Education Opinion

Survivor: The TFA Edition, II

By skoolboy — December 24, 2008 4 min read
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Yesterday, I wrote about Morgaen Donaldson’s research on the survival rates of three cohorts of Teach for America teachers in their initial placement schools and in teaching overall. Today, I’ll describe one of her analyses of why TFA teachers leave their schools, focusing on the complexity of the teaching assignment and the corps member’s academic preparation for the subject(s) that she or he taught.

For this analysis, a complex teaching assignment for an elementary school teacher is one in which the teacher teaches more than one grade in a given year. Similarly, a complex teaching assignment for a secondary teacher is one in which the teacher was assigned to teach more than one subject in a given year. Many TFA recruits had complex teaching assignments during the years of observation. Between 16 and 20% of elementary TFA teachers were assigned to teach more than one grade in a given year, and 35% to 50% of secondary TFA teachers were assigned to teach more than one subject in a given year. (Note that this is different than teaching one grade in 2003 and a different grade in 2004, or one subject in 2004 and a different subject in 2005. These too might make teaching more complicated, but it’s across years rather than within them.)

In the 2000, 2001 and 2002 TFA cohorts, the vast majority of corps members majored in the social sciences or humanities in college. 52% were social science majors, 20% were English majors, 3% majored in the arts, and 6% majored in a foreign language. In contrast, about 5% were math majors, and 15% majored in science, computer science or engineering. Just 2% were education majors, and 4% majored in other subjects. (I think the numbers can exceed 100% due to double majors, but the text isn’t entirely clear on this.)

But their teaching assignments often differed dramatically from their formal academic preparation. One-half to three-quarters of the TFA recruits teaching secondary math were not math majors, and 38% to 50% of science teachers lacked a science major. Even in social studies, 16% to 31% of the TFA teachers were teaching out of their major field. Donaldson reports that out-of-field teaching diminished the longer a TFA teacher stayed in teaching.

Among elementary TFA teachers, a multiple-grade assignment increased the odds of leaving the initial school during or at the end of the first year of teaching by a factor of 3.29 (a probability of 19.1% for multiple-grade teachers, and 6.7% for single-grade teachers.) For the most part, this type of complexity did not influence retention in subsequent years, with the singular finding that in year 4, multi-grade teachers were significantly less likely to leave their initial schools than single-grade teachers. Many of the multi-grade teachers leaving their initial placement school in the first year transferred to another school, but multi-grade teachers also were more likely to leave teaching altogether in the first year than single-grade teachers.

At the secondary level, TFA recruits teaching multiple subjects were more likely than single-subject teachers to leave their initial placement schools and the field of teaching altogether in their first year of teaching. Beyond this first year, however, there were no significant differences in the likelihood of leaving the initial placement school, but multiple-subject teachers had a greater chance of leaving teaching altogether.

The out-of-field teaching story is complicated, with TFA math teachers teaching out of field more likely to leave their initial placement schools and the occupation of teaching altogether, and social studies teachers teaching out of field more likely to leave teaching. Oddly, science teachers lacking a science major were less likely to leave teaching than science teachers with a science major.

These patterns suggest that, at least in the years 2000, 2001 and 2002, TFA teachers often faced very complex teaching assignments for which they were not well-prepared academically, and the complexity of these assignments heightened the risk of leaving the initial placement school or of leaving teaching altogether. As I noted yesterday, there’s no comparison group, so we don’t know if novice teachers in these schools arriving via the traditional route had similarly complex assignments. Nor do we know if this pattern holds for more recent cohorts of TFA recruits, as there have been six cohorts since the three that Morgaen Donaldson studied.

One thing seems clear, however. If we want novice teachers to stay in their initial schools and to stay in teaching, they need adequate support as they learn their craft in the first years of teaching. Asking teachers to teach multiple grades, multiple subjects and/or subjects out of their college major fields is a peculiar way of supporting them.

A program note: We’re going to take a break here for the next 10 days or so. eduwonkette and I wish you happy holidays!

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