Linda Darling-Hammond on TFA and teacher preparation

Linda Darling-Hammond’s article on teacher preparation in this week’s EdWeek should be required reading for anyone interested in education policy. The article was written in recognition of Teach for America’s 20th anniversary.

Yes, my vision is that in 10 years, the United States, like other high-achieving nations, will recruit top teaching candidates, prepare them well in state-of-the-art training programs (free of charge), and support them for career-long success in high-quality schools. Today, by contrast, teachers go into debt to enter a career that pays noticeably less than their alternatives—especially if they work in high-poverty schools— and reach the profession through a smorgasbord of training options, from excellent to awful, often followed by little mentoring or help. As a result, while some teachers are well prepared, many students in needy schools experience a revolving door of inexperienced and underprepared teachers.

Darling-Hammond is probably best-known for her criticism of Teach for America’s crash-course, full-steam-ahead approach to teacher preparation. She goes on to criticize the cost/benefit ratio of the program .

Where some studies have shown better outcomes for TFA teachers—generally in high school, in mathematics, and in comparison with less prepared teachers in the same high-need schools—others have found that students of new TFA teachers do less well than those of fully prepared beginners, especially in elementary grades, in fields such as reading, and with Latino students and English-language learners.

The small number of TFA-ers who stay in teaching (fewer than 20 percent by year four, according to state and district data) do become as effective as other fully credentialed teachers and, often, more effective in teaching mathematics. However, this small yield comes at substantial cost to the public for recruitment, training, and replacement. A recent estimate places recurring costs at more than $70,000 per recruit, enough to have trained numerous effective career teachers.

She doesn’t provide a source for the last figure, unfortunately, and it’s not clear what exactly is being included in the recurring cost per TFA recruit. Even disregarding that, it is still true that TFA teachers are more expensive than traditionally-certified teachers, not obviously more effective, and they leave the profession in higher numbers.

Darling-Hammond is not anti-TFA. She just believes that it (and the rest of public education) would better serve their students if they focused more on quality teacher preparation, preparation that sets the stage for a lifelong career of successful teaching, not just a two-year commitment.

TFA teachers are committed, work hard, and want to do a good job. Many want to stay in the profession, but feel their lack of strong preparation makes it difficult to do so. For these reasons, alumni like Megan Hopkins have proposed that TFA evolve into a teacher-residency model that would offer recruits a full year of training under the wing of an expert urban teacher while completing tightly connected coursework for certification. Such teacher residencies, operating as partnerships with universities in cities like Chicago, Boston, and Denver, have produced strong urban teachers who stay in the profession at rates of more than 80 percent, as have many universities that have developed new models of recruitment and training.

On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, we should be building on what works for TFA and marrying it to what works for dozens of strong preparation programs to produce the highly qualified, effective teachers we need for every community in the 21st century.

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Teach for America is not a volunteer organization…

…it’s a teacher-placement service. And depending how you feel about Teach for America’s mission and effectiveness, potentially a very expensive one.

There seems to be a common misconception that TFA is a volunteer organization like Peace Corps and Americorps, where corps members receive only a small living allowance and no wage. This editorial prompted me to try to help clear that up. While TFA corps members are considered members of Americorps, this only means TFA members are eligible for the loan forbearance and post-service education awards all Americorps members receive.

  1. Teach for America teachers are full employees of the school district in which they work and are paid out of district budgets. The school district pays corps members a full teaching salary plus benefits, just like any other teacher. TFA reports corps member salaries between $30,000 and $51,000.
  2. In some cases, school districts may also pay Teach for America a placement fee for each teacher hired from the corps. This seems to be a regional determination: this Rethinking Schools article by Barbara Miner (pdf) reports St. Louis schools paid TFA $2000 per placement; Birmingham schools reportedly paid TFA $5000 per placement.
  3. In 2008, the funding for about 25% of TFA’s operating expenses (or nearly $25 million) came from government grants. TFA also recently won a 5-year, $50 million grant in the Department of Education Investing in Innovation competition.

Add up all the taxpayer money spent, and then remember the entire 2010 TFA corps contains only 4,500 teachers. [Note: This number is of new recruits for 2010. The total number of active TFA corps members is around 8000.]

And then consider the middling results of Stanford’s 6-year study of TFA teachers in Houston (press summary, pdf full text), which found that uncertified TFA teachers only performed equivalently to other uncertified teachers and were out-performed by fully-certified teachers (as measured by student performance on standardized tests), after controlling for teacher backgrounds and student population characteristics. Even after TFA teachers become certified, they “generally perform[ed] on par” with traditionally-certified teachers.

Updated: Commenter Michael Bishop mentioned this 2004 Mathematica Policy Research study of Teach for America (pdf), which used random assignment of students to teachers. This was a one-year comparison study of TFA teachers to non-TFA teachers (novice and veteran) and found significant effects of TFA status for math results, but not for reading or behavioral outcomes.

And for those keeping score at home, the Mathematica study reports school districts paid TFA $1500 per teacher.

What the reformers aren’t reforming

Back in December I shared this Answer Sheet blog post with some friends. The ensuing discussion revealed a disconnect between how those of us who work in education perceive the issues and how the lay public perceives the issues. This is my attempt to bridge the disconnect.

