Teach for America to Replace Veteran Teachers: Part II

On June 12, Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk published a piece (“N.C. District Lets Go of Veteran Teachers, But Keeps TFA Hires”) on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s decision to, “approve plans to fire hundreds of Veteran teachers on the teachers’ low performance on evaluations, rather than on their seniority.” Sawchuk continues:

Even more controversially, the 134,000-student North Carolina district granted an exemption to teachers hired through the Teach For America recruiting program who meet teaching standards over more-senior teachers, and it is poised to hire more TFA alumni.

But members of the district’s school board said the decision was influenced by several factors, including the desire to maintain a contract with TFA and an overall sense that the teachers are doing well by their students.

Of course, firing veteran teachers and replacing them with new teachers saves money. Instead of making the legitimate demand for increased funds for education, the Board has caved in to the pressure that there is no alternative to cuts. Certainly, as well, folks in N.C. are pressured by Duncan and his “Race to Top” bribe to support, among other things, TFA.

But there are several questions. The first, raised by former TFAer Dan Brown in the Huffington Post, (“Overhyping Teach For America, Undercutting Millions of Students”) concerns the issue of turnover, or the fact that TFA teachers, by design, do no commit to teaching as a profession, creating more instability. “Our country requires broadly-conceived initiatives to ensure that our schools in all 50 states are staffed with talented, well-trained, and well-supported teachers–with or without that Princeton degree,” Brown writes. I’ll add: Schools don’t need the “support” of white-man’s-burden do-gooders arrogant and callous enough to claim bad teaching and unions are the root cause of social problems, and the presence of high-scoring Yale graduates for only a couple of years is sufficient to address the criminal conditions imposed on tens of millions of families across the U.S.

Yet, TFA is likely more than a poorly designed, silver bullet, and therefore significant in other respects. Lincoln Caplan writes, in Why big donors back Teach for America, that

TFA is … “theory of change’ [that] depends on ensuring that its teachers “attain high levels of success with their students—and then, as alumni, go on to bring about equity in education for kids of different classes and races, in the role of everything from principal to school superintendent to governor.”

While one might dismiss the theory on empirical grounds — Caplan reports one study observing that 30 percent of TFAers leave in their first year, not completing their two-year commitment — the theory itself deserve future attention (as it suggest in classic liberal fashion that the struggle for equality is most appropriate waged through the struggle for education, and not class struggle).

The other question is that of evaluation. What are the standards? In the context of a national campaign to blame collective bargaining, including the standard of seniority, what is to stop evaluators from favoring TFA recruits when that is the aim of school boards and senior officials. Sawchuk reports:

A second school board member, Tom Tate, added, “We seem to be getting good results from these teachers generally.”

He reports that earlier this spring, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg board approved a new policy that put a heavier focus on performance. In a context where TFA supporters bring millions, is it unreasonable to question to degree to which local TFA hype influences perceptions of competence? (the C.D. Spangler Foundation donated $4 million to expand the Charlotte TFA program this school year and next.) The policy directs the district “not to renew any teachers whose licenses are not current, those who do not meet minimum standards on local evaluation instruments, part-time teachers, and retired teachers who have returned to teaching. After that, it exempts TFA teachers and a handful of others in shortage subject areas, such as math, science, and foreign languages, over traditionally certified teachers with more seniority or equally high performance ratings” (emphasis added). Superintendent Peter Gorman is reported to be planning to “hire additional TFA teachers for 2009-10, rather than giving priority to teachers who are receiving pink slips.”

Are TFA graduates, with the Ivy League test scores, more effective teachers, or just cheaper and not likely to join the union ranks? Caplain reports that TFA

has attracted a list of accomplished critics in its adolescence. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford’s school of education, is the lead author of the best-known study, which concluded that students of uncertified teachers of TFA lagged significantly behind students of certified non-TFA teachers. Deborah Appleman, the chairwoman of education studies at Carleton College, shadowed a former student of hers through the summer training of TFA’s first class in 1990. She came away disappointed and has been been a persistent critic ever since. She discourages her students from applying and refuses to write letters of recommendation for them. TFA also contends with the fear that the public will lose patience, since progress in closing the achievement gap has been so modest, given the large sums spent on education, including on Kopp’s brainchild.

