Thursday, January 07, 2010

Teach For America Alums Not Becoming Astronauts! And Other Articles…

Here's Andy Rotherham's comment on his Eduwonk blog:

Proving that no good deed goes unpunished this new study on Teach For
America (TFA) Teachers is proving to be catnip for the program's
detractors. In short, a forthcoming Stanford study finds lower
levels of civic activity for Teach For America program completers than
for non-completers or applicants who where accepted but chose not to
join the TFA Corps (non-matriculants). I'm pretty sure you could hear
the cackling from the AACTE office's as far away as southern parts of
Pennsylvania. The Times writes the study up here. Stanford's Rob
Reich responds with his thoughts here.

But if TFA has anything to be bothered about here, it's the spin
rather than the underlying study itself – a potential problem in its
own right. The Times account does a nice job of laying out the data
on the sample for the study but provides less data about the, you
know, findings. In the data a few big trends jump out. First, everyone
in the study, TFA completers, non-completers, and non-matriculants
have substantially higher levels of civic participation relative to
the baseline. Second, while some of the differences in participation
observed, the "lagging" effect that is getting the attention, are
statistically significant, it's debatable how substantively
significant they are. For instance, while 92 percent of the sample
overall voted in the last presidential election, only 89 percent of
TFA completers did. You decide how much of a problem this is given
that these rates are about double the averages for the age-cohort
overall. Likewise, completers give to, on average, only 2.2 charitable
organizations while dropouts give to 2.6. And it does appear that a
small percentage of outliers may be skewing some of the data.

On the other hand, there are some differences between
non-matriculators and graduates that are worthy of deeper
investigation, particularly as it may relate to the intensity of the
TFA experience. In fact, the question battery had 100+ items measuring
civic attitudes and TFA completers scored higher on 62 percent of them
relative to the other groups. Where they "lagged" is on certain
measures of actual civic participation. Learning more about why is
important. Obvious explanations include fatigue or a desire for a
break, but it could be something else, too.

So the punch line is not anything negative about TFA per se but rather
that it's unclear if the TFA experience increases civic participation
(from an already abnormally high level) based on this study. That's a
legitimate question relative to the service movement overall. But it's
not central to TFA's mission, which is to improve outcomes for
disadvantaged students and create a cadre of alums with a firsthand
understanding of the educational challenges facing low-income
students. In other words, while the civic question is hardly
irrelevant, let's hold TFA accountable for what the organization wants
to do via its mission. And please let's not discourage them from
transparency and cooperating on various studies where researchers can
glean important pieces of knowledge by taking the results out of

By the way, TFA is basically the largest teacher preparation program
in the country today. That, among other things, makes it a target. In
a new Atlantic article Amanda Ripley looks at the organization's
learning and knowledge base about teacher effectiveness – something
too often ignored in all the back and forth.

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