The Brief and Wondrous Lives of Teach for America Teachers in DISD

Teach for America, the nonprofit teacher pipeline founded by Park Cities native Wendy Kopp, has made a couple of appearances in the Morning News lately, first in a news story and then an editorial about the rate at which TFA teachers stick in their jobs. Apparently the first class of TFA "corps members" to complete two-year stints in the Dallas Independent School District fled the district at a slightly higher rate (43 percent) than they do nationally (36 percent).

It's only a six-point gap, and I'm not sure a statistician would love the margin of error in comparing an 80-teacher sample size with the tens of thousands of TFA teachers who have gone through the program nationally. It also ignores a more relevant stat: While only 57 percent of DISD TFA grads stayed in the district, 63 percent stayed in teaching, which is in step with the national average, says Charles Glover, TFA's local director.

Also: In a market as dense as DFW, and in a local economy that's stabler than many of TFA's other regions, there were likely more jobs, teaching and otherwise, for corps members to fall into here. You could argue -- I think I'm actually arguing -- that DISD is doing pretty well at keeping these folks around.

Still, The News's editorial board opined: "The attrition rate raises important questions about what more DISD can do to support these young teachers -- and encourage them to stay."

In Sunday's news story, the only person who seemed troubled by the statistics was the one person you call when you need someone to be troubled by something Teach for America-related: the union president. (They could have also called trustee Carla Ranger.) Unions are wisely skeptical of Teach for America, since corps members take jobs that might otherwise be filled by lifelong dues payers. But a labor boss's opinion isn't the first I'd seek when wondering what effect attrition has on the only variable that matters in this equation: the students.

Instead, I'd ask the one group in a position to see and feel and measure the effect of TFA's alleged revolving door. And that group shouldn't have been hard for The News to identify, given that Mayor Mike Rawlings had just two days before had written a story in the paper urging the district to "continue to leverage Teach for America and other pipelines for talented new teachers. Principals continue to tell me they're making a difference."

Ah, yes, principals. They know things. And you know what else they would tell Rawlings and anyone who asked? They're not worried about how long those TFA-trained teachers stay.

"Not at all," Kyle Richardson, the principal at Woodrow Wilson High School, told me yesterday. Richardson spent the previous six years at Marsh Middle School, in Northwest Dallas. In 2009, when TFA started in Dallas, he hired four of its teachers. The next year, he added seven more. "They were just amazing in my school," he said.

But at the end of last school year, all four of Marsh's inaugural class of corps members bolted. I asked Richardson if he knew where they went. He rattled off each easily and by name, listing their destinations like a proud father announcing his kid's college choice. One went to Harvard, he said, to study education policy. Another went to Boston University to study urban health care. The other two went to work for TFA to train teachers who, if he has the chance and the fit, Richardson will probably hire in the coming years.

"When I first thought about it, I thought, 'Oh my gosh, these guys can leave after two years!'" he said. But then he realized: "They had a great impact on our school -- an amazing impact. And it's not like I can't go out and hire more TFA teachers or somebody else." Which is exactly what he did: Before he left Marsh late in the summer, Richardson hired three more TFA teachers.

It's a matter of reassessing the value of longevity. Obviously principals want great teachers to stay as long as possible. If you have a chance to hire a great teacher, and there's a "greater possibility that they're going to stay in the field, then that's who you hire," Richardson said, whether they're TFA-trained or not. "If I'm going to get longevity too? You bet."

But longevity is only one quality, and it's one you don't get the sense Richardson has much time to consider. He's looking for teachers who can make "an impact right away," he said. "If I can positively impact a group of kids, seven out of eight periods a day or six out of seven periods a day, I'm going to do that."

Even if there's no guarantee they'll stick around.

"In this day in age, [longevity is] becoming more difficult," he said. "Not everybody is like me; not everybody goes into education and stays for 30 years."

That's especially true of the caliber of graduate dispatched by TFA. The program seems to attract bright, curious, dynamic high-achievers who aren't sure about teaching as a career. Most have never even considered it as a career path, Glover said. But they're drawn to it for whatever reason, and then they're thrust headlong into one of America's most confounding problems. And, from all appearances, they're held accountable for finding solutions.

The nature of using one system to find and train teachers -- the traditional education-school track -- promises to produce teachers with similar backgrounds and mindsets. An alternative track produces alternative people -- and, if you believe Richardson and other principals who rely on TFA teachers, it produces results too.

"They're smart and quick learners," said Dr. Lucy Hakemack, the new principal at Conrad High School, who had 14 TFA teachers on staff at Spruce High last year. "I would to have loved to have hired more this year, but somebody stole two of them." She wasn't kidding: Another principal hired two TFA teachers out from under her after she'd already spoken with them about jobs at Conrad, she said. She sounded genuinely pissed.

But there will be more, and she'll hire them. And if they leave -- to go train teachers or study policy or do something in education or public service, as many of them do -- she'll just hire the next ones around. Unless Richardson, or some other smart principal, gets to them first.

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