Putting the Principal’s Survey Into Perspective

The National Education Association recently passed some kind of resolution to oppose TFA sending corps members to cities that are not suffering teacher shortages. This, of course, was the original intention of TFA. We are not supposed to take jobs away from people who are planning to become career teachers — just to go where we are most needed.

Here is the wording of New Business Item #93 from their website:

“NEA will publicly oppose Teach for America (TFA) contracts when they are used in Districts where there is no teacher shortage or when Districts use TFA agreements to reduce teacher costs, silence union voices, or as a vehicle to bust unions.”

In response to this decision, a former corps member named Laura Cunliffe, who now works for the Progressive Policy Institute, wrote a scathing critique.  Near the end, she writes:

“Policy Studies Associates, Inc. recently published a report that may explain why the NEA is kicking up such a fuss about Teach for America. “Ninety-five percent of the principals rated corps members as effective as other beginning teachers in terms of overall performance and impact on student achievement; sixty-six percent rated corps members as more effective than other beginning teachers, ninety-one percent of the principals reported that corps members’ training is at least as good as the training of other beginning teachers, sixty-three percent rated corps members’ training as better than that of other beginning teachers, and eighty-seven percent of the principals said they would hire a corps member again.”

I was a struggling first year corps member 20 years ago. Now I’m a veteran teacher and I still feel like I’m struggling many days. Teaching is hard. For a new teacher it’s nearly impossible. So I decided that I’d look at the report and see if there was anything in the report that could help put those fabulous numbers into some kind of context.

So I clicked on the link and it did not get me to the actual report, but to the one page summary by TFA.  At the top of the report, it referenced the source as “Teach For America 2009 National Principal Survey,” Policy Studies Associates, July 2009.  So I looked up the company and went to their published research reports and the report was nowhere to be found. So I emailed the company and they referred me to TFA to get the report. I emailed the TFA contact, and she was away for a few days. I was starting to fume. Then someone did get back to me. She was actually very helpful in providing what I needed so the tone of this post will not be so angry this time.

I learned that I could not get the actual report for several reasons. The main one is that the purpose of the survey is partly a contractual obligation that TFA has to certain school districts. Also, the data is provided to TFA funders. It is not intended to be used as a way of proving that TFA teachers are miracle workers, as Laura Cunliffe of the Progressive Policy Institute does.

In short, as I suspected, the numbers are misleading. The survey was send out to about 2,200 principals who had a first year CM at their school that year. Already, this is a biased sample since there might be plenty of principals who had bad experiences who don’t hire TFAers anymore, who are not part of the survey. Then, the response rate was just 60%, which may or may not be good. I’m not a statistician to know if that’s a good return rate. I do think that this is a self-selecting group, though. So if a principal is fed up with TFA since they’re not satisfied with their people, maybe they won’t do the survey — or maybe they are more likely to. The TFA researcher offered that even though the principals are instructed to just consider the first year CMs, it is possible that they have second years too (who, I think are generally excellent teachers) which they could have considered which would certainly bump up the numbers. Finally, I learned that this was one of those 5 choice surveys where you disagree strongly through agree strongly. If the principal picked 3, 4, or 5 it counted as ‘agreed.’ Most schools that have new CMs have several.  So if a school has five CMs and two of them quit, they may very well pick a 3 on this survey, and they are included in the 95% who are satisfied.

This puts these numbers, I hope, into proper perspective. Remember that only 89% of CMs even finish the 2 year commitment so when you see that 95% of principals say that new CMs are as effective as other beginning teachers, that number seems a bit high.

Being as good as other first year teachers, of course, isn’t saying much. First year teaching is incredibly hard. I struggle when I have to teach a new course. If I had to switch to a new school, that would be another challenge. Being a first year teacher, teaching at a new school, teaching new topics. It’s crazy. The difference though between TFA teachers and non-TFA teachers is that, at least in theory, the non-TFA teachers are planning to have long careers so the tough first year gets averaged out with a bunch of good ones.

Exaggerated claims of success are rampant in this current ed reform debate where there is a lot of money to be made off the backs of poor kids.  NEA is a great organization and does not deserve to be attacked by a TFA alum.

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3 Responses to Putting the Principal’s Survey Into Perspective

  1. Steve says:

    Gary, I’ve always wondered about those numbers myself. I am also one of those TFA alum who stayed in teaching (7 years as a classroom teacher, now still working in schools as a Technology/Curriculum Specialist), and those numbers always seemed too good to be true, or at the very least misleading.

    The school I worked in (recently profiled in a feature in the NY Times about the struggles of a public school principal with encroaching charters) was originally founded by 9 first year TFA’s (myself included) and 1 veteran teacher. I would never belittle the work we did, or any other first year TFA, but any first year teacher in a high poverty area is doing an extraordinary job if they can simply ‘break-even’ and make one years worth of progress, let alone the 2 that so many claim. It is an incredibly rare individual (much more rare than TFA would have us believe) that can be a truly effective teacher in their first year. The job is demanding and complex, and a 5 week training program during a summer is not ‘good’ preparation for any profession. TFA corps members typically make up for this lack of being fully prepared through sheer guts, determination, and often-times unbelievably long hours. And I would suspect that this work ethic is what makes such a positive, strong impression on principals. From conversations with a number of principals in high needs areas (at least in the Bronx) the thought process goes something like this: “Its very difficult to get high quality, experienced teachers to come here…at least with a TFA I know that for 2 years, I’ll have someone in the classroom who will bust their ass. Sure, they’ll leave after 2-3 years, and all that training and money will go right out my front door, but I’m kinda desperate.” Choosing to hire a TFA is not a choice any principal wants to have to make…its risk management.

    The most effective first year teachers I have worked with are teachers who came through traditional grad school teacher preparation programs who, and here’s the important part, were paired with highly effective mentor teachers during their student teaching programs. They were allowed to practice their craft under the supervision of a great teacher before taking control of their own classroom. Even better if they are hired to work in the school where they student-taught.

    Wendy Kopp frequently speaks about how “we now know what works”. If TFA truly wants to make a difference, its time they transformed themselves from a stop-gap organization to a high quality, teacher preparation organization filling the ranks of high needs schools with career teacher professionals.

  2. Katie says:

    Gary, is it fair to say that all opportunities should go to non-TFAers because the implication is that they’re lifers?

    The rate of attrition in low-income schools among non-TFA teachers is right around 50%. In TFA, post-2-year-commitment, that number is 40%.

    Now, I’m not by any means saying that this means that CMs should be the people to turn to for teachers who will surefire be in it for the long haul, but it seems to me that we can conclude from this that when comparing first-year teachers’ likelihood of staying in the profession, any differences between TFA and non-TFA are negligible at best.

    I’m against the idea of TFA taking jobs from veteran teachers. What’s going on in Seattle right now bothers the hell out of me. But if it’s a question of a CM vs. an equally novice teacher, I’m not sure that we should be relying on inconclusive data to make decisions about the teachers’ likely success or duration in the profession.

  3. Demian says:

    ideally we’re not putting first year teachers in high needs schools. any first year should have a mentor or just be a ta.

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