It should be noted that Caplan writes:

In its defense, TFA cites a study from Mathematica Policy Research that looked at how students of corps members fared compared with students of the teachers hired instead (rookies and old hands, some certified and some not) in hardest-to-staff schools. Reading scores were the same, math scores notably higher.

A more careful review of the merits of that study can be found here, although this line of criticism has its limits too, as I hope to argue in the future (along these lines).

So with such limited prospects for “success”, why such public praise in the big media outlets? Certainly data are not driving this decision…

2 Comments Teach for America to Replace Veteran Teachers: Part II

  1. Kevin Moore June 29, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    Because I am a snarky bastard, I love this line: “I’ll add: Schools don’t need the “support” of white-man’s-burden do-gooders arrogant and callous enough to claim bad teaching and unions are the root cause of social problems, and the presence of high-scoring Yale graduates for only a couple of years is sufficient to address the criminal conditions imposed on tens of millions of families across the U.S.” Bring the pain, brother.

    One thing I don’t get is why the school board chose a blanket application. I mean, sure, they want to save money and hire cheaper teachers who come from a program with a lot of prestige — killing two birds with one stone (cut costs, improve image); but in the long run, it would make more sense to make more fine-grained assessments of teacher performance. That is, performance evaluations on the individual level, incentives for teachers who perform well, support for teachers facing difficulties, occasional replacement of deadwood with new blood, etc. Then, too, there would need to be more fine grained assessments of student performance, too.

    Mind you, I say all that assuming a properly funded and equitably distributed system of education. Oh, silly me, I forgot: we fund education with mostly local tax-base revenues, so disparities inevitably arise. Then we slash federal and state funding that could have made up some of the deficits. Then we support simple solution quick fix methodologies that further dilute effectiveness (No Child Left Behind; vouchers; more testing!).

    I could go on.

  2. Mark Garrison June 30, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Thanks Kevin. While I’m glad my snark appeals, I’m increasingly and seriously interested in the outlook that is embedded in much of the current education “reform” — notions of closing “achievement gaps”, corporate charter models (e.g., KIPP and Green Dot, what I call academic sweatshops), and TFA have similar ideological underpinnings that are akin to the idea of white man’s burden. Since you’re more of a literary type than I, you may have insight on Kipling, justifications for imperialism, and how these “foreign affairs” inform policy towards U.S social institutions such as schools. Much of this “reform” is academic bostrapping on steroids. It seems significant that the “philanthropy” that stands behind much of this reform is so explicitly imbued with the premise “that white people … have an obligation to rule over, and encourage the cultural development of people from other ethnic and cultural backgrounds until they can take their place in the world by fully adopting Western ways” (from Wikipedia)

    On the other point that you raise, beware of the call to link individual student data to individual teachers, and assertions that the result of this linkage is some measure of teacher performance. See this for one take on why this is a bad idea. More generally, it is important to understand that at least since Horace Mann in the middle of the nineteenth century, calls for data on teacher performance — yes, it started back then — were driven by efforts to secure administrative powers over local schools. Yes, of course this was done under the guise of improving instruction, and yes, much of what went on would be rejected by modern sensibilities, but the outcome was nonetheless change in power arrangements, with a loss of power for the Boston schoolmasters. Setting standards of performance in education has historically been about control and purpose, and less about actual quality. The federal initiative to close schools, impose federal standards, dictate to states charter school policy is driven not by “data” but a profound political crisis. Data never drive, nor should “they”. The question is always one of purpose, and of course, this poses the question of who decides.

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