Who’s Really Committed?

October 1, 2014

By Dave Reid


Photo Courtesy of Jeffrey Wolfsberg

A recent report on NPR highlighted Durham, North Carolina’s decision to end its partnership with Teach for America (TFA). The concerns of the six-member Durham school board were threefold. Board members worry that 1) TFA teachers lack experience, 2) corps members complete a short training program, and 3) corps members lack a long-term commitment to teaching in the schools where they are placed.

These concerns about TFA are not new. TFA has been researched, debated, and discussed more than most other alternative certification programs. In particular, researchers often compare the achievement of students who are taught by TFA corps members to those who have more traditionally trained teachers. Findings are often conflicting with those in favor of and opposed to TFA finding evidence to support what they believe. (Pros/Cons)

The Commitment

With all else equal, including quality and impact during time in the classroom, few would argue high turnover is preferable to retaining stable, high quality teachers. (TFA will be quick to tell you that over 60% of their corps members remain in the classroom beyond their two-year commitment and the corps members who leave the classroom tend to stay connected to education in some way.)

But are traditionally trained teachers staying in hard-to-staff placements longer than TFA corps members?

Critics argue TFA is taking away jobs from traditionally trained teachers who want to stay in the classroom for their entire career. However, singling out TFA corps members as having a lack of commitment to these schools ignores the fact that many traditionally trained teachers initially placed in similarly challenging settings leave at similar rates. While traditionally trained teachers might remain in the teaching profession, evidence thus far does not suggest they are remaining in hard-to-staff schools.

Schools with stable, high quality teachers are more likely to see increased student achievement and an overall increase in their school environment. Retention and stability in all schools should be a priority, as retention is not only more cost-effective for schools, but it increases staff morale, efficiency, and productivity. Most importantly, stability and retention of high quality teachers ensures that all students are consistently being taught by great teachers.

Who Really Stays?

There is ample research available that details teacher sorting and explains how more experienced teachers leave challenging schools and districts. That is not a blanket statement. Certainly there are many examples of amazing educators who remain in hard-to-staff districts and have a great impact on their students. However, research shows these teachers are the exception and not the rule.

Rather than focusing exclusively on TFA corps members for a lack of commitment to the districts within which they teach, school leaders and education policymakers need to look more deeply at the larger challenge of retaining high quality teachers (from all types of preparation programs) in all schools.

School boards ought to be concerned not only with the loss of TFA corps members after two years, but with teacher retention more broadly. Are traditionally trained teachers who plan to stay in the classroom for their career actually staying in these hard-to-staff schools for their career? Or, are they working there for a couple of years and then moving on like TFA corps members? If so, the problem is larger than just those teachers who enter the profession through TFA.

Dave Reid was a 2008 Teach for America Corps Member in Phoenix, Arizona. However, he currently has no active role in Teach For America and his views are his own.