DISD Trustee Carla Ranger Directs Our Attention to a New Study Critical of Teach for America

In May 2009, Highland Park High School grad Wendy Kopp's Teach for America -- which gives recent college grads a five-week crash course in teaching before dropping them in low-income urban and rural schools -- sent close to 100 rookies to Dallas. DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa celebrated their arrival in a Michael & Susan Dell Foundation press release issued on May 27, 2009: "Putting outstanding teachers in the classroom is the most important thing we can do to ensure that all students succeed. I look forward to Teach For America's teachers joining our community's efforts to increase student achievement." DISD got about 75 of those teachers; the district's West Dallas partner, Uplift Education, took the other 25 (or close to).

But DISD trustee Carla Ranger -- who has been insisting in recent days that DISD's min-grade policy violates state law -- now questions whether the Teach for America teachers, who commit to these schools on a short-term basis, are doing more harm than good. Teach for America, which has a placement office in Dallas, has plenty of recent studies that celebrate its success, but Ranger yesterday linked to a new study co-written by UT-Austin Assistant Professor of Educational Policy and Planning Julian Vasquez Heilig that says, Not so much, especially during TFA teachers' first year on the job (and, remember, they're committed for two). From the report:

TFA teachers appear less effective in both reading and mathematics than fully prepared entrants teaching similar students, at least until the TFA teachers become prepared and certified themselves. While the small number who stay this long are sometimes found to be more effective in mathematics than other teachers, their attrition rate of more than 80 percent means that few students receive the benefit of this greater effectiveness, while districts pay the costs of high attrition. In addition, TFA provides only a (small) fraction of America's teachers to a small number of America's schools, and likely has little to no impact outside of its participating schools. Unless it starts admitting larger swaths of college seniors and potentially watering down the quality of its corps members, it will not ever comprise more than a small fraction of America's teachers.

Finally, even in the limited cases when TFA has a positive impact, it is consistently small; other educational reforms may have more promise such as universal pre-school, mentoring programs that pair novice and expert teachers, eliminating tracking, and reducing class size in the early grades.
Ranger also links to a Washington Post education-blog post about the study, which has spurred quite the back-and-forth between TFA's supporters and detractors (and, in some cases, TFA alum who serve as both). If nothing else, I support TFA's '09 benefit project, a rather good covers album featuring Swell Season's "Into the Mystic."

Update at 7:47 a.m. Monday: There's a story on Teach for America in this morning's New York Times, coincidentally, about the difficulty some applicants face in being accepted into the "corps." Among those interviewed is Class of '10 Villanova grad Will Cullen, currently training in Houston before arriving in an unnamed Dallas middle school in the fall. And, again, the UT co-study is discussed and debated.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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