Contrary to what one might expect, this does not mean that TFA is producing career teachers at astonishing rates. It means the organization is reaching the entire education ecosystem, with high-need classroom experience as its number one priority.
TFA commissioned the study to analyze the trajectory of its corps members compared to their traditionally certified peers. The study found that “in comparison with their peers, a greater number of TFA teachers remain in the classroom for two years and remain committed to serving low-income students and students of color over time.”
TFA Vice President of Public Affairs Robert Carreon explained that the report showed a growing impact in Texas’ educational landscape outside the classroom as well. Ultimately many corps members go on to strengthen the educational ecosystem in administrative, political, and community functions.
“(For) folks who know who we are and what we do, nothing in this report is going to be a surprise,” Carreon said.
The program, which places alternatively certified teachers in high-need schools, requires a two-year commitment from its corps members. Numerous other studies have found the program to have a positive effect on students and student outcomes.
However, some are more skeptical of TFA’s overall effects on the education system.
One often-cited study by Linda Darling-Hammond found that “TFA recruits who become certified after two or three years do about as well as other certified teachers in supporting student achievement gains; however, nearly all of them leave within three years.”
Critics of the program say that these short-term commitments are evidence that the program does not adequately prepare TFA recruits for what they will find in the classroom, and that their lack of longevity is not good for students, schools, or districts.
This criticism misses the point of TFA, Carreon said. While the report did show that TFA corps members began to leave the classroom in years three, four, and five at higher rates than their peers, Carreon said that this doesn’t mean they are no longer fighting for students in low-income schools and districts. Many go on to targeted areas where they have witnessed barriers to student success, be it policy-making, administration, or community support.
“One misconception is that we were designed to end teacher shortages,” Carreon said.
Texas currently does not produce enough traditionally certified teachers to meet demand in public schools, and alternative certification programs have been necessary to fill classrooms. Some have questioned whether these programs, even selective ones like TFA, adequately prepare teachers for the actual classroom.
By showing that TFA members do stay in low-income/high-demand classrooms at higher rates than their traditionally certified peers for the first two years, the study confirmed the value of support offered to TFA corps members.
“The first two years of teaching are incredibly challenging,” Carreon said.
TFA corps members have a support network within the organization that is specifically designed for the challenges that stymie first and second year teachers. In inner city and low-income contexts, teachers are often asked to play the role of case managers for students whose needs extend far beyond the classroom. Discipline issues may be more intense than teachers had anticipated, and the weight that many students carry into the classroom can be disheartening for optimistic young teachers.
Because these settings are TFA’s singular focus, the organization tailors its teacher support. Those teachers then invest in students who are operating on the fringes of a system that is rarely adequate in filling their needs. This is what the 4,000 TFA corps members and alums working in Texas signed on to do.
The study found that of the corps members who leave their initial districts, but stay in the classroom, most moved to districts of even higher need and often take the most difficult-to-fill positions.
Thanks to increased emphasis on classroom longevity, the trend for corps members staying in the classroom for three, four, and five years is upward. The study analyzed the cohorts for years 2010-2013. In 2010, 47% of TFA corps members stayed in the classroom beyond the two-year commitment. By 2013 that share had risen to 57%. Those who stay are supported as they pursue professional development, National Board Certification, and graduate school.
However, Carreon said that he doesn’t see the percentage rising much further because of the deliberate strategy of TFA to take on the whole ecosystem.
“I don’t envision a world where 80% of our cohorts stay in the classroom for five years or more,” Carreon said. “Excellent teaching alone is not a sufficient strategy.”
While most of TFA’s criticism comes from teachers groups, Carreon said there is ample reason to work together.
“I think in many ways we share a common goal with the teachers unions,” he said. “I do see lots of opportunities for greater alignment.”
Right now, much of the accountability for student achievement falls on the teacher. Those who misunderstand TFA see it as an attempted indictment of veteran teachers who aren’t inspiring students or producing the best possible outcomes.
That is not the case, Carreon said.
Right now in Texas, classroom experience is not a universal requirement to become an education policymaker. Many of the people in charge of holding teachers accountable have never been teachers themselves. Many of the institutions heaping blame and responsibility on teachers are filled with people who have never led a classroom.
TFA wants classroom experiences to inform how policy decisions are made, how the community offers support, and how administrators think about their districts. While some TFA corps members, like Texas Teacher of the Year Alison Ashley, go on to effective careers in teaching, all of them are taught to look at the system with a classroom-eye view.
Disclosure: Laura Saldivar Luna sits on the Rivard Report board and is the executive director of Teach for America. Click here to view a list of board members and here to view the businesses and individuals that contribute to the Rivard Report.