The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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A Counter-Counter Perspective

TIME Magazine’s “School of Thought” columnist Andrew J. Rotherham wrote an article some months ago entitled Teach for America: 5 Myths That Persist 20 Years On, which provides a list of rebuttals to some of the most common criticisms of TFA.

On the whole the article can probably be taken at face-value, but there are a few sentences that raised my skeptic flags. The major one was:

My nonprofit firm, for instance, is full of them [TFA alumni] — one of my partners helped launch TFA — and remarkably that doesn’t make us unusual among our peer organizations.

Hmm… not necessarily damning, mind you, but an interesting connection that does dilute my sense of “credible neutrality”. The other flags are for what appear to be at least minor cases of facts out of context. For example, when discussing early in the article why these myths must indeed be myths, Rotherham concludes the paragraph with:

Another solid indicator? The marketplace. Superintendents and principals, who are on the hook for results, can’t get enough TFA teachers.

Well, ok, true. But two things to consider:

  1. Superintendents and principals are also on the hook for budgets, and TFA teachers are indisputably cheaper. Given the numbers-driven frenzy induced by Bush’s NCLB and the intense political pressure to deliver (hyperbolically) double the results with half the budget… I frankly would not be surprised if it were true that experienced teachers were getting laid off to make room for bright-eyed recent graduates.
  2. Given the the fact that they are on the hook the for results without the support needed to deliver it (also NCLB), I am also frankly not surprised that an organization like TFA, which boasts fantastic values of the right numbers, would seem appealing.

Rotherham responds to the “revolving door” criticism:

Fifty-two percent of its alumni remain in teaching after their two-year commitment, and 67% still work fulltime in education in one way or another.

The study I found on this subject, linked from TFA’s research page gives a statistic of 61% of alumni remaining in teaching profession longer than their 2-year commitment, which is actually a good deal better than what Rotherham quotes (probably having to do with the 1 year disparity between their respective publication dates). The flip side of that, from the same study is only 10% of respondents stayed in the profession longer than 6 years, which is around the minimum range for what I would consider to be actually treating teaching as a career.

Other than these quibbles (the last of which is admittedly fairly petty), Rotherham’s qualitative defense of TFA is on the mark I think. It does stand to reason that having leaders in all aspects and levels of society that have gone through the gauntlet of what our public education system is like in the poorest pockets of the country are probably going to factor in their experience when making decisions.

The big takeaway for me from the process of dissecting this article? Realizing that in the final sense, statistics don’t actually mean jack shit. Regardless of whether 10% or 90% of TFA alumni stay in the profession long-term, the statistic has no bearing on what I can choose to do with the program if I take that path. So ultimately, perhaps the majority of this post is, in the long-term, really irrelevant. Sorry about that. At least it’s somewhat interesting to think about, right?