Thursday, January 07, 2010

Gauging the Dedication of Teacher Corps Grads


Published: January 3, 2010

This article in yesterday's NYT was…weird…and I'm not sure if that's
due to the study itself, or how the article was written. Here's the

Teach for America, a corps of recent college graduates who sign up to
teach in some of the nation's most troubled schools, has become a
campus phenomenon, drawing huge numbers of applicants willing to
commit two years of their lives.

But a new study has found that their dedication to improving society
at large does not necessarily extend beyond their Teach for America

In areas like voting, charitable giving and civic engagement,
graduates of the program lag behind those who were accepted but
declined and those who dropped out before completing their two years,
according to Doug McAdam, a sociologist at Stanford University, who
conducted the study with a colleague, Cynthia Brandt.

The reasons for the lower rates of civic involvement, Professor McAdam
said, include not only exhaustion and burnout, but also
disillusionment with Teach for America's approach to the issue of
educational inequity, among other factors.

This raises more questions than it answers. I'm less concerned with
how TFA alums compare to TFA dropouts or non-matriculants than with
how they compare to the population at large – and in this area, the
study shows that ALL THREE groups have high levels of civic

It turns out that the 15% of TFA alums who say they had negative
experiences (which strikes me as a remarkably low number; I wonder
what the percentage would be for other jobs right out of college?)
account for all of the difference among the three groups. The study
concludes that "the great majority of the graduates are
indistinguishable from the dropouts and non-matriculants in their
levels of current service/civic activity."

It also out that TFA dropouts have higher levels of broad civic
engagement than TFA alums (as measured by the study anyway; I'm
skeptical that this is actually true; see Cami Anderson's comment
below), but are far less likely to be engaged in education. In
contrast, while alums are less likely to be broadly engaged in service
efforts, they demonstrate a very strong commitment to education. I'll
take the latter group all day long. TFA is not and never has been a
general do-gooder, "improving society at large" organization; instead,
it focuses 100% in one area, education, with the goal of developing a
leadership force for ed reform. In this area, the study concludes
(though you won't find this in the article) that "one of the
organization's main goals has always been to develop a core of
dedicated alumni committed to ongoing educational reform. Our results
suggest they are succeeding in this effort."

For the 60% of TFAers who remain in education, I consider their jobs
to be civic engagement and I don't really care if they belong to, say,
a sports league or an environmental organization.

My friend Cami Anderson, who runs NYC's alternative schools and is
quoted in the article, emailed me the following comment on the study
(shared with her permission):

"I truly believe that if the report was better constructed to measure
the true and intended impact of the TFA experience -- I (and my fellow
alums) would have scored much higher than the study showed. For
example, I believe I scored low on their "civic engagement" scale
because I don't have time to volunteer given the demands of my day
job. I also didn't respond positively to all of their "American
ideals" questions because -- in a good way -- TFA made me more
critical and motivated to challenge the status quo.

I was disappointed in how the reporter introduced me in the article
and that there was only one quote that made it in the article. It
might leave people with the false impression that my current level of
engagement pre-dated my TFA experience. The reality is that I credit
my TFA experience as fundamentally shaping both my career and my
leadership abilities/style/approach."

Here's an email that Kevin Huffman in TFA's public affairs office sent
out yesterday:

Dear Friends,

You may have seen a New York Times article this morning about a study
on Teach For America's impact on civic engagement.

As the article notes, Teach For America reached out to Doug McAdam ten
years ago to ask if he could examine our long-term impact. He chose to
study "civic engagement" using lenses such as voting rates,
volunteering and certain kinds of political advocacy. McAdam's study
looked at Teach For America alumni from the 1993 to 1998 corps and
found that they had less of this sort of civic engagement than control
groups (people who were accepted but declined our offer and people who
dropped out). Unfortunately, the study did not focus on our core
long-term mission of addressing educational inequity.

You might be interested in this post from Rob Reich, the Stanford
professor and Teach For America alumnus quoted in the Times article.

As you know, we are very focused on ensuring that our alumni have a
massive impact on the achievement gap by working both inside and
outside the education system for fundamental change. We were
disappointed that this study focused on a narrow set of civic
participation measures and did not examine alumni impact or leadership
in addressing the achievement gap. We look forward to continuing to
work with independent researchers to examine the impact and leadership
of our corps members and alumni.

Please let me know if you have any questions. I hope you all are
having a safe and happy new year.

Kevin Huffman

Here's what Rob Reich wrote:
Teach For America and Civic Engagement

The New York Times has an interesting article by Amanda M. Fairbanks
on Teach For America. She reports on the findings of a recent study by
my colleague in the sociology department, Doug McAdam. McAdam finds
that TFA corps members, after their two years of teaching, score lower
on civic engagement measures than applicants to TFA who were accepted
but did not matriculate or than corps members who were accepted but
dropped out before completing two years of teaching. In what respect
lower? Lower voting rates, less charitable giving, less public service

The article reports this as if it represented a dust-up with the TFA
mission. Fairbanks quotes Wendy Kopp, the founder of TFA, who records
her disappointment with McAdam's study.

But Kopp and TFA shouldn't feel disappointed. There are a variety of
explanations for the lower civic engagement rates. First, TFA corps
members were already off the charts on civic engagement when they
applied to TFA. If participating in TFA transformed them from their
already very high levels of civic engagement, that finding would be
remarkable. Second, after the TFA experience, it should be no surprise
that the alumni of TFA take a "service break", so to speak, akin to
what is sometimes called "donor fatigue" by fund-raisers. Third, the
McAdam study didn't attempt to measure specific forms of educational
engagement, which the TFA experience might plausibly be thought to
effect. For example, are TFA alumni more or less likely to vote for a
local school bond measure, relative to their pre-TFA experience or
relative to non-matriculants or dropouts? Are TFA alumni more or less
likely to follow education policy discussions? Are TFA alumni more or
less likely to make a charitable contribution to a charter school
organization or a scholarship fund for disadvantaged children? My
guess is that TFA alumni would do better on these dimensions of what
we could call educational civic engagement.

Full disclosure: I'm quoted in the NY Times article and also provided
feedback to McAdam as he prepared the survey whose results form the
basis of his article.

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