Teacher Preparation

Teach For America Targets Retention, Longer Preparation

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 11, 2014 5 min read
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Teach For America has unveiled plans to provide a year of upfront training for a subset of its teacher recruits and to promote the idea of corps members staying in the classroom beyond their two-year commitments.

Those pilot programs, outlined in an address last week by Matthew Kramer, TFA’s co-chief executive officer, mark what appears to be the biggest shift in internal philosophy since the teacher-training and -placement organization’s founding in 1990.

Currently, Teach For America recruits go through a five-week “institute” in which they learn basic teaching methods, followed by two years of on-the-job support as they fulfill their teaching obligation.

The new pilots are estimated to cost about $16 million over four years.

“We’ve come a long way. I think there’s a lot for us to be proud of,” Mr. Kramer said in the speech to about 1,000 alumni and supporters in Nashville, Tenn. “At the same time, there is much more to do,” he said. “We need to keep our minds open to change and innovation as we continue to find new and better ways to do right by kids. ... Teaching beyond two years cannot be a backup plan; it has to be the main plan.”

The pilots are the first major stamp that Mr. Kramer and co-CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard have put on TFA since founder and former CEO Wendy Kopp stepped down last year.

The organization recruits academically strong college graduates and other individuals and places them in high-need public schools, both traditional and charter. Despite research showing that TFA teachers tend to do about as well as other novice teachers, its preparation efforts remain controversial.

Yearlong Preparation

Critics of the program argue that five weeks of training is insufficient to prepare teachers for the realities of the schools in which they work, and that the short commitment contributes to what are generally high rates of teacher turnover in high-poverty schools.

Research indicates that about 44 percent of TFA graduates remain in their initial placements for a third year; about 60 percent overall teach for a third year. But within five years, all but 15 percent have left their original placements.

Mr. Kramer framed the pilot programs as a natural part of the nearly 24-year-old organization’s evolution, rather than a response to criticism.

The first pilot will target 2,000 college juniors who applied for early admission to TFA’s 2015 corps. A subset of that group will receive a year of preparation in learning theory, “cultural competency” work, and practical, hands-on classroom experience. Results from the pilot will be analyzed after two years and could affect future programming.

“Different paths into the classroom are right for different people, and we believe this approach will meet the needs of many future corps members,” Mr. Kramer said.

As recently as 2012, TFA leaders seemed ambivalent about the idea of more upfront training. At that time, Ms. Kopp cited mixed results from a study of yearlong “residency” programs as a reason for hesitancy.

It isn’t yet clear whether the extra training would be provided by local colleges of education, in-house at TFA, or through some other arrangement.

The second pilot, scheduled to begin this summer, addresses teacher retention. The organization will offer support for alumni in their third through fifth years of teaching. About 12 of TFA’s 48 regional areas are crafting the retention strategies.

Even before the announcement, a few regions had experimented with a Teach Beyond Two campaign, encouraging corps members to remain in their schools or extending the group’s professional-development supports to alumni.

The pilot program stops short of requiring TFA teachers to commit to the job for longer periods of time. Teach For America has historically resisted calls to formally extend the two-year obligation, citing internal data showing that a longer commitment would lower the quality and diversity of its applicant pool.

‘More Than Just Support’

The announcement comes as TFA begins to decentralize and allow for more regional variation, a product of a listening tour Mr. Kramer and Ms. Villanueva Beard conducted last year to gauge alumni and community perceptions of the program.

They subsequently pledged to tailor support to regions and to address the variety of viewpoints held by current and former corps members.

“There was a pervasive sense from the folks we spoke to that TFA has taken a side in education reform, taken the side of teacher evaluation and charters, and that their views were more complicated,” Mr. Kramer said in an interview with Education Week late last year. “We need to create a space that is much more welcoming of the diversity of opinions.”

In the new pilots, some observers also detected a response to external factors. Applications to TFA surged following the economic downturn in 2008, but have fallen off more recently; a third of regions have fewer corps members this year. And there has been more resistance from professors and student groups on the college campuses where TFA does most of its recruiting.

“The pushback has been somewhat successful in having seniors take a second look,” said Heather Harding, a former research director for TFA.

“I applaud them; I think it’s perfectly matched with what they need to do on the recruitment side,” she said of the training pilot. “You get to know candidates in their junior year, so they’re going to know what they’re getting into and a flavor of what they will be asked to do.”

The new plans came as a “shock” to Camika Royal, a former TFA program director who has been critical of what she views as the group’s resistance to revising some of its policies.

“I never expected it, because I felt like it would look like they were giving in to criticism,” she said.

Ms. Royal praised the retention efforts, but said more changes may be necessary for them to take root.

“It has to be more than just supports,” said Ms. Royal, now an adjunct professor of education at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa. “Right now, TFA sort of promotes leaving—there are deals with graduate schools and employers, and they feature alumni who are outside of the classroom. They have to think about how to promote staying.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as Teach For America Targets Retention, Longer Preparation

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