‘The Giggle Test’ is an expression coined in the late 1980’s. As a lawyer contemplates whether or not to make a legal argument, he should avoid any argument that he won’t be able to make without immediately giggling afterwards. A completely ridiculous argument, thus, ‘fails the giggle test.’
Teach For America was never intended to be a source of career teachers. The original idea was that ‘the best and brightest’ experience what its like in the schools while trying to do some good in cities with severe teacher shortages. Rather than have no teacher at all, we would at least be a stable presence for that year. As an added bonus, maybe our enthusiasm would rub off on some of the veteran teachers who had much more skill than us, but perhaps could even get a bit inspired by these young go-getters. After our two years we would be ‘educational advocates’ — lawyers, doctors, businesspeople, maybe even politicians, who would have first hand knowledge of the potential of low-income students, and also an understanding of the challenges they face.
In the beginning, most people did not stay for a third year. I was some kind of outlier, staying for four years in my original placement city of Houston. As the years went on, we now hear that about 60% stay for a third year, maybe 25% for a fourth year, and after that it drops off pretty rapidly. Putting these numbers together with the fact that 8% of TFAers don’t make it through their first year and 3% don’t make it through their second year and a quick estimate says that even with the few people like me who became ‘career teachers,’ the average length of a TFAers teaching career is somewhere between 3 and 3.5 years. Since the people who quit during the first and second year aren’t, technically, ‘alumni’ they might not be factored into the average, which would bring that average up a bit, but I think those people are relevant. Considering the TFA model this 3 to 3.5 year average is actually something they should be pretty proud of. I doubt in the beginning they would have ever expected to get that many people to stay for a third and fourth year.
Over the years, I’ve asked various contacts I have in TFA to give me their best calculation, but I hadn’t been able to get much out of them. They sometimes say that 1/3 of alumni are still teaching, but this stat is pretty inflated since TFA has grown exponentially with 5,000 people in the 2010 corps compared to about 1,000 for most of the 1990s and this 1/3 of all alumni includes all those third year TFAers inflating the statistics. Over the summer I was in contact with someone on this question and they said that such a calculation could not even be made since people’s careers aren’t over yet and since even people who have left the classroom — like I did for 7 years — could return to teaching and have lengthy careers.
It’s hard to say what a ‘good’ number of years for the average TFAer should be considering that even the ones who teach for 8 or 10 years are pretty likely to be lured into becoming administrators. And with the charter schools popping up left and right and with all the opportunities to work for TFA alumni who are working for big school districts, TFAers have a lot of opportunities that non-TFA teachers might not get offered so often, so I’d never expect the average TFA teaching life span to be that large, and haven’t really held the fact that there are few ‘lifers,’ though I have mused that maybe a three or four year commitment would be a good idea.
So it was with great surprise that I read an interview with Wendy in The Huffington Post where she said “On average, our corps members stay in the classroom for eight years.” When I first read this, I assumed that she simply misspoke, like when she said in a speech at Harvard that only 3% of alumni are in the private sector, while that number, according to one of my TFA contacts (who is probably deflating the number his/herself) says that Wendy should have said it was 16% with 3% being specifically in business.
But reading over the reaction to this claim and also her responses on Twitter, she is standing by it (read from bottom to top).
She does not say that the numbers are inaccurate, but that this is a ‘projection’ based on the alumni survey. I was planning to boycott the survey this year. TFA sent me about ten reminders to fill it out. They even had a raffle for an iPad for filling it out by a certain day. I caved, though, when the NY Alumni director came all the way to meet me for coffee by my school. For someone to make that kind of effort (not specifically to get me to fill out the form, but still I felt I wanted to show ‘good faith’ by doing it,) I couldn’t resist even though my 15 years is definitely upping the average.
Wendy says that there are a good number of early TFAers who now have 20+ years of teaching who are inflating the average. I’m not so sure about this claim that 17% (which is 1 out of 6) of the 1990, 1991, and 1992 corps are still teaching, as they are the only ones who could have 20+ years. According to the latest Alumni magazine ‘One Day’ it says that 56 of the original 500 corps members from 1990 are still teaching, with 19 of those in low income communities. This is about 11%, and I’d speculate that this is inflated anyway. Of all the people that I know from 1991 (and I was quite the popular corps member in my day!) I’m the only one that I know who is still teaching. There isn’t any reason to think that the 1991 and 1992 corps would be so much higher to bring that number up.
Also, since these people with 20+ years are so few, as the corps back then were so small, they don’t bring the average up by that much. With 30,000 alumni now, they are a drop in the bucket. Even if it was 17% of those old-timers who stayed, those 300 teachers out of the 1,750 from those three years, amassing a total of 6,000 teaching years would have to be averaged together with the nearly 10% of the 2011 and 2012 corps who won’t make it through 1 year. So when you put those 300 teachers with their 6,000 years together with the 1200 with a total of (I’ll give them each half a year) 600 teaching years, well you’ve got 1500 teachers with an average of about 4.4 years.
If TFA really wanted to know the true number of the average length of a TFA teacher’s career, they could pretty easily track down most of the corps members from 1991 to 2000. Back then the average corps size was about 750, so we’re talking 7,500 people. For people who have never left the classroom, assume that they will teach for 30 years. Everyone who has left teaching, you can assume that they will not go back into teaching (assuming the others will stay for 30 years will more than make up for the few people who might go back and won’t get credit for doing that). Add ’em up, divide by 7,500 and you’ve got your number. Or you can just use my 3.5 year estimate and save all the trouble — it won’t be much different.
So this claim is truly outrageous and, even for me, disappointing. There is so much dishonesty in ed reform. There are the charters who boast that 100% of their students get accepted to college, with no mention that half their students disappeared before senior year. There are the claims, now even TFA admits they were inflated, that a large percent of first year corps members get a year and a half of ‘gains.’ And now add this new one about TFA retention. How can we ever figure out what is working in education when PR contaminates the truth we need?
Some good commentary on this 8 year claim: