"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Behind the Advocacy: TFA Remains Mostly Spin, Distraction

Teach for America: A Return to the Evidence, by Julian Vasquez Heilig and Su Jin Jez, may be too optimistic in its subtitle (not sure we've ever lingered at all with the evidence in order to return to it), but that aside, this report offers yet another clear message that TFA is far more agenda- than evidence- driven.

"The number of TFA corps members has grown by about 2,000% since its inception in 1990," Heilig and Jez note in the Executive Summary, adding later:
TFA’s revenue has rapidly expanded. Between 2000 and 2013, TFA’s yearly operating expenditures increased 1,930%—from $10 million to $193.5 million. Of those expenditures, TFA annual reports show that about a third of operating costs are borne by the public. Also, over the past ten years, TFA has obtained nearly a half of a billion dollars from private sources. With an organization as large as TFA, there is no perfect way to assign specific costs, but dividing TFA’s income reported in its 2011 annual report by the number of corps members yields a figure of approximately $25,490 for each corps member recruited and placed. About a third of this money comes from local, state, and federal budgets, earmarked to support TFA as a perceived benefit to society. Another third comes from tax-deductible charitable donations from individuals and corporations to TFA (which is incorporated as a non-profit). And the final third comes from private foundations. Including what TFA spends directly per recruit, our calculations show that the total cost of the two-year commitment from a TFA recruit can easily exceed $70,000 when including professional development, training and other costs.  
Due to the high turnover of TFA teachers, the re-occurring costs of hiring 100 TFA recruits is quite high for society—about $6,044,000 more than hiring 100 Non-TFA teachers. From a school and district perspective, TFA is also expensive. Recruiting and training replacements for teachers who constantly churn involves recurring financial costs. Districts also pay TFA a fee per corps member per year employed—resulting in a substantial on-going expenditure.  
Thus, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and extensive lobbying by supporters and prominent alumni, TFA appears to offer few if any benefits for improving teacher quality in hard-to-staff schools. Why, then, is there so much discussion, even controversy, surrounding TFA? 
One puzzling aspect of the growth of TFA is that a market ideology drives that growth but a market analysis discredits the value of investing in TFA—yet it thrives.

Heilig and Jez's analysis calls for a reconsideration of both claims made by TFA and how commitments to TFA fail to address the problems those commitments are supposed to address.

While this report is a powerful collection of concerns about TFA recruit effectiveness, TFA attrition, and costs associated with committing to TFA, I would add that we must not shy away from placing the research evidence within a larger picture that is even more disturbing: TFA thrives almost exclusively in schools serving high-poverty, minority, and ELL students—in other words, much of the political and public support for TFA is an issue of what society allows for "other people's children."

The dynamic between TFA and charter schools—also an issue of race and class—must not be ignored as well.

Ultimately, TFA stands as one of the many education reform commitments that fails the political gold standards established by NCLB, basing education policy on "scientifically based research."


Vasquez Heilig, J. & Jez, S.J. (2014). Teach For America: A Return to the Evidence. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/teach-for-america-return

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