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Summer 2010

blowing up schools
Illustration ©2010 Stuart Carlson
Reprinted by permission of Universal Uclick
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TFA Ignores Hard Questions
I was a 2007 Teach for America corps member in New Mexico, where I taught social studies at Shiprock High School. I read Barbara Miner’s article (“Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America,” Spring 2010) and want to thank her for voicing something that so needed to be said.

I was enthralled by the research and her take on TFA’s mission. What most resonated with me was this: “Nor does [TFA] ask hard questions about the relationship between the achievement gap and problems of segregation, poverty, and an unemployment rate among African American men that hovers around 50 percent in some urban communities.”

During my time in TFA, I felt compelled to ask those difficult questions about TFA’s relationship to broader social realities—of myself, my co-workers, and  my TFA superiors. TFA’s response to my questioning ranged from robotic platitudes to arctic chill. My program director and the other TFA staff made my life hell, I believe in large part as a result of their disapproval of my impertinence.

I think the most blaring problem with TFA’s approach is its lack of focus on the students themselves. But in a top-down organization run by an automaton, the inevitable result is an army of cookie-cutter Ivy League grads waxing poetic about data. 
—Meg Mosman, Beaverton, Ore.

Bad Math?
Barbara Miner does a disservice to the economists at Mathematica who published a report on the effectiveness of TFA. The Mathematica study used a randomized controlled trial (RCT), the “gold standard” of evidence in evaluating programs. Miner goes on to celebrate Darling-Hammond’s “longitudinal, six-year look at data from Houston.” Yet this is exactly the kind of study economists distrust. Not having a long enough time series is not what researchers fear will bias results. They fear that non-random assignment of teachers and students will lead to TFA teachers having either better or worse students on average. This might happen because principals are skeptical the TFA teachers are ready to handle a difficult class or, due to the hype, believe they are the best of the best and can handle a very difficult class. Only by randomizing the placement of students can you ensure you are comparing apples to apples, which is why the Mathematica study gets an “A” in methodology and Darling-Hammond’s study gets a “C.”

Miner says the Mathematica study found “neither [TFA nor the controls group] was even beginning to close the achievement gap” but this is misleading. TFA teachers produced a 3 percentile improvement in math scores, or about 10 percent of the black-white achievement gap. A student who improved by 3 percentile points a year would move from the 20th percentile to the median over 10 years and be above average after 13 years of schooling. Miner also quotes that “TFA teachers ‘had no . . . impact on the probability students were retained’” as if this were unequivocal evidence TFA teachers are not producing gains. But it could just as well be evidence that TFA teachers set higher standards. These results are not flattering for TFA, but they are positive.
—Steven White, Cambridge, Mass.

‘Talented Amateurs’
Thank you for Barbara Miner’s article on TFA. Very interesting, very well done. I was part of a team of teachers, university professors, school administrators, and parents who evaluated the TFA program in the Seattle Public Schools in the mid-90s. TFA had talked its way into the state somehow on a trial basis, even though Seattle had no shortage of real teachers. What we found then was that TFA was an incredible mess, to a large extent as a result of Wendy Kopp’s arrogance about her own expertise and that of her early TFA-alumni employees.

I went to Ivy League schools, so it was easy for me to recognize the TFA employees’ class-based arrogance. The young woman managing the program—18 TFAers, I believe—was a TFA recruit who had taught in an elementary school for two years; the person responsible for providing professional development/support had taught elementary school for one year. But all the TFA folks in Seattle were teaching in high schools. It was ugly.

The TFA teachers were all talented, very hardworking 22-year-olds who were doing some good because of their enthusiasm and caring. By March, however, when we interviewed them, they were burning out from 80-hour workweeks and no real support.

I gather that TFA has improved its summer prep and its ongoing support. But it also seems that Kopp’s class-based arrogance has evolved into TFA becoming a cog in the reactionary privatization movement.

I think you capture the two main problems with TFA: 1) It’s all about Wendy Kopp, and 2) TFA is self-contradictory because it keeps the school districts that take TFA teachers from accepting the responsibility of providing every student with a competent, professional educator.

What the students in TFA classrooms get is a talented, enthusiastic amateur.
—David Marshak, Coordinator, Exploration Academy Online, and Adjunct Instructor, Fairhaven College, Bellingham, Wash.

Former TFAer Speaks Up
Thank you for the honesty, insight, and astute observations about TFA in Alex Diamond’s article (“Do I Really Teach for America? Reflections of a Teach for America Teacher,” Spring 2010). Between Diamond’s article and Barbara Miner’s, I finally feel I have some clarity on what it is about the organization that repels me. I’m a 1995 corps member, still working in the district in which I was placed (Oakland, Calif., now as a coach).

I have great respect for many of the individuals from TFA who have come through our schools and particularly appreciate those with critical perspectives and those who have stuck around. However, since completing my two years, I’ve been very distant from the organization and apprehensive about having anything to do with it. I now frequently encounter TFA teachers in schools where I coach and find I’ve been unable to articulate what it is about them and the current way the organization works that rubs me the wrong way, and, honestly, that doesn’t work for the schools I’m in. You clearly name many of the problems.
—Elena Aguilar, Oakland, Calif. .

Send letters or comments to:jody@rethinkingschools.org