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Learning From Teach For America


Though understandable, measuring TFA's value in the classroom comparable to traditional teachers is besides the point. It does not lie in classroom effectiveness. TFA's value comes from the few stars that emerge and take leadership positions. The prestige they bring as leaders is akin to that of high status luminaries and researchers who bring status to universities and rarely teach. TFA leaders can tap into their private sector success to shape (some say privatize) education in innovative ways.

Turn it upside down and see if you recognize it. The existing national cohort of K-12 teachers compares favorably to a TFA cohort of top performers recruited from top institutions. This tends to indicate that reformers targeting teachers are doing so with an ideological goal rather than that of improving education. That's not surprising since the same is true of the charter school movement. TFA has been used shamefully by the people supporting it.

Two related critiques: 1.Consider the recruiting practices of TFA. It's hard to imagine that they are simply driven by a wholesale desire to recruit, as you state, "the best people." It's clear that different strategies are employed for different regions from year to year, such that reputations are developed for different groups of recruits from different recruitment pools across the nation. You seem to redeem TFA by re-affirming its self-proclaimed mantra that it in fact DOES recruit those that, to use an oft-repeated term, “add value” to private sector industries, without taking the time to think about the ways in which this might not be the case. TFA’s high numbers of applicants are due to aggressive and institutionally embedded recruitment practices that are sustained by the myth that being a TFA teacher is just as valuable in the marketplace as a stint as a two year analyst at any big investment bank. It is important to understand this as, in part, a marketing strategy and unpack the many ways in which recruits might deviate from this “model.” 2.You take issue with the notion that those who would do well in the private sector would make good teachers, but is that the right place to begin your critique? You seem to elevate the position of TFA recruits, suggesting that their skills- which you spent a large portion of the piece praising- are not fit for the classroom. In doing so, you are replaying the TFA driven narrative that it’s recruits are somehow superior to all other teachers (if not to all other people!) without questioning the structures of social and economic inequalities that have perpetuated the existence of such an “elite” group.

Very interesting post. You have appropriately asked the right question. What does teaching "talent" look like in a preservice teacher? What are the characteristics we should be after in future teachers? TFA, in general, takes the approach that high GPAs in rigorous content areas are the right ingredients. And while the overall test-based data is flat I have talked with administrators that hire TFAers and they note that in some areas the increased content knowledge separates TFA candidates from their standard applicant pool. An area this post reopens for me is that for years there have been "off the shelf" HR screening tools that through independent research have been predictive of higher student test performance. These tools tend to four on underlying beliefs and demeanors. Perhaps some application of those tools with TFA and traditional candidates could shed some light on this idea of identifying the proper talent set.

Matt, Don't forget this paper:

If TFA teachers are performing comparably to teachers with much more extensive training, that seems like a sign they're actually doing pretty well. Nonetheless, as you state, the evidence is pretty shaky, so it's hard to draw any conclusions. It is pretty obvious public education needs a big shake up, though. Making the teaching profession more attractive almost can't be a bad way to do this, assuming we're willing to pay for it.

I think that there are two points that one MUST keep in mind when thinking about the "success" of TFA: 1) If you judge the success of a group based on the measures they choose of to focus on, you are choosing the most generous basis for that judgement. TFA focuses on test scores. Whether that is the right or wrong thing to do, there can be no more generous way to judge it. That TFA teachers do NOT produce substantially better test scores is a MUCH greater condemnation of TFA that it would be of other programs that do NOT focus on test scores. 2) TFA also points to the impact that those who leave TFA and the classroom can have, as public leaders and citizens. This is another key aspect of their program, and the reason why it TFA suggests that TFA should not be judged by its retention rates. Well, what IS the impact of the experience of being put in so many of our nation's most dysfunctional schools, with the most challenging populations and often among the worst leadership. If one's only experience as an adult in public education is in poorly run organization in which the challenges far surpass the local organizatonal capacities to address challenges, what is the impact? What is the impact of that non-representative/worst-case experience on future the opinions, judgements and forecasts of TFA corps members? I begin all consideration of TFA with these two ideas in mind. In order to learn from TFA, we need to understand what what TFA's goals are, and where its efforts have been focused. Then we can get to model and implementation. Frankly, I do not see what TFA can tell about us about teacher recruitment, "at least not by itself." I tend to think that it tells us more about teacher prepartion and training than recruitment, but all we can be sure of is what it tells us about a particular combination of recruitment and preparation.

I just came upon your blog and enjoyed the thoughtful and unbiased analysis of the program. As a Teach For America alum, my experience in the corps had its share of ups and downs, and I definitely saw corps members who both outperformed their peers and underperformed their peers. Unfortunately, my teacher career was cut short my massive layoffs and budget cuts in my district. My biggest critique of Teach For America is the way selection is done in the program. While the "best and the brightest," in the traditional sense, do apply and are accepted, I think it would be a stronger teaching corps if incoming TFAers had real experiences with kids before they enter the program. It is important that we get the most talented people into the profession, but not if they are there for the wrong reasons. I am ok with teachers leaving after two years because the vast majority of them will continue to positively impact education for the rest of their lives in whatever field they choose. I am writing a book on building the skills necessary to be a great Teach For America corps member and get accepted into the program. I cover everything from ways to get involved with students before applying to ways applicants can think about the experiences they have had. I push for interested applicants to develop the skills in college to become great teachers and leaders so that there is not as much of a learning curve when they enter the corps and can become effective teachers more quickly. If TFA can keep recruiting the best talent, but have those teachers come in with relevant experiences, TFA can continue to lead the path toward educational equity in our nation. Visit my website at to read my blog and pre-register your copy of the book (No obligation to purchase and $5 off when it is published if you pre-register)

@Bob Calder It could also mean that the current model of teaching is simply ineffective regardless of who is teaching it. As far as I can tell, we rely too much on books and not enough on discussion, and the basic conceptual tools necessary to participa

@JB I don't know the data first hand but from what I've seen the TFA selection process is from a cohort that is is significantly better than the pool of teachers existing or in training. Net is that the market will solve the problem if we let it. I'd r



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