Teaching Profession

TFA Tests Waters on Improving Retention

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 15, 2016 5 min read
Fourth-year high school Spanish teacher Natasha Escobar is attempting to gain “model” teacher status in Baltimore, in part through a local TFA support program for corps alumni.
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Natasha Danielle Escobar is a tad flummoxed.

The guidelines on the piece of paper she’s holding say she has to document that she’s led a “professional learning community” in her school. But that is difficult to do when you are one of only two Spanish teachers.

“This is the first year I’ve even been in a department that had more than one person!” she says.

Holed up in a conference room in Teach For America’s Baltimore headquarters and fueled by Indian takeout, Escobar and a half-dozen other teachers here are trying to make sense of the city’s process for recognizing “model” teachers. Earning that status conveys a major salary boost.

A teacher has to have at least three years of experience to be eligible for the bonus program. And that’s a key factor in why Escobar is applying. She is a Teach For America alumna midway through her fourth year of teaching, and her participation is part of a regional TFA pilot initiative to keep its recruits in the profession.

What are generally considered high rates of turnover among TFA corps members after their two-year commitments are up remain a major point of the criticism of the now-25-year-old organization.

Getting a fix on TFA’s retention rates actually turns out to be difficult, partly because most district retention analyses don’t account for teachers who move on to teach in other districts. The best analysis of TFA retention suggests that only 15 percent of TFA teachers stay in their original placements past four years or so, but that 2011 study relied on data that are now more than a decade old.

Some of the criticism is warranted: Retention was not, until recently, a big focus for TFA. In its early years, the organization made virtually no formal attempts to hang on to its teachers after the two-year commitment period.

Nor was TFA’s messaging on the value of staying in teaching particularly strong. As even some TFA staffers acknowledge in private moments, there was often an implicit message that alumni needed to go on to do “more” after their teaching stints ended.

Not until 2011 did the organization establish a teaching award for alumni, its first real acknowledgment that staying in the classroom could be a form of leadership, too.

Almost from the start, critics seized on the group’s own lack of emphasis on retention as evidence that the program was more about résumé-building than about teaching. And such concerns have increased as researchers discovered that teacher turnover can have a detrimental effect not just on a departing teacher’s students but also on others in the school.

Video: TFA Sees Teaching as Leadership

CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard describes TFA as a “teacher-leadership-development organization.”

The real push, though, seems to have also come from within TFA: Corps members in some regions began their own “teach beyond two” campaigns. Now, 12 of TFA’s regions are experimenting with strategies for extending corps members’ tenures in teaching.

TFA Founder Wendy Kopp once was famously quoted as saying that TFA was “a leadership organization, not a teaching organization.” Asked recently for her take, TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard said determinedly: “We are both.”

Finding Purpose

A Texas native from a low-income community, Escobar figured her background meant she’d be able to connect with her students with relative ease. The reality ended up being a different story entirely, and like many novice teachers—in TFA or not—she had second thoughts about whether to stay beyond a couple years. But there was always something that kept her from leaving.

“I think I always believed I could get better as a teacher, and that made me say, ‘I can make it another year.’ And then it was, ‘Let me see what happens a third year,’ ” she said. “Part of it was knowing that teaching is a long game. It gave me a sense of purpose for wanting to stay.”

To help build on that kind of resolve, TFA’s Baltimore region has latched onto the city’s pay-incentive program, rather than reinvent the wheel with its own initiative. Last school year, the office launched a support program for TFA-alumni teachers and others seeking model status.

As the teachers’ meeting at TFA’s Baltimore office illustrates, prepping to submit a model-teacher portfolio for review isn’t a whole lot of fun, requiring the teachers to wrestle with tedious documentation specifications and submission guidelines.

Still, Escobar reasons, the model-teacher pathway gives her a reason to think ahead and see herself as advancing in the profession. “It is a lot of hoop jumping, but you have to be a solid teacher in order to start the process,” she said. “If the program weren’t here, I don’t know if I would be so gung-ho about trying new things.”

Selection Factor?

Of course, teacher-retention issues are complex and can’t be solved with just one strategy. Other TFA regions are trying different approaches. Its Charlotte, N.C., region, for example, offers additional professional training for teachers in years three and four and stipends for teachers who want to earn master’s degrees.

Baltimore is also trying to tailor additional supports. That job mainly falls to Amy Wilson, the director of alumni affairs for TFA’s Baltimore region, who spends about half her time visiting alumni teachers, acting as a combination career coach and problem-solver.

“Having been in Baltimore for 22 years, I want them to stay here,” Wilson said. “I want them to feel like they’re accomplishing something in their work. So my first line of questioning is to figure out, ‘What do you like about teaching? Do you like the planning? The execution? Do you need to see another school before you give up teaching?’ ”

What TFA’s efforts probably won’t solve is the puzzle of how much of its corps members’ turnover is a function of the types of schools in which they work, how much of it is a generational issue, and how much is related to TFA’s organizational model itself.

TFA’s highly touted selection system seeks smart, goal-oriented, and ambitious individuals, and while those traits might give corps members an edge in the classroom, they could also be one reason why so many move out of it.

“They get some high-quality people, but it’s a lot of type A, super-driven people, always needing to get to that next level,” said Joe Francaviglia, a TFA alumnus and Baltimore model teacher who now teaches at the city’s KIPP Ujima Village Academy. “There is a top-out at teaching or mental burnout, and you look around and see that you’re impacting 32, 90 kids, and you think: ‘Yeah, I’m doing good, but I feel like I can be doing more.’ ”

Escobar says she struggles with some of those thoughts, too.

But there is a persistent question that niggles at the back of her brain. It comes to mind when she sees her Spanish 2 students, many of whom came to her without the basics because they had a long-term substitute for Spanish 1 the previous year.

“If it’s not me teaching,” she said, “then who?”

A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as Efforts Aim to Keep TFA Teachers After Year Two

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