Teacher Preparation Opinion

Teach For America Corps Members Debate: The Leadership Pipeline

By Anthony Cody — February 26, 2012 17 min read
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Last Friday, I posted this essay by Teach For America corps member Jameson Brewer: Hyperaccountablity, Burnout and Blame. One of the comments came from another TFA corps member, duke solaris. This comment and Jameson’s response ran yesterday, Teach For America Corps Members in Dialogue: Can this Model Work?

Today, in the third installment of this dialogue, I share the latest exchange between these Teach For America corps members.

To begin, duke solaris writes:
Thank you for the reply, and for being willing to engage in conversation!

I completely agree that the achievement gap is reflective of deeper issues in society and that the term “achievement gap” is an oversimplification of a much more complicated issue. I tend to agree with the McKinsey insight (1) that there are actually 4 kinds of achievement gaps: a gap between the US and other nations, a gap between low-performing states and high-performing states, a gap between minority students and white students, and a gap between low-income and non-low-income students. Issues such as rampant incarceration, homeowner, healthcare, earnings and poverty are at the root of some of these gaps, but not all, and each of them have terrible consequences.

What does this mean? That the status quo, the way we have been thinking about education and educating our teachers and principals, has not been working. It doesn’t mean TFA is the answer, but it does mean that we as a society shouldn’t be satisfied with what we have now, and should be searching for new answers because the current system is failing us. It’s also worth noting that, while the achievement gap between ethnicities has indeed been growing on a macro level(2), on a micro level, there is actually evidence of reversal in the gap.

So let’s start with the macro level. Why is it that, after 20 years of Teach for America, the achievement gap hasn’t been getting better? Well, with only about 9000 Corps Members between the two years, Teach for America teachers make up less than 0.3% of the over 3 million teachers in the United States. That’s 3 in every 1000 teachers. Similarly, why haven’t charter schools closed the achievement gap? Well, let’s look at the biggest CMO, KIPP, which has 109 schools. KIPP alone makes up only 0.1% of the over 100,000 public schools in the US. Even if there were 10 charter organizations as big as KIPP, all those schools together would only make up 1% of all public schools. It’s incredibly easy to point a finger at these programs and label them failures because the gap isn’t closing, but these programs are nowhere near the scale that would be required to make a dent in the gap, and they aren’t supposed to be.

A lot of the criticism of TFA comes from the fact that TFA does a terrible job of telling people what it is. TFA is not a career-teacher pipeline - it’s goal isn’t to get CMs to become career teachers, that’s just a side effect. Generally speaking, the purpose of TFA is to work as a leadership pipeline to get more people involved in education so that one day the gap can be closed. TFA is not designed to close the achievement gap all on its own, it’s a tiny program. Has TFA been successful in its goal? Well, for such a tiny organization, it sure does cause a lot of conversation about education. And for such a tiny organization, its alumni sure have brought about about a lot of change in the education field. We wouldn’t be talking about KIPP, Michelle Rhee, or The Equity Project, for example, because without TFA, none of those things would exist. The ultimate goal is to ensure that one day, all kids get an excellent education - NOT one day all kids will have a TFA teacher - and TFA has been doing a pretty good job of helping move the needle towards that goal.

Now, lets look at the micro level.
Perhaps the best example of a turn-around on a micro level has been student achievement in New Orleans and the RSD.(3) In 2005 (after Katrina), the percent of students who were basic or above in math and english was 30% in New Orleans vs 52% in Louisiana. A 22 point gap. Those numbers in 2011 were 59% in New Orleans and 67% in Louisiana. An 8 point gap. Unfortunately, NOLA is by far the clearest example of a reversal, but there is also evidence in New York City:

In 2011, black students averaged 26 points lower than white students on reading tests in fourth-grade, compared with 29 points lower in 2002. In math, they averaged 22 points lower in fourth-grade and 30 points lower in eighth grade, compared with 25 points and 36 points lower in 2003.(4)

I don’t feel comfortable extrapolating too far from this data, but it does go to say that it is indeed possible to close the achievement gap if there is enough scale and energy behind it - that issues of poverty etc can be overcome over time. IE: Now is not the time to throw in the towel or throw our hands in the air and absolve ourselves of all responsibility.