In the above post Valerie Strauss and Jay Mathews, both veteran journalists on the education beat, debate the merits of KIPP, Teach for America, and other aspects of education reform. Mathews tends to support the current wave of reforms—standardized testing, teacher merit pay, charter schools—while Strauss tends to be a skeptic. My non-education friends tended to side with Mathews, at least on the point these reforms are better than no reforms. Ming Ling and I sided with Strauss. [ML: Specifically, I agreed with Strauss’s concerns that current high-stakes accountability systems miss a lot of important information about teaching, that effective teaching requires ongoing training and support, and that improving education requires systemic policy. But I also agree with Mathews’ observations that KIPP, TfA, and charter schools have demonstrated many worthwhile achievements, and that “Fixing schools is going to need many varied approaches from people with different ideas.”]

These reforms focus on the incentive and regulatory structure of the school system. Proponents of these reforms believe that loosening the restrictions on schools and teacher pay, coupled with incentives and punishments, will let market forces take over. And market forces will lead the nation’s finest minds to the education industry, who will then find ways produce a better-quality “product” at a lower price so they can reap the rewards. The idea is intuitively appealing, but the collection of specific reform proposals contains serious flaws and don’t address key structural failures in our education system. There are reasons to believe these reforms are worse than no reforms at all.

The Flaws
Those pushing to change the incentive structure through test-based accountability, including merit pay, are assuming the tests are adequately measuring important educational outcomes. Questioning this orthodoxy is like standing next to a straw man with a large bounty on his head. To quote Jay Mathews from the post linked above,

Test-driven accountability is here to stay. Politicians who try to campaign against it are swiftly undercut by opponents who say, “What? You don’t want to make our schools accountable for all the money we spend on them?”

Nobody is against holding schools accountable for the taxpayer money spent. But holding schools accountable to a bad standard, particularly a high-stakes one, can distort people’s behavior in a counterproductive way. It’s called Campbell’s Law and social scientists have documented the effect in all areas of life, including a recent finding that texting bans may actually increase accident rates.

One doesn’t have to look very far to find examples of school districts outright cheating or otherwise trying to game the system. The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch is full of such examples. Something about the standardized-testing-driven incentive structure is clearly not working as intended, but rather than stopping and developing better ways of measuring learning, the current reform crowd wants to plow ahead and raise the stakes again by linking teacher pay to this flawed system of accountability. They are not interested in asking the hard questions about what they’re really measuring and influencing.

But even if we assume the tests are good and the incentives are in the right places, it is difficult to see why market forces will necessarily improve the education system in the way those reformers are claiming. In politics, market forces are supposed to expand the pie, not equalize the slices. Despite very strong incentives to be elite athletes and coaches, a significant portion of the population can’t even run a mile without getting winded. But those who support market-based education reforms still use egalitarian rhetoric—appeals to closing the achievement gap, equipping all citizens with the tools they need to succeed.

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Diluting the meaning of “highly qualified” teachers

Valerie Strauss posts:

Senators have included in key legislation language that would allow teachers still in training to be considered “highly qualified” so they can meet a standard set in the federal No Child Left Behind law.

In an era when the education mantra is that all kids deserve great teachers, some members of Congress want it to be the law of the land that a neophyte teacher who has demonstrated “satisfactory progress” toward full state certification is “highly qualified.”

Is it just me, or have I been transported to 1984? The original definition of “highly qualified teacher” in No Child Left Behind already represented what in most high-achieving countries would be a bare minimum qualification for beginning a teaching residency. Allowing teachers-in-training to be classified as “highly qualified” seems ridiculous on its face.

Strauss sees this as a giveaway to political darling Teach for America:

Teachers still in training programs are disproportionately concentrated in schools serving low-income students and students of color, the very children who need the very best the teaching profession has to offer. In California alone, nearly a quarter of such teachers work in schools with 98-100 percent of minority students, while some affluent districts have none. Half of California’s teachers still in training teach special education.

Allowing non-certified teachers to be considered “highly qualified” would be a gift to programs such as Teach for America, which gives newly graduated college students from elite institutions five weeks of summer training before sending them into low-performing schools.

On good teachers

On “What Makes a Good Teacher?“:

For years, the secrets to great teaching have seemed more like alchemy than science, a mix of motivational mumbo jumbo and misty-eyed tales of inspiration and dedication. But for more than a decade, one organization has been tracking hundreds of thousands of kids, and looking at why some teachers can move them three grade levels ahead in a year and others can’t. Now, as the Obama administration offers states more than $4 billion to identify and cultivate effective teachers, Teach for America is ready to release its data.

Really fascinating– I’m looking forward to reading TfA’s report. I wish the journalist had maintained her focus on reporting behaviors and attitudes (monitoring understanding, setting & striving for goals, grit) rather than traits and past history (GPA, leadership), but there’s still a great list in there. I hope that policy will also attend closely to the process variables.

Note that the research comes from an aggregate sample of master’s programs. There could well be distinguishing factors in some master’s programs that are beneficial, which is why I’d want more process data. True that they focused on the classroom (due to the emphasis on what teachers do), but they did at least mention the importance of having teachers reach out to students’ families. It’d be interesting to find out what kind of impact parent-education programs could have.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to read an article about how teachers learn and improve, instead of what makes them “great”?

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