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The Curious Case Against Teach For America

2013 January 8
by Eric Horowitz

Last week’s NYT story about how Teach For America is a feather-in-your-cap for high achievers interested in finance and consulting has dredged up a lot of old attacks, namely that not enough TFA corps members remain in teaching. Yet these attacks ignore the fact that the hardest part about getting somebody to do something for a long time is getting them to try it for a short time. Often getting somebody to just try something is all you can do.

Thus far, nobody has done a better job than TFA in getting top college graduates to try teaching. Yes, TFA doesn’t make enormous efforts to keep people in teaching, but it’s not as if the AFT is signing up 20% of Harvard’s graduating class to 30-year teaching careers. Therefore, any critique of TFA should start with a question: “Compared to what?”

The answer is that there are no comparisons. TFA is the best innovation society has ever had for attracting high quality college graduates to teaching. I don’t see how it’s a problem if along with the wheat there’s a little chaff (in the form of people using TFA to pad their McKinsey resumes.) TFA is still bringing in the most wheat. In fact, the dearth of teaching programs that match TFA’s scale and succes suggests that the lack of top graduates in teaching is not because of TFA’s failings, it’s because of the construction of the teaching profession itself.

In general, high-achievers are attracted to opportunities where they can differentiate themselves and show off their talents. That means professions that make it clear that some people are superstars and some don’t have what it takes. Goldman Sachs is attractive to young people because when a trader has a great year they can wave their $50,000 bonus in the air and say “I’m the #2 trader on this floor.” Most unionized professions, including teaching, work to avoid these outcomes by prioritizing job security and a flat wage scale. Even in the NBA Lebron James is underpaid relative to what would happen if the NBA players union didn’t exist. These priorities makes sense because collective bargaining works best when everybody ostensibly deserves a similar bargain.

The result is that unions would rather have a system where everybody makes $60,000 and 2% of teachers get fired, but top graduates would be more attracted to a system where 20% make $140,000, 80% make $40,000, and 3% of teachers get fired. You don’t get admitted to Harvard without wanting to differentiate yourself and succeed where many others fail.

The implication is that prestige will only be increased through a decrease in other things unions value — mainly job security and the absence of powerful value-added evaluations. In other words, the future of the teaching profession can essentially be summed up by the following statement: “1990′s level job security, extreme evaluation-based merit pay, attractive to top graduates. Choose two.” For a profession to have prestige it must be difficult to be hired or retained, or there must be large rewards for those who objectively excel at it. Right now teaching has neither. (Unions have proposed creating a higher barrier to entry, but any barrier high enough to attract top tier candidates would leave the country with a devastating teacher shortage.)

Without giving ground on dismissals or merit pay it will be difficult for teaching to attract a significantly larger number of top college graduates. At this point unions are not ready to make that sacrifice and I don’t blame them. Their responsibility is to current teachers, not college students. Making the profession more attractive to top graduates would throw the median teacher’s life into a tizzy, and so if I were a union employee my position would be exactly where unions stand now — fighting against dismissals and test-based evaluations while only paying lip service to the notion of attracting better teaching candidates.

All of this is to say that TFA is essentially being criticized for failing to achieve an impossible outcome, even while coming closer to that outcome than anybody else. Because the current lack of differentiation in the teaching profession prevents it from attracting and retaining the nation’s top college graduates, merely getting top graduates to try teaching is nothing to sneeze at. Instead of faulting TFA for not retaining, critics should laud it for successfully attracting.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Donna Denalda permalink
    January 9, 2013

    There are plenty of teachers who enter the profession through traditional educational schools who, unlike most TFA members, actually plan on staying in the profession. The simple fact is that schools have plenty of teachers and don’t need TFA to exist. And yes, we do believe that job security is more important than making big bucks. That is why we are NOT wall street suits.

  2. January 9, 2013

    Many TFA teachers teach at unionized public schools, but charter networks depend vitally on TFA. TFA places a third of its teachers in (non-unionized) charters. A third of KIPP teachers are TFA; 85 of 108 teachers at California Rocketship elementary schools come out of TFA. They provide essential “shock-troops” to non-unionized, heavily demanding charters, where the teacher turnover, unsurprisingly, is far higher than at public schools, and job protections much weaker.

    Contrary to public perception, most new teachers go into the field out of a sense of duty, and they greatly enjoy it. A Public Agenda survey found 96% of new teachers love the work they do, and 75% believe teaching is a lifelong choice. Think about your first-grade teacher. Was she a high achiever attracted to opportunities where she could can differentiate herself and show off her talents? No. She was more likely concerned with teaching you to read, reminding you of your p’s and a’s, and getting your finger out of your nose. She did it for the love of growing young minds. This is not a field that needs an infusion of status-oriented dilettantes. http://www.publicagenda.org/files/pdf/sense_of_calling.pdf

    During my experience at TFA, I met a significant number of corps members who joined because they couldn’t get a similar position through traditional means. These are teachers who had received graduate degrees and passed all certification requirements. The presence of TFA in the districts they wanted serve, however, forced them to join just to get a job. This is not the symptom of a workforce hurting for recruits.

  3. Michael Fiorillo permalink
    January 9, 2013

    The skepticism, if not outright hostility of career, unionized teachers toward TFA is not curious at all, although you didn’t address it: the organization is an over and deceptively-hyped adjunct to the privatization of the schools.

    Wendy Kopp has openly admitted that her main purpose is not to develop career teachers, but to develop future leaders who will implement “transformational” change. What this means in practice – and look no further than New Orleans, where virtually the entire school system is in private hands and TFA is deeply complicit – is constant disruption and destabilization of urban school districts, school closings, replacement of career (and often minority) teachers with missionary (and predominently white) temps.

  4. January 9, 2013

    I think you are really glossing over the negative effect of having so many teachers cycling through the classroom for a couple of years and then leaving. It’s not something that is captured by statistics.
    I’m in a different school this year and it has taken me a good 5 months for students to start to trust me and for me to know them. Unfortunately their teachers from last year left, so I had no data about the students which makes it very difficult to hit the ground running.

    Next year will be easier, as I will already have established a reputation of sorts. However already a few first-year TFA people are speaking of leaving next year. This leaves holes which need to be filled and requires more work on the part of everyone to re-establish routines, and practices, and to try and bring things back to normal.
    IT would be better to take students who maybe did not do as well in college but are more devoted to a career in public teaching.

  5. Eric Horowitz permalink*
    January 9, 2013

    I think a lot of you are misunderstanding the point of the post. I’m not making an argument over whether TFA is good or bad. I’m simply pointing out that people across the political spectrum frequently state the need to attract higher quality candidates to teaching, and TFA has not only been immensely successful at doing it, they’ve managed to do it without the teacher-opposed changes to the profession that ought to be necessary for attracting top candidates (e.g. extreme merit pay). So if you actually value attracting top graduates to teaching, but oppose TFA and merit pay, your position is either unrealistic or inconsistent. Now if you don’t care about attracting better candidates to teaching, and it’s clear that many of you don’t, then go ahead and hate away on TFA. While I may not agree with your interpretation of certain facts, I have no problem with the logic of your reasoning that’s based on those interpretations.

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