With respect to “locus of control,” I have to concede this point because I didn’t go to your institute and you didn’t go to mine. I can tell you how I was taught about LoC, but it looks like it was very different from how you were taught. TFA’s model does teach CMs that Teacher Mindsets drive Teacher Actions drive Student Actions drive Student Results, and to focus on what they can be doing to improve student achievement - but the way this was taught at my Institute was clearly not the way it was taught at yours. If I were a CMA, I wouldn’t yell at a CM or tell them it was their fault their students didn’t have pencils. Blaming a teacher is NEVER the answer. Giving up isn’t the answer either. As a CMA, I would want my CM to expect students to want to learn and want to have pencils (Teacher Mindset) and brainstorm with that CM to figure out a way to make sure that students had pencils in the future. At the end of the day, students need pencils to learn, and the teacher should take on some of the burden for figuring out how to get those students to have pencils (whether it be a pencil renting system or calling parents), even if it is outside the teacher’s immediate locus of control. Once again, the point isn’t that socioeconomic factors are irrelevant, but that they shouldn’t be used as excuses and that they can be overcome. The model isn’t supposed to be used to blame teachers, it’s supposed to be used to help them help their students.

With respect to summer institute, you’re right - team-teaching a small group of summer school students is not the same as being a full time teacher. At the same time, the student teaching that students who major in education go through is ALSO not the same as being a full time teacher. Both of these models are apprenticeship and mentoring models - you start learning with a lot of support, and then the support gets taken away. It’s a great way to teach a profession like teaching. TFA’s Institutes are certainly not perfect, but if TFA’s model for preparing CMs was truly inferior, then TFA teachers would drastically underperform first-year teachers in the classroom. Yet they don’t - the data is mixed at worst, and trends towards TFA teachers slightly outperforming peers in math. Could it be better? Of course it could, but that means we should be improving it and doesn’t mean we should be shutting it down.

Finally, you’re right, Erin Gruwell of Freedom Writers did choose to make huge personal sacrifices for her students. It doesn’t have to be this way, and one day it won’t be. TFA’s model is not perfect, but as you very well know, the organization is VERY receptive to criticism and feedback and is constantly changing. Once again, TFA is not THE solution, but it sees itself as being part of the process to move to a better place. TFA’s very existence sparks conversations that have never been had before. Some conversations are about things like questioning tenure and considering value-added testing, and these may make some teachers uncomfortable. Other conversations, like being able to drive student achievement without draconian disciplinary policies and respecting teacher work-life balance, make education reformers uncomfortable. But all of these are conversations that need to happen to move the needle forward for our nation.

To answer the opening question: Can this model work? Well, it depends on what you mean. Can TFA by itself close the achievement gap? Of course not. Can TFA improve in a hundred different ways? Yes, and it’s working on it! Will 1st year TFA teachers in the inner city outperform veteran teachers in the suburbs? Nope, they never will. Will 1st-year TFA teachers perform at least as well as 1st year non-TFA teachers in the same communities? Data seems to suggest yes. Is TFA a great model for creating an army of superstar career teachers? Nope, and that’s not its purpose, but many TFA alumni do become awesome career teachers. Does the TFA model work at creating a leadership pipeline into the education field? I think the evidence points to yes here as well - the model is indeed working.

(1) McKinsey Report on the Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap:

(2) Evidence of growing achievement gap via SAT scores:

(3) Data on New Orleans/RSD LEAP test performance:

(4) Data on NYC NAEP test performance:

Oh, one last thing. You noted that only 88% of CMs stayed from Year 1 to Year 2. That means that 12% didn’t finish their second year. I’m having a hard time finding solid research on this, but according to research by Richard Ingersoll, teacher turnover in the first year on a national level is 16% a year. Not just the schools TFA teachers in, but ALL schools. If you focus in on just schools with high concentrations of poor kids like the ones TFA places in, the turnover is 20% a year. Both of these figures are higher than TFA’s turnover rate.

Additional data is even more depressing. According to a 2005 study in Chicago, “an analysis of the teacher turnover rates at 64 neighborhood schools over three years revealed that 39 percent of first-year teachers never came back for a second year. " That number is brutal.

duke solaris

Response from Jameson Brewer:

While we agree to the existence of underlying socioeconomic gaps that contribute to the social, economic, and academic stratification of our society, I think we differ on our understanding of the root issues that cause them and certainly plans for alleviating them. You mention the “status quo” as being the way we approach educating our teachers as if this is at the bedrock of what causes these social gaps (of course that sounds like a TFA talking point). While I am a staunch advocate for having good teachers, I am not naive enough to believe that this will magically solve issues of inequality as it does in the feel-good movies you cite.

I think you underestimate the impact that TFA has had on education policy and individual classrooms. TFA touts to its recruits, corps members, and donors statistics showing the tens and hundreds of thousands of students that are “impacted” by TFA teachers every year. Certainly this number is lower than the total sum of national students; however, we aren’t talking about TFA going into prosperous school districts; but rather, those districts that are struggling with de jure/de facto segregation, funding inequalities, etc. Additionally, I would hardly call TFA a “tiny” program given the tens upon tens of millions of dollars it receives and operates with (both from private donations - Gates Foundation, and federal funds - AmeriCorps).

In reference to KIPP schools (started by two TFA alumni and currently run by Wendy Kopp’s husband) you mention, “It’s incredibly easy to point a finger at these programs and label them failures because the gap isn’t closing, but these programs are nowhere near the scale that would be required to make a dent in the gap, and they aren’t supposed to be.” I agree that these schools are small in ratio to the national public school districts. However, when we look at KIPP schools by themselves on the micro level, the gap is not closing (Books, 2011; Horn, 2011).

You mention, “it’s goal [TFA] isn’t to get CMs to become career teachers, that’s just a side effect. Generally speaking, the purpose of TFA is to work as a leadership pipeline to get more people involved in education so that one day the gap can be closed.” I would argue that having a revolving door of teachers who swoop in to do two years of community service that somehow gives them the credentials to then go out and start schools (KIPP and other charters), run districts (Michelle Rhee - whose gains have now been challenged as yet another potential cheating scandal), and serve on school boards (Courtney English, Atlanta Public Schools) is more detrimental to students than it is help (Darling-Hammond, 2005; Cline, R., & Small, R. C., 1994). I agree that TFA speaks a message to its corps members that “the most important work” comes working as an alumni. You use the word “pipeline.” TFA unveiled a new “principal pipeline” this past year with the goal of taking corps members out of the classroom, partnering with Columbia University and producing principals. I’m told that the Atlanta Corps intends on being 100% of the new hire principals within 5 years. I was offered this “pipeline” in addition to being asked to consider running for school board as I would have full backing of TFA. By the way, TFA hopes to have 20 board members across the Metro-Atlanta districts within a few years. In my opinion, TFA is the quintessential example of the neoliberal corporate takeover of public schools. The goal is to privatize teacher training, privatize schools and privatize school boards who operate at the behest of TFA.

I think there will be decades of research to be done in New Orleans following Katrina. You mention the incredible gains since the devastating hurricane. However, you fail to recognize that thousands left the city and did not return, so you are comparing apples to oranges. Further, standardized test scores are certainly not an indication of growth (Baker, 2011; Bausel, 2011) and is not a reliable indicator of teacher effectiveness (Papay, 2011). I’m sure you will agree that the “growth” you refer to has done little to close the income gap of the different quarters/wards in New Orleans.

With that said, I agree that we should not throw our hands up and quit the fight for social equality. However, I’m not convinced that recruiting top performing students from Ivy League schools, who do not share the same backgrounds as the students they teach, to teach in poor schools for two years is the method of ending educational or social injustice. It is convenient to ignore the real issues causing these gaps by allowing people to overlook them while they focus on a glamorously marketed program sending “the best and brightest” in to “those” schools (Ahlquist, 2011). Many corps members come from prestigious backgrounds when compared to those of their students. Dilworth and Brown argue that this type of dichotomy impedes student learning. They argue, “a need exists for teachers who are consciously responsive to their students cultural backgrounds and learning styles; it is considered crucial by many scholars in their efforts to improve academic achievement” (Dilworth & Brown 2001, p. 659).

I completely disagree with your characterization of traditional student teaching. As someone who went through a traditional education program (including student teaching) and TFA’s Institute I feel quite capable of evaluating both. We agree that Institute is not an authentic experience. However, my student teaching was. True, my mentor teacher taught for the first two weeks. Then, I took on a class per week until I had control of all of them. Per the guidelines set forth from my university, my mentor teacher remained in the room for about a month without intervening. Following that, he was not to be in the room. When corps members finish Institute, they have amassed 18 hours of lead teaching time with an average of 10 students (Brewer, 2011). In all, corps members spend 125 hours in “sessions” in addition to the 18 hours of teaching before they are sent into the nation’s worst schools. As a student teacher, I amassed approximately 640 hours of lead teaching before I was cleared to graduate. I think that if I found myself on an operating table, I would prefer the surgeon with more prep time. Also, what does this say about the impact that TFA is having on teacher professionalism? I argue that Teach For America has been successful at further deprofessionalizing the teaching profession by insisting that anyone can “learn” how to become a teacher and it can be done in 5 weeks (Veltri, 2010). Veltri (2010) notes, “did TFA corps members consider that in other professions, such as cosmetology, licensure requires a 9-month program of study to be operating legally?” (Veltri, 2010, p. 34).

Wendy Kopp’s thesis provides great insight into the organization she founded. She notes that she was at a conference for future business leaders and the participants in her “action plan group” were charged with “improving America’s public education system.” I’m not quite sure how or why these group of college business students were asked to do this, nor where they received the authority on such issues. However, Kopp notes that they “identified the lack of qualified teachers” as a major issue (Kopp, 1989, p. i). As I stated above, TFA has at its foundation, and core, a neoliberal goal of the full business privatization of teacher training and the educative process within schools. Why? Well, that is the easy one to answer...money and social reproduction by way of infusing business/industrial revolution techniques into the classroom preparing students to work on factory lines (standardized tests, etc.). Here is a good video featuring Sir Ken Robinson to watch on the issue.

Lastly, you mention, “Will 1st-year TFA teachers perform at least as well as 1st year non-TFA teachers in the same communities? Data seems to suggest yes.” The data you refer to is the Mathematica Policy Research (2004) article that showed TFA teachers performing on par with, and even outpacing non-TFA teachers in math. What you fail to recognize is that this research compared TFA teachers to “other emergency certified teachers.” That is, people with ZERO preparation (e.g., student teaching or Institute for that matter). So, I argue that the data does not indicate that TFA does as well as non-TFA-traditionally-trained educators. What is interesting then about the Mathematica paper is that it undermines the importance of the TFA Institute for “preparing” corps members. Flip your analysis around. If individuals can get hired with no certification, no experience, etc. and do as well as TFA corps members, then the TFA Institute provides no unique benefit. Further, research that compares TFA to traditionally trained educators show that TFA lags behind (Labaree, 2010; Laczko-Kerr, & Berliner, 2002)

I’ll close with a quote from Jim Horn (2011) that I think summarizes this dialogue very well.

As long as the focus remains on fixing the insides of children's heads while ignoring the conditions these kids must return to after their ten-hour days [referring to KIPP schedules] of working hard and being nice in their apartheid schools, all manner of indoctrination and extraordinary educational renditions may be deemed necessary and appropriate to achieve KIPP goals. At its unacknowledged core, KIPP remains an intervention aimed at cognitive and behavior control that occurs when we use the happy-talk manipulations of corporate psychology as a means to turn poor minority children into the White Ivy League teacher's version [KIPP or TFA's] of the middle-class children.

What do you think? Is Teach For America delivering strong leaders for our schools? Or is their methodology doing students a disservice?

Ahlquist, R. (2011). The ‘empire’ strikes back via a neoliberal agenda: Confronting the legacies of colonialism. In R. Ahlquist, P. C. Gorski & T. Montano (Eds.), Assault on kids: How hyper-accountability, corporatization, deficit ideologies, and Ruby Payne are destroying our schools (pp. 9-32). New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Baker, K. (2011, Spring). High test scores: The wrong road to national economic success. Kappa Delti Pi Record, 47, 116-120.

Bausell, B. (2011). A new measure for classroom quality, New York Times. New York.

Books, S. (2011). What we don’t talk about when we talk about the “achievement gap”. In R. Ahlquist, P. C. Gorski & T. Montano (Eds.), Assault on kids: How hyper-accountability, corporatization, deficit ideologies, and Ruby Payne are destroying our schools (pp. 35-50). New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Cline, R., & Small, R. C. (1994). The problem with U.S. education: Too much criticism, too little commitment. The English Journal, 83(7), 21-24.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2005). New standards and old inequalities: School reform and the education of African American students. In J. E. King (Ed.), Black education: A transformative research and action agenda for the new century (pp. 197-223). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Decker, P. T., Mayer, D. P., & Glazerman, S. (2004). The effects of Teach For America on students: Findings from a national evaluation. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research.

Dilworth, M.E., & Brown, C. (2001). Consider the difference: Teaching and learning in culturally rich schools. In V. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (p. 643-667). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Horn, J. (2011). Corporatism, KIPP, and cultural eugenics. In P. E. Kovacs (Ed.), The gates foundation and the future of U.S. “public” schools (pp. 80-103). New York, NY: Routledge.

Labaree, D. (2010). Teach For America and teacher ed: Heads they win, tails we lose. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(1-2), 48-55.

Laczko-Kerr, I., & Berliner, D. C. (2002). The Effectiveness of “Teach for America” and Other Under-certified Teachers on Student Academic Achievement: A Case of Harmful Public Policy. Education Policy Analysis, 10(37).

Papay, J. P. (2011). Different tests, different answers: The stability of teacher value-added estimates across outcome measures. American Educational Research Journal, 48(1), 163-193.

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