students, and I transferred my teaching skills to another group of low-income students. Normally, teachers move around quite a bit, especially in the beginning of their careers.

Fifth, the argument that “TFA’s goal to ‘eliminate educational inequity’ is unlikely to be achieved with such unusually high attrition rates” misunderstands the fact that educational inequity cannot be achieved with teaching alone. The issue needs awareness, political clout, parents, coalitions, and innovation. We cannot continue to believe that only traditional veteran teachers and teachers’ unions have the answer to educational inequity. If that were true, the Democratic base would not be so conflicted on the issue of education reform, and teacher’s unions would have parents marching with them side by side. That is not the case.

Finally, and perhaps the most troubling part of the editorial, is the race analysis with the Mathematica study (a study which found a more than two-month growth level for TFA math teachers). The editorial seems to advance the idea that since TFA math teachers in the selected locations were more white than the overall TFA pool, then their results are not indicative of TFA results overall. What I grab from the Heights stating “the educators examined do not represent the diversity of the TFA corps—80 percent of the TFA teachers sampled in the study were white, compared to only 45 percent of the incoming corps members nationally,” is that the Heights Editorial Board believes TFA corps members of color are not as effective as their white counterparts, without examining that perhaps corps members of color are more inclined to teach different subjects or more concentrated in different TFA sites. Also noted in the editorial is that the study excluded charter school TFA corps members. Curiously, the Heights Editorial Board thought the exclusion of the charter school TFA teachers “begin[s] to break down” the otherwise positive results, but this fails to take into account that TFA typically sends corps members to the very high performing KIPP and YES charter networks. Further, the Heights Editorial Board provides no facts or research indicating that the charter teachers excluded would have dropped the scores for TFA teachers.

The editorial brushes aside the Mathematica study and buttresses up the flawed and biased Colorado study. The truth is that several studies find that TFA corps members are more effective than other first year non-TFA teachers. Mathematica found that TFA teachers were more effective at teaching math than non-TFA teachers regardless of their experience.

TFA has its issues; perhaps more training would be beneficial to the corps members, or placing students in regions where they will stay long term (something that they have started to implement). But I disagree with most of the editorial. Where I agree with the Editorial Board is when they mention that: “Teaching in public schools is not a service opportunity. It is a career, and American universities should start treating it as such.” I agree. I taught for five years in low-income schools. It was not a service opportunity; I worked hard, and made significant gains with my students. It was my career full-time for five years, and I do not believe, for one second, that I did not give my teaching career the level of responsibility and respect that it deserves simply because I went into another career path thereafter. I am thankful for TFA because it brought me into the education reform movement, and developed me as a leader and teacher—the latter I would have never been, but for TFA.

E. Peter Alvarez
BC Alumnus
TFA Alumnus

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The Heights is the independent student newspaper of Boston College.