Teaching Profession

Here’s What Teach For America Alumni Believe About Charters, Vouchers, and Societal Inequities

By Madeline Will — October 08, 2019 4 min read
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Teach For America alumni are more likely to attribute differences in student outcomes to societal inequities and less likely to support vouchers and charter schools than applicants to the program who didn’t make the final cut, a new study finds.

Researchers surveyed more than 19,000 TFA applicants for the 2007-15 cohorts. They compared the responses of applicants who scored just above the cutoff point used to admit candidates with those who made it to the final round of admissions but were not admitted.

“The idea is that since candidates on either side of the admissions cutoff are likely to hold similar incoming beliefs, this approach allows for a rigorous, non-biased estimation of the impact of TFA participation itself,” said the study, which was published in the journal Education Next.

And the differences between the two groups were significant.

For those who join TFA, “time in low-income classrooms really translates to a world-view shift,” said Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, an assistant professor of political science and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

She and other researchers set out to determine the effects that time spent in high-needs classrooms has on opinions about education reform measures, including charter schools and performance-based pay. They studied TFA alumni because the program’s large database allowed researchers to conduct a rigorous analysis, and because of the “outsized effect that Teach For America and TFA alumni have in the education reform dialogue,” Mo said.

Teach For America’s model is to place smart college graduates in high-needs schools for two years. TFA founder Wendy Kopp has said she founded the organization to both help schools fill teacher shortages and to produce a crop of new civically minded leaders.

But critics have said TFA throws ill-prepared teachers into the neediest schools and perpetuates a high turnover rate. Some also say that TFA has supported a pro-privatization approach to improving schools—in 2016, a third of corps members worked in charter schools. Many TFA alumni have gone on to found charter school networks, including the KIPP network, IDEA Public Schools, and YES Prep Public Schools. Just a couple months ago, ProPublica published a story calling TFA “an arm of the charter school movement.”

See also: Teach For America’s Defenders and Detractors Are Both Wrong (Opinion)

However, the Education Next survey found that those who participated in TFA are 12 percentage points less likely than those who applied to TFA but did not participate to support the expansion of high-quality charter schools and 11 percentage points less likely to support vouchers to allow low-income children to attend private schools.

These findings are contrary to the narrative that most Teach For America alumni are avid charter school supporters, Mo said. Instead, there are vocal alumni on both sides of some of these major education reform debates, she added—and this study shows “the aggregate effect of the program.”

The survey found that TFA alumni are also more likely to want to elevate the prestige of the teaching profession, but less likely to want to reduce dependence on standardized testing. Still, 70 percent of participants do want fewer standardized tests.

There isn’t a difference between participants and non-participants in terms of their support for uniform standards like the Common Core State Standards, performance-based pay for teachers, and teacher evaluations that incorporate student achievement.

Researchers also surveyed TFA participants and non-participants on their views on equity and societal injustices. TFA participants are more likely to disagree with statements that the amount a student can learn is primarily related to his or her family background, that poor families don’t value education as much as rich families, and that poor students have less motivation to learn.

Instead, program alumni are 8.5 percentage points more likely to agree that “systemic injustices perpetuate inequity throughout society.” TFA participants are 11 percentage points less likely to agree that low- and high-income students have equal educational opportunities.

“The general pattern ... is very much emphasizing the systemic issues and emphasizing less the individual traits,” Mo said. “It’s less victim-blaming. ... You’re not attributing blame to the individuals, you’re allocating that blame to the external system—the school, the general way society functions.”

Researchers could not say for certain whether these results are due to Teach For America’s programming or the two years spent in a high-needs classroom—or a combination of both factors.

“So much of what teachers emphasize [in interviews] are experiences with children and less about conversations they had with Teach For America coaches, but ... the study can’t say definitively that the effects would be the same or smaller if they became teachers through another outlet,” Mo said.

Researchers are working on further analyses that break out the results based on ethnicity and gender, she said, as well as an analysis that looks at how participation in Teach For America influences voter participation. (So far, she said, she has found that alumni have an increased sense of voter engagement and are more likely to turn out to vote.)

For this study, “I think the takeaway is that the things that are in the news a lot around the policy levers that are going to move the needle around educational inequity—those are not the levers that those in the classroom are excited by,” Mo said.

Also, she said, Teach For America alumni remain optimistic that there are solutions to systemic inequities and that teachers can make a difference.

“They’re more optimistic about what teachers can do,” she said. “There’s a general sense that the teaching profession needs to be honored.”

Image: A Teach For America corps member in Dallas congratulates his students on a job well done in this 2016 file photo. —Brandon Thibodeaux for Education Week-file

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.