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Learning From Teach For America

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Excellent post, Matt. Other countries that out perform us do tend to have teachers drawn from the slice of their college graduates that looks like TFA's talent pool. I suspect (though I don't know, of course) that our K-12 working environment is not really a place where anyone can thrive on average. (Lots of factors reward mediocrity, labor-management relations are not great for reasons one could blame on either side depending on the place, etc.) So the fact that TFAers are only as effective as traditionally-trained educators isn't that revealing to me. I also suspect that the real value TFA has provided historically is in the entrepreneurs, principals, and other folks who have come out of their pipeline, which isn't captured in the classroom effectiveness data directly. Our experience as a charter school authorizer in Ohio has certainly borne this out--TFA is a great source of school leaders and school founders. Anyhow, I share your sense that this should not be as polarizing as it is!

Matt, I'm curious what you thought of the Will Dobbie paper on TFA selection criteria and value-add in year 1 in NYC as it relates to your arguments? http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~dobbie/research/TeacherCharacteristics_July2011.pdf

Hi Heather, Thanks for the comment. Please see: http://shankerblog.org/?p=5221 Thanks again, MD

Matt, Interesting take on the TFA research. I agree that there has been too much focus on how to attract the “best and the brightest," whatever that means. In the business literature on human resource management, Baron and Kreps (http://www.amazon.com/Strategic-Human-Resources-Frameworks-Managers/dp/0471072532) argue that different firms and industries must understand the type of labor force they should seek out based on the nature of their work and technology (methods of production). In some industries--such as investment banking, law, sports, and entertainment--a few “stars” often generate the majority of a firm’s profits and success. Identifying individuals who have the potential to be stars is thus important and taking some risks in hiring is not problematic. In other words, finding a few stars can more than make up for a few hiring duds. Other industries depend on consistent, reliable performance of a large number of “foot-soldiers,” and success comes from improving the average performance of workers and reducing variation in their performance via training, technology, organization and process improvements. In still other industries (often involving safety and security), a few mistakes can be disastrous for a firm, so firms need “guardians” and try to make safe hires even if this might mean also reducing the number of potential high performers. Certification and credentialing is thus often important. For these firms/industries, the costs of a mistake are greater than the gains of a high performer. In education, it seems as if we sometimes swing from the extremes of taking a guardian approach (emphasizing rigid credentialing to avoid “mistakes”) and focusing on hiring a few stars through targeted programs. I think, however, given that the teaching force is so huge--there are 3-4 million teachers--it's unrealistic to take a "star" approach, but that is precisely the approach TFA promotes by arguing that they can produce enough leverage by creating a group of transformative leaders in education. Ultimately, however, teaching is huge profession that relies on millions of foot soldiers. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be interested in attracting some of the best and brightest. We should. However, we should focus our main efforts on policies that hold promise for improving the average quality of teachers and that reduce the variability in their performance. This points to different strategies--improving pre-service and in-service training, improving the tools that are available to teachers in the form of better curriculum, assessments, technology, etc., and reorganizing schools to better leverage teachers skills and promote teacher learning and continuous improvement.

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