If it sounds too good to be true…


ImageThe Senate Education Committee recently gave a due pass to SB1451 which seeks $5 million from the general fund for Arizona’s Alternative Teacher Development Program to be awarded to a qualifying service provider, i.e. Teach for America (TFA).  If signed into law, Arizona’s TFA corps will grow from the current 300 to about 500.  Proponents point to the success of the program and say the uncredentialed teachers from TFA have a great track record and can help with teacher shortfalls.

Not so fast. Several studies show that TFA teachers initially perform significantly less well than their credentialed, non-TFA counterparts.  A 2002 study in Arizona found students with certified teachers performed about 20 percent better on the tests than students with noncertified teachers (including TFA recruits.)  Another study in Houston, of 4,400 teachers and 132,000 students concluded that certified teachers consistently produced significantly higher achievement than uncertified teachers.”[1]

TFA placements are also no longer just being placed in high-need districts.  According to U.S. Department of Education records in 2010-2011, 13 of 15 counties in Arizona report shortages, yet the vast majority of TFA teachers are placed in one of only two counties that do not report teacher shortages—Maricopa County.[2]   In fact, the organization now sends as many as a third of its recruits to privately run charter schools and sends many of their recruits, who typically have just 15 to 20 hours of teaching experience, to districts that have recently laid off numerous seasoned teachers.[3]

Not only are TFA teachers at times used to displace traditional teachers, they also have higher attrition rates.  More than 50 percent leave after two years and more than 80 percent leave after three.[4]  This creates a significant amount of turnover and creates additional expense, much of it born by taxpayers.  In 2006, the total cost of a two-year commitment from a TFA recruit was $70,000.[5]

Mark Naison, a professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University and director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program says Teach for America is not welcome to recruit in his classroom.  “The organization’s facile circumvention of the grinding, difficult, but profoundly empowering work of teaching and administering schools has created the illusion that there are quick fixes, not only for failing schools but for deeply entrenched patterns of poverty and inequality.  No organization has been more complicit than TFA in the demonization of teachers and teachers’ unions, and no organization has provided more “shock troops” for education reform strategies which emphasize privatization and high-stakes standardized testing.[6]

I was on a radio talk show a couple of weeks ago discussing education issues.  More than one person who called in blamed “teachers’ unions” and bad teachers for the problems they perceive with our education system.  Really?  In a state that has the highest cuts in per pupil spending since 2008 and is a right to work state, teachers’ unions are our biggest problem?

TFA critics see the solution in focusing on the improvement of the current teaching pool through better education and professional development. They urge educational reforms focused on improved in-service training, mentoring, and professionalization of teaching.  Of course, those reforms, along with proven solutions such as universal pre-school, reducing class sizes in early grades, and mentoring programs that pair new and experienced teachers, take time, money and a commitment to hold the course.

John Dewey said over a century ago:  “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”  TFA originally had good intentions.  It appears now though, that it is not necessarily in the best interest of “all our children of the community.”  Like so many current reforms, it needs a second look.